Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Africa or Black American’ Category

Gene Lune Yang, the 2017 National Ambassador for Children’s Literature picked the platform “Reading Without Walls”. As part of it, he challenges readers to:

  1. Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.
  2. Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about.
  3. Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun.

With these criteria in mind, I’ve started posting roundups once a month on the theme of diversity. This is my second post highlighting picture books about the immigration experience.

In Goldfish and Chrysanthemums by Andrea Cheng, a grandmother receives a letter from her brother back in China. He tells her that their father’s old house being torn down. At the house, there used to be a fish pond surrounded by big colorful flowers. Wanting to make her grandmother happy, Nancy buys two goldfish at a fair, digs a hole in the back yard for a pond, and asked her neighbor for some extra chrysanthemums. Nancy’s gesture not only brings comfort to her grandmother, but also deepens the bond between them. My least favorite part is the illustrations. The faces don’t seem the correct proportion. I also don’t know why the children have American names. My favorite part is the story of family, which shows how small acts of kindness can make a difference. According to publishers, Lee & Low, Cheng often writes about intergenerational relationships, and is based on her own experiences. Cheng was inspired to write Goldfish and Chrysanthemums after hearing her husband’s mother talk about her family’s garden in China. You can find a teaching guide at Lee & Low Books.

In Nadia’s Hands, a Pakistani-American girl is offered the opportunity to be a flower girl at her aunt’s wedding. Her cousins caution her. There are many things to remember at a wedding: One needs to sprinkle flower petals down both sides of the aisle; One should avoid eating too much of the wedding food or otherwise one might get sick; One might get stage fright and not move. Nadia’s aunt reassures her that she’ll be a very good flower girl, and so Nadia feels relieved. Except then she finds out that another aunt would visit before the wedding to decorate Nadia’s hands with mehndi or paste that when it dries turns the hands orange or dark red. Nadia doesn’t want to go to school like that, and so her worries return. The rest of the story is the wedding ceremony and how Nadia came to terms with her fears. Nadia’s Hands is a sweet story about learning to take pride in one’s unique culture. A front page provides a glossary and a back page includes a thank you two Pakistan individuals for their help in the creation of the book. Karen English, the author of Nadia’s Hands, is a former school teacher and a Coretta Scott King Award-winner. Check out an interview with her at The Brown Bookshelf.

In My Name is Bilal, two Muslim siblings start a new school. At their former home in Chicago, there had been lots of Muslims kids. Here, there seemed like there were none. Two boys tease Ayesha, pulling at her headscarf. Her brother tries to distance himself from his heritage, and in class he shortens his name from Bilal to Bill. A Muslim teacher offers a book to Bilal that is about the first person to give the Muslim call to prayer during the time of Prophet Mohammed. Through this book, Bilal discovers that others before him have needed to stand up for his faith. The next day he has that opportunity. Other surprises lie ahead too. This is my least favorite in this round-up due to its overt message, drab illustrations, and text level. The Lexile rating is 570 or about grade four, but this is a picture book, and most fourth-graders are reading chapter books. In addition, I was surprised that Bilah dressed in American attire, while his sister wore Muslim attire. Otherwise the book brought back memories for me of being inspired as a child by stories of Christian heroes and heroines. The author, Asma Mobin-Uddin, was born and raised in the United States but her family is from Pakistan. According to her website, she initially decided to write about the Muslim-American experience because she had difficulty finding books on the topic to read to her children.

Seeing themselves reflected in these books, immigrant children feel affirmed, and their classmates glimpse different backgrounds and experiences—perhaps recognizing some of their own stories in the universals of family, traditions, journeys, and the quest for a better life.—Anne Sibley, Note from an Author

In I’m New Here, the stories of three children from other countries struggle to adjust to their new school in the United States. The children are from Somalia, Guatemala, and Korea. They struggle with speaking, reading, and writing in English. The words of their new language sound strange and look like scribbles and scratches. They also struggle with making friends. The people and places around them used to be familiar; now they can’t find their place. The rest of the story tells how the three children came to call America home. My favorite part is the bright illustrations. Although my preference would have been to focus on one main character and to use less poetic language, I’m New Here is a favorite among teachers. It’s considered a touching story about the assimilation of three immigrant students in a supportive school community. Author Anne Sibley O’Brien is American, but grew up in South Korea, and so is familiar with the experience of being a foreigner. She’s one of the founders of I’m Your Neighbor, an organization that promotes children’s literature featuring “new arrival” cultures. You can find a “I’m New Here” Welcoming Kit at I’m Your Neighbor Books.

In My Name is Yoon, a Korean girl starts school for the first time in America. To prepare Yoon, her father teaches her how to write her name in English. But Yoon prefers how her name is written in Korean. Her name looks happy in Korean. The letters seem to dance. She doesn’t want to learn the new way. She wants to go back to Korea. Each day at school, Yoon learns a new word in English at school. And each new day, Yoon writes this new word for her name instead of Yoon. Of the five books I’ve reviewed here, My Name is Yoon is my favorite. It tells how a young girl finds her place in a new country in her own time and on her own terms. I laughed and smile … but also understood Yoon’s sadness and frustration, which eventually turns into joy and acceptance. The author, Helen Recorvits, grew up in America. Her grandparents were immigrants from Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine.

Yang concludes his “Reading Without Walls” challenge by encouraging readers to take a photo of themselves and their books and post to social media. In doing so, he says, readers will inspire others. Will you join me over the next year in reading books that take you outside your comfort zone?

Books such as Out of Darkness by Ashley Perez are the reason I read. The atmosphere that Perez creates is so rich that I felt transplanted into the world of Naomi and Wash in New London, Texas, 1937. Racial tension and family conflict and lie under the surface for most of the novel creating a multi-layered complexity not often found in fiction for young people. I read Out of Darkness slowly to savor the story, but also quickly to discover what drama would befall Naomi and her siblings who had recently arrived in Texas from Mexico.

While reading Out of Darkness, I felt hot and cold, isolated and crowded, welcomed and scared…. Whatever emotions the main characters experienced, so did I. That makes for quite the visceral experience! On one occasion, Naomi accidentally burns her arm with splashes of oil. During the entire time that her arm hurt, I felt hot and tortured right along with her. Another moment, Naomi felt too fearful of her stepfather to allow herself to sleep. When her body began to show signs of fatigue, my head ached and my stomach clenched right alone with hers. How exactly does Perez create such an intense atmosphere? One way is she allows herself time to fully explore a moment. And yet she never wastes words. That makes for quite the delicate balance! Another way is she shows a deep understanding of people’s feelings. A favorite passage of mine is near the start, when Naomi’s siblings are walking through nearby woods. Perez eloquently captures the contrast between their old and new environment in these few lines: “The woods gave him the feeling of being inside and outside at the same time. Full of birds and animals but hushed, like a church the hour before Mass. Back in San Antonia, there were no woods. If you were outside you knew it.”

When I picked up Out of Darkness to read, I knew that prejudice and hate would be part of the package. How subtle these emotions would be revealed is not something I expected, and shows the sign of a highly-skilled author. On one occasion, Naomi’s siblings join their father at a restaurant for breakfast. The pancakes were golden-fried and dripped in syrup. In every way, Perez tells us, the pancakes were perfect. The only way I even know that the siblings were feeling uncomfortable is that they chewed their food five times before they swallowed, and by the two sentences that summed up the scene: “Naomi would have loved the pancakes. But he’d read the sign on the restaurant door, and that changed everything.” Even when the discrimination is more overt, the reactions of the characters to it are so quiet that they’re powerful. After Naomi overhears teachers at her school talk about Mexican girls being retarded but also sluts, she stays secluded a long time, “working her fingers through the tail of her braid, fighting to get free of their words.” Many authors when writing about racial tension and other social wrongs tend to structure scenes as to make a point. Perez’s story always feels as if I’m reading a family saga, or a genre of literature that chronicles the lives and doings of a family, rather than a narrative about segregation. And so when the violence does happen, it feels all the more like a gunshot to the stomach.

As I reached about the halfway mark for Out of Darkness, I couldn’t resist sharing some of my excitement about this gem to my husband. At end of my chatter, he asked me to share some sample passages, and then he asked me to save the book for him to read. We have our own tastes, and don’t often read the same selections. However, Out of Darkness is one of those novels that defies labels and therefore becomes universal in its appeal.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

A native of Texas, Ashley has followed whatever paths that teaching and writing have led her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature and enjoys teaching Spanish language and Latin American literature. She’s also a writer of three books, and is passionate about literature for readers of all ages, but especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences.

On her website, Perez states that reading has always been one of her passions. “Maybe if I hadn’t also fallen in love with teaching, I might have become a librarian just so that I could be around as many books as possible. But I’m also a big talker, a tendency that doesn’t evaporate when I cross a library’s threshold.” As for those teaching experiences, Perez has many varied ones. She’s taught bilingual kindergarten, Montessori 6-9, high school English, and even university literature classes.

Perez credits her three years of teaching high school in Houston of transforming her into an author. “Many of my students were convinced they hated to read and write at the beginning of the year and equally persuaded of the opposite by the end of the year.” Even now that she’s a university professor, Perez jumps at the chance to reconnect with young readers through school visits and events.

Image from GoodReads

Image from GoodReads

Perez’s third novel, Out of Darkness, is historical fiction and deals with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. She wrote it while juggling many other tasks: finishing a doctoral dissertation, changing jobs and geographical location, and giving birth to a second child. When Latinos in Kid Lit asked how she managed to “write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life”, Perez responded that during this time while drafting the novel, she gave herself time off from academic research. Then when her family returned from France to the United States, she used the novel as a motivation:If I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.”

Thanks to Ashley Perex for answering a few questions for me about Out of Darkness.

ALLISON: Why did you get interested in writing about the 1937 New London school explosion?

ASHLEY: I grew up about 30 minutes from New London, but I never learned about the explosion in school. I do have vague memories of I my grandmother and father discussing the tragedy in hushed tones. I had some sense that something scary and sudden had happened in New London and that children had died. That those children numbered in the hundreds was a fact I only learned later.

Initially, I became fascinated with the particulars of this event, what it meant for the community, and how the story went silent for nearly seven decades before survivors began sharing their experiences. I didn’t know how the historical event would become part of my fictional world, only that it would be.

ALLISON: How did you handle the challenge of writing about segregation and violence?

ASHLEY: Color lines and violence became central to the story of Out of Darkness because of the perspectives I chose to put at the center of my story, which focuses on Naomi, a Mexican American teenager from San Antonio, and Wash, the African American son of the “colored” school’s superintendent. Centering the story on Wash and Naomi was a very deliberate response to what I discovered in my research on the explosion. With very few exceptions, the explosion has been treated by historians as an event that impacted the white community. Yet I could not get over the terrible irony that African American children were spared precisely because they had been excluded from the unquestionably superior educational opportunities available in the (white) New London school. I wanted to delve into—and imagine—stories from the margins of mainstream history.

The details of the explosion are factual, and the fictional events—especially the darker turns in the plot—are consistent with terrible happenings in Texas and other parts of the South.

Racialization renders Wash and Naomi deeply vulnerable in public spaces. In 1937 East Texas, Wash’s mere presence in public space is read by white community members as a punishable threat. I know from speaking with readers that Out of Darkness can be deeply affecting but also shocking to some readers. And I had my own struggles to reckon with the pain and human weakness and failure that swirl at the dark center of this story world.

ALLISON: What do you hope readers will gain from reading Out of Darkness?

ASHLEY: I hope that readers think about how, in all its pain and difficulty, Out of Darkness speaks directly to our present moment. When readers are shocked by the violence and predation that occur in the novel or feel discomfort at the intensity of their own disappointment and sense of loss, I hope they will consider the deep and persisting vulnerability of brown and black bodies in many public spaces now, in 2016. I hope that readers’ deep attachments to Wash and Naomi and other characters will compel them to consider, in new ways, the high human cost of contemporary racialized violence.

These are painful conversations, but crucial ones as well. I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity to be able to traverse the painful legacies of our past, our vexed present, and the possibilities of our future.

When Perez isn’t writing or teaching, she enjoys hanging out with family including her two sons. In any other scraps of time that remain, she likes to run in marathons, eat local foods, bake, watch movies, and play the occasional game of Scrabble. I’ll review Out of Darkness tomorrow. Save the date: May 5!

The Boy Who Carried Bricks is a sad and inspirational true story by Alton Carter about his years as a foster child. It’s sad because of the horror Carter experienced during his formative years, but equally inspirational because of how Carter stayed true to himself even while the rest of his family fell apart. The Boy Who Carried Bricks will enlighten you about the realities of the foster care system, as well as pull on your heartstrings.

Anyone who reads The Boy Who Carried Bricks will not fail to question how terrible our society sometimes treats children. In a straightforward and honest narrative, Carter describes how he grew up with a life full of fear, hunger, and loneliness. When his mom finally married, after dating and bearing children to five different men, the guy turned out to be violent. More than once, the step-dad physically abused the family. Life should have better after the step-dad left, but the mom didn’t seem to know how to care for anyone. She spent more hours drowning her sorrows and partying than acting like a mom. As a result, the five boys often had nothing but moldy food to eat and at times showed at school with roaches in their ears. Even when the grandparents step into help, life doesn’t really improve, and Carter often felt that he had no one to turn to for comfort or protection. As you can see, the novel makes for a tough read, and even worse happens in the first few foster homes that Carter lands. The matter-of-fact tone, however, kept me from putting the book aside for lighter fare. I had to know what would happen to this young person who seemed determined to succeed, against all odds.

Anyone who reads The Boy Who Carried Bricks should also not fail to feel inspired by the hope that Carter carried within him. Even in the unhealthiest situations, Carter held onto the belief that normalcy could be his. When living with his grandparents, he also often encountered his uncles. One of them in particular turned sadistic when drunk. Yet he could also treat the five boys to an evening of stories and trademark greasy fries, an event which Carter viewed as a happy time. Fortunately, along the way, he also met kind and caring individuals who were to have a long-lasting impact on him. One of them was an elderly lady for whom he mowed her lawn and performed other summer chores. She believed that Carter should improve his reading and so provided him daily with a newspaper article. At the end of the summer, she gave him a novel to read too. Her pride in him helped him believe more in himself. Eventually, Carter encountered enough positive influences that Carter decided to take charge of his own life by contacting the Department of Human Services himself. His tributes to others allowed me as a reader to keep faith in a book that often felt full of dark times.

My final commendation of The Boy Who Carried Bricks involves the subtle lessons that Carter imparts. One that stands out is an incident with a teacher whom Carter accused of picking on him due to his color. In reality, she simply wanted him to do his best, but he kept rebuffing her because of how alone he felt in his troubles. Through her continual affirmation of his abilities, he came to realize that he needed to take responsibility for his own actions. If he pursued a life of crime, this was his own choice and had nothing to do with his being a foster child, poor, or black. And if he wanted to experience love and all the good things in life, he needed to work for them.

According to Carter’s introduction in The Boy Who Carried Bricks, there are over 400,000 children in the United States living without permanent families. In writing his story, Carter hoped to make a difference in the life of readers. He wanted adults to be the best they could and to know they have the opportunity to give young people a chance to believe in themselves. He also wanted young people to know that they can become whatever they dare to dream. The Boy Who Carried Bricks should motivate anyone who reads it.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Abandoned by his father, neglected by his mother, shuttled between foster homes and a boys’ ranch for most of his formative years, a young man refuses to succumb to the fate that the world says should be his.

The above description comes from the inside flap of The Boy Who Carried Bricks, an autobiography from Alton Carter. Writer Space quotes Carter as saying that the title is both literal and figurative. One of the punishments Carter faced at a ranch for boys where he lived for a while as a teen was to pick up, carry, and stack bricks over and over again. The boys sometimes did it for seven hours straight. At the same time, Carter also carried the weight of many issues, all of which caused him self-esteem and relationship problems.

AUTHOR

AltonCarterAlton Carter grew up in Oklahoma, where he still makes his home with his wife and two sons. At age eight, he entered the foster care program, where he was placed into multiple homes throughout the state. About many of these homes, Carter says, a lot of his foster parents shouldn’t have been foster parents. They just didn’t take care of the children entrusted to them.

Against all odds, Carter was the first person in his family to graduate from high school and college. Previously, no one in his family had even passed grade nine. He graduated from Cushing High School with no intentions of attending college, but a former Oklahoma State University staff member kindly enrolled him without his permission, and he used the opportunity to receive his bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Now the director of youth ministries for the First United Methodist Church of Stillwater, Oklahoma, Carter has dedicated his life to working with young people. In 2015, Carter founded the Alton Carter Inspire Foundation with the goal of assisting young people who have lived in foster care, group homes, or DHS juvenile facilities in securing a college degree.

Carter waited to write The Boy Who Carried Bricks until his mom passed away. He tells OColley.com that his autobiography isn’t meant to gain pity or compare it to the trials others have faced, but instead to give inspiration to youth who may be in a similar situation. “There are kids still hungry, still abused with so many problems and we just need people to help,” Carter said. “This book is aimed at bringing light on the idea that there are still kids out there like me.”

CULTURAL SETTING

There are over 400,000 children in foster care. Young people end up in foster care, through no fault of their own, but are removed from their families due to abusive or neglectful situations. In the case of Carter, his mom had five children through five different men, and rarely stayed at home with them. His memoir is just one example of how a child might end up in foster care.

  • 70% of children in foster care never graduate high school
  • 74% of children in foster care end up incarcerated
  • 50% of children in foster care will be unemployed at the age of 24
  • 1 in 5 children in foster care will become homeless by age 18

Repeatedly in his autobiography, Carter refers to his other siblings and the sad outcomes of their lives. One of them died young, while the others turned to a life of crime. Although he typically didn’t stay in touch with others he met in foster care, he does tell of one boy who ran away rather than face time in jail. His memoir puts a face to the heart-breaking online statistics about today’s youth in foster care.

Tomorrow I’ll review The Boy Who Carried Bricks. Save the date: April 21!


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