Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Diversity, Racism and Other (less deep) Thoughts

Over spring break I was determined to write two whole blogs! Spring break ended a month ago, and this is the first of those blogs. Clearly, I was not successful. I actually nearly finished it, but never managed to publish it.  And now it’s been a month, so some of what I wrote seems irrelevant, and it had to be reworked.

My blog is mostly about books, but it’s also a little bit about my life.  Naturally, as a writer and a mother, what’s going on in my life informs what I write about. Before spring break, Henry was having some behavior problems at school, or more specifically, in the on-site after-school care. It seemed like such a shock to me, because I’ve had very little experience with school misbehaviors.  Our older kids aren’t exactly angelic at home, but for the most part we’ve always been able to count on them to behave well publicly, and certainly have never had any trouble with them at school.

Henry, not currently naughty
I was pretty stressed for a while because, keep in mind, these behaviors are going on at my place of work. Firmness, consistency, love and prayer – these are what finally worked.  We’re not sure what triggered the behavior, but my husband pointed out a time a couple weeks prior when he got nailed in the head with a soccer ball. It hit him so hard that it literally knocked him backwards and off his feet, and his head hit the floor a second time. As children of the 70s, it didn’t occur to us that he might, in fact, be concussed. Retrospectively, we are blaming this for that tough stretch. He is mostly back to his normal acceptable level of mischievousness, but there were a couple incidents last week that have me back on alert. We are at the school much more than just during school hours, so he gets confused about what’s allowed when school is in session and what’s allowed when it isn’t. Time to remind him of the boundaries.

I was getting myself out of bed and off to the gym before work consistently three or four days a week.  Now that it’s light in the morning, I’m only going twice a week and trying to run at least three days. Frankly, the runs are exhausting because it’s not just that I’m running, but battling a rambunctious overgrown puppy every step. I need to get one of those hands-free waist harness systems, and I think it will make it an easier prospect. Once I make it a routine, I really enjoy working out, but if I ever want to lose those 20 pounds that five kids put on me, I have got to stop eating so much. I really enjoy eating, don’t you? Are there even people who don’t?

To help me along in that regard, I gave something up for Lent. We’re not Catholic, but I always like to give something up just for the exercise in self-denial. The really brave thing would be for me to give up coffee, but I’ve never had the guts to do it. This year, I gave up the mini candy bars that our attendance secretary keeps in a bowl on her desk. I figured that I generally ate around ten of them a week, and over time, those calories really add up. I was really happy when Easter was past and I could eat them again, but I’m trying to limit myself to one a day.

I toyed with the idea of giving up commercial shampoo and conditioner, but figured that would be cheating since I was already planning on giving them up. That’s right, I have taken the “No ‘Poo” challenge. It has been at least two months since I started washing my hair with a baking soda solution and conditioning with diluted cider vinegar. My hair seems a little on the dry side, and I had an ill-fated attempt to remedy this with olive oil. I was trying to quit styling products too, but had to concede to a bit of gel. I finally started using a bit of conditioner on my ends too. Overall, my hair seems just as clean, does NOT smell like salad dressing, but there’s definitely more static than normal. My husband asked me point blank last week, “Why are you doing this?” I couldn’t really come up with a good reason, so I think I may switch back to regular hair products. It takes less time and preparation, and I do love how they smell. It’s nice to know, though, that if necessary, you can keep your hair clean and presentable without store-bought stuff.

Now for books . . .  my Caldecott and Newbery predictions were a mixed bag. My Newbery pick, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” did not win, but it was an Honor book and won so many other awards this year, that I feel vindicated. The winner was “The Crossover,” by Kwame Alexander, which was definitely on my radar, but didn’t make my final list. I read it over spring break, and because it was in verse, I was able to zip through it in about an hour of total reading time. It was not a book I would ordinarily gravitate to, and it took me about a third of the book to really get into it. It was a good, compelling story, relatable to middle grade kids, and a lot deeper than I had imagined.

I still feel that “Brown Girl Dreaming” was a better book, but I think the Newbery committee chose “The Crossover” because it exhibited the less typical point of view of a male athlete. The other Honor book was “El Deafo,” by Cece Bell. I find it interesting that all three winning books were in a non-traditional format. Both “The Crossover” and “Brown Girl Dreaming” were written in verse, and “El Deafo” is a graphic novel. Plus, two of them are about non-caucasian characters, and the other about a girl with physical challenges. The hue and cry for more diversity in books seems to be making a difference, which is a good thing for everyone.

With the Caldecott, I completely missed the winner. I hadn’t even heard of it! My winning pick was “Viva Frida,” which did win an Honor award, and I successfully chose two of the other Honor books, “Sam and Dave Dig a Hole” and “Nana in the City.” Nana was probably my favorite, visually. The illustrations were so warm and inviting, it was like the book was reaching out and hugging you. The actual winner, “The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend,” was unknown to me, but of course I did know of Dan Santat, it’s author/illustrator. I immediately tried to find a copy at any bookstore in town,  or on Barnes and Noble and Amazon on-line. Nothing! I had to wait for it to be in stock, and it finally arrived the day before spring break. I tore open the box eagerly and read it, sharing it with a colleague as well. We both loved it. It’s a sweetly heartfelt book, with a clever premise, and later, when I read it to my classes, it was universally loved.

I heard an interesting tidbit about Dan Santat. I follow him on Twitter, and just a couple days before the Caldecott was announced he tweeted about how an elderly white woman refused to sit next to him on a plane because he was Asian. I wonder if she ever realized just who it was she offended. I wonder a lot of things . . . how can people think that way? Don’t they realize it’s the 21st century? Why haven’t such prejudices died? I was discussing the topic with my daughter yesterday, and we just don’t get blatant racism. I realize people are raised with some preconceived notions about races other than their own, and I know that I’ve had to work at getting past mine. But seriously feeling that you are better than someone because they have a different skin color? It just does NOT compute. The most prevalent brand of racism in our town is against Alaska Natives, which just infuriates Emma.  She doesn’t look native, but she is, and people will make ignorant comments in front of her.  Trust me, she does not stay silent about it, which makes me proud and glad, and also a little sad that this battle is still being fought.

As for my own recent pleasure reading, I’ve managed to peck away at a few books, but I think I’ll just cover a few of them here, and save the rest for another blog. I was feeling nostalgic, so I did a fourth re-read of “The Hunger Games” and am partway through a “Catching Fire” re-read too. They’re just as good as ever. My moods, and even what’s going on around me, very much dictate what I read. One of my students was appearing as Jane in a high school drama production of “Mary Poppins,” so of course, I had to read the book. I had never read it before and was surprised at how it differed from the Disneyfied movie version. I enjoyed it, but Mary Poppins was nowhere near as sweet in the book as Julie Andrews played her. In the book, there were four kids, not two, and many more increasingly bizarre adventures that make the tea party on the ceiling seem quite tame.

My decision to read another book, “How I Live Now,” by Meg Rosoff, was inspired by my husband and I renting the movie. We really liked the story, but it left a lot of unanswered questions, so I borrowed the book from one of the middle schools. After reading it, some questions were still unanswered, but I definitely had  a more complete picture. Part of the story involved an incestuous relationship between a pair of underaged cousins, which for some reason didn’t bother me. Perhaps it’s because the two cousins in question had never met, because there had been a nuclear event and war that made survival the most important concern, and because it was handled more as touching love story than torrid affair. Also, the writing was great. It very much had a "stream of consciousness" feel and sounded just like a teenage girl would sound. I liked it so much that I had to order a copy for me to keep.

For my next blog, I will cover several middle grade novels – “Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms” by Kathleen Rundell, “The Greenglass House” by Kate Milford, and “Under the Egg,” by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Until then, happy reading!!!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

I'm Thinking, I'm Thinking!!! (with apologies to Rodin)

Children’s librarians get very excited around this time every year.  Why? We are eagerly awaiting the winners of the Caldecott and Newbery Medals. These, the most prestigious of awards for children’s literature in America, will be announced on February 2nd. I have been researching, ordering books, and reading, trying to make my best guess about who might win. In the process, I read a lot of amazing books, look at innovative and exquisite illustrations, and acquire some really fine new material for my library.

Today I will talk about the Caldecott hopefuls on my shelf, mostly because they are picture books, and I have actually been able to read them all. There’s no chance I’ll be able to read all the Newbery possibilities, but I can at least read a chapter here and there to get the flavor of each book. With only two days now to go, I will have to be satisfied with having read three of them.

I arrived at this list of Caldecott hopefuls not so much by reading the books themselves, but by reading blogs and articles from editors, librarians, and book-lovers. The books that were getting lots of mentions ended up on my list. Then I was able to get down to the pleasurable task of actually reading them, and examining the illustrations. The Caldecott, after all, is an award for illustration, so I am looking at how well the pictures help convey the plot and the emotion of the story, the quality of the art, and especially for innovative technique.

Remy and Lulu – written and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, with miniatures by Hannah E. Harrison (who is, by the way, a friend of a friend!). This story just plain made me smile. With colors both bold and warm, Hawkes tells the story of Lulu, an artist’s dog. Lulu’s owner (we presume) dies, and Lulu is left to fend for herself. It’s her good fortune to stumble upon another artist, who adopts her as his own. What follows is a surprising and successful artistic partnership between the far-sighted Remy and the talented, top-hat wearing pooch. Pay particular attention to the illustrations on the end papers and title page, as they are crucial to the story. A celebration of art, and the beauty that exists in the eye of each beholder.

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole – written by Mac Barnett, and illustrated by Jon Klassen.
I have read four of these titles to Henry, my five year old son, and so far this is hands down his favorite. This book provoked laughter and exclamations and is the only one where he said, “Read it again!” For an adventurous dirt and dog-loving boy, this is the ultimate book. The illustrations are simple and earth-toned, with hints of subtle humor.  Sam and Dave, fueled by chocolate milk and animal cookies, dig a tremendous hole. They vow not to stop until they find something spectacular, trying different directions as ever more massive diamonds hide just out of sight. The boys’ dog, however, seems clued in to the hidden treasures. While this is probably one of the front-runners, it seems unfair to give this award to Klassen again so soon after his win for This is Not My Hat.

A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream – written by Kristy Dempsey and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. The images in this book, despite their realism, are also soft and dream-like. In every scene, the young protagonist’s face seems lit from within. The girl’s mother works as a seamstress in a ballet school, and because she has talent, she is allowed to participate in classes for free from the back of the room. She wonders if there will ever be a chance for her to actually perform. This piece of fiction intersperses the true story of Janet Collins, America’s first African-American prima ballerina, with the dreams of a nameless girl. To her, Janet Collins is a beacon of hope, and that is the feeling that comes through in the pictures.

Viva Frida – written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales.  This bilingual celebration of famed artist Frida Kahlo is lushly illustrated.  In some of the images, Morales arranged and photographed three-dimensional models, while others employ painting and collage. The result is a bright and colorful fantasy. The words seem secondary here; the book is an homage to Kahlo and to art itself. This is, in my opinion, a front-runner for the award, as the illustrations are groundbreaking.

Lauren Castillo had a busy year. Two of her books, both geared toward the pre-K and kindergarten set, have been mentioned for the award. The cover image of The Troublemaker shows a young boy with a toy sword, his stuffed raccoon, and a real raccoon lurking in the background. As I’ve shown this book to classes, I’ve asked them who they think the Troublemaker in question actually is. Most of them pick the boy, but the troublemaker is actually the raccoon, who does naughty things for which the boy is blamed. The black and white silhouette illustrations are particularly well-done. Her other selection is Nana in the City, a bold and warmly illustrated tribute to life in the big city.  A young boy, visiting his Nana, doesn’t like the city. He sees it as loud and scary, but when Nana knits him a special cape and takes him on a tour, he comes to see the charms that city life has to offer. The two-page spread of what I assume is Times Square is particularly vibrant.

Sparky! – by Jenny Offill, and illustrated by Chris Appelhans. A girl gets a sloth for a pet (!!!) and discovers that their sedentary nature doesn’t make them very fun. She tries to get him to be something he is not, attempting to train him to do tricks. In the end she has to accept him for who he is, learning (and teaching) a valuable lesson. Gentle earth-tone illustrations pair perfectly with the text. This book has been popular with my students, but I think it’s a long shot for the award.

Firefly July: a Year of Very Short Poems – selected by Paul B. Janeczko and  illustrated by Melissa Sweet.  I love the concept of this book focused on short poetry. When showing this to kids, I have mentioned that I love poetry, but I’m not a fan of extremely long poems, and this book is just right if that’s how they feel too! Melissa Sweet’s vibrant mixed media illustrations bring the poems to life. Pen and ink, pencil, collage, paint; all come together in a harmonious and vivid mélange.  My favorite image is that of a red pick-up truck full of old oscillating fans on their way to the junkyard; it’s a perfect blend of image and words.

Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons – written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth. The title is a play on words, which is in keeping with the humor present in the loosely framed haikus and pastel watercolor pictures within. Muth’s panda has returned in this sweet and funny book of seasonal poems and imagery.  The cover image of the panda rolling on his back with a red bird perched on his bottom has provoked instant laughter from many of my classes. My favorite is a winter scene, where a grumpy and judgmental snowman oversees the antics of the panda and his human companions. I don’t predict this book as a medal winner, but it has been a late-surging vote-getter in our student balloting.

Emily’s Blue Period – written by Cathleen Daly, and illustrated by Lisa Brown. Though this book is a bit longer than many picture books, it was able to hold the attention of my kindergarten classes. Emily is studying Picasso in art class, while concurrently experiencing her parents’ separation. She empathizes with his “blue periods” and decides that she is going through a blue period as well. The illustrations team with the story by starting out with varied color, then moving to shades of blue and gray. Once she has worked through her blue period, the illustrations return to full color. A great blend of art and concept.

Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? – written by Rita Gray and illustrated by Kenard Pak. This lovely non-fiction introduces children to bird calls and identification and with subdued, earth-tone illustrations. Though this book is attractive, it hasn’t grabbed my young readers. It is the only book on my ballot that has received no votes. However, the most popular books for kids aren’t always the most popular with the Caldecott committee. Last year’s Locomotive is a prime example. Although Locomotive is interesting, and I see its value as an illustrative teaching tool, it has not been a popular book for children to check out. This book isn’t likely to win, but it’s still possible.

Flora and the Penguin - by Molly Idle. Though this is a cute book, and the kids like it, I don’t think it stands much of a chance to win. Flora and the Flamingo, which won an honor award last year, was so similar in style that it seems unlikely the committee would award what amounts to a sequel. Still, this book has garnered a number of votes among my students.

The Farmer and the Clown – by Marla Frazee. This wordless book is sweet and simple. A baby clown falls off of a circus train and is rescued by a farmer, who takes him in and cares for him until his family comes back. I love Marla Frazee. I would go so far as to call her my favorite living illustrator, and this book is adorable. However, the illustrations in this book are much more spare than her usual style, and I don’t find them as appealing. If she didn’t win for All the World, I would be surprised to see her win for this. Another honor book is a possibility, though.

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla – written by Katherine Applegate, with illustrations by G. Brian Karas. The picture book version of The One and Only Ivan makes this story accessible to even the youngest readers. The story follows Ivan from the time of his capture in the wild, through his years of boredom in a Seattle shopping mall, and finally to his final home, a natural exhibit in the Atlanta Zoo. The story is compelling, and the pictures are nice, but I don’t see anything really extraordinary in this book. I have seen other work by Karas that I liked better.

Three Bears in a Boat – By David Soman. The creator of Ladybug Girl goes a different direction with this high seas adventure starring three mischievous young bears. The bears have broken one of their mother’s treasures, and decide to take out a little sailboat (without permission!) to look for a replacement.  The watercolors are detailed, yet luminous. My favorite is an impressive two page spread showing a pod of whales underwater, lifting their little boat. The boat is a speck in the top corner, while the whales fill the page in undulating blues and greens. I have a good feeling about this book’s chances.

Grandfather Gandhi – written by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, with illustrations by Evan Turk. In this book, co-written by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, we are privy to the lessons taught to him by his “bapu.” Collage using various textures of papers and fibers creates tons of visual interest to go along with the story. Probably the best use of texture I’ve seen among this year’s candidates. Even my students were impressed, although I was surprised at how few of them had actually heard of Gandhi. An educational oversight!

Bad Bye, Good Bye – written by Deborah Underwood with illustrations by Jonathan Bean. A little boy doesn’t want to move, so as they pack move, everything is bad, including saying goodbye. Over time he comes to see good in his new home, and both the language and color changes from gloomy to glad. I’m a sucker for a rhyming book, and this is no exception. The illustrations are executed with lots of black and muted primary colors. Geared mostly for the pre-K/kindergarten crowd. Another long shot, I’m afraid.

And now, to make a prediction. I hate to predict, just as I hate to make New Year’s resolution. They always seem kind of hopeless. But, if I had to go out on a limb, I would say that Viva Frida is my pick. Not necessarily my personal favorite, but I think it’s got a good chance of winning. Sam and Dave Dig a Hole and Nana in the City are my pick as honor books. I could be totally wrong. I don’t have a huge feeling of confidence about this; it could be that none of my choices from this list will win anything. We’ll find out Monday morning!

As for the Newbery, I’ve managed to read Brown Girl Dreaming, Under the Egg and The Greenglass House from my hopeful list, and I enjoyed them all. Under the Egg gives a tremendous lesson in art and art history, while solving a mystery, and introducing a great heroine. The Greenglass House managed to make a story that was compelling to me, despite me complete lack of knowledge and understanding of role playing games, which figure heavily in the story. But Brown Girl Dreaming . . . well, it’s just a force to be reckoned with. It is perhaps Jackie Woodson’s greatest achievement thus far, and that’s saying a lot. Such depth of feeling, and yet still accessible to children. Brown Girl Dreaming is my pick for 2015; for once I might be right!