Posts tagged ‘Social Issues’

A Birthday Cake for George Washington

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Birthday Cake for George Washington.jpgTitle: A Birthday Cake for George Washington
Author: Ramin Ganeshram
Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
ISBN: 9780545538237
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2016.

In the kitchen, my papa, Hercules, is baking an amazing cake. But there is one problem: We are out of sugar.

Hercules, a slave owned by President George Washington, is a valued member of the White House Staff as the cook for the president. When Washington’s birthday arrives, Hercules is tasked to bake a cake, but there is no sugar to be found anywhere in the kitchen. With a little improvising of using honey instead of sugar, the cake is successfully made. The charcoal pencil pictures are supplemented with Photoshoped images of actual cookware. The enslaved kitchen staff are shown with a variety of skin colors.

Upon publication, there was quite a bit of discussion regarding this book. My library was one of the few to purchase and receive a copy before Scholastic discontinued publishing the title due to public outcry regarding the portrayal of the “smiling slaves”. I’m unaware if the reviews influenced the artist’s note at the back of the book, which stresses that “While slavery in America was a vast injustice, my research indicates that Hercules and the other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. That is why I have depicted them as happy people. There is joy in what they have created through their intelligence and culinary talent.” An author’s note attempts to separate fact from fiction, clarifying that while Hercules’s daughter (who is the narrator in the story) doesn’t seem to have ever been at the center of government in the Philadelphia house, Hercules’s son Richmond was present for at least a while as a favor to the cook. The author’s note also emphasizes that Hercules along with the other slaves were rotated out to avoid allowing them freedom under a Pennsylvania law that freed slaves who resided in the state for more than six months.

I’m unsure how much control the author had over the illustration process, but it seems that the text taken by itself does not promote a “happy” situation. At various points in the story Hercules “roared at the kitchen maids”, “growled at Chef Julien” (a white chef from France) and at the kitchen boy, “scowled at the swirling, whirling snow” and “Only when Mrs. Washington comes into the kitchen does Papa turn his scowl into an easy smile.” I can imagine an imperialistic tone as he orders his staff around, repeatedly voicing “You! […] And you!” While the pictures show a smiling group of workers, the text reflects an uncertainty and anxiousness as they try a new recipe for the very first time to be presented at a Presidential birthday party. The cake (and the feast in its entirety) that is finally produced seems rather small for the number of guests one would expect at a birthday party for George Washington. The text presents an enslaved chef who is hiding his anxieties in front of his owner to avoid any disciplinary action, who takes responsibility for the entire cake so if something is wrong he saves others from being reprimanded, or worse. “No one seems to breathe until the cake platter comes back” empty, and Delia’s heart is “pounding” as the President approaches afterward. This is not the presentation of happy, accomplished culinary chefs confident in their ability, but slaves who know if they do something wrong it could mean dire repercussions.

When the controversy first surfaced, author Mitali Perkins publicized how she would have corrected the book to further stress the condition of slaves during that time period. While her rewriting of the text certainly stresses the dangers of not successfully caring out the orders of their owners, it’s a minimal change to a text that ultimately portrays a story that is intended for young children with a limited exposure to the concept of slavery.Writers portraying slavery and other historical social issues must balance a fine line of keeping it factually accurate but also factually appropriate for that age group. This book also provides a glimpse at a slave who was an anomaly, one who was well-known and dare we say respected, as evidenced by Washington allowing father and son to work together as a “favor”. My opinion is a different illustrator may interpretation of the text may have negated the controversy.

I am a huge admirer of Mitalie Perkins’s Bamboo People and thought that she also raised several issues regarding Scholastic’s decision to pull the book from production. Is it censorship? I find myself asking the same question, especially in light of other books being questioned post-production. It’s not only children’s books, but adults books as well. Back in 2012, The Jefferson Lies by David Barton was pulled from store shelves, and the publisher’s Senior Vice President and Publisher Brian Hampton was quoted in an NPR article asserting that:

“There were historical details — matters of fact, not matters of opinion, that were not supported at all.” […] “The truth is, the withdrawing a book from the market is extremely rare. It’s so rare I can’t think of the last time we’ve done this,” Hampton said. But, he said, “If there are matters of fact not correctly handled or the basic truth is not there, we would make a decision based on that.”

Since then, we’ve had titles like A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall, where the smiling slave portrayal was questioned even as it won award recognition. Ghosts by acclaimed graphic novelist Raina Telgemeir is having its portrayal of Dia De Los Muertos questioned because it was slightly fictionalized and Telgemeir’s own experience in that culture is being questioned. And recently When We Was Fierce by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo is being “postponed” for “further reflection”. I must say I have not read any of these yet. Is this concern over cultural portrayals a desired response to the We Need Diverse Books movement, or will it backlash and yield even fewer depictions out of fear that they offend or prove too fictionalized? I’ve read reviews where factual inaccuracies have been brought to life in nonfiction books that don’t prevent their publication. Are we then being hyper-vigilant regarding fiction for a particular reason, and should we pass that same scrutinizing eye on nonfiction? If readers, reviewers, and the public in general are more willing to challenge a fictionalized publication, then we should evaluate why.  How much license should be allowed? I don’t have any of these answers, but they should be questions that are broached when discussing these and future incidents. In regards specifically to A Birthday Cake for George Washington, I think reprinting with a different illustrator and making a few minor corrections, like Perkins suggests, would make it more acceptable. However, I’m not a member of that African-American culture, and recent conversations seem to imply that I must defer my opinion to those who are members. That doesn’t mean I can’t voice them here.


Breakthrough.jpgTitle: Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever
Author: Jim Murphy
ISBN: 9780547821832
Pages: 130 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2015.

It wasn’t only that the operation was very complex and risky. The surgery he was about to perform on Eileen’s struggling heart had never been done on a human before, let alone one so tiny or frail. This was why the balcony-type observation stand along the west side of room 706 was packed with curious Johns Hopkins staff and why a movie camera had been set up pointing at the operating table. If the operation worked — if the patient survived — history would be made.
Moreover, Blalock had never performed this procedure, not even on an experimental animal. In fact, the only person to have done it successfully start to finish, wasn’t an official member of the surgical team. According to hospital rules, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the room. But he was there now, at Blalock’s request, standing just behind the surgeon on a wooden step stool. His name was Vivien Thomas, and most people at the hospital thought he was a janitor. (xiii)

On Wednesday, November 29, 1944, history was made. The first ever operation on a child to increase blood flow to the heart was scheduled to take place. Not only was it a moment in medical history, but it was also a moment in women’s rights and African-American rights. For over a year Dr. Alfred Blalock, chief surgeon and researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his African-American research assistant Vivien Thomas had been studying the research of hearing-impaired pediatric physician Dr. Helen Taussig. At Taussig’s request, they had been searching for a means to solve this reoccurring problem of abnormal development of the heart, which had cost her the lives of over two hundred patients. When they finally develop what they think is a solution, they find themselves in a race against time with undeveloped technology and unpracticed procedures to save the life of a young child.

An interesting introduction to a rarely considered medical event, this narrative nonfiction provides background contextual information, primary source photographs, and simplified descriptions of scientific concepts. Mentioned in the short description above, this book could be used to spread knowledge about medical, women’s, or African-American history. Vivien Thomas is unable to attend medical school due to the economic collapse of the 1930s, and ends up being essentially educated on-the-job after he is hired by Blalock, ten years his senior. With his boss and upon first arriving at Johns Hopkins, Thomas is forced to confront racist tendencies that had been culturally ingrained for decades. Dr. Helen Taussig also had to confront others’ prejudices against her, including not being allowed to take more than one or two classes at a time and not being allowed to study in the same room as her classmates for fear she would “contaminate” the other students. Her gradual hearing loss also proved unique problems that she solved in order to continue the professional career track she had fought so hard to achieve. Other social issues at the time that are still prevalent today, including animal testing, sterilization methods, and insider industry information, are touched upon to provide context.

It’s the personal vignettes behind the discovery that create the compelling narrative. The inclusion of period photographs featuring the people and places involved all bring the incredible story to life. The medical concepts are broken down into the barest, most simplistic terms. While that makes it easy to understand for readers, additional visuals to aid in comprehending the surgery and the anatomy involved would have been appreciated. The sequence of development of the heart on page 28 and the drawing of the chest cavity inside a child on page 49 was extremely helpful in envisioning it, although the captain makes it sound like the drawing was done by Thomas. Even enlarging the newspaper clipping found on page 77 would have sufficed, to make it easier to read the information contained and see the drawing provided, although it is a remarkably clear and readable scan.

For a fuller picture of the historic event, it’s implications, and aftermath, readers should read the detailed source notes, which contain information that regrettably did not make it into the primary text. It’s my impression that most people neglect to read the included back matter in informational texts. For instance, while the text vaguely mentions that Thomas was later recognized, including a formal portrait, an honorary doctorate, and made head of the laboratory, the significance of his becoming an “instructor of surgery at the school, an extraordinarily rare appointment for someone who was neither a surgeon nor a doctor” is only mentioned in the source notes. Overall, the book does a solid job recognizing the accomplishments of scientists that no one has heard of or probably even considered investigating.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.


Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

CrenshawTitle: Crenshaw
Author: Katherine Applegate
ISBN: 9781250043238
Pages: 245
Publisher/Date: Feiwel and Friends, and imprint of Macmillan, c2015.

I noticed several weird things about the surfboarding cat.
Thing number one: He was a surfboarding cat.
Thing number two: He was wearing a T-shirt. It said CATS RULE, DOGS DROOL.
Thing number three: He was holding a closed umbrella, like he was worried about getting wet. Which, when you think about it, is kind of not the point of surfing.
Thing number four: No one else on the beach seemed to see him. (3-4)

Ten-year-old Jackson has recently rediscovered his imaginary friend, a black and white, over-sized cat named Crenshaw. His family is slowly preparing for becoming homeless and Jackson still remembers the last time they had to live out of their car. It was also the last time he’d seen Crenshaw, who kept him company during that time. Crenshaw claims he’s there to help, but Jackson wonders how much help Crenshaw will offer this time around. Although featuring a situation that needs more exposure in children’s literature, the addition of an imaginary friend that doesn’t play a huge role in the plot makes it more difficult to recommend to an older audience. Author name recognition will influence its circulation, but I don’t expect it to be a first choice among Applegate’s fans, as it’s much more introspective than Barbara O’Connor’s comedic How to Steal a Dog, which deals with the same topic.

The Price of Freedom

Price of FreedomTitle: The Price of Freedom
Author: Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin
Illustrator: Eric Velasquez
ISBN: 9780802721662
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Walker Books for Young Readers, c2013
Publication Date: January 8, 2013

Trouble began in early September 1858, when a ten-year-old boy spied several “rough-looking” men on the porch of an Oberlin flophouse. Suspecting that they were slave hunters, Oberlinians posted lookouts around the hotel.
Indeed, the men were slave hunters. They were led by Anderson Jennings, a Kentuckian who had been promised $500 per slave (equal to about $13,000 each in today’s money) for returning John and Frank to their former owners.

John and Frank had escaped from their master in January, 1856. Fleeing Kentucky, they crossed into Ohio where Quakers sheltered runaway slaves. Even though Ohio was a free state, they could still be legally captured, so the original plan was to continue on to Canada. Upon arriving in Oberlin, Ohio and learning the route was blocked, the two friends stayed in the friendly town, taking up jobs and living among its residents. That all changes when slave catchers come to town, and John is captured. With the law against them, residents of Oberlin demanded John’s release. But are they successful in this time of divided ideals and conflicting politics?

I was slightly disappointed by this book. While the story is unique, based on fact, and one I’d never heard of, the writing lacks the suspense that should probably be present. Almost half the story contains very short non-sequiturs introducing the people involved in rescuing John, which quickly bogs down and confuses the story. The artwork starts strong, and I was especially struck by the page where we see John and Frank peering over a fence with the moon lighting their path visible behind them. Surrounded by spooky, bare-limbed trees, it’s astonishing how well the mood is struck with that one picture. In contrast, the scene where the townspeople have gathered, demanding John’s release, looks hastily colored, with none of the details and only vague impressions and blobs of paint for some of the faces. Eric Velasquez’s artwork seems to lose something when doing larger scenes, and if he had stuck to the closeups and featured only a handful of people in each of his drawings, then I think it would have worked better.

The other thing missing from this book is map! While I’m impressed that the book provides a bibliography, further reading, and websites lists, along with a small note in the back, there is no map of either the route John and Frank took, or a state map simply identifying where Oberlin is located in correlation to Cleveland. On the suggested Oberlin College website, readers can view a picture of a monument dedicated to the Oberlinians who fought for John’s freedom, but there’s no mention of that monument in the book. Instead, it mentions a sculpture that “honors the role of the college and town” but there’s no picture of it in the book or on the website.

Overall, I feel like this very short story would have worked better in a compilation of little known tales involving either the underground railroad or civil war history since so little is known about the participants. Libraries in Ohio have a unique link to the story, and would do well to have it on hand for young school children. However, I’m not sure how much demand there will be outside of the immediately mentioned area. If this is a diamond in the rough, I think it still needs a little polishing.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Rhythm Ride

Rhythm Ride.jpgTitle: Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound
Author: Andrea Davis Pinkney
ISBN: 9781596439733
Pages: 166 pages
Publisher/Date: Roaring Book Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2015.

Berry was sick of seeing his hard-earned creativity and the talents of black performers go unrewarded. He began to seriously consider building a record label that would allow him to produce the work of black artists, to publish his music, to have complete control over the money he and the singers earned, and also to have control over how black performers were portrayed to the public. (19)

In 1959, Berry Gordy secured an eight hundred dollar loan from his family to begin his dream, the music company Motown. Motown became known by its nickname Hitsville, as the production company put out hit after hit from big name, local talent like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross. For slightly over a decade, Berry Gordy and his company, who were treated more like family, were behind some of the biggest hits in pop and R&B. But when Gordy moved to California to expand the company, the music lost its rhythm, and artists started pursuing other opportunities and other companies where they could garner the attention and money they felt they deserved. By the 1980s, only a few loyal artists were still garnering hits, and Gordy sold the company before the decade ended, as the era of Motown had already ended earlier.

The narrator is “the Groove,” which takes on the personality of a smooth talking tour guide who has a vested interest in your enjoyment, entertainment, and well-being. It makes the remembrance of pivotal historical moments, like the Civil Rights movement and assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy, more manageable, reassuring readers that it’s in the past and we lived through it while not deemphasizing the importance of the events. Sometimes we forget the narrator is even present, and other times that effort is stressed in multiple paragraphs that try to reestablish the road trip ambiance. Some readers may like it, while others might have preferred a more straightforward narration with less embellishment.

Little details, like the decorum and manners training that each artist received, break up the monotony of the presentation, which at times can read like a who’s who laundry list of best hits of the 1960s. There are hints of personality for some of the acts, especially when they are soloists instead of groups, but the groups almost become interchangeable, especially when they don’t have those back stories to distinguish them from the other groups presented. The recordings that were more political in nature, such as MLK’s speeches and the concept album featuring songs about the Vietnam War, were unknown to me, and I wish Pinkney had focused more on the aftermath of those publications, or the dissent in the group prior to publication. I feel like that is important to set the tone, and readers just received a minimalist view of the dissension caused by anti-war cover album, especially considering Marvin Gaye was Berry Gordy’s brother-in-law.

Copious amounts of photos help delineate the different groups, but they are primarily staged publicity shots and very few show either the inside workings of the company or the community and culture that would have provided context. There is one page in particular that would have done well for thorough editing. When introducing the Primettes, soon to be known as the Supremes, Pinkney identifies the women pictured as “Betty McGlown, Diane Ross, Mary Willson, and Florence Ballard” in both a caption and in the text on page 94. On page 95, “Barbara Martin left to have a baby, so the newly formed quartet was down to three singers.” Further research on my part leads me to conclude that both women were only temporarily involved in the group, so maybe it’s not really an error, but I wish the discrepancy wasn’t there. We also are presented with a picture of the Temptations with new member David Ruffin before his replacement of original member Elbridge “Al” Bryant is discussed in the narrative. Minor mistakes, granted, but it leads to a feeling of sloppy editing. Another missed opportunity is consulting first hand-account source material. The detailed source notes pages are much appreciated, but it’s rare that a listed source is from that time period directly, with most of the sources being commentary or biographies published decades after events occurred.

Part of the difficulty Pinkney faces is making the subject matter important to children, as most of them are only familiar with Motown music as being the old songs that their parents (or maybe even at this point their grandparents!) listened to. While I’m a fan of the “oldies” because my father played them for me, I think most readers are going to be more familiar with Taylor Swift, One Direction, and Adelle, just to name a few. If they are already familiar with the subject, great, but I don’t think they’ll be running to pick this one off the shelves, even with the great appealing cover and the local connection to Motown as I work at a Michigan library. I understand the difficulties this would have added to the production, but I feel it would have benefited greatly from the inclusion of a CD with at least a sampling of the songs discussed in the book.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

The Underground Abductor

Underground Abductor.jpgTitle: The Underground Abductor
Series: Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #5
Author/Illustrator: Nathan Hale
ISBN: 9781419715365
Pages: 128 pages
Publisher/Date: Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, c2015.

“Robert, Ben, Henry, We are leavin’. We’re goin’ NORTH. This Saturday night.”
“Why Saturday?”
“Nobody expects slaves to work on Sunday—we’ll have a whole day’s lead.”
“Who’s gonna lead the way?”
“I will. I’ll follow the North Star.”
“That’s your plan? You’re gonna follow a STAR?”
“That’s right, I’ll follow that star like Moses followed the Pillar of Fire.” (45)

Araminta Ross was born into slavery, and “by the time she was ten, Araminta had been hired out many times, and had the scars to prove it.” She lived with her six siblings and her mother, while her father worked at a neighboring lumber mill. Upon hearing of her impending sale, she makes her first attempt at escaping with her brother’s, but they get scared and return with her in tow. So the second time, she makes the trip by herself, securing herself a new life in Philadelphia and along with it a new name, Harriet Tubman. But she can’t forget those family members she left behind, and begins regular trips south to escort not only family but other slaves to freedom, first to Pennsylvania and then all the way to Canada. This is her story, told in graphic novel format, of the difficulties she faced and how she rightfully became a recognizable name in American history.

This was my first experience with Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, although it is the fifth one in the series. It appears that Nathan Hale, the American Revolutionary spy, is set to being executed and is stalling his death by weaving stories from American history, Scheherazade style, to his executioners. Interruptions from his executioners ask the contextual questions and garners the answers that readers unfamiliar with this story might have, like who is Franklin Douglass, how did slavery work, and why was what Harriet did so dangerous. The only spot of color in the black, white, and gray illustrations is purple, which starts off pale and then intensifies as the dangers increase and the war creeps closer. Readers familiar with Harriet Tubman’s efforts will learn tiny details that may be new, like her birth name and the closed head injury she suffers as a child and the fact that family members (both immediate and extended) helped her evacuation efforts. Hale presents the tale with an immediacy and urgency that mimics the mood that must have permeated Tubman’s raids.

Details like how many times she went across to help her family, how many people she would take in different abductions, and how she kept everyone safe also help readers realize her commitment to the cause. There is a sense of spiritualism, garnered from Harriet’s visions, which are attributed to her head injury but are portrayed as being astonishingly helpful and accurate. Her life isn’t sugarcoated, revealing the whippings she received and the abandonment of her husband, and Hale is refreshingly upfront and honest when he doesn’t know the answers or the true facts. This is an accessible introduction to the abolitionist, and to the concept of the Underground Railroad and slavery.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.


Sunny Side Up

Sunny Side Up.jpgTitle: Sunny Side Up
Author/Illustrator: Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Colorist: Lark Pien
ISBN: 9780545741651
Pages: 217 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.

”Are we going shopping for new swimsuits for the beach today?”
“Sunny, I have some bad news. We won’t be going to the beach house after all. Your dad thinks it’s best that we cancel the trip.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie.”
“But what about Deb? What about all our BIG PLANS?”
“We thought of something even more fun for you to do instead! We’re going to have you visit Grampa in Florida. You’ll get to fly down all by yourself! A ‘big girl’ trip. Doesn’t that sound fun?” (191-192)

Ten-year-old Sunny Lewin will not be visiting the beach house with her family and best friend as planned, but instead has been sent to Florida by herself to spend the remaining weeks of her summer vacation with her grandfather in a 55+ community. The only other person even close to her age is a boy named Buzz, the son of the care-taker. He introduces Sunny to catching lost cats and fishing golf balls out of the ponds to earn spending money for comics. As Sunny learns about the secrets these superheroes keep, her thoughts keep returning to the secrets in her own family that have forced her into this position. Should she have said something sooner? Should she say something now?

I spoke with a colleague about the problem with problem novels recently. Problem novels need to have it as an aspect of the novel, and not have the problem monopolize the plot. An African American character does not always have to overcome racism, a transgender person does not always have to come out of the closet, and a disabled person does not have to always triumph over adversity. As I mentioned in my review of the Great Good Summer, it’s important to see kids dealing with all sorts of problems.

But there is very little action in the sleepy senior citizens community in Florida. The big mystery of the book is why Sunny was sent to Florida, and readers don’t even realize there was a specific reason for this until half way through the book. While revealing her concerns eases her internalized tensions, it doesn’t really solve the problems that caused them, and her struggles aren’t well represented in the visual format of a graphic novel. Multiple flashbacks allude to something sinister, but it is vague and takes too long to develop. The bright colors conflict with the subject matter, which I hesitate to call more mature but is definitely different than the lighter fare of Roller Girls or Smile, which I think is the audience that would be appealed by the cover. I wonder if Sunny’s talk with her grandfather could really make a lasting impact in her life. Even in the author’s note, Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm state that they wrote the book “so younger readers who are facing these same problems today don’t feel ashamed like we did” and encourage readers to “reach out to family members and teachers and school counselors,” but doing that will not solve the initial problems that caused these feelings. This is a very different book then Babymouse or Squish, and I think readers will be surprised.

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