Posts tagged ‘Social Issues’

The Wicked and the Divine

Wicked and Divine vol 1.jpgWicked and Divine vol 2.jpgSeries: The Wicked and the Divine
Titles: The Faust Act (vol. 1), Fandemonium (vol. 2), Commercial Suicide (vol. 3), Rising Action (vol. 4), Imperial Phase part 1 (vol 5), Imperial Phase part 2 (vol 6)
Creators: Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
Illustrators: Matthew Wilson (colorist) and Clayton Cowles (letterer) and others (depending on the issue/volume)
ISBNs: 9781632150196 (vol 1), 9781632153272 (vol 2), 9781632156310 (vol 3), 9781632159137 (vol 4), 9781534301856 (vol 5), 9781534304734 (vol 6)
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Image Comics, Inc., c2014-2018′

Every ninety years twelve gods return as young people. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are all dead. It’s happening now. It’s happening again. (back cover)
Just because you’re immortal doesn’t mean yo

u’re going to live forever. (unpaged, vol 1)

Wicked and Divine vol 3.jpg

Wicked and Divine vol 4.jpg

This is a smart, complicated, topsy-turvy comic series is a work in progress, with October’s volume seven  collecting the final installments of the first arc of this monthly publication. Readers are introduced to Laura, a seventeen year old South Londoner who is enamored with the Pantheon, both the idea of it, and the people who make it up. However, starting with an assassination attempt after a concert, readers realize just how dangerous it is for the gods and their followers. Nonbelievers are trying to prove trickery, and gods are trying to prove superiority, both among the public and among themselves. As the body toll rises, the clock is ticking for all of them to prove and discover who they all are, to each other and to themselves.

There are several tantalizing cliff-hangers throughout the collected volumes where grand reveals are dropped out of nowhere and readers are left scratching their heads and trying to process the shift in perspectives. Drawing from both little and well known mythologies, the large cast, changing identities, and table-flip worthy surprises may frustrate readers in the best way. A book about a group of twelve deities called the Pantheon could have gone the easy route of twelve white, Greek-based gods and goddesses, and the research and thought they put into the work is appreciated. However, there are some bread crumbs that fall like rocks, and you don’t recognize their significance until they are mentioned later in the story, leading me to encourage binge reading and rereading to find all the little clues and allusions hidden throughout the story.

Many websites have mentioned the effortless diversity portrayed, with gender (male, female, transgender person), sexuality (bisexual, asexual), and ethnicity (Asian, African American, bi-racial, white) all represented in a variety of options and combinations. There’s also some interesting social issues mixed in, including an abusive relationship where the woman is the overly dominant half, and a goddess who controls her powers through her alcoholism. Sex, nudity, and promiscuity are common among the deities, with most of their “performances” sparking a trance like state compared to the ultimate orgasm or drug trip, so I wouldn’t recommend this series to conservative audiences.

The whole story line provides commentary on celebrity culture, death, and pursuit of power. Most of the characters in the Pantheon are selfish, egotistical, brooding, and border on pathological, with one or two notable exceptions. Altruism doesn’t seem to exist. Whether it’s the power that has corrupted them or their moodiness was a pre-existing condition is hard to determine. In the beginning, they reminded me of a reality television show, with attention-seeking, self-motivated behavior with little impulse control or motivation to develop it. Yes they have different characteristics (as explained in the previous paragraph) but their uniformity in behavior (basically acting superior to everyone else) splits slightly by the second half of the series as loyalties are questioned and divisions form.

Wicked and Divine vol 5.jpg

Wicked and Divine vol 6.jpg

The artwork is stunning, multi-dimensional and engaging, ranging from underground raves to meeting rooms that look like they belong in the movie Tron. The scenes where we see the deities reincarnate are uniform but unique in their own way, adding specific elements to represent each god and goddess. Fire, lasers, and supernatural elements are all brightly rendered. Each character gets their own font when they go “Super Saiyan” to borrow from another series, adding to the artistic uniqueness but also serving a purpose, cluing readers to pay attention before something even happens. With any series, there are one or two times where the story diverges, but all plot points usually, eventually, converge. In the case of the artwork, most of the backstories are told in Commercial Suicide (volume 3), with guest artists stepping in to provide a differential style of artwork to each deity. It’s slightly jarring upon first reading, especially since some of the chapters are exceedingly short and give you little time to acclimate. The final story line of volume 3 featuring Sakhmet was an especially jarring art style from the typical depictions. Each volume also contains bonus content that gives you a glimpse of the creative process, which I think is especially beneficial to budding creators, regardless of their age.

We’ll have to wait for the last installment to see just what happens when the plots finally do coalesce, but it’s a lot to bring together in the “final” volume of this story arc.

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Piecing Me Together

Piecing Me Together.jpgTitle: Piecing Me Together
Author: Renee Watson
ISBN: 9781681191058
Pages: 264 pages
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, c2017.
Awards: Newbery Honor Award (2018), Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner (2018)

The front of the folder shows a group of black women–adults and teens–smiling and embracing one another. Woman to Woman: A Mentorship Program for African American Girls. Mrs. Parker is smiling like what she’s about to tell me is that she found the cure for cancer. But really, what she has to tell me sounds more like a honking horn that’s stuck, a favorite glass shattering into countless pieces on the floor. […]
“Why was I chosen for this?”
Mrs. Parker clears her throat. “Well, uh, selection was based on, uh, gender, grade, and, well, several other things.”
“Like?”
“Well, uh, several things. Teacher nominations . . . uh, need.”
“Mrs. Parker, I don’t need a mentor,” I tell her.
“Every young person could use a caring adult in her life.”
“I have a mother.” And my uncle, and my dad. “You think I don’t have anyone who cares about me?”
“No, no. That’s not what I said.” Mrs. Parker clears her throat. (17-18)

Junior Jade has a scholarship to attend St. Francis, a mostly white, expensive private school on the other side of Portland from where she lives with her mother and uncle. When she is called down to the counselor’s office, she thinks it’s about the study abroad to trip to Spain, a trip she’s anticipated for the last two years, learning Spanish and making money for by tutoring her classmates. Instead, Jade learns she’s been nominated for Woman to Woman, a mentor program that pairs her with Maxine, a graduate of her high school. Maxine however, doesn’t seem to be the best person to mentor, showing up late to or completely forgetting about plans and being more concerned about her ex-boyfriend then Jade. Jade doesn’t want to forgo the “opportunity” to get a full-ride scholarship if she completes the program, but the things they do make her feel more out of place then ever. She’s tired of being someone who needs help, and wants to get out of town and out of her circumstances; the trick is finding someone who can listen and help in the way she needs.

I finished Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson and it’s given me some things to consider as a mentor and a librarian. There’s a lot of excellent passages that I could quote from that provide insight and an evaluation of who we feel is “in need” and what we feel they need. After much self-doubt, Jade finally gets the courage to voice her concerns about the program to her mentor Maxine. Jade tells Maxine that just because her parents aren’t around doesn’t mean she needs a mentor. (In actuality, her mother just works an nontraditional schedule and is highly involved in Jade’s life and is not like other non-existent mother characters that are cliche characters in other books.) Just because she has the opportunity to go other places doesn’t mean she wants to see what she can’t afford. Just because she lives in a “wrong side of the tracks” neighborhood doesn’t mean there aren’t still things to see and people who can help from within. Why is Jade “only seen as someone who needs and not someone who can give?” (direct quote from page 199) While it was a little preachy in places, I would recommend it for anyone who finds themselves with who we typically consider “underprivileged youth.” Sometimes even mentors need a reminder that the people they mentor are capable of contributing in their own way, and don’t need to be rescued by someone.

The material is also very relevant in relation to the Black Lives Matter conversation. Although that phrase never makes an appearance in the narrative. About two-thirds of the way in, an incident makes the news regarding a fifteen-year-old black female named Natasha Ramsey receiving a broken jaw and fractured ribs as a result of police breaking up a house party due to a noise complaint. Jade’s uncle E.J. (who is only a few years older then Jade) responds with scorn at Jade’s suggestion that they say a prayer.

“And what is prayer going to do?” E.J. asks. “Prayer ain’t nothing but the poor man’s drug.”
“What?”
“Poor people are the ones who pray. People who don’t have what they need, who can’t pay their rent, who can’t buy healthy food, who can’t save any of their paycheck because every dollar is already accounted for. Those are the people who pray. They pray for miracles, they pray for signs, they pray for good health. Rich people don’t do that,” he tells me. […]
“Be careful today, Jade. For real.” (182-183)

Jade is hyper-aware of her classmates’ response to the event, which seems nonexistent as there is no talk in the hallways, no discussion in the classroom, and from her perspective everyone is acting oblivious, except for her Spanish teacher whom she finds watching new coverage during his break. There are small instances of racism that keep frustrating Jade, especially because the only other person she talks to at school, a white classmate named Sam who also comes from her neighborhood, doesn’t seem them as racism. When Jade is the only one who gets in trouble for laughing at another student’s disrespectful comments about a staff member, Sam blames it on wealth disparity. “Her parents donate a bunch of money to the school every year. She can say and do whatever she wants,” Sam says. “That had nothing to do with her being white and your being black.” Jade responds “You know that’s what people are going to say about Natasha Ramsey. That it had nothing to do with her being black.” and Sam asks “Who?” Another time, Jade questions why she is always the one given these opportunities instead of Sam, who lives in the same area, is also lacking parents, and sees Jade as being ungrateful at having these opportunities to go places like the symphony. This is definitely a perfect scene to spark discussion for students and adults. When have their been times where two people have been in similar situations and the outcomes have been treated differently, and what factors played a role in the resulting outcomes?

We as readers will never know the real reason why her classmate doesn’t get punished for saying the comment but Jade gets in trouble for laughing at it. I think both reasons could be validated, as money and race both talk, but I also fear that as a white female I’d be accused of implicit bias if I brought up this possibility, just as Sam does. I can’t claim to understand what African Americans have to face in terms of racism, both overt and obvious, but I do understand that if you face enough situations with racial overtones, everything starts getting colored and about color. And there was at least one instance in the book of overt racism that Sam also discounts when faced with the account, that could be contributing to Jade’s mounting frustrations. Jade instead seeks out people who understand her feelings on the issue, and readers in turn gain an understanding of just how much the case has affected Jade and her friend from the neighborhood, Lee Lee. These girls are scared it could have been them or will be them, and the other white girls in Jade’s school don’t have that fear because they are insulated by their racial identity. Jade and Lee Lee feel a powerlessness that they are hesitant to admit, because then they fear it means they are, and they don’t want to see themselves or have others see them in that light. In studying Lewis and Clark and their slave York, which she finds out about from Lee Lee’s talking about her history teacher, Jade wonders if he ever “existing in a world where no one thought him strange” and I think Jade feels that otherness herself. Going to an all white school where she can’t relate her family life with that of other students, and then coming home where she can’t relate her options and experiences at school to her family, Jade and Sam share that feeling of isolation and being stuck in the middle.

I keep coming back to the previously quoted passage, “Why am I only seen as someone who needs and not someone who can give?” Jade and Lee Lee are scared, but they don’t want to be seen as someone who needs protection, reassurances, or special treatment. They are women of action, and by the end, it’s inspiring that they found a way to tie resources from their community into a proactive attempt at change. Jade responds to a question that she has learned from the mentor program she doesn’t “have to wait to be given an opportunity” and I think that’s really the most important thing that we can teach the people we mentor. This book is placed in the teen collection at my local library, but I feel it would be appropriate for middle school reading.

It’s making me consider how I can reach out more professionally and personally to fulfill the needs and the desires of the kid I mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters and the public I serve. What are we pressing on others versus providing others? How can we identify what patrons need but also what they can give, and how do we tie the two together? I welcome your thoughts in the comments, and also recommendations for further reading on either enacting these goals, or working with populations that are traditionally seen as underprivileged, but should never be seen as uninformed or unable to contribute.

Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All The Way Down.jpgTitle: Turtles All the Way Down
Author: John Green
ISBN: 9780525555360
Pages: 286 pages
Publisher/Date: Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2017.

Daisy and I were scanning stations in search of a song to a particular brilliant and underappreciated boy band when we landed upon a news story. “–Indianapolis-based Pickett Engineering, a construction firm employing more than ten thousand people worldwide, today–” I moved my hand toward the scan button, but Daisy pushed it away.
“This is what I was telling you about!” she said as the radio continued, “–one-hundred-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to the whereabouts of company CEO Russell Pickett. Pickett, who disappeared the night before a police raid on his home related to a fraud and bribery investigation, was last seen at his riverside compound on September eighth. Anyone with information regarding his whereabouts is encourage to call the Indianapolis Police Department.”
“A hundred thousand dollars,” Daisy said. “And you know his kid.” (15)

When news breaks of the disappearance of a local billionaire, sixteen-year-old Aza’s friend Daisy can hardly believe that Aza used to go to camp with his son, Davis. Aza and Daisy lead very different lives compared to Davis, and Daisy is definitely interested in the reward money. After Daisy and Aza are caught snooping around, Davis and Aza reconnect in a manner that only two lost souls who are looking for support can appreciate. However, Aza is more interested in simply getting through the day, as her spirals of thought prove more consuming and destructive. Her medicines and therapy visits aren’t helping, and even she is beginning to realize that maybe she can’t handle everything as well as she thinks.

Be warned, this review includes several longer quotes. I tried very hard to avoid any spoilers in their content. But if you want to be as blown away by the thought-provoking nature of the book as I was the first time you read it, this will probably impact your enjoyment and awe.

Aza suffers from an unnamed illness which appears to my uneducated brain as some combination of paranoia, anxiety, and OCD. She is constantly reopening a wound on her finger in an attempt to drain any infections or harmful bacteria from her body. I don’t think I have ever read a book that has so thoroughly described a mental disorder from the sufferer’s perspective. It begins a conversation about identity, awareness, and self-control that was started long before the phrase “I think therefore I am”. In fact, that quote is discussed at length in the book:

“It’s . . . like, I’m just not sure that I am, strictly speaking, real.”
Dr. Singh placed her feet on the floor and leaned forward, her hands on her knees. “That’s very interesting,” she said. “Very interesting.” I felt briefly proud to be, for a moment anyway, not not uncommon. “It must be very scary, to feel that your self might not be yours. Almost a kind of . . . imprisonment?”
I nodded. […]
“You’re imprisoned within a self that doesn’t feel wholly yours, like Molly Bloom. But also, to you that self often feels deeply contaminated.”
I nodded.
“But you give your thoughts too much power, Aza. Thoughts are only thoughts. They are not you. You do belong to yourself, even when your thoughts don’t.”
“But your thoughts are you. I think therefore I am, right?”
“No, not really. A fuller formation of Descartes’s philosophy would be Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. ‘I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.’ Descartes wanted to know if you could really know that anything was real, but he believed his ability to doubt reality proved that, while it might not be real, he was. You are as real as anyone, and your doubts make you more real, not less.” (166-167)

I love the way that John Green presents mental illness in a manner that helps me empathize with sufferers but also allows me to see that there is still a lot to be understood about the brain and how it works. There is a lot to process as the book raises questions on self, awareness, identity, being, and thought. I would love to use this as a book discussion pick, and see what others have to say, either based on their own experiences with mental illness or how they interpret the interactions of biological, chemical, and mental responses.

There’s another passage that I quoted to a friend who is suffering depression right now who said that it pretty damn accurately describes her brain.

“I don’t understand how you can be so inhumanly calm down here, […] but you have a panic attack when you think your finger is infected.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “This just isn’t scary.”
“It objectively is,” she said.
“Turn off your light,” I said.
“Hell, no.”
“Turn it off. Nothing bad will happen.” She clicked off her light, and the world went dark. I felt my eyes trying to adjust, but there was no light to adjust to. “Now you can’t see the walls, right. […] Spin around a few times and you won’t know which way is in and which way is out. This is scary. Now imagine if we couldn’t talk, if we couldn’t hear each other’s breathing. Imagine if we had no sense of touch, so even if we were standing next to each other, we’d never know it.”
“Imagine you’re trying to find someone, or even you’re trying to find yourself, but you have no senses, no way to know where the walls are, which way is forward or backward, what is water and what is air. You’re senseless and shapeless– you feel like you you can only describe what you are by identifying what you’re not, and you’re floating around in a body with no control. You don’t get to decide who you like or where you live or when you eat or what you fear. You’re just stuck in there, totally alone, in this darkness. That’s scary. This,” I said, and turned on the flashlight. “This is control. This is power. There may be rats and spiders and whatever the hell. But we shine a light on them, not the other way around. We know where the walls are, which was is in and which way is out. This,” I said, turning off my light again, “is what I feel like when I’m scared. This” –I turned the flashlight back on– “is a walk in the fucking park.” (262-263)
There’s another scene where Aza is fighting her OCD, and the claustrophobic nature of the conversation is palatable in the prose. It’s these scenes that make the book a stand-out among young adult fiction.
The rest of the book was less effective from my point of view. The plot of Davis’s missing father is all but forgotten for most of the book. Now this was probably intentionally done to emphasize Aza’s point of view and how all consuming her mental health issues are from her perspective. However, for a book billed as being about a search for a missing billionaire, there is very little searching done. The search for clues that does take place is short, conveniently accomplished, and then the mystery is left on the sidelines until the very end of the book. I also wish we had seen more of Daisy. While the subject is broached of how self-consumed Aza can be, Daisy seems equally one track, talking exclusively about herself, her likes, her relationship, and making decisions for both of them. There are one or two scenes where their problematic friendship is broached, but then the disagreement is truncated and they return to each other without resolving the underlying issues. The above quote is one of the few times that I feel there is actual understanding and connection happening between these two life-long friends.

Davis was equally enigmatic. We see more of him through his blog posts and poetry than we do during his interactions with Aza. He’s memorable qualities are his fascination with astronomy, his apathy towards his father, and his uncertainty about his brother. His concern over what will happen to his brother and himself as opposed to what has happened to his father is heartbreaking and the one thing that made him a relatable character. He sees his life as reactive to his father’s actions, a life he has no control over, which is what really allows him to connect so easily with Aza. Both Davis and Aza see their lives as a result of reactions, Davis to external forces (his father, the media, his brother) and Aza to internal forces (bacteria, chemical reactions, the OCD inside her head).

The last two pages seemed unnecessary to me, as the whole tone changes and it’s added almost intended as an “It gets better” postscript” or epilogue to the story. While that might not stick with you, Aza’s struggles will. Don’t pick this book up for the mystery or the romance. Instead, read it for the thought-provoking portrayal of mental illness and the conversations, self-reflections, and empathy it will elicit. If that was the sole intent of the book, to wrap a discussion of mental illness into a digestible package bookmarked by a billionaire’s disappearance, than John Green succeeded in his goal.

The Pants Project

Pants Project.jpg

Title: The Pants Project
Author: Cat Clarke
ISBN: 9781492638094
Pages: 267 pages
Publisher/Date: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc. c2017.

Bankridge Middle School had a strict uniform policy, unlike nearly every other school I could have attended. […]
Sexist. Dumb. Unfair. Even the moms agreed with me. […]
“Girls must wear a black, pleated, knee-length skirt.”
I bet I read those words a hundred times during summer vacation. I stared at the computer screen, willing them to morph into something sensible.
The problem wasn’t the last word in that sentence. Skirt wasn’t really the issue, not for me. The issue was the first word. Girls.
Here’s the thing:
I may seem like a girl, but on the inside, I’m a boy. (6-7)

A point of clarification seems necessary, because the only time that Liv is identified with the “he” pronoun is on the book jacket summary, since throughout the book most people are uninformed of Liv’s transgender status and it’s told in a first person perspective. I’m going to try to honor what is obviously the author’s choice to have Liv use “he” pronouns.

Olivia “Liv” Spark is starting middle school with best friend Maisie, but Liv already feels out of place. The dress code requires girls to wear a skirt and boys to wear pants, but while Liv might have been born a girl and looks like a girl, Liv definitely feels like a boy. Nobody knows though, and it’s hard enough to be the new girl in school, much less the outcast that the class bullies Jade and Chelsea are routinely ridiculing about everything, including the too short haircut, lesbian parents, and attempts at making the skirt more bearable. Liv knows that this rule needs to change, and isn’t afraid to start that fight, even if it costs friendships.

This impressed me as a very well written novel. It allowed for some thought-provoking reflection and relayed Liv’s plight with sensitivity but without becoming didactic and was age appropriate in it’s portrayal of a transgender person. Refreshingly unromantic in nature, Liv makes friends with both guys and girls by the end of the book and his struggle to find himself runs parallel with efforts to change the dress code. He’s a nuanced character, with one action at his previous school hanging over his head, making him fearful that he’s been pegged for life with labels (that have nothing to do with his gender) that don’t match how he sees himself. The bullies actions are accurately portrayed both for their spite and pettiness, and the adults are clueless about the behavior, with Liv being reluctant to reveal the specifics because he knows their ability to stop the bullying is limited. The solution to this problem is idealistic at best, but nevertheless resolves the issue.

Liv shows several different ways of activism, including petitions and protests that could serve as a primer for young activists, but his efforts are not always successful. The principal’s initial refusal to hear Liv out seems intended only to drag out the plot, but his exasperation at Liv’s insistence is realistic to an overtaxed and ambitious adult who doesn’t see the priority in Liv’s problem. Liv’s overworked mothers are much more sympathetic to Liv’s feelings, but they are also willing to step back and let Liv work out his own problems and follow his lead. Engaged parents who listen to their children? What a novel idea that isn’t showcased often enough in books! Liv’s confusion about how he feels about them also provides a side of the family that most books don’t show, where children love their family but also want to protect them and themselves from scrutiny.

Highly recommended for collections and children and families seeking this sort of representation.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington

Sunday Shout Out series was created to remind/encourage me to provide links to news stories, blog posts, and other things that I think are interesting and noteworthy. If you’re interested in participating or being featured in my next Sunday Shout Out, just drop me an e-mail. Do you have some news or links to share? Feel free to link to your own Sunday Shout Outs in the comments.

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’s 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 light 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!

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.

Crenshaw

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.