Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Africa or Black American’ Category

Mama’s Nightingale tells a serious but hopeful story about Saya, who is separated from her mother. Stirring illustrations and a tender tale show the human side of immigration in this picture book by Edwidge Danticat, who herself grew up in a family that was separated for years by immigration. Danticat’s book is dedicated to those young people like her main character, Saya, who are dreaming of the day when their family will be reunited.

For Saya, the reason for her mother not being home is that she doesn’t have the right papers to stay in the United States and so she is being held in an immigration detention center. Every night, Saya’s father writes to the mayor and to other politicians, as well as to judges and to reporters about their situation. No one ever replies. Every time, Saya and her father visit the detention center, the question arises as to when her mother can come home. No one has any idea. After one particularly emotional visit, Saya’s mother begins to mail tapes with stories she reads or makes up for Saya to hear. In response, Saya writes her own story. Her story changes the family’s future.

On the serious side, through her honest storytelling, Danticat provides real faces to the debate over immigration. While Saya’s story is fictional, it is inspired by real events. The author herself and her brother were separated from their parents for most of their childhood due to not having the right papers. She is not alone in her experience. According to the United States’ Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, over 70,000 parents of American-born children have been jailed and deported. In Mama’s Nightingale, Danticat has painted a poignant portrait of the difficult situation in which immigrant families often find themselves and given them a voice.

On the hopeful side, Saya finds comfort in the bedtime stories her mother records on cassette tapes and sends her. Saya and her father even listen to them together. In addition, her father faithfully cares for her, offers her advice, and tucks her in at night. Although his sadness is readily apparent, he never allows it to hinder him from his important role as a parent to Saya. When Saya responds to her mother with her own story, she also discovers the power of words. Readers will appreciate reading of how Saya’s story results in her mother being released. Finally, artist Leslie Staub tempers the upsetting circumstances with bright of colors and whimsical objects from the stories Saya’s mother tells.

Mama’s Nightingale is a powerful story. Young people in a similar situation will take comfort in Saya’s story. For those young people not impacted by immigration, Mama’s Nightingale makes a great discussion starting point. So many questions can be addressed such as: What are the right papers? Why doesn’t Saya’s mom have them? How can the proper papers be obtained? Why do immigrants need papers in the first place? Mama’s Nightingale is a tale that will make a difference in everyone who reads it.

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

How would you rate this book?

When Saya’s mother is sent to an immigration detention center, Saya finds comfort in listening to her mother’s warm greeting on their answering machine. To ease the distance between them, Mama begins sending Saya bedtime stories inspired by Haitian folklore on cassette tape.

The above description comes from the inside jacket flap of Mama’s Nightingale, subtitled a Story of Immigration and Separation. This multicultural story is written by Edwidge Danicat, whose books have been selected for Oprah’s Book Club, as well as twice been nominated for the National Book Award. The picture book is illustrated by Leslie Straub, a children’s author and illustrator from Louisiana. Tomorrow I’ll review Mama’s Nightingale. Save the date: December 2!


Author Edwidge Danticat draws on her own background to bring authenticity to Mama’s Nightingale, having herself grown up in a family that was separated, in part, by immigration. Born in Haiti, when she was two years old, her father André to New York, to be followed two years later by her mother. This left Danticat and her younger brother to be raised by her aunt and uncle back in Haiti.

Eventually, at the age of 12, Danticat moved to New York to join her parents in a heavily Haitian American neighborhood. As an immigrant teenager, Danticat’s disorientation in her new surroundings was a source of discomfort for her, and she turned to literature for solace. Only two years later, she published her first writing in English for a citywide magazine written by teenagers, followed shortly thereafter by a second story about her immigration experience. In the introduction to the anthology of stories from the magazine, Danticat wrote, “When I was done with the [immigration] piece, I felt that my story was unfinished, so I wrote a short story, which later became a book, my first novel: Breath, Eyes, Memory…Writing for New Youth Connections had given me a voice. My silence was destroyed.”

Initially, Danticat had intended on studying to become a nurse, but her love of writing won out and she received first a Bachelor of Arts in French literature and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Since completing her MFA, Danticat has taught creative writing at the university level, as well as worked with filmmakers on projects about Haiti. Her short stories have appeared in over 25 periodicals and have been anthologized several times. Her work has been translated into numerous other languages. She is a strong advocate for issues affecting Haitians abroad and at home.

For further info, check out Edwidge Danticat and the Author’s Note in Mama’s Nightingale.


Set in United States, Mama’s Nightingale is narrated from the perspective of young Saya, whose mother has spent three months at a correctional center for women without papers. Saya’s father and her visit the correctional center every week, where her mother shares news with her father and tells stories to Saya. Her father writes letters to judges, as well as to the mayor and to other politicians, and to reporters. No one acknowledges his letters. One day her mother starts to send taped tales to Saya, which inspires Saya to write her own stories to exchange with her mother. The title of Mama’s Nightingale comes from a story that Saya’s mother made up for her about a mommy nightingale who goes on a long journey and looks for a rainbow trail in the sky so she can return home to her baby.


At The Atlantic, readers can find author Edwidge Danticat’s own story of immigration and separation, which served as inspiration for Mama’s Nightingale. In the early 1970s, her parents sold everything they owned to purchase passports. They fled the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and its chaotic rule to find a better life in New York City. Danticat was meant to follow shortly with her infant brother, but things didn’t work out that way: “Because of United States immigration red tape, our family separation lasted eight years.” Danticat was 12 when she finally traveled to the States in reunite with her parents.

Danticat tells The Atlantic that her parents didn’t know much about the United States except that there were opportunities there. “That experience of touching down in a totally foreign place is like having a blank canvas: You begin with nothing, but stroke by stroke you build a life. This process requires everything great art requires—risk-tasking, hope, a great deal of imagination, all the qualities that are the building blocks of art. You must be able to dream something nearly impossible and toil to bring it into existence.”

To read more about how her parents adjusted to the surprises of American life, as well as how Dantica herself adapted, check out The Atlantic. Danticat also explains her decision to become an artist, despite her parents feeling threatened by this ambition. “When you’ve given so much, when you’ve sacrificed everything to make this huge transition, you want to see your child have an easier life as a result. You want to spare them the anguish of worrying always about survival….” In addition, Danticat talks about the indecision that immigrants continue to feel over whether they made the right choice.


In educating myself about the background to Mama’s Nightingale, I looked up immigration statistics at Migration Policy. The numbers broke down like this:

  • In 2013, 17.4 million children under age 18 lived at home with at least one immigrant parent. They accounted for 25 percent of the 69.9 million children under age 18 in the United States.
  • Second-generation children under age 18—those who were born in the United States to at least one foreign-born parent—accounted for 88 percent (15.3 million) of all children with immigrant parents.
  • The remaining 12 percent (2.1 million) were children living in the United States in 2013 who were born outside the United States to foreign-born parents.
  • The overall number of people waiting for a green card—within and outside of the United States—is at least 4.4 million.

Sunday Book Review describes several children’s picture books that deal with the issue of immigration. Those titles include My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald, which I have reviewed earlier at Allison’s Book Bag, and Anne Sibley O’Brien’s I’m New Here and Michael Foreman’s The Seeds of Friendship.

Two child-friendly sites about immigration are:

If you haven’t already discovered the award-winning author, Holly Moulder, check out a book by her today. Her historical fiction titles to date are: Eyes of the Calusa, A Cord of Three Strands, Crystal City Lights, and A Time to be Brave. Moulder is an author to watch. I’ll review A Time to be Brave tomorrow. Save the date: November 19!

HollyMoulderALLISON: Describe a moment as a child when you gave into fear.

HOLLY: I remember when I was about 6 years old, I was participating in a summer camp program. I didn’t like the leaders (I don’t remember why!) and my best friend wasn’t there. One day we were supposed to walk to the town’s fire station, and I didn’t want to go. Too far, too many strangers. I pretended to be sick to my stomach, and the leaders called my mom to come get me. I didn’t like being away from my home and my family.

ALLISON: What was your bravest moment as a child?

HOLLY: When I was 8, my dad had a severe heart attack. He was in the hospital over Christmas. My brothers and I worked really hard to make Christmas nice for my mom, even through she was very upset and worried. I was terrified my dad wasn’t going to live through the holidays (he did!), but I had to be strong and brave for my mom. My brothers and I wrapped presents, decorated the house….we did anything we could to take the stress off Mom. We learned to be brave as we worked together.

By the way, the title of my fourth book, A Time To Be Brave, refers to the last words my dad said to me. He died four years ago, and the last time I saw him he told me to take care of my mom. Then he said, “Remember, Holly, now is a time to be brave.”

ALLISON: If you travel back in time and give your teen-self advice, what would you say?

HOLLY: Be confident, be proud of who you are, don’t listen to those who try to hurt your feelings or make you feel less special than you are. Your dreams are going to come true, but you’d better be prepared to work for them!

ALLISON: This is my second interview with you. Catch readers up on highlights from your life we talked in the winter of 2013.

HOLLY: Last summer, in 2014, I was invited by Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany to present a program on Crystal City Lights. My husband and I traveled to two other bases in Germany and got to meet lots of soldiers and their families. We also got to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams: we spent a weekend in Paris! And, of course, there’s my new book, A Time To Be Brave.

ALLISON: Have you ever given up on a writing project? Why?

HOLLY: I haven’t actually given up, but I’ve put them off to the side for later. Lately I’ve been researching a book about the telephone girls of World War I, but I’ve been so busy with other projects that I’ve had to stop working on that one for a while. Hopefully I’ll get back to it after Christmas.

ALLISON: Airplane travel is part of A Time to be Brave. What do you like/dislike about it?

HOLLY: I am from a very aviation-minded family. My older brother was a pilot in the Navy and now has his own airplane. He’s a flight instructor. My younger brother is a hot air balloonist. And I took flying lessons years ago. I soloed several times, but never got my license. That’s still on my ‘bucket list!’ So, as you can see, I love flying!

ALLISON: Women’s suffrage is also part your novel. What is the most interesting fact you’ve discovered about this movement?

HOLLY: I was surprised that the suffragists had to fight so long and so hard to get the vote for women. I was surprised that so many were arrested and spent time in jail. I will never take this privilege lightly, and encourage all women to exercise their right to vote. Other women worked so hard to secure it for us! Also, I didn’t know that the movement leaders did not like the term “suffragette.” They thought it was demeaning.

ALLISON: You’ve now written four published books. How has your life changed since the first one?

HOLLY: I’ve learned so much about writing, publishing, and marketing my books. I’ve also learned how to take criticism without getting my feelings hurt. Usually the things readers say about my books help my writing get better. I’ve also become a little bit of a celebrity. It’s kind of fun to be recognized when I’m out in public, especially when I’m with my granddaughter (the original Macie!)

My Two Blankets might be my favorite picture book of the year. In this heart-warming tale, Irena Kobald has taken the tried and true story of a new kid on the block and created a fresh and original multicultural story of Cartwheel who moves from Sudan to Australia. In addition, the combination of warm watercolors and oils provides an inviting atmosphere.

An immigrant herself to Australia, author Irena Kobald is not a stranger to how lost and lonely one feels in a new land. In addition, being a teacher of aboriginal children in the Australian outback communities, most of whom use English as a fifth language, Kobald is also well-acquainted with how freakish one feels when surrounded by those speaking unfamiliar languages. No doubt drawing on those feelings, as well as being inspired by a friendship that developed between her daughter and a Sudanese girl, Kobald has written an endearing story that has been enriched by the use of a metaphor. When Cartwheel arrives in her strange new country, she finds security in a metaphorical blanket made up of her own words and the memories of her old world. Later, after a girl in a park smiles and waves at her, Cartwheel weaves the new words given to her into a second blanket of origami shapes. This is the perfect format for turning a tried and true story into a fresh and original one that will encourage young and old alike to think about immigrants and friendship.


Just as arresting is the artwork, which successfully depicts the essence of Cartwheel’s emotions. Illustrations of Cartwheel and her blanket are always the colors of brown and orange and gold, as well as being in oil. The girl in the park and her origami words are always blue and green and pink and yellow, as well as being in watercolor. In addition, the illustrator Freya Blackwood notes that that when Cartwheel explored her new home, the experience of no one speaking like her felt like a cold waterfall of strange sounds, and Blackwood originally intended this ‘waterfall’ to be thick with symbols that represented words. However, in her drafts, she just showed this as a messy scrawl, and the scrawl seemed to work better than lots of symbols. Another reviewer also observed that the use of pigeons in the park and origami-shaped birds reminded her of freedom. As you can see, the artwork itself provides a rich experience too.

Given that diversity is at the heart of this sweet tale, I initially felt taken back by the fact that the poetic text never directly states which country Cartweel came from or moved to. The attire of both Cartwheel and her mom might suggest Africa as their homeland, as might the images in Cartwheel’s metaphorical blanket. We’re also told that war came to Cartwheel’s country. Beyond these clues, however, the only reason I know the story takes place in Sudan is that this country is specified in the reviews. As for where Cartwheel moved to, the buildings and mode of transportation suggest a city. No location is given, however, not even of a region or country. Critics aren’t of any help here either. While I presumed Australia, given that this is where both author and illustrator live, the reality is we’re never told. At first, I thought this omission a mistake, because I would have enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about these landscapes. Upon further reflection, I decided that the omission is genius. As a universal story of refugees and friendship, My Two Blankets is all the more accessible to everyone.

Besides being a simply beautiful story, My Two Blankets also lends itself to educational opportunities. Teachers might talk about the use of metaphor. Furthermore, for those classrooms with the time, students could create their own metaphorical blankets of a time when they moved from one place to another. My Two Blankets is a delightful import from Australia that should find a treasured spot on your shelves.

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

How would you rate this book?

Cartwheel moves to a new country with her auntie, and everything is strange: the animals, the plants—even the wind. An old blanket gives Cartwheel comfort when she’s sad—and a new blanket just might change her world.

The above description comes from inside jacket flap of My Two Blankets, CBCA Picture Book of the Year 2015. Set in Australia, this multicultural story is written by Irena Kobald, an immigrant to Australia. It’s illustrated by Kate Greenaway medalist Freya Blackwood, a native to Australia. Tomorrow I’ll review My Two Blankets. Save the date: November 18!


Biographical information that I could find online about author Irena Kobald was limited. She teaches aboriginal children in Australian outback communities. The children she teaches use English as a fifth language. Besides being a teacher and a writer, Kobald has a Masters in Russian.

As the daughter of a painter and an architect, Illustrator Freya Blackwood was encouraged to draw from a young age. She earned a degree in Visual Communications and then worked for several years in the film industry in Australia and in New Zealand. She now lives back in Orange, New South Wales, Australia with her daughter Ivy, their rather naughty whippet Pivot, and four noisy chickens.

You can find her blog online and it contains a post about My Two Blankets. Blackwood writes about how the metaphorical blanket was a difficult concept to illustrate and took her a long time to solve. However, she attracted to the idea of a visual interpretation of feelings, sounds and words. “As with any concept requiring interpretation, there are endless different visual solutions and everyone has a different idea of what works the best. This would have been a great book to give to several illustrators to see what each came up with. I’d love to see other peoples’ takes on the concept.”


Set in Australia, My Two Blankets is narrated from the perspective of Cartwheel who is from Sudan but moves to Australia. As such, everything feels strange: the people, the food, the animals, the plants, and even the wind. Nobody spoke like Cartwheel. She felt as if standing under a waterfall of strange sounds. The waterfall made her feel cold.

One day while Cartwheel is at the park, a girl smiles and waves at her. Cartwheel wants to be friends, but doesn’t know how. An illustration depicts Cartwheel as wrapping herself into a blanket. This blanket contains symbols based on African weavings, fabrics, and sculptures. The next day, the girl taught Cartwheel some words. An illustration shows Cartwheel embracing a new blanket. This blanket contains origami images, mostly of items that are common to the average American but also to the water and to pastures.


In educating myself about Sudan, I learned that the area was known as ‘Nubia’ to the ancient Egyptians, whose powerful rulers often raided the region. Throughout history, Sudan and Egypt have often been one territory. In 1956, Sudan became an independent country, the largest in Africa. However, religious and cultural differences have led to years of conflict. During almost 40 years of war, 2.5 million people died from drought and starvation. Today Sudan is still a dangerous and unstable country.

Many of Sudan’s people consider themselves as ‘Arabs’ rather than ‘Africans’. Arabic is the official national language. However, Sudanese people often have both Arab and African ancestry. Around the edges of the country, there are groups of people who speak an African tongue as their first language.

Much of Sudan is flat, except for the Nuba Uplands in the centre and two main highland areas along the edges. The main feature of Sudan is the Nile, which is actually two rivers in one! Large areas of Sudan’s natural plants have disappeared following hundreds of years of grazing livestock. Hunting also threatens the country’s wildlife. Over 20 mammal and nine bird species are endangered.

More facts can be found at the below sites.

In educating myself about Australia, I learned that with nearly a quarter of the people who live in Australia being born in other countries, Australia is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse nations. Its inhabitants come from the United Kingdom and other European countries, but also from China, Vietnam, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Aboriginal people arrived in Australia about 50,000 years ago. They may have traveled from Asia across land bridges that were exposed when sea levels were lower. In 1788, the British began to settle in Australia. Many of those settlers were criminals sent to live in Australia as punishment. Initially, newcomers lived peacefully with the Aboriginal people, but soon fighting broke out over who owned the land. Today, Aborigines make up 2% of Australia’s population.

Besides being one of the world’s most ethnically diverse nation, it’s also one of the largest countries on earth. It’s the only country to cover an entire continent. Most Australian cities and farms are located in the southwest and southeast, where the climate is more comfortable. The dense tropical rain forests in the northeast are rich in plant and animal species. The famous outback (or remote rural areas) contains the country’s largest deserts, where there are scorching temperatures, little water, and almost no vegetation. Although it is rich in natural resources and has a lot of fertile land, more than one-third of Australia is desert.

Australia’s ecosystem is an unusual one because of its remote location. As a result, there are many animal species that occur here and nowhere else in the world, such as the platypus, kangaroo, echidna, and koala. Australia has 516 national parks to protect its unique plants and animals.

More facts can be found at the below sites:

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