Category Archives: we need diverse books

A voice in the wilderness. Or Wisconsin.

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Once in a while I find myself reading along, thinking “oh, this is nice realistic middle grade… problems to be solved, problems solved… everyone learns something… and we’re good.” I’m waiting for predictable things to happen, and then when they happen, they’re somehow not quite as predictable as they seemed in my head.

Amina and her friends and family are so well and lightly drawn – little details scattered here and there which highlight who they really are—that an otherwise predictable story floats along for a while.  Then you realize there is more to all of this than making new friends and keeping the old.  Hena Khan managed to sprinkle in things about Amina and her friends’ families and cultures which further the story instead of falling like heavy look! here’s the diversity part bricks.

And it’s genius, because the differences within all of our families are about who we are in all parts of our life – school, friendships, home – and life is complicated.  I liked the book while I was reading it, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how special it is.   Listen to this voice.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

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Clayton, Cool Papa, and Wah-Wah Nita

I cclayton-birdan relate to Clayton Bird.  I may be a middle-aged white woman living in Iowa, but I understand his pain.  I might not have grown up with a blues-playing grandpa–mine was known to ride a banana seat bike now and then, but wouldn’t have known what to do with a guitar—but I know how important people other than parents can be when you’re growing up.  I remember being angry about injustice when I was a kid, or at least what I saw as injustice in my own life.  And I know grief, really crushing grief that hides out in unexpected places and hits you at all the wrong times.

Clayton is the kind of character everyone can relate to on some level, although he might not look like many of the kids I knew growing up.  That’s what’s so wonderful about Rita Williams-Garcia’s work.  Her characters are simultaneously universal and completely unique.  The small details make you think of your Uncle Rich or that kid you went to school with who had a goofy nickname or your best friend’s mom or whoever.   His story, like many of Williams-Garcia’s, celebrates an ordinary life with extraordinary moments—moments which reveal quite a bit about our society as a whole and how kids navigate it. Her characters’ experiences reach out to you, whoever you are, wherever you live.  It’s a gift we are so, so lucky to be able to witness and enjoy.

And if all that weren’t enough, Ms. Williams-Garcia mentions Kathi Appelt in her note at the end of the book.  We all know (or maybe we don’t) just how crazy I am about Kathi Appelt.  I’ve practically thrown her books at the 5th graders I visit if I find out they have somehow managed to miss them.  And  I don’t stop at once a year – she comes up repeatedly.  Actually, I’ve kind of done the same with Rita Williams-Garcia’s books (One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, Gone Crazy in Alabama) because they are a different and wonderful brand of fabulous.   Clearly, I’m just going to get worse.  Prepare.  Beware.

Clayton Bird Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

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Unexpected Brady Bunch references

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Well, hmm, that’s not what I was expecting when I started this book.  I was thinking I’d be getting something along the lines of realistic, middle grade, family, coming of age fiction.  Estefania “Stef” Soto, definitely lives in that world – the world of her dad’s taco truck, Tía Perla, the world of Saint Scholastica School and a former friend who now calls her the Taco Queen.  Friends and parents and school are the center of her life, and Stef is really trying to come into her own.  Her parents are nervous about almost everything, and then the city announces possible changes to the rules for food truck, and her art teacher runs out of supplies.  Well, you might not guess it, but it’s all going to be connected.

And into this drops Davy Jones.  Actually, Davy Jones is Viviana Vega here.  Stef pulls a Marcia Brady and sort of hints she can get Viviana Vega to come to the school dance.  Will it work out?  Let’s just say that Viviana is no Davy Jones.  But Stef Soto is still pretty awesome.  Fun, light, and a great story about real people and real families.

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres.

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Legendary

the-legendary-miss-lena-horne-9781481468244_lgLena Horne may have become a star, but her life wasn’t without hardship.  She grew up between her grandmother, who hoped for a respectable life for her, and her parents, who used her talent to pay the bills.  Being African American meant that even when she was headlining for white bands, she sometimes had to go in through the back door and sleep in the bus.  Standing up and speaking out meant that she was blacklisted.  Her talent took her around the world, but the challenges just kept coming.  Being a trailbreaker is hard work.

It’s a wonderful story of a life, and the art which accompanies it makes the words even brighter.  Enjoy!

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford and Elizabeth Zunon

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Fancy party gowns and civil rights

fancy-party-gowns-the-story-of-fashion-designer-ann-cole-lowe-9781499802399_lgGlorious party dresses do not play a big part in our collective memory of the civil rights movement, but fashion designer Ann Cole Lowe’s life is illuminating because of that.  People live their daily lives, even now, and it’s possible to overlook injustice simply because you are too busy to stop and involve yourself.  People are there fighting injustice in big and small ways all the time, even while you are getting ready for a charity benefit.  (In all truth, I don’t think I’ve ever worn a fancy party gown to any charity to-do, but you probably know what I mean.)

Ann Cole Lowe grew up sewing with her mother, making fancy dresses for wealthy women.  When her mother died, Alabama’s governor’s wife was still waiting for a gown, so she finished the job and kept on, struggling to survive financially, often bumping up against racism.   Her elegant dresses made her well-known enough to create Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress, even though the butler didn’t want to let her come through the front door to deliver it.

As the author notes, there are inconsistencies in what is known of Ms. Cole’s life, but that makes her all the more human.  The text is relatively simple but clear, and the art is beautiful.  Worth a look–even if you are still trying to leave behind your tea length powder blue prom dress with the puffy sleeves.  Pastels have never been good for me.  Still, I can appreciate the beauty of Ann Cole Lowe’s fashion and her life.

Fancy Party Gowns: the Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe by Deborah Blumenthal and Laura Freeman

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Never give up

undefeated When I was in a different job and the kids were in first grade, we’d sit together and read in a quiet corner or a loud hallway.  Some would ask me, “Why don’t you just read it?”  Maybe they weren’t interested, didn’t want to, or were afraid they’d do it wrong – it could be any number of things stopping them.  But when you’re learning to read, you need the practice.  You need a lot of practice.

Jim Thorpe practiced constantly.  Even when he sat down, he visualized the next race or what he could do differently the next time. Things might have slowed him down once in a while, but it doesn’t sound like anything stopped him.  Whether on the football field or in an Olympic stadium, he and his teammates worked and prepared for excellence, even when many of the words written and thrown out at them were racist, belittling, and just plain wrong.

I’ve been waiting for this book for several months, because I’ve enjoyed Steve Sheinkin’s past work for young people.  The Port Chicago 50 and Most Dangerous are non-fiction favorites of mine, and this is a great addition.  Even if you aren’t a football fan, you might find yourself reading about the big games with a surprising amount of intensity.

I’m also a fan of Bill Bryson–graduate of the high school up the road from me.  I’m always telling people how much I like his work.  He could write about pineapple plantations or particle physics, and I’d read it.  He can write about things I’m not interested in at all, and I know I’ll still love reading it.  Bill Bryson, here’s your new buddy.  Write about anything, Steve Sheinkin.  I’ll read it.

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin

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Lift your light and make some noise

I feel like I’m spending a lot of time in the children’s biographies section lately.  It used to be a rather dry place, with series of books about historical figures whose stories were told as if there’d be a multiple choice test at the end of it.  But the last few years have brought a boatload of reading options for kids (and adults) who want to read about important people and little guys (and girls) who made a difference in the world.  More hit my stack this week.

Lift Your Light a Little Higher:  The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer by Heather Henson and Bryan Collier.  Who knew that there were slave guides showing tourists around Mammoth Caves, now a national park, in the 1830s?  Not me.  It’s a weird and uncomfortable thing to think about – a tourist spot with slave-led tours?  Apparently Stephen Bishop was known to the Queen of England and was a science enthusiast.  He also discovered two new species and created the first extensive map of the caves, even though he was not supposed to learn to read and was sold along with the caves at least once.  What?  Call this one “eye-opening” in many ways. The art is wonderful, too, with a combination of photo-like illustration and collage.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe.  It’s a wild, bright messy life — the life of an artist like Jean-Michel Basquiat.  The illustrations are so loud and vibrant, with bits of collage and bits of graffiti, and Basquiat’s life story is equally bold.

Esquivel! Space Age Sound Artist by Susan Wood and Duncan Tonatiuh.  If Duncan Tonatiuh has illustrated it, I’ll read it.  Seriously.  Just sign me up for whatever he’s got in print.  I’ll read any text on the page with his illustrations, and as it turns out, that’s meant learning more about the Day of the Dead (Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras) and school discrimination (Separate is Never Equal) in addition to Esquivel. Tonatiuh explains in the author notes that his art, like Esquivel’s creative use of traditional music, is inspired by ancient Mexican art and the Mixtec codex.  And there’s an interesting story here, too.  Bonus!

Preaching to the Chickens: the story of the young John Lewis.  John Lewis is amazing, as I have noted in earlier posts on his graphic novels, the March series.  (You can read more about them here.)  This picture book is about his childhood, his love for his chickens, his growing sense of responsibility, and his powerful public speaking — even at a young age, even to chickens.

Funny thing.  (To me, at least.)  I’ve had to edit this post twice before even getting it up, because I keep finding new things to add, which tells me life is at least a little good.  Yes, a little bit.

 

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Flying through time and place: Black Dove, White Raven

Black Dove final coverI first came across Elizabeth Wein when Code Name Verity was published a few years ago. I love reading stories about complicated, daring female characters and World War II, and it had both. She followed it with Rose Under Fire, about another captured female pilot in World War II. Although both books had all you’d expect from teen fiction taking place in a war – action, bad guys, drama — they also had really wonderful characters, full of sass and insecurity, intelligence and stupid mistakes.

Now Black Dove, White Raven has arrived. Set in the U.S. and Ethiopia in the 1930s, it tells the story of two best friends and female pilots and their children, Emilia and Teo. As a barnstorming team, Delia and Rhoda are the Black Dove and White Raven. (Delia is black; Rhoda is white.) Delia flies while Rhoda wingwalks. When Delia is killed in an accident, Rhoda is left to raise both children. Segregation means that having an adopted black son is complicated for a white woman, and Rhoda decides they should all go to Ethiopia, the homeland of Teo’s father, whom Delia met while both women were living in France. Rhoda, Teo and Em eke out a living in Ethiopia for a time, until the Italian invasion brings a whole new level of trouble to their lives. Finding their way back to each other is challenging and dangerous, and everything has so fundamentally changed that when they reunite, nothing can go back to the way it was.

Told from Em and Teo’s perspectives, Black Dove, White Raven weaves a complicated story of power, race, and culture. Society’s expectations tied to gender and race bubble up again and again in ways that make it hard for the characters to simply rise above and overcome. Living their ideals and even surviving is not easy for any of these characters, but they struggle, adapt and grow as tragedies are thrown at them. A great read, and you’ll learn a little about Ethiopian history too – always a bonus!

Other authors who do a superb job of connecting strong characters with history:

Gennifer Choldenko – Al Capone Does My Shirts and others

Patricia Reilly Giff – Water Street and others

Richard Peck – A Year Down Yonder and others

Jacqueline Kelly – The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Pam Muñoz Ryan – Echo and others

Jennifer Holm – Our Only May Amelia and others

Rita Williams Garcia – One Crazy Summer and others

Christopher Paul Curtis – The Wasons Go to Birmingham, 1963

Clare Vanderpool – Moon Over Manifest and Navigating Early

Deborah Wiles – Revolution and others

Kirby Larson – Hattie Big Sky, Dash and others

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Teens and Westerns – who knew this could work?

Perhaps painted skyI’ve been tucked away reading dystopian novels about teens rebelling against their power-hungry, post-apocalyptic leaders, sometimes travelling through characters’ past or future lives after they’ve died, occasionally using magic or superpowers to make a point. Or maybe I’ve been at work, helping older patrons track down Louis L’Amour and inspirational pioneer stories. Either way, I missed this trend.

A Western with teens? What a brilliant idea — if it works.

Throw together a Chinese-American girl who’s been orphaned and attacked by a skeevy “businessman” and a slave who’s longing to be free so she can re-connect with her older brother who’s been sold away from her. Give them the idea of pretending to be boys. Match them up with a group of young cowboys who are thinking about chasing after some gold in California. Provide some eye-opening commentary on society’s expectations of different ethnic groups, women, and men. Throw in some scary moments crossing a river, happy moments looking at the sky, a dangerous waterfall, bounty hunters, the Broken Hang Gang, a little romance … oh my!

Under a Painted Sky (Stacey Lee) does work. When you look past the time, place, and social restrictions, it’s really a character-driven story of friendship and love and possibility. Sammy and Andy become more than friends, and so do the cowboys. They create their own new family in a challenging and sometimes deadly environment, learning to trust each other even when they’ve made mistakes and learning to love even when they’ve kept the truth hidden. Saddle up and read on!

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We need diverse books like Listen, Slowly

listen slowlyThe We Need Diverse Books movement (http://weneeddiversebooks.org/) has gotten a lot of press lately, and for good reason. We really DO need more diversity in children’s literature. There are wonderful books out there, but there could be more, and a lot more, right?

Children need to see themselves in literature, and they need to see others who are not like them. You can learn a lot about life and the world from books, even if you are living in a pretty isolated, all-one-kind-of-people kind of place. Reading diverse books might make you realize that your way of thinking and looking and being is not the only one, and that’s ok. Knowing that there are people somewhere who think like you do – if you feel different — can help make those moments when you feel like you will never be free of a place or a person less horrible. In fact, it can be really wonderful.

I’m not a first- or second-generation immigrant. I’ve never been a refugee or suffered because of a war. I’ve traveled to other countries and lived overseas, but I’ve never been to Vietnam/Việt Nam. Looking in on Mai’s world in Listen, Slowly is one way I can learn about those things, though. I can relate to what she feels, even without the same past experiences. Parents can be annoying. Relatives can be annoying. Grandparents have lived lives you don’t really understand. Mean girls are mean girls all over the world. Good friends don’t always come in predictable packages. Being away from your home can be jarring, upsetting, challenging and thrilling all at the same time. Some themes are universal.

I loved this book, because it was such a beautiful combination of so many things. Thanhhà Lại captures how hard it is to be the kid who’s bridging cultures while trying to figure out who she or he is, and she does it while recognizing that both sides can be good, bad, frustrating or all of the above. The sights and smells and sounds of Vietnam are filtered through Mai’s perspective, but it’s an experience we can all relate to in one way or another. Yes, we need more diverse books, especially if they’re as good as this one!

Other books about culture and conflict to keep in mind:

Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhhà Lại

Shooting Kabul, N.H. Senzai

I Lived on Butterfly Hill, Marjorie Agosín

The Language Inside, Holly Thompson

The Trouble with May Amelia, Jennifer Holm

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

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