Friday, September 22, 2017

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: The Lost Kitten

The Lost Kitten by LEE. Illustrated by Komako Sakai. Translated from Japanese. Gecko Press, 2017. ISBN 9781776571260. Click here to purchase.
The cover of The Lost Kitten.

After discovering a “skinny, scruffy kitten” on their doorstep, Hina and her mother are surprised when a cat (with other healthy kittens in tow) nods at them from a distance, as if signaling to the humans to help. “They had never been asked to do something by a cat before.”

The mom and daughter spring into action, cleaning the animal and crafting a litter box, bed, and collar for it. Hina’s not psyched about the whole idea at first (“If we’re going to have a kitten I’d rather get a cute one”), but her affection grows after taking in the kitten’s gorgeous blue eyes and spending time holding it. (“Just thinking about the kitten made her happy.”)  When Mom heads out for cat food and leaves the kitten in the care of Hina (and Hina in the care of her grandmother), Hina loses sight of the kitten. She searches far and wideunder furniture, in the bathroom, outdoorsand recalls a frightening time when she was lost and separated from her mother at a store. (“That was how the kitten must feel.”) With empathy and resolve, she keeps searching, even as the sun starts to set and a breeze whooshes through her yard. She heads inside (dropping her shoes in the genkan) and as she
Image from in which Hina and her mother meet the kitten. 
reaches for her coat she discovers the kitten napping peacefully on her sweater. Mom returns home with the cat food, and Hina, overcome with relief, has a cry. When she’s done, she and her mom decide to name the napping kitten “Sleepy,” and smile at the surprise in store for Grandma when she learns about the new pet. The story ends with questions from Hina to Sleepy: “‘Sleepy, let’s be friends forever, okay?’ Hey, stop sleeping so much. Are you listening, Sleepy?’”

Sakai’s illustrations, rendered with paint and pencil, contain scratches and smudges which give them texture and a feeling of coziness. When the scary flashback occurs, Sakai smartly uses blue page borders to separate this part of narrative from the rest of the story. The mostly-subdued color palette makes for stand-out moments of vibrancy, such as spotting the kitten’s bright blue eyes for the first time or the beautiful pink sunset. The gentle, translated text is full of poetic simplicity and it highlights the wonders of each moment. In both text and image the story is child-centered, as Hina’s experiences, questions, emotions, and concerns are what pull readers in and weave a suspenseful and heartfelt story out of a seemingly ordinary turn of events.

Reviewed by Elisa Gall.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Amina's Voice

Amina's Voice by Hena Khan. Salaam Reads, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017. ISNB 9781481492065. Click here to purchase.

Sixth grade is off to a rocky start for Amina.  Her best friend, Soojin, is talking about changing her name to something more "American" and becoming chummy with Emily, a White girl from a clique who used to bully Amina and Soojin; her brother and her parents are engaged in an ever-escalating battle of the wills; and to top it all off, her conservative uncle comes for an extended visit from Pakistan and tells Amina that her piano-playing and love of music is un-Islamic.  When vandals deface and desecrate the local Islamic Center, the larger community comes together to restore it, answering the worst of humanity with the best.

Accessible, compulsively readable, and all heart, the mundanity of the plot of Amina's Voice belies the power of this middle-grade novel.  At its core, it's about taking the first step toward growing up: the painful but empowering process of taking ownership of your beliefs, especially when they don't perfectly align with those of the people you love.  Amina struggles to navigate the mires of family, friendship, and faith, but ultimately finds that the ties of culture and community are made all the stronger when she finds and asserts her own voice.

Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: A Different Pond

A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui. Capstone Young Readers, 2017. 32 pages. ISBN 978-1623708030. Click here to purchase.

A boy and his dad go fishing early one morning, but this trip isn’t just about father-son bonding time:

" '[W]hy do we still have to fish for food?' I ask.
'Everything in America costs a lot of money,' [Dad] explains."

This particular morning they fish in relative quiet; the boy and his father don’t see the Hmong man “who speaks English like my dad and likes to tell funny jokes,” or the African American man with his colorful collections of fishing lures. Dad tells the boy, “I used to fish by a pond like this one when I was a boy in Vietnam.” It’s not something Dad talks about often, his time in Vietnam, and we soon find out why: “He and his brother fought side by side [in the Vietnam War]. One day, his brother didn’t come home.”

“I get it to light with just one match.
Dad nods.”
We also see how much the boy idolizes his father through the interplay between Phi’s text and Bui’s art. When he starts the fire going “with just one match,” the boy earns a nod of approval from Dad – a close-up (in its own panel) shows the boy’s proud smile. And when Dad relays this story of triumph to Mom, the boy stands in profile, smiling warmly in the foreground while helping in the kitchen.

I get the same feeling from Bao Phi's writing in A Different Pond that I do when I read Matt de la Peña’s Newbery Medal-winning text for Last Stop on Market Street. I don’t make this comparison lightly. There are many distinguished picture book texts published each year, but this one is special in the way it conveys so much emotional depth with such understated grace.

“A kid at my school said my dad’s English sounds like a thick, dirty river. But to me his English sounds like gentle rain.”

“I rub my hands together, yawn, and look up to see faint stars like freckles.”

Phi’s attention to detail establishes a real sense of place within the text while presenting an authentically loving father-son relationship.

“Dad hands me a sandwich… ‘Careful of the spicy stuff,’ he says.
There’s half a peppercorn, like a moon split in two, studded into the meat.”

Illustration detail from Thi Bui
And then there’s Thi Bui’s accompanying artwork. (Before we get to that, let me just put in a plug for Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do; it’s probably my single favorite book of 2017. If you haven’t seen it yet, find a copy post-haste and read it. You’ll thank me later!) Bui’s meticulous use of color and shadow establish the moody, EARLY morning setting. As the boy and his dad drive to the pond, blues and grays of the pre-dawn street contrast with the golden leaves of the trees. The spread showing their arrival at the pond shows the wild, scrubby slope down to the water in a surreal range of bluish-greens (it also shows clearly the “No Trespassing” sign along the fence). And on their way home, as the rising sun shines through the car windows in “just a faint tint, blue and gray instead of gold,” Bui expertly uses those blues and grays (with a healthy dose of black shadow) to create a moody light quality that feels just right for that moment of the day.

The best picture books have a feeling to them that can be hard to pinpoint; the word “lasting” comes to mind. For me, A Different Pond has a lasting quality to it that few other books have. Buy it, gift it, and read it to the children in your life.

by Sam Bloom

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya. Viking, 2017. 256 pages. 
978-1-101-99723-9. Click here to purchase.
Arturo Zamora is growing up. He has to spend his summer break working as junior assistant dishwasher at La Cocina de la Isla, his family’s restaurant and a Miami
neighborhood staple. When Carmen and “Uncle Frank” Sánchez (who are grieving the loss of Carmen’s mom) arrive from Spain, the family friend he hasn’t seen since childhood greets him with a double kiss (one on each cheek) and Arturo feels a strange “burning” sensation in his stomach. (“It. Was. Weird.”) Carmen is studying the work of José Julián Martí, and Arturo finds himself nervously lying to her about how he too writes poetry. When Abuela senses something is up, she *wink winks* at Arturo and gives him an old cigar box from his late abuelo. The box is full of letters written directly to Arturo, reflecting Abuelo’s faith, devotion to his family, and interest in the works of Martí and the power of words to make change (“sometimes life’s answers are hidden in poetry”).
The city owns the restaurant property, and the Zamora family’s lease is up for renewal. An out-of-touch real estate developer from out of town named Wilfrido Pipo decides he wants to build an exclusive complex on the same spot. With a proposed gym, spa, movie theater, cocktail lounge, and more, “Pipo Place” has almost everything a neighborhood could ask for—except La Cocina de la Isla. The fate of the restaurant and neighborhood will be determined at a city council meeting. 

In a burst of confidence inspired by Abuelo’s letters, Arturo musters up the courage to tell Carmen how he feels and to speak out about the proposed development. When the family faces a huge blow and all feels lost, Arturo finds encouragement in his Abuelo’s words: “A VECES LO TIENES QUE ESCRIBIR / SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO WRITE IT DOWN.” In the days leading up to the city council’s big decision-making meeting, Arturo and his community unpack what the “exclusive” and “V.I.P.” development might really mean for them, and they reflect on how Abuela and the restaurant she built nourished the neighborhood in more ways than one. When it comes time to learn of the city council’s decision, Arturo, with friends and family at his side, has found peace and is ready to move forward no matter the circumstances. The book concludes with a collection of easy-to-make recipes shared by the author.  
While the Wilfrido character feels a bit contrived (he is a capital-V-villain, as the line between “good” and “bad” is quite clear in this story), the young characters and their interactions remain front and center. There is an authentic back-and-forth between Arturo and his buddies, reflected in their teasing Twitter DMs (“@PITBULL4LIF: wat up, bro!!”) and their dialogue while they shoot hoops (in these scenes, their words are formatted like a screenplay, with actions in italics). Arturo’s conversations with Carmen are awkward to the point of hilarious. ("'Um, are you hot?' I asked. 'I mean not hot like hot, but like sweating hotness…from the heat, and, um, you’re in Miami.'")
Readers with limited Spanish language skills can make meaning of words and phrases using context clues that have been elegantly woven into the narrative. And there’s nothing like an author reading their story in their own voice. I listened to the audiobook CD and I found myself reflecting on the Hear Diversity campaign as I read, knowing that my appreciation and understanding of this book was enhanced through Cartaya’s narration.

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora also provides an engaging and informative introduction to the life and work of Martí. Readers will no doubt be inspired to learn more when they are finished reading—perhaps through the new biography by Emma Otheguy and Beatriz Vidal.

Last but not least, here’s a video of Cartaya sharing real-life places in Miami that inspired the setting. Show this to kids as you booktalk and then prepare to add a bunch of names to your holds list. Better yet, buy more than one copy if you can.

Reviewed by Elisa Gall

Monday, September 18, 2017

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Speaking Our Truth

Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation by Monique Gray Smith. Orca, 2017. 159 pages. 978-1-4598-1583-4. Age 8 and older

How do we teach children about racism in the past, so essential to addressing racism that exists today?
One approach can be found in Speaking Our Truth, in which author Monique Gray Smith invites young readers along on a journey to learn about residential boarding schools, a painful dimension of Canadian (and United States) history.
“For some of you, this may be a time of significant change in your understanding of Canada’s history. It might be the first time you’ve thought about what reconciliation means and, more specifically, what it means to you and what your role in it is. Simply reading this book is an act of reconciliation. So good on you! Some of you may have started the journey well before picking this book up. I welcome you all to the journey. In my Nihiyaw (Cree) language, we say tawâw, which loosely means ‘there’s always room.’ For you, for me, for your friends, your family, your community. There’s always room.”
The reconciliation she refers to is “the restoration and healing of a relationship. In Canada, this refers to the process taken on by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to revitalize the relationship between the citizens of Canada (Indigenous and non-Indigenous), as well as the Nation-to-Nation relationships with the government of Canada.”
As in the United States, residential schools in Canada brutalized Indigenous children and communities for well over a century. (In Canada, residential schools existed for 165 years--the last one closed in 1996.) Forcing Native children to leave their families to attend the schools was only the first act of violence of the residential schools. Once at the schools, children were forbidden from speaking their Native language and from other expressions of their Native identity and culture; they were often beaten and malnourished. Those who survived the physical trauma carried psychological scars. The impact on individuals, families, and entire Indigenous communities has been lasting.

In telling readers about this history and its continued effects on Indigenous people and communities today, Smith emphasizes that this is not just Indigenous history, it is Canadian history and important for all kids in Canada to know and understand.  She talks honestly about the pain inflicted by the residential schools, and the racism that was the basis for the schools and many other government policies impacting Indigenous people in Canada.
Smith is honest, but she is gentle, too, repeatedly addressing readers directly and acknowledging that this information may make them uncomfortable, or sad. Perhaps they have family members who are survivors. Perhaps their ancestry is Anglo and they are feeling guilt. This is a difficult journey, she notes. Take care of yourself along the way.
A number of personal narratives from residential school survivors as well as insight from intergenerational survivors--children and grandchildren of survivors who are growing up in families where the trauma’s effects are apparent--are included.  But the first story she shares is her own, discussing her struggle about whether or not she wanted to write this book. “You see, part of my inner turmoil was because my own ancestry is both colonizer and colonized. I am of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous ancestry.” (Smith is of Cree, Lakota and Scottish descent.)

She continues, “I hope this book will inspire you. Some of it might hurt you or make you angry. That’s okay. Use it as fuel to help make change in a positive way.” To help with this, she also shares the voices from a diverse group of contemporary children navigating their way through this history, and provides a number of resources at volume’s end.
Between the covers, Speaking Our Truth looks at first glance more like a 4th grade textbook than the trade book it is. There are bold-faced terms in the narrative defined in the margins, “Reflections” asking readers questions (e.g., “What parts of this history were new to you?” “How do you see this history continuing to unfold in Canada?” “How would you feel if you were told you could no longer speak your own language?”), and many other design elements typical of educational texts.
Don’t let the textbook-like appearance deter you from putting this on the nonfiction shelves in a public or school library. The remarkable tone is so UN-textbook-like, inviting readers in, guiding them along on the journey..
Don’t let the fact that it’s about Canadian history deter you either. Not only for the obvious reason that this is our history too: generations of Native children in the United States were also forced to attend boarding schools, with the same traumatic impact on individuals, families and communities. But also because the racism that made the boarding schools possible applies to so much of our collective history around race. And to our lives today.
Among the terms defined for young readers in the opening pages of this work are “racism,” “systemic racism” and “internalized racism.”
Name it. Define it. Teach it. Learn about it.


Monique Gray Smith also has a new picture book out from Orca:You Hold Me Up. Written “in the spirit of reconciliation” and “dedicated by the author to “children, families and staff of Aboriginal Head Start programs,” the repeated refrain “You hold me up” is followed by examples of ways in which we--adults, families, communities--nurture and affirm children in small, meaningful acts every day. “You hold me up ….when you play with me ... when you augh with me….when you listen to me. " Check out Debbie Reese’s review!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Looking Back: Charlie & the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

By Elisa Gall

“Nostalgia for childhood favorites is not evidence that a children’s book is not racist.” 
A photo of the tattered paperback of Charlie and the
Chocolate Factory
I read as a child.
Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN, recently shared this quote from her syllabus for her Dismantling Racism: Social Justice and Children’s Literature class. It was a fitting quote for me to see, because I saw it right when I started to reread Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, hands-down my favorite book from childhood. It’s the first chapter book I remember reading independently (and then rereading again and again and again). When my class studied it in second grade, my teacher (who, BTW, had one of those pillow-filled bathtubs one could lounge and read in) snuck handmade golden tickets into a few of the chocolate bars that she later gave to us. I was one of the lucky students to find one, and my prize was not having to ask permission to get a drink from the water fountain for a whole day. In the years that followed, I’d speak to my preference of Joseph Schindelman’s illustrations over Sir Quentin Blake’s, and to the 1971 film adaptation over the Johnny Depp version. I saw the book-inspired musical in London and trekked to Great Missenden to visit Dahl’s hometown and the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. The list of ways that this story has influenced my life could go on and on - it’s probably safe to say that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is what sparked my love of reading and children’s literature that I still have today. And it is also safe to say that the book is seeping with racism, as well as other -isms. That’s part of its influence too.

I remember becoming aware of Dahl’s reputation as a bigot as I grew older, a reputation built on things he said and wrote (such as the line in James and the Giant Peach that reads, "I'd rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican!"). In high school a teacher shared that the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I grew up reading was an edited version in which “African pygmies” had been changed to bearded, troll-like Oompa-Loompas. (I later learned through Philip Nel that Schindelman had created illustrations for the original, and it took almost a decade for the edit. The 1964 text copyright remains.) In rereading the book this month, what struck me as strengths are the innovative mix of text and image (especially at the beginning when characters are introduced) and the light, whimsical, direct voice with lots of CAPITALIZATION and exclamations! It’s all very theatrical, with exciting pacing and dare-I-say delicious descriptions of Wonka’s inventions and sweets. But appreciation of those strengths can only happen if you aren’t distracted by the sizeism, colonialism, ageism, and racism also reflected in the book’s pages. Augustus Gloop is greedy. Being fat is described as “repulsive” and a moral failure. India is exotified as a place where Prince Pondicherry, a generic, turban-wearing “Indian Prince,” will not listen to Wonka’s wisdom and builds a palace made of 100% chocolate that melts in the burning sun. Charlie’s 90-something grandparents are bedridden and helpless, “shriveled as prunes, and as bony as skeletons...with nothing to do.” And the Oompa-Loompas, members of a “tribe” Wonka “imported” to live and “work” at his factory, perpetuate the myth of “happy slaves.” Wonka did them a favor, the thinking goes, because he got them out of a bad situation (he shipped them to his factory in humorously drawn boxes “with holes in them”). He is paying them, but let’s not forget it is in cacao beans, which the Oompa-Loompas are addicted to thanks to Wonka’s influence. Oompa-Loompas give “whoops” of joy and are described as wonderful workers who love dancing and music. They wear leaves, bang drums as they chant their songs, and arrive for service at three clicks of Wonka’s fingers. They are also test subjects for Wonka’s experiments, and he doesn’t show much remorse when those experiments go wrong. This Oompa-Loompa narrative normalizes enslavement and reinforces racial stereotypes as well as colonial mentalitythat these Oompa-Loompas are “better off” under the care (and control) of Wonka. I am reminded of a post by Daniel José Older in which he shares:

Frederick Douglass never allowed himself to be photographed smiling so as not to
perpetuate the myth of the “happy slave.” He also warned against being “told of the
contentment of the slaves, and...entertained with vivid pictures of their happiness.” He was astonished to encounter northerners who believed the slaves’ song was proof of their happiness: “It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears."

I also can’t stop thinking about the messaging around Charlie, the poor, White, innocent “hero,” who stays silent and follows the rules while evil works around him (and benefits from that evil in the end); to me, Charlie exemplifies many of the faults with a “non-racist” versus “anti-racist” ideology.

It’s not that I didn’t remember these issues until my recent reread. It is that every time that critical voice or bubble of discomfort arose, I chose not to pay attention to it. It was selective memory, because I did not want to let this book go. I have to call that what it really is: White fragility (and other kinds of fragility, considering the myriad ways this book is problematic). I can’t help but wonder now if my love for this book wasn’t caused by Dahl’s craft at all, but by the joy of remembering reading the book all by myself, or the kickass teacher who made her class immersive and fun (let’s not forget the bathtub). Still, it's worth noting that criticisms of this book are not new. As long as there have been children's books, there have been people working against racism in children's books. My teacher was awesome in a lot of ways, but she did put time and effort into a celebration of THAT title. What if we had read something else? Or what if we had read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory critically?

This book has played a huge role in my life and I can’t and won’t deny that; but, I can no longer defend this book or its author, nor can I stay silent during kidlit gush-fests where both would otherwise go uninterrogated. I’m going to keep my brittle paperback, just as I will continue to work to acknowledge and unlearn the influence of this story and others on my own socialization (which still plays out in my thoughts and actions today). But I don’t have to KEEP loving this book, singing its praises, or perpetuating the cycles and systems of oppression it supports. I can find different booksBETTER booksand experience new memories with all of the readers for whom stories are created and shared. From here, there’s only forward.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: The Stars Beneath Our Feet

 The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 
304 pages. 9781524701246

Lolly is still getting use to the gaping hole left in his life by the death of his older brother, Jermaine. He not only misses Jermaine, he feels guilty because they weren’t speaking at the time Jermaine was shot and killed.

Lolly is also keenly aware that, at 12, he can no longer move freely through his Harlem neighborhood as he once did. He’s now old enough for territories to matter as crews of older boys and young men eye boys like him and his best friend, Vega, looking for their allegiance or to label them as trespassers.

Two surprises gifts as Christmas approaches illuminate both possibility and disconnect for Lolly. A neighbor and childhood friend of Jermaine’s gives him a book about New York City architecture. It’s out of the blue: Lolly has never expressed interest in architecture. But he does love building with Lego and has amassed a collection of kits he's assembled following the exacting specifications of their various instructions. The book inspires Lolly to tear them all apart and start over, the only guide his imagination. And he imagines a lot--not just buildings, but a story to go with them.

In the meantime, one of Jermaine’s recent friends, a guy Lolly knows it’s best to avoid, stops Lolly on the street with a gift, one he says Jermaine wanted Lolly to have.  It’s a gaming system. But Lolly doesn’t like playing video games. He’s never really liked playing video games. The gift is a symbol of how little his brother, once Lolly’s idol and protector, had grown away from Lolly and also, Lolly realizes, from the person he once was. In fact, the reason Jermaine wasn’t speaking to Lolly at the time of his death was because Lolly refused to start working with him, even though Lolly was fulfilling the promise Jermaine himself had extracted long before, back when he looked out for Lolly: Never do what I do.

Offering hope, acknowledging hardship. Debut author David Barclay Moore writes with open eyes about the challenges of Lolly’s life as a Black boy in a poor neighborhood on the cusp of young adulthood, and with eyes just as wide he shows the many things Lolly has going for him: his terrific mom and her wonderful girlfriend; his dad, who may not be around every day but is a constant regardless; the community center director; the neighbor who gave him the book; his best friend Vega; the list goes on. Lolly’s creativity, too, is a force he can harness.

Lolly also makes a new friend in Rose, a girl who faces challenges of her own, When Rose first starts building with Lego next to Lolly, he’s resentful of the invasion of what he considered his own private space. Then he sees her work as competition. Slowly he starts to respect what she’s accomplishing. He begins to see beyond her nickname (“Big Rose”) and reputation (as a bully) and silence to the particular girl, one with whom it turns out he has common interests. It’s never clear whether Rose’s sometimes difficult personality is rooted solely in external influences (she saw her mother killed), innate, or a combination of the two. It doesn’t matter to their friendship, and I admired the way Moore lets this relationship change and grow over time, never rushing it.

It’s the characterizations that made The Stars Beneath Our Feet truly shine for me, revealed through masterful dialogue and authentic interactions among people in Lolly’s family and community on every page, in almost every scene. I both laughed and cringed at the realistic way the kids at Lolly’s afterschool program talk to one another, sometimes skirting the edge of meanness with their takedowns, sometimes crossing over; just as believable was the way they offer true and generous admiration for what Lolly and Rose accomplish when they build.

I didn’t always find the plot as tight as the characterizations are wonderful, but even when I felt it loosened, the heart of the story maintained a powerful gravitational pull. When Lolly’s best friend Vega, hovering on the edge of something dangerous, makes a decision that comes down firmly on the side of hope with Lolly by his side, it’s a moment that underscores everything Moore has revealed so beautifully: the importance of friendship and family and community and creativity on children’s ability to see beyond the hardship of their lives to the possibility of them. He isn’t suggesting it’s easy. He is making clear it’s essential: without hope, there is no choice or agency.

Reviewed by Megan Schliesman