Building Community through Reading and Art

IMG_2483.jpgLast weekend, I had the privilege of receiving the FOCAL award for my middle grade historical novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh. The award is given by the Friends of Children and Literature, a group that was founded in 1979. Its founding was a radical act. LA Public Library was considering doing away with the children’s section and the group was formed to raise awareness of children’s books in the community and to bring families from all over the area to the library for reading related programs, including puppet shows. Membership has grown from a dedicated group of twenty volunteers to hundreds of participants. Their energy and vision was evident at the award luncheon.

Maria puppet.jpgFor starters, the award is a puppet. Yes, that is correct. This puppet, my main character, Maria. I got to meet the puppet-makers, Jesse Kingsley and Moira Lael Macdonald.  For each year’s award, the organizers commission two puppets. One goes to the author of the winning book, the other resides in the library in a special cabinet dedicated to the nearly four decades that the award has been given to exemplary books with California content. Susan Patron, David Klass, Beverly Cleary–my book was in the best company!

Then there were the essays. I sat at a table with the young writers of three winning essays about my book. They got to read their essays out loud. Each one was touching, genuine, personal, and keenly voiced in the way that only children’s writing can be. So that’s two art forms–puppetry and nonfiction writing–threaded into the afternoon.

A third artistic creation was on each table–a centerpiece lovingly designed and crafted by students from  L1090031.jpgNobel Middle School. Each depicted the same scene from the book, all the details drawn from a careful reading. I got to meet the readers–Dylan, Enna, Allison, Miranda, Yume, and Eliana– who created the center pieces, along with Ray Moszkowicz, the art teacher who has adopted this project.

So thank you, FOCAL President Caroline Gill and the award committee. I learned so much by being a part of this year’s luncheon. This wasn’t just about one book. It was about weaving creative thinking into a year-long process. It was about the building of community.

 

Images of Home in Three Picture Books

What it is about us humans that we keep longing for home? Wherever we are is never quite it. Home is always some far place, or in a time long ago, or even just a dream in the heart.

From Groundwood Books, here are three picture books, each addressing the notion of home in a very different way.

MalaikasWinterCarnival.jpgIn Malaika’s Winter Carnival, Mummy is marrying Mr. Frédéric. Suddenly Malaika not only has a new sister, Adèle, but has to move to a different country. Here’s a fresh twist on the immigrant story that raises questions of what constitutes home. Look at  how very strange Malaika’s new country is! It’s cold, for one thing, and people speak with a “different talk.” For another, the new sister “kiss me two sides of my face,” a little gesture that leads us to the setting—Quebec, where people speak French. A gentle resolution results in this child-centered story.

Onlyinmyhometown.jpgKisimi Taimaippaktut Angirrarijarani/Only in My Hometown by Angnakuluk Friesen, illustrated by Ippiksaut Friesen (they’re sisters), is a bilingual book with three fonts. How can that be, you ask? It was written in English and translated into Inuktitut (the Aivilik dialect). The Inuktitut language is represented in two fonts–syllabics and transliteration into roman script. And the illustrations–how fantastic is this?–were painted with watercolor and acrylic on elephant poo paper. Yes. That is correct. I thought I was seeing things too, because the book opens with these words: “Sitting on the elephant…” Elephant? In the frozen north? You have to read the book to understand this particular and heartfelt evocation of home.

 

bitterandsweet.jpgIn Bitter and Sweet by Sandra Feder, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker, Hannah doesn’t want to move, but her father has a job in a new town. Hannah’s grandmother tells her there are bitter and sweet parts to change. As the move becomes reality, Hannah keeps trying to find the sweet parts, and with each new spread, even as she opens up to hope, the sweetness keeps eluding her. The chocolate “ptooey” page is especially charming. The story circles naturally around with Hannah’s phone call to her grandmother, arriving at a final turn of understanding and resolution.

Childhood is a place of emotion barely understood but deeply felt, and in a different way, each of these books captures the fresh new feelings of a young life, newly lived.

 

One Book, One Community: A Welcome Choice at a Critical Time

OneBook_March2018-683x1024.jpgI was more than pleased to see the 2018 selection of  March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell as the community’s One Book at San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico. It felt like a welcome choice for so many reasons.

It was a comic book that influenced the young John Lewis, at a time when comic books were largely viewed as evil influences upon the young. Aydin writes about this in his article on the historical context of March:

Congress, never one to miss a bandwagon, held its hearings on the connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency.

Then, as now,  Congress seemed to have kind of missed the point of what will count as progress in the relentless sweep of history.

In our time, the unthinkable has happened. This from the New Yorker:

Literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses, once the most common mechanisms for disadvantaging minority voters, have been consigned to the history books, but one need look no further than the governor’s race in Georgia to see their modern equivalents in action.

Which is why I’m happy to see that in San Juan County, far from the halls of power, people will be reading Lewis’s powerful book. Everyone reading it should think about what it means now.

Remembering Barbara Brooks Wallace

Barbara Brooks Wallace, author of children’s books and two-time Edgar Award winner, passed away November 27, 2018, of natural causes.  It’s a term she would have liked–Natural Causes. I imagine I can hear her saying, “That could be a title.”

Back when the Internet was young, I was on a blue board lovingly titled The Pub, where a bunch of us chatted, rejoiced in each others’ publications and awards and commiserated when someone skidded on the inevitable peanut-shells the industry sometimes threw our way.  Barbara Brooks Wallace was our resident link to the history of the field. She’d worked with Jean Karl, which made the rest of us feel we were touching the hem of a goddess. Here’s Bobbie talking to me about receiving her first contract from Jean.

barbara_brooks_wallace.jpgBobbie was remarkable–full of ideas and questions and determined to stay connected. Here’s a 2013 post she wrote for Cynsations.

When Bobbie turned 90, we Pubbies put a birthday package together for her. It was my privilege to mail it, along with the scarf and matching blue socks I’d knitted. She’d been grumpy about that birthday and when the package arrived, she called me. I picked up the phone and there was Bobbie, laughing so hard she could barely talk. “You weren’t going to let me be cranky, were you?” she said.

Here’s what fellow Pubster Dian Curtis Regan says in remembrance:

Every time Bobbie posted to the Pub, her words made me smile. At the time, she was pushing 90 (!) yet was still ‘in the game,’ writing and publishing and wanting to talk about both.
To learn that she published a new book at the age of 95, Seeking Nip and Tuck, makes me happy, and also makes me want to be just like her.  What a wonderful role model for all of us writers.
Excerpt from the book description:
We’re in the dangerous streets of the New York tenements at the close of the 19th century, with two young boys who have escaped their vicious stepfather by faking their own drowning in the river. Matt and Mickey Deacon disguise themselves by changing their names to Nip and Tuck. But just changing names for two proverbial peas in a pod is hardly enough to save them from the determined evil predators who are seeking them…

And this from Fred Bortz:

On a trip to the DC area a few years ago, I met Bobbie at her assisted living place and took her out to dinner–Chinese, of course. Her sparkling personality was exactly as expected from our online interactions.

I am certain that as she passed away, the twinkle in her eye was the last thing to fade.

Go, Bobbie! If there’s an afterlife, you’re in some celestial Pub, still in the game, writing up a storm.

Sheetal Sheth on Bullies and Bullying

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Actor Sheetal Sheth (ABCD, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World) has published a children’s picture book. Always Anjali is about a conundrum familiar to many immigrant families. Parents often want to give their children culturally grounded names, only playground politics can be as cruel as the real thing and as grounded in prejudice.

Sheetal says:

Anjali’s journey in this first book is about confidence and courage. Her name is an entry point into a larger conversation. In this climate and ‘otherness’ that is being perpetuated, our kids need language and strong, positive examples. So many are struggling right now and I have had so many reach out to me sharing their stories. People of all backgrounds.

Always Anjali.jpgIn a piece for Thrive Global, Sheetal talks about how the shift in public discourse in the real world affects children. Excerpt:
Last week, during an elementary school discussion I was conducting about bullying, one of the children asked, “But what if the bully is a grown-up?”
What if…?
The conversation in that classroom reflects the real world in an uncanny way, because children are us. With less experience, sure, but with their own clarity of perception and a knowledge of their own vulnerable place in the world.

Book Drive by Faithful Friends

I’m saddened to hear that there is a detention center for immigrants at Yuba City, California, the setting for my middle grade novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, and the site of so much rich, yet troubled, immigrant history in the 20th century.

From blogger and activist Nathalie Mvondo:

Faithful Friends, a grassroots group, set up a book drive for the immigrants at the Yuba City Immigration Detention Center. We’re making a list of 50 books (the limit we were given) and are looking for titles both in English and Spanish, some in Mandarin. Any thoughts? All titles need to be available in paperback.

Requests include all genres: mystery, thrillers, Latin American Folk Stories, psychology (more specifically something on facial gestures), horror/terror, romance, vagueros..

Some of the authors and titles requested are Children of the Matrix (Spanish), Life And Times of Pancho, Ringside Seat to a Revolution by Daniel Romo, Maximum Ride Series by James Patterson, etc. I’m working on a spreadsheet, that I will share as soon as it’s ready. Thank you. Please share if you wouldn’t mind.

PS: Early book donations can be sent to:

MultiCulturalism Rocks!
140 B Street, Suite 5 #237
Davis, CA 95616.

These kids need so much, but for now, books can help to ease pain and tedium.

Power, Agency, and Life’s Big Questions in Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

cynthia_leitich_smith_editing-607x400.jpgMy friend and colleague Cynthia Leitich Smith has long been an articulate voice for change in the field of writing for young readers. Cyn is practically a publishing industry all by herself, with picture books, short stories, realistic novels, poetry, and an astonishingly comprehensive online archive of children’s and YA literature resources. Her Tantalize/Feral novels and graphic novels take a Bram Stoker inspired magical world and populate it with ghosts, vampires, were-creatures of all kinds, demon dogs, shapeshifters and fallen angels—in the process, they give power to female characters and reflect back upon the real world, raising questions of trust, betrayal, and community. Her chapter book of interlinked stories, Indian Shoes, presents a warm, funny relationship between the generations, while upending old tropes about Native peoples and Indian artifacts.

As Cynthia puts it: “the industry must move past the tendency to put creatives in genre boxes as well as to underestimate Native authors and authors of color. We are not here to exclusively write books about landmark historical events with obvious social studies tie-ins. We can rock those stories, but we can also do so much more and do it spectacularly.”

Hearts UnbrokenAnd she does. Hearts Unbroken is about Louise Wolfe, suburban Muscogee Creek girl, doing her best to make her way in a largely white high school. Lou has aspirations and talents, a loving family, and, above all, a mind of her own. The prejudice around her, both unthinking and intentional, awakens Lou’s inner activist. At the same time as she’s taking determined steps to achieve her journalistic ambitions, she is forced to question herself, and the answers aren’t always comfortable. Context is offered by a delightful younger brother, cousins and others in the extended family, a lively and contentious school community, and the whole, messy context of the real political world. A diverse array of secondary characters include irascible school paper editor, Karishma Sawkar, neglected best friend Shelby, journalism teacher Ms. Wilson, heedless ex-boyfriend Cam, and Lou’s current love interest, Joey Kairouz. It’s America in microcosm, with all the inherent contradictions you might expect. For an additional treat, readers of Rain is Not My Indian Name will be delighted to see Cassidy Rain Berghoff make a cameo appearance in this book.

Through Lou’s character, Hearts Unbroken articulates questions about representation and voice and the human tendency to pronounce judgment with limited information. Questions about history and privilege, about who has power and why. Questions that push back against the daily indignities, large and small, so often inflicted upon minorities in America, and push back as well on commonly held historical myths and emblems of public nostalgia. This novel left me, to quote Cyn herself, “heartened, optimistically Unbroken, and a believer in the power of Story.”

 

Pathologizing the Canary

Canary

A domestic canary of the type historically used to detect gas in coal mines. [Image source: Wikimedia Commons–no machine-readable author provided]

All of sixteen years ago, Lani Guanier and Gerald Torres wrote a book titled The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy. It pointed to race as the miner’s canary, an unfailing indicator of underlying problems in society that ultimately affect everyone, not just minorities. It suggested that winner-take-all hierarchies of power had failed. It called for building grass-roots, cross-racial coalitions to remake structures of power, to foster public participation in politics and reform the process of democracy. In a related AACU address in 2005, Guanier said:

 

…the experience of people of color in higher education is the experience of the canary in the mines. The problem with the way we have been thinking about that experience is that we have tended to pathologize the canary. That is, we see problems that come to our attention because they are associated with a visible and vulnerable group. And then we assume that those are the problems of the canary, rather than heeding the warning that those canaries are giving to us that it is actually the atmosphere in the mine that is toxic–not just for the canary but for the miners as well.

Edith Campbell brings the inquiring canary approach to her SLJ post,  “The Review is Critical,” Edith Campbell brings the inquiring canary approach to book reviews:

Traditional reviews limit themselves to how the story is presented by discussing characters, themes, plots, and setting. Critical book reviews go beyond this by focusing on how people and events are represented, whose voice is missing from the story, and the ways in which power is enacted. This reading strategy of the word and the world has implications across every form of literacy as it empowers readers to more fully realize the architecture of the information presented.

Campbell’s piece lists reviewers who examine the word and the world in ways that shine the light of re-envisioning upon our field. They’re a prolific, informed, opinionated bunch. It’s liberating to navigate those sites and hear all those voices taking part in a conversation of books. Because it’s easy to see story as consisting only of character, plot and setting. And reading the word is directly connected to reading the world. And since, let’s face it, we’re very far from an ideal world of peaceful coexistence, maybe it’s about time to start listening to the canaries.

At Canada’s Edge, Trails of American History

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Review copy courtesy of Groundwood Books

The Africville of this heartfelt and beautiful picture book no longer exists as it did for 150 years just north of Halifax, Nova Scotia. That community, largely consisting of the descendants of Black Loyalists migrating north after the American Revolutionary War and Black Refugees fleeing American slavery, was torn down in the 1960s and its inhabitants forcibly relocated. Few know that Halifax itself was built with the labor of enslaved people.

Africville’s history is the background and context for Shauntay Grant‘s lovingly crafted picture book, illustrated with Eva Campbell’s lustrous oil and pastels on a textured canvas background. The graininess of the canvas gives the characters shadowy edges, blurring the borders between past and present. Imagining the community as it must have been many years ago, the young narrator leads the reader through details of landscape and sensory experience, from hill to field to pond and to the ocean’s shore. Infused with the tenderness of family and community, conveying the sense of stories kept alive, the book simultaneously embraces today’s child reader.

Africville may no longer be the thriving town it once was, the book suggests, but feel the stubborn love that kept its stories alive. There is much to this history. The residents of the community paid taxes but got no services. A railway extension cut through the village, destroying several homes. But wait. The story also includes an admission of racism, an apology rendered by the Mayor of Halifax in 2010, a replica of the orginal church built to house a museum, part of a compensation deal. Lyrical and healing, this picture book offers a window into a little-known past and suggests it holds deep relevance to the present.

What might America look like, I wonder, if healing from the past’s wounds could ever be made a priority? What would that mean for America’s children of every color? Compensation? Apology? What a concept!

Chinese Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook

ChineseFairyTaleFeasts.jpgA foreword by Jane Yolen introduces this title, which, like Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts (2013) carries on the tradition of Yolen’s original Fairy Tale Feasts book (2006). Excerpt:

Why food? Because food is an all-powerful motivator. Without it, we cannot live; with it we are productive, we have power, we thrive…. The connection between food and stories is profound and clear. Both are infinitely changeable, suiting the needs of the maker and the consumer. 

Jane’s foreword is followed by a note from the cook, Judy Chan, inviting adjustment and exploration and also reminding the reader that young aspiring clocks need adult supervision in the kitchen.

Shaoli Wang‘s illustrations brighten the pages from endpapers onward, adding lightness, detail, and humor to the stories.

Paul Yee‘s stories are delightful, funny, and thought-provoking, each followed by an author’s note and a related Chinese proverb. “Strech and Fold, Stretch and Fold” is an origin tale for noodles. “The Schoolmaster’s Autumn Festival,” a Chinese opera retelling, is a tale of generosity and sweet potatoes with a note on the global travel of this root vegetable in ancient times.  “Steamed Bread and Salt” is a cautionary tale about greed and the salt in the sea. The companion recipes are redolent with watercress and spring onion, mushrooms and garlic and spices. A powerful motivator indeed.

From Crocodile Books/Interlink. Review copy received from the publisher.