Monday, October 29, 2012

Picture Book Review - A Picnic in October by Eve Bunting

As I'm typing this, we're hearing about Hurricane Sandy hammering the East Coast, specifically the Northeast. So far it appears that all our friends and loved ones are safe, hunkered down somewhere and riding out the storm. It seems a little surreal to be writing about a book set in New York, knowing that so many are experiencing a day that's far outside the norms for October weather. Here's hoping everyone is doing well and reading books by candlelight!
And what's better to share as a family than a picture book by the always magnificent Eve Bunting? I've written before about how much I love her sensitive, thoughtful titles, and A Picnic in October is no exception. In this intergenerational story, we meet a family who is headed out to Liberty Island for a very special birthday picnic. Tony's not too thrilled about it, though it's a yearly tradition - he thinks it would be much better to do something else for Grandma's birthday, or maybe to have a picnic in the summertime. But "this is the way Grandma wants it," Tony's mom says, and so that's what the family does.

Gathering all their picnic gear, including chairs, blankets and loads of food, the family makes their way to catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty's home grounds. Tony's cousins think this is a silly tradition too, especially since Grandma and Grandpa act so sappy in the ferry line. But all the way out to the island Tony can't stop thinking about his encounter with a lady and her family who were also waiting - with not much English, she didn't understand how the boat routes worked - and he's relieved when he sees that they made it on to the island as well, and are staring up at Lady Liberty. "The way they stand, so still, so respectful, so. . . so peaceful, makes me choke up." And suddenly Tony can see what his grandmother must feel, and why coming to this place is the only way she'll celebrate her birthday.

Once again, Bunting delivers a touching and heartfelt portrait of a family touched by immigration and their connection to their heritage. This is a realistic take on a family story -- it makes sense that the youngest generation wouldn't be as connected to the grandmother's feelings, but the representation of Tony seeing his grandmother's emotions personified in another family, from another place, is thoughtfully handled. The illustrations by Nancy Carpenter mirror the tone of the tale perfectly, as the soft brush strokes of the paintings reveal the emotions on every family member's face. Some spreads feel especially powerful - as we look down on the family picnicking in the sun at the statue's base, we get a sense of the enormity of this symbol in the lives of Tony's loved ones, and so many others.

This is an older title, as you'll note when you glimpse the NYC skyline, with the twin towers still very much in evidence. But the themes of family, patriotism and memory are perennial, and the story reads just as relevantly today as it did when it was first published, thirteen years ago. Share this with your kids for a discussion about immigration and identity - pair with books like Dan Yaccarino's All the Way to America or Jane Yolen's Naming Liberty for more stories about families coming to America but keeping ties to their past.

A Picnic in October by Eve Bunting, published by Harcourt Brace & Company
Ages 5-9
Source: Library
Sample: "The next ferry comes and we manage to squeeze on. I watch for the woman and her family, but they don't make it onto this boat. I hope they don't give up."

Bonus: a video interview with Eve Bunting from Reading Rockets

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Teen Review - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Authenticity is pretty darn important in lots of arenas, but when it comes to books about a particular culture or population, it's crucial. Sure, it's possible to write about a culture you have no experience with, but let's be honest - you're probably going to miss some details, leave out key points and generally make a botch of things. If you haven't been raised in that culture, you're definitely going to have to do your homework to make sure that things ring true. It's kind of like learning to speak a language: while you can learn a little bit from books and CDs, pretty soon you're going to have to converse with some actual speakers of that dialect, and that's where you're going to find out what you should really be saying.

So I'm always a little suspect when I come across a book where the author doesn't have any kind of connection to the culture. There are some fine examples out there of authors and illustrators who have captured a world about which they have very little direct knowledge. But the best books, the books that move you to your core and transport you to a specific time or place, those books are written by people who have been there, people who KNOW.

You can't fake that, my friends.

This semester I'm taking a YA lit class (*waves to classmates*) and so far we've read some really incredible titles, about which I'll be blogging in the weeks to come. This week one of the selections was a book that's long been on my radar but which I haven't read until now - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Alexie's kind of a legend in the Pacific Northwest, for his portraits of life as a Native American growing up in this part of the country. He won the National Book Award for this novel, his first foray into writing for teens, which has incidentally appeared on a whole slew of "Best Of" lists. If you're the kind of person who is put off by critical acclaim, though, don't be tempted to cast Alexie aside - this novel is well worth your time.

Diary is a semi-autobiographical tale about Arnold 'Junior' Spirit, a teenager growing up in the middle of nowhere on the Spokane Indian Reservation, aka 'The Rez'. Like Alexie himself, Junior hasn't had the easiest time growing up: plagued by a host of medical problems since birth, he's also been tormented by nearly every other rez kid, and even some of the adults. He's got his best friend Rowdy, though, who sticks up for him no matter what. Until Junior reaches a turning point in his life, deciding that he needs to "go somewhere where people have hope" - he's going to leave school on the rez and enroll at Reardan, the all-white school nearly 30 miles away.

It won't be easy, Junior knows, even though he is stubborn enough to forge ahead no matter what. Just getting to school will be a challenge, not to mention trying to find his way as the only Indian in a sea of white faces. But Junior isn't counting on the personal toll he'll pay, when the people he's known his entire life turn their backs on him, including Rowdy, branding him a traitor for leaving the rez. And that's just the beginning of what's staring Junior down, as he tries to find his way and do what only he can do for himself.

So, wow. This is a novel that sneaks up on you, peppered as it is with cartoons (Junior's artistic POV is captured by illustrator Ellen Forney), gross-out moments and deep-down hilarious anecdotes. Junior's forthright, brutally so. He holds just about nothing back, and his honesty about life on the rez is as funny as it is unvarnished. Be prepared to run the gamut of emotions as you read - rarely will you cringe with embarrassment, laugh yourself silly and then be on the verge of tears within a few pages, but that's exactly what will happen here. Just as you're lulled into thinking this is another book about a teenage boy struggling to find friends, though, Alexie pulls out the big guns, reminding us that being a Native American in our society is to be among those counted out and pushed aside. Even as Junior makes light of his circumstances, readers can see his pain, often not too far under the surface, but he never invites our pity, only our understanding.

Alexie's voice here is wholly unique and entirely authentic - he lived this life, and he's given readers a unique window into what his own adolescence might have been like, polishing our vision of Junior's world to a fine sheen. This is the kind of reading experience that's intense and powerful, a take-no-prisoners trip through adolescence with a narrator whose voice is wise, profane, self-deprecating and reckless, entirely unlike any other. Hard truths are fair game for Alexie, who takes them head-on: everything from the drunken Indian to the white folks who wish they were Natives. And even as we recognize pieces of ourselves in the characters who populate Junior's story, we're forced to consider how all of us play a role in the kind of world Junior grows up in.

The epigraph of Diary is a quote by Yeats: "There is another world, but it is in this one." Alexie gives us this world, for those who will look unflinchingly.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, published by Little Brown
Ages 14+
Source: personal collection
Sample: "And it's not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It's not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people. / Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands."

Bonus: Conversation with Sherman Alexie from public television

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"The Danger of a Single Story"

"The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity." -- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Are our children hearing a single story? Or a multiplicity of voices that tell of many stories, from many places, about many experiences?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Picture Book Review - Dragon Dancing by Carole Lexa Schaefer

Ever since Sprout started preschool, art has become a big thing for him. His teachers believe in affording the kids lots of opportunities to stretch their creative muscles, providing them with all kinds of fun art supplies and giving them (mostly) free rein. One night a few weeks ago I came in to pick him up and he was busily constructing a caterpillar for Daddy's office - cut-up egg carton, pipecleaner antennae and googly eyes, just like I remember doing when I was in elementary school. It's so much fun to see the pride in his eyes when we display one of his fantastic creations, such as the neon noodle art and sponge paintings that are hanging on the family fridge even as we speak.

That same spirit of creativity is alive and well in Carole Lexa Schaefer's Dragon Dancing. Set in a preschool much like Sprout's, populated with a diverse cross-section of kiddos, the story begins with the class reading a book about dragons. Fueled by thoughts of these fire-breathing beasts, the students begin using their art supplies to create a magical dragon of their own. Soon the children, "in a long dragon line", are transported right out of their classroom and into strange and beautiful worlds beyond. The flights of fancy this creative parade takes can only be brought back to earth when the children are called back in by their teacher (of course).

One of the things we like best about Dragon Dancing is the way illustrator Pierr Morgan makes use of every bit of the page to tell her visual story. Sprout can pretty much read this for himself, Morgan's pictures are so vivid and lively. She captures the joy of the child-dragon as it ascends a snow-topped peak or tiptoes past breakfasting panda bears, starkly black-and-white against a background of soft bamboo forest. I'd love to know just how the artwork was created, because it strikes just the right balance between realism and softly whispered imaginings. This one's definitely a feast for the eyes, if ever there was one.

And the text is great too, filled with the kinds of phrases any true devotee of read-aloud will love to share. The dragon's not just dancing through the flowers, he is "swirl-whirling around whispery meadows." Rather than just swimming, he's "slip-sliding across foamy seas." You can just about feel the atmosphere Schaefer's dreamed up, just by the choice of dialogue she employs. This is magical stuff, and a great beginning to conversations about word choices and shades of meaning.

That is, if you get that far - you may just be captivated, as Sprout and I are, by the bounty of delightful imagery each page brings. At the end, Sprout's completely tickled by the fact that the children transform back into themselves just in time to share Mei Lin's birthday snack - lollipops, which he feels sure a dragon wouldn't really enjoy that much. And who knows, maybe he's right - but then again, a dancing dragon could need a little sugar boost too.

Don't save this one for Chinese New Year - bring it out any time you and your little ones want a feast for all your senses, in the form of this vibrant storytime choice!

Dragon Dancing by Carole Lexa Schaefer, published by Viking
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Sample: "After, in the art room, we decorate for Mei Lin's birthday with sparkly paper and ribbons. Snip, twirl, flip. 'Look at me!' Mei Lin shouts. 'I'm Birthday Dragon!'"

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bookish Halloween Treats

It's a dark and stormy night, just right for writing about Halloween! We're running a bit behind ourselves -- usually by this time we've had a trip to the pumpkin patch and have Sprout's costume sorted out, but not this year. Looks like we've got a busy weekend ahead of us, so it's good that our shelf is stocked with spooky reads to keep us in the mood.

It's no mean feat to find multicultural titles themed around holidays. Seriously, authors and publishers? We would love to see more fun, engaging holiday books with diverse characters, and I know we aren't alone! Luckily the library came to our rescue yet again, for some Halloweeny goodness picture-book style. Most of these are older books -- if you have trouble finding them, I'd suggest a trip to the library or used bookstore near you.

First up is Celie and the Harvest Fiddler by Vanessa and Valerie Flournoy. Celie plans to make a grand entrance with her very spooky costume, but things don't quite turn out like she wants. Then an encounter with the mysterious Fiddler nets Celie a magical mask that grants her Halloween wish -- with some very unintended consequences. Can Celie get the Fiddler to help reverse the mask's magic? This is a longer story great for older preschoolers and elementary ages, and its historical setting comes to life with paintings by the amazing James E. Ransome. Just the right blend of mystery and magic!

For kiddos who aren't so excited about spooky sights on Halloween night, Catherine Stock's Halloween Monster is a perfect reassurance. Tommy likes some things about Halloween, but he's really pretty scared to see witches, ghosts and monsters. . . scared enough that he doesn't even want to go trick-or-treating with his friends. But once Mom explains that all those ghosts and witches are just children all dressed up, well, then Tommy thinks he might want to give it a try himself. And soon he's transformed into a Halloween monster - just in time to go trick-or-treating with his friends! I love the simple story here, and it's been great to calm Sprout's apprehensions about spooky things. Now he can't wait for us to get his ghost costume ready!

And speaking of spooky things, Los Gatos Black on Halloween by Marisa Montes is just right for those braver little ones who like a bit of thrill. Weaving Spanish words into her text about skeletons dancing under the harvest moon and witches flying through the night sky, Montes paints a pretty scary picture of one fantastic Halloween ball. But even the monsters and mummies are scared of something -- you guessed it, trick-or-treaters! (Maybe the monsters ran out of candy?) Yuyi Morales' pictures add the perfect setting to this rhythmic tale. And while the translations of Spanish words might impede the flow of the text a bit, it's still nice to see some cultural nuance to the Halloween canon.

For another cultural take, try Yangsook Choi's Behind the Mask. This is a moving intergenerational story that just happens to be set around Halloween. Kimin misses his grandfather, but he's afraid to look for costume makings in his grandfather's old trunks, as his mom suggests -- mostly because the last time he saw Grandfather at the trunks, he looked really scary! But then Kimin begins to investigate, and he discovers that his grandfather was a mask dancer, and he wore tal, special masks for use in the dance. Soon Kimin figures out why Grandfather looked so scary, and he has an idea for a Halloween costume like no other. I love the way the multi-talented Choi blends traditions from Kimin's home in America with elements from his Korean heritage. Children whose lives merge multiple cultures will appreciate this sensitive tale, and it's also a terrific look at the customs of Korean folk dancing.

And for the littlest ones, there's Sweets and Treats by Toni Trent Parker. I love this one because there's nothing babies love more than looking at photos of other children - Sprout was mesmerized by books like this. It's hard to find books like this, though, that aren't heavily populated by white faces. Parker's all-brown-skinned cast of characters includes a princess, a pumpkin and a very hearty pirate, every one of whom shines in their festive Halloween garb. Parker's other titles include books about Easter, Christmas and Valentine's Day - worth hunting these down for those who want a bit more color on their holiday bookshelves.

This Halloween, curl up with your little ghost or goblin, a big mug of hot cocoa and one of these delicious bookish treats. It doesn't get much sweeter than that!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Library Find - The Rain Stomper by Addie Boswell

Rain. Here in the Pacific Northwest, rain is an ever-constant feature of our lives. In the dry times (pretty much only a couple of months in the summer), the rain might not come as frequently, but it's not far from our thoughts. And in the spring - hooo boy, watch out.

Sprout came into our family in May 2010, and the one feature I remember about his homecoming is that it was a beautiful sunny week. Kind of unusual that time of year around these parts, and even in my sleep-deprived fog I noticed that. But then, in predictable Washington fashion, the rain came.

And boy oh boy did Sprout love it. He would tip his head back, turn his face up into the rain and laugh. It was really something to see. Suddenly we weren't rushing to the car to get him secured in the carseat, but dawdling so he could throw his chubby arms up into the gray air and let the raindrops pound down on his open palms. It was pure joyful delight.

Which is exactly what we find in The Rain Stomper by Addie Boswell, only not right from the outset. In the book Jazmin is so excited to be twirling her baton in the big parade in her neighborhood. She can hardly wait to start, jumping out of bed on the big day and rushing to the door. But what she sees fills Jazmin with dread. Because it's raining, pouring, gushing down buckets and buckets. Ruined, right? Jazmin's mad, and she steps out onto the stoop to express her disapproval to the skies. And as Jazmin stomps and splashes, something astonishing happens - her neighbors begin to venture out of their homes, and call to Jazmin to stomp and splash even more. Suddenly, the parade is there, without Jazmin even noticing it, and Jazmin not only has channeled her anger into making lots of kids happy, she's also "outstomped the rain".

Sprout loves this book not only for its lively illustrations by Eric Velasquez - Jazmin is so vivid that she steals the reader's attention in every single scene -- but also for its crazy onomatopoeic vibe. The rain is a character here, one that slaps and clatters and bashes on every spread. You can feel the drenching closeness of this wet day, and channel Jazmin's disappointment turning into rage at the weather ruining her plans. And you can sense the children's delight in watching Jazmin's rain-soaked antics, as she spins and jumps and twirls her braids and her baton. There's so much energy here, he almost can't sit still as we read it.

And with this energetic text and dynamic artwork, who can blame him?

The Rain Stomper by Addie Boswell, published by Marshall Cavendish
Ages 3-7
Source: Library
Sample: "Jazmin threw open her front door. Wind whistled through her hair. Thunder rumbled the ground. The sun scuttled behind the clouds. The sky twisted into a thick, black coil."

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Picture Book Review - Jimmy the Greatest! by Jairo Buitrago

We're not much for sports around our household. My husband's football gene was replaced by a comic book/sci-fi one, and I've never been a fan of athletics particularly. I'm not opposed to it, mind you, and I know that I'll probably be spending my share of Saturday afternoons cheering at soccer games or track meets. But overall sports just aren't our thing, and so when it comes to sports-themed books, I tend to pass right by them.

Except for this one. Jimmy the Greatest! by Jairo Buitrago caught my eye in a list of forthcoming titles a while back, and when I saw it again on the shelf at the library I was intrigued enough to check it out. Not sure just why, maybe it was the combination of boxing gloves, bare feet and glasses worn by the title character. In any event I thought it needed a second look, and I'm quite glad I gave it a chance, athletically-themed plot and all.

Buitrago is Colombian, and a flavor of his homeland comes through in this winsome title, both in the text and in the art by Colombian resident Rafael Yockteng. First I should say that the art is unlike anything else I've seen in a picture book - equal parts breathtaking and cartoonish -- and I mean that in the best possible sense. You almost can't stop looking at the pictures long enough to read the words. But you really should, of course, because the book is fantastic.

The story is set in a little town on the seaside, where Jimmy catches the eye of Don Apolinar, owner of the town's tiny gym. Don Apolinar sets Jimmy up to train as a boxer, giving him guidance and inspiration in the form of a box filled with books. In the box there are also clippings about Muhammad Ali - Jimmy has no idea who Ali is, but he likes his style, and soon begins to emulate Ali's confidence. Jimmy throws himself into training, finding that it takes his mind off his problems and the things he doesn't have in life. And eventually Jimmy is the most fearsome competitor anywhere around.

Time passes, which is the part of the story where we'd expect Jimmy to move away from his little town and make a name for himself, right? Not so, dear reader. Instead, Jimmy watches others move away to take up various opportunities, including his mentor Don Apolinar. But Jimmy stays. He takes over the gym and makes a library, turns his talents toward helping others. And maybe one day Jimmy will leave too, but for now, he's making a difference where he is, in this little town by the sea.

I love that this book defies all expectations. For one thing, Yockteng's illustrations soften the story, bringing unexpected whimsy into the mix. And, too, the message isn't that happiness is somewhere "out there". Instead, Buitrago is telling his audience there is no shame in being proud of your homeland, of choosing to stay in your own country and be "Jimmy the Greatest" where you are. Too many times, I think, we imply that there's shame in sticking to your roots, but Jimmy shows us the opposite. Jimmy's words at the end (see below) are truly moving and heartfelt - I love that he's found satisfaction, and the right fit, right where he is. Anyone can leave, Jimmy seems to say, but to stay takes real courage.

And that's a message everyone can believe in.

Jimmy the Greatest! by Jairo Buitrago, published by Groundwood Books (also available in Spanish)
Ages 5-8
Source: Library
Sample: "Listen to me. This is my town. There are donkeys, three sheep and the great huge sea. There are no elegant houses or fancy things. But we're really great. We dance and we box and we don't sit around waiting to go someplace else. / Goodbye, my story's over. Remember my name. Between the sky and the sea, there's me, Jimmy -- Jimmy the Greatest."

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Library Find - Crouching Tiger by Ying Chang Compestine

A few months back, my husband got a flyer in the mail from some travel company or another (among his other pursuits, he also writes a blog focusing on disabled travel). This particular brochure had a page advertising trips to China, which featured a picture of the terracotta warriors. Since China isn't in the travel plans just now, Jake put the brochure in the recycle bin, where Sprout promptly found and rescued it. For several weeks, he packed that picture of the terracotta warriors around, asking all about it. Those are in China, we said, and maybe one day we'll see them.

End of conversation, or so we thought.

Then Sprout was watching Thomas and saw an episode featuring a Chinese dragon. He's seen it before, so no big deal, right? But for some reason this time it stuck with him. "That from China, Mom?" he asked, and so we talked about how the dragon is a feature in Chinese culture. And then he remembered that they'd talked about Chinese New Year at his daycare. And then he saw me reading Grace Lin's The Year of the Rat, and so that prompted more talk about China. Honestly, I think the boy was getting a little obsessed.

So when we ran into the book Crouching Tiger by Ying Chang Compestine during a trip to the library, I was pretty sure he'd be interested. And sure enough, he was very excited to hear that the book was about a young boy, Vinson, whose grandfather visits from China. Surprisingly, though the book is a little long for his age, Sprout stuck with it, and has enjoyed looking over Yan Nascimbene's finely drawn illustrations on his own as well.

Crouching Tiger is a story about culture, family and identity; not only is it beautifully illustrated, it is sensitively and thoughtfully told to boot. In the book, Vinson doesn't know his grandfather very well, but he's impressed to see Grandpa practicing what he thinks is a martial art. Tai chi is not like kung fu, though, and Vinson quickly loses patience with the methodical movements Grandpa teaches him. In fact, everything about Grandpa seems frustratingly foreign: the way he always speaks Chinese, and how he insists on using Vinson's Chinese name, Ming Da. In fact, Vinson starts trying to avoid Grandpa - until an incident on the street gives Vinson a new appreciation for his grandfather's skills. Soon he begins to understand that while Grandpa's ways are different than his American friends' habits, they are still pretty amazing. And a Chinese New Year festival gives Vinson a whole new perspective on his ancestry and his grandfather both.

The dilemma that Vinson faces in Crouching Tiger is one familiar to many who grow up with a foot in two worlds. There's the pull of the new life, shiny and modern with its sense of excitement. And then there is the quiet steadiness of one's heritage, a part of identity that can seem dull in comparison but which forms the basis of who we are. Vinson learns that he is two things, both Chinese and American, and that there is value in each, a lesson that I hope we can give Sprout as he reconciles his Ethiopian ancestry with his life in America. If nothing else, I want him to see that there is beauty in tradition, just as Vinson does, and that he should never be ashamed of who he is.

And I guess we'd better start saving up to visit China too.

Crouching Tiger by Ying Chang Compestine, published by Candlewick
Ages 5-12
Source: Library
Sample: "On New Year's Eve, we cleaned the whole house. Dad cut my hair, and Mom cooked a big traditional meal. Grandpa handed me a red silk jacket embroidered with dragons. 'Ming Da, wear this for the parade tomorrow.' My heart sank. All my friends would be there and see me in this silly jacket. I excused myself and left the table."