Review – If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period
by Gennifer Choldenko
This is a smartly written book for the middle school crowd. The cast of characters pushes the envelope just they way we want it to. Kirsten is a so not-in-the-in-crowd girl whose best friend seems to be drifting away, whose parents are constantly fighting for some undisclosed reason, and who has become the new target of Brianna, the prissy blond girl who runs the show in their very white, private school. Kippy, her geeky little sister, who refuses to read anything but non-fiction, is her only ally. Walker, Walk for short, is the new kid, he’s smart, has a wry sense of humor and he’s black. He gets plenty of unwanted attention from Brianna as well.
From day one Kirsten and Walker find themselves at the mercy of their school and home-lives, and things get seriously weird in a hurry. Short on friends, after her best pal defects to the in-group, Kirsten hangs out with Walk and his friend Matteo. But neither one of them can figure out why Matteo takes so much guff from Brianna without ever blowing up. It seems he’ll do anything she asks without complaint. Would he even give her answers to a test if she asked? You’ll be surprised at how they beat the cheating Brianna at her own game. Then one of them discovers a family secret that will give their world a whole new tilt.
The point of view for the chapters in this book alternate between Kirsten’s and Walkers, but I wonder why the author decided to have Kirsten narrate in first person, while Walk’s chapters are in 3rd person. Seems a bit like Walker doesn’t get a full voice that way. Knowing Walker, he’d notice that, just like I did.
This book it tight, right and a very entertaining read. Let me know how you like it.
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Review: The Dragon’s Child: A Story of Angel Island
Harper Collins Pulbishers, 2008
“My father was a dragon . . . he came from a village of dragons.”
This is such a good beginning for a fictional story about the life of young Yep Gim Lew, a Chinese boy, and his journey to the United States in the 1920s. Though there is no more talk of dragons in this book and no precise explanation of the dragon imagery, it is clear from the story that Yep’s father is larger than life in his son’s eye and therefore, like a dragon, is powerful and mysterious. He is a dragon in China, but what has he become in America and why has he returned now? Yep will soon find out.
Can you imagine being 9 years old, 10 as counted by Chinese custom (allowing for the time a child grows before birth), and seeing your father returning from a far away land? He is someone you hardly know, as he has been away more than he has been at home. You are nervous because you tend to use your left hand and you stutter, both frowned upon by your culture and family, and expecially by your father. Then this man, whose word seems to be law, tells you that you are about to leave home with him for that country across the sea. Will you ever see your mother again, your friends, your home?
In those days getting into the U.S. was not an easy matter for anyone from China, Even though Yep’s father was born in the states and was therefore a citizen, there was no guarantee that he would be able to reenter the country. U.S. officials required every Chinese man, woman and child to answer a long series of questons about their home, village, family and livelihood. If the answers were not satisfactory and did not match the lengthy documents kept on each perosn by the government, entry to the country would be denied. Yep, as the son of a citizen was also an American even though he was born in China, but he still had to face 3 interrogators by himself and pass the test.
Quick, how many windows does your house have and which directions do the face? Can you draw your neighborhood with all the houses in the correct places, name all your neighbors and tell what they do for a living? Don’t forget to list everyone’s pets! What school books are you using now? Name all your grandparents for 3 generations, your brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins and how old they are.
Answer quickly and don’t stutter. If you stutter someone may think you are a liar.
This book gave me a nudge, a little window of understanding about the life of a Chinese child and his family as they sought to bridge the gap between their China and the land they called the Golden Mountain, the United States. The picture of discrimination and institutionalized racism is hard to look at. Legitimate citizens and the so called “paper sons”, who bought information to gain illegal entry, alike were trapped by the impossible odds of these interrogations.
Though this story is fiction it is based on the life of the author’s father and grandfather and is true to the life of many Chinese immigrants to the U.S. One beneficial outcome of this dark time in our history is the wealth of information now available to people researching the history of their Chinese roots in America. Much of the documentation used to keep people out still exists and it has given the author a treasure trove of data that is rare indeed.
While the writing is clear and straightforward I really wanted to see more texture and detail in the characters and locations. And since every reader may not be aware of the importance and significance of the dragon in Chinese literature and mythology it would have been ideal to see a bit more about that. The information in this book about our journey as a nation of diverse peoples, about where we came from and what happened to us along the way is excellent. You can find out more about the Angel Island Immigration Center where Yep and his father were detained by visiting: www.aiisf.org.
Do you have stories about being different, about diversity, or where your family came from? I’d love to read your comments and talk with you here.
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Review – The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones
Front Street, 2008
Helen Hemphill’s middle grades novel about black cowboy Prometheus Jones is long on adventure and action with surprising historical touches and colorful characters. Based on the real-life saga of Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love, it portrays a teenage-boy, who wins a horse fair and square only to be run out of his Tennessee home, falsely accused of stealing. Faced with a white lynch mob stirred up by the sniveling Dill brothers, he and his cousin Omer must flee for Texas without so much as a goodbye to anyone.
Hoping to find his father, who was sold by a slaver to someone in Texas, Jones and Omer head west riding double on Good Eye, the half-blind prize horse. Needing work, the two sign on with a cattle drive and find that the road to Texas will lead them away from it for a very long time. Life on the trail to the Dakota territories riding drag behind the herd, is hard and dusty work. But Prometheus invokes his mother’s magic from time to time and prays that from beyond the grave her grace will help him. His keen sense of horseflesh and sharp-shootin’ skills make him a handy companion to the diverse mix of white, Mexican and Indian cow punchers and scouts on the trail.
Hemphill spent four years researching this book and it shows in the detail she provides. The characters are anything but stereotypic. You’ll find that the trail boss drinks tea rather than coffee, tying the loose leaves into a neckerchief to steep them in his cup. Mexican vaquero, Rio, puts on a good act, but is secretly head over heels in love with his German-born wife. Historical references are nicely woven into the story. At one point Prometheus and the round-up riders make a narrow escape from a band of Sioux braves who are too exhausted to follow, having just come from a successful attack on Custer at the Little Big Horn. I did take exception to the depiction of a man in a crowd being shot from a distance by an Indian attacker with a shotgun. A shotgun at range would have peppered the entire crowd and would not neatly take out that one guy.
Otherwise flawless, this terrific book will not disappoint. Stampedes, trigger happy villains, life and death situations, hardship, loss and triumph are provided on every page. You’ll want to read it to find out how Prometheus gets his nickname and what happens when he finally makes it to Texas.
A ninja bunny? Well sort of. Find out more when Runt Farm hits bookstores near you.
Review – Animal Poems of the Iguazú
Children’s Book Press, 2008
The Iguazú is a pristine rain forest, a national park set aside by the countries of Agentina, Brazil and Paraguay to preserve the beauty and habitat of the region. Here jaguars roam, parrots, hummingbirds and swifts fill the skys, and roaring waterfalls lace the air with mist.
This book by acclaimed Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcón is a serenade to this magical place. Short poems set both in Spanish and English give the reader an opportunity to sample both languages. A student of either language will have fun comparing words and phrases as they take in the music of the poems.
The tropical pallette of bright colors and rain forest images is perfectly crafted by Maya Christina Gonzalez, a veteran childen’s book illustrator and fine artist. Her multi-media artwork of the Martin Pescador (Kingfisher), mariposa (butterfy) and Golondrina Parda (Dusky Swift) and so many others are a delight to the eye. Delicious.
The diversity of the natural world is a treasure to be cherished, watched over and safe-guarded. When it is threatened, we ourselves are in danger. Our children can learn to be lovers and stewards of nature through well-made and well-intentioned books such as this one.
Only Tooth can make a bump on the head better with bread. Find out more when my new book series, Runt Farm, comes out.
Review: Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multicultural Families
Interviews by Peggy Gillespie
Photos by Gigi Kaiser
“A family is people who love each other.” Justin Robinson, age 10
This cool coffee table book gave me a window into the lives of many diverse families, their shared experience of creating family across real and perceived boundaries, and a hint of how rich the idea of family can be. I appreciated that many family configurations were included, adoptive families, single parents, gay and lesbian parents, inter-faith families, and the blended yours-mine-ours clans.
As my mom sent me off to college she confided that she hoped I would find a nice man and get married, as long as he wasn’t a black man. Not having been overtly raised to be prejudiced against black people, I told her I was shocked that she would say such a thing. Her only reply was that she just thought it would be too hard on me and the children. I guess my future husband was on his own!
From this book I could see that for the children there are certainly both challenges and indignities, not precisely from being in mixed race families, but from biased and racist attitudes that still liger in American culture. But I also discovered that there are advantages that accrue to mixed familes that my mother and I would never have imagined. Mixed race families gain a perspective they would not as easily receive in a one race household. They see firsthand the heartache of a child, a sibling or a parent who is snubbed or ill-treated and they learn ways to honor and respect their various family and personal cultural herritages. They bridge the gaps for one another.
The rich photos in this book brought home for me that family is more our creation, more than a set formula that happens in just one prescribed way. However we can, wherever we are, we are compelled to create family, to share the joys and sorrows of life, to nurture one another. The families in this book are doing just that and with courage have allowed us to take a look inside their worlds.
Do you think a kitten and a baby duck can be family?
Find out when my new book series, Runt Farm, comes out in 2009.