Category Archives: we need diverse books

Secrets and family and love

Pashminacover

Priyanka, like many children of immigrants, lives between two worlds – one Indian, one American.  When she finds a pashmina with seemingly magical powers, she can travel to India, into other possible lives, and maybe even learn about the missing pieces of her past.

What’s fun about this book is the play between the black and white pages and those in color, the linked stories, all of the small ways we see Privanka live with and apart from others, the way her life connects to so many others.  And really, that could be all of us in one way or another, right?

Perfect.

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

 

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Stars and rainbows and gun violence

stars beneathI was at work  when I learned about the latest mass shooting.  We heard again that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen around here.”  Clearly, it does happen around here, more and more often.  And it’s been happening around here for a while.  We’re not really even surprised by it.

I’d been reading The Stars Beneath Our Feet for a few days, and while it’s set in New York — which might seem far away to anyone knowing where I live – it’s not far away at all.  I recognize these kids, having worked in a program similar to the one described in the book, just out here in good ol’ Iowa.  They’d lost family members to gun violence and drugs, and some lived every day with traumatic pain, not seeing any way to get out of it all.  Some of my favorite kids could be Lolly and Vega and Big Rose.

I wish they had all known Lolly and this book.  It might have given us one more way to talk about the really awful choices in front of them, things adults all want them to avoid and resist, but which, like Harp and Gully, just kept landing in the middle of the sidewalk in front of them, unavoidable.  My own Lolly, much loved by his family and friends, didn’t make the same choices and will most likely be incarcerated for many years, missing his kids’ birthdays and everything else.  His decisions will ripple out to affect even more people.  The pain just spreads.

After finishing the book, it struck me that these tragedies — mass shootings or gun violence in our neighborhoods – they’re not so far away from any of us, whether we’re in the suburbs or the city or a small town.  We act like one thing is different from another, but maybe it isn’t.  And as a country, we don’t do anything about either, no matter how many lives are ruined and wasted on it all.

This should probably have filled me with sadness and hopelessness, but it didn’t.  Lolly’s story, you see, is like a rainbow of Legos reaching out to us across that pain.  (I like the image, although I know it’s a little silly on paper.)  It needs to be read by all kids, whether they sound and look like Lolly or not.  Kids in small town and urban Iowa may look or sound different, but they live their own stories with strikingly similar challenges.

Can a book change the world or a life?  It can.  This one just might.

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

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“Sing, don’t cry, even if it is only in your soul”

singdontcryMy abuelo was not a cool musician who sang songs when he came to visit.  He was more of a pipe-smoking, western-reading, Wheel of Fortune kind of guy.  But I’m so glad Angela Dominguez had an abuelo who played the guitar and sang and knew the power of music.

Sing, Don’t Cry is a sweet picture book, highlighting the love of grandparents and grandchildren for each other, while also illustrating the power of the wisdom older people can pass on to younger ones.  Sure, when you’re a kid, you might not always remember to sing your way out of a crisis, but it’s a message that you could carry with you into your teen or adult years and be able to rediscover when you’re thinking about your abuelo or abuela and need a little boost.

Sing, Don’t Cry by Angela Dominguez

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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

stef-soto

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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