Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘European or European American’ Category

Ever wonder why cats have nine lives? Catatlantis by Anna Starobinets offers one explanation. Good and bad guys dot the landscape of this fun fantasy hailing from Russia. Friendship and romance also mark its chapters. Highly imaginative, Catatlantis is a madcap adventure that kept me enthralled from start to finish.

At first glance, our hero Baguette seems like just another ordinary housecat. He’s well-fed and loved by his human owners. His most outstanding concern is exactly how safe that window ledge on the twelfth floor is. Oh, and whether the slender and striped female neighborhood cat loves him. The family’s dog didn’t understand the allure. Nonetheless, out of respect for the friendship that existed between him and Baguette, the family’s dog agreed to act as a messenger between Baguette and his love. Soon he becomes witness to a marriage proposal, counteracted by a rival suitor, and a challenge. Baguette’s life quickly becomes anything but ordinary, when he travels back in time to find the flowers that once used to allow cats to live nine lives.

The good and bad guys aren’t necessarily whom you’d expect. Yes, the fate of Purriana’s great-great-grandmother lays in Baguette’s paws. But without the help of a spotted cat princess that he encounters in France during his time travels, Baguette might not have discovered the real reason no one can recall what the magical flowers from Catatlantis look like. Just as important to Baguette finding his way back home is a French baker. True, Baguette’s rival suitor is villainous enough to care more about the magical flowers than Purriana. But Baguette finds more than more one bad guy in his jaunts during time such as Trash Man, a sickly yellow-toothed man raised from the dump to defeat Baguette. Just as disturbing are the greedy and arrogant cats that Baguette encounters on the magic island of Catatlantis itself.

At times, Catatlantis is outlandish and even illogical. To travel back in time, Baguette simply stared at a clock and willed time to stop. If time travel were that simple, why hadn’t any other cat performed this trick? On the other hand, Baguette is a descendant of the magic Catlanteans who lived long ago in peace and happiness on the island of Catlantis.  Perhaps this ancestry endowed him with unusual capabilities. Over all, Catatlantis is delightfully weird. Case in point, Purriana’s great-great-grandmother life is not the only one at stake. Should she die in the middle of spring, the whole line of striped cats will die with her.

Author Anna Starobinets is a Russian novelist. Catatlantis is her first children’s book to be translated into English. Referred to as a European classic, Catatlantis should find a home here in America too in the hearts of all lovers of animal stories, folklore, and fantasy.

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 third post highlighting picture books about the immigration experience.

We Came to America, written by Faith Ringgold, is dedicated to all the children who have come to America. A refrain emphasize that the children were of different colors, races, and religions. The rest of the text tells readers that the children came by boat and by airplane, and were from every country in the world. Once they arrived in America, they brought their own songs, dances, art, stories, and fashion. A final scene depicts a gathering of diverse children paired with the moral: We are ALL Americans, Just the same.” The text is simple, reminding readers that United States has a multifaceted lineage. My favorite part is the illustrations. Places and faiths are never named in the text. Rather, Americans’ global origins are portrayed through the artwork. Each vibrant two-page spread has a vibrant backdrop, providing contrast for the parade of bold patterns and styles of various traditional attire from across the world.

Their Great Gift by John Coy, with photographs by Wing Young Huie, tells the story of immigrants whose courage and sacrifice provided hope in a new land to their children. The immigrants came from far away to land of plenty. Their journey was difficult. And when they arrived, they faced even more hardships. No one understand what it cost them to move to a new country, work long hours, and shift between languages and customs. There was much about this picture book that I liked. The text is easy to read. One line made me think of my step-mom who came from the Philippines. To this day, she sends from her earnings to her siblings and relatives in her home country. The switch in the narrative from talking about the parents to the children is particularly poignant. Now the young ones are in America, all with their own stories. One line made me think of how rich of a heritage I have from my dad. All of us, wherever our roots, would do well to do the best with the lives our parents gave to us. The end pages include “arrival stories” from the author and the photographer, which are just as touching as the book’s narrative.

Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen contains two parallel stories. The first is of a family who decides to move to America. The dad says that life will be better across the ocean. There will be no more burning of houses, killing of family livestock, and taking sons into the army without permission. But to have this better life, the family must give up their home, their names, their language, and everything familiar to them. They must also endure long train rides and filthy packed boats. The second story is of M. Edouard de Laboulaye, who lives in France, and wants to celebrate America’s birthday in a big way. He decides to build a memorial to their independence, a monument that we now know as the Statue of Liberty. The nonfiction text serves as both a lovely account of Yolen’s parents’ immigration experiences and of the origins of Liberty’s journey. I’d recommend it for older readers due to the demanding style. The narrative is presented as stanzas even though it does not read as poetry. In addition, the vocabulary is complex. The end pages provide a little more background to both stories, along with details about Yolen’s research.

Stick up for what you know is right. This land was made for you and me.—Woody Guthrie

This Land is Your Land is a picturesque version of the famous folk song by Woody Guthrie. Although I am Canadian, this song has long been a favorite of mine. It’s also of late become a protest song for those who support immigration, and so seemed appropriate to include in a round-up of books about immigration. The detailed paintings by Kathy Jakobsen burst with color and invite readers on a lively journey across the United States. In several multi-paneled spreads, Guthrie is shown carrying his guitar from landmark to landmark and coast to coast. Some of the spreads are also bordered with geometric corners that contain hand-lettered snippets of Guthrie lyrics and quotes. The end pages contain a tribute by Pete Seeger, who played with Guthrie, and an illustrated biography of Guthrie. The musical score and lyrics to the song are also provided. A real keepsake!

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?

 

According to The Pew Research Center, over 75% of the world’s population lives in areas with severe religious restrictions (and many of these people are Christians). Also, according to the United States Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ.—Open Doors

Persecution of Christians is a topic I don’t often hear about, but the above quote shows that it happens more than most of us probably realize. For that reason, I decided to read Hearts of Fire, which tells the story of “eight women in the underground church and their stories of costly faith”. The book is a publication of Voice of Martyrs, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting the persecuted church worldwide.

There are many aspects I appreciate about this riveting collection. The eight women featured come from different countries: Indonesia, Bhutan, Russia, Romania., Pakistan, China, India, and Vietnam. Each of them also comes from various religious backgrounds, with some starting out as atheists, others Christian, and a few converting from such faiths as Islam or Buddhism. The form of persecution takes many forms too: abuse, kidnapping, and/or imprisonment. Because Voice of Martyrs included a diversity of stories, its collection never felt as if any one country or group of people were being targeted. Instead the collection made clear that persecution of Christians is a worldwide issue that needs attention.

In contrast to some biographical collections, instead of providing snippets from several role models, each chapter in Hearts of Fire instead consists of a full-fledged story of about 40 pages. Some stories start by recounting the events in the childhood of a featured heroine that led to her decision to take a stand for Christ and how that decision put her life in constant jeopardy. Other stories began with a featured heroine already in her adulthood and daily having to choose whether to risk being arrested for sharing her faith. By the end of each chapter, I felt as if I knew the entire testimony of every featured heroine.

There are some aspects of this gritty collection that I disliked. The first is the book feels outdated. Although it’s been reprinted about ten years after an original publication date of 2003, there were no updates made to the original stories–some of which happened decades before. Consequently, the stories aren’t all that current. The second is how violent some stories were. I almost didn’t make it through the first story. It told of Christina being lifted in the air by her hair, tobacco leaves being set on fire and put in her mouth, her son being beaten with a machete, and other tortures. I understand that if change is to happen, there’s a need to depict the depth of atrocities that can happen. At the same time, the human mind will only accept hearing about so much horror before it becomes numb. In addition, the other natural response is to feel hatred for the persecutors, which lessens the impact of the heroism of the Christian women.

I found of special interest the story of the wife who became the founder of Voice of Martyrs. Sabina’s story began in Romania, 1945. The Russians had driven the Nazis out of Romania, but they were now themselves attempting to control how the state ran. The couple however refused to silent about their faith. February 1948, Sabina’s husband went missing, and was believed at times to have been arrested and other times to have been killed. Eventually, Sabina herself was also taken by authorities to jail. There, she was forced into slave labor, and risked being shot. Even when injured and sick, she was forced to work outside and in extreme weather. In 1965, the couple were reunited and eventually escaped to the United States. In this country, they began The Voice of Martyrs newsletter, a monthly publication that to this day is distributed across the world in many languages.

Years ago, I watched a true story of a missionary who died for her faith. In college, the missionary had searched for a reason to live, and found it in God. Hearts of Fire is filled with stories of women who similarly found their purpose. I’ll be looking for more books in the future that both challenge how I live and inspire my faith. If you have recommendations, please post in the comments.

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?

A friend of mine and I like to collect cat books. What follows is a review of three picture books from her collection and one from mine. Two of the books are about homeless cats, a topic dear to my heart. The other two books are simply fun reads.

SenorCatSenior Cat’s Romance and Other Favorite Stories from Latin America is a collection of six popular Cuban stories retold by Lucia Gonzalez. Each story is followed by an explanation of its background and a short glossary. The sole cat story is the title one and written in poetic form. It tells of a cat who sat on a throne drinking spiced milk in his stockings of silk and golden shoes. One day he receives a note from a servant that informs him he’s about to be married. Upon being wed to his love, Sir Cat reacts in such excitement that he falls off the church roof and to his supposed death. Thank goodness cats have multiple lives! My friend used to sing this song in Spanish in grade school. The tale is also the one the author says she most enjoyed illustrating, and sand over and over as she painted the cats.

NobodysCatNobody’s Cat by Barbara Josse is based on a real-life experience by the author. In a straightforward and simple style, the author tells of a feral cat that didn’t belong to anyone but had babies she needed to care for. One crisp fall day, when her milk ran out, the feral cat ventured towards a nearby home of people. A boy came out. The feral cat wanted to run, but she stayed for the sake of her kittens. The family fed her a bowl of cream and this became milk for her babies. Then each new day, the feral cat deposited a kitten on the porch of this family until all her babies had found homes. I liked this story from start to finish, even if in real life, feral cats might take more time to adjust to humans. The parental love that the feral cat shows rings true to other experiences people have shared. If you enjoy this book, you’ll probably also enjoy Nobody’s Cats by Valerie Ingram.

BestFriendBest Friend by A.M. Monson tells of an unlikely friendship between a cat and a mouse. At the start, the two are playing checkers, and Cat is a clear champion. Mouse wants to play a different game, but Cat isn’t willing to compromise, and so the two separate. Cat is so determined to have his own way that he even puts out an advertisement in the community paper for a friend. Several residents answer Cat’s advertisement, but each has something wrong with them. One is too messy, another prefers sports, and a third is a daredevil. Whatever will Cat do? This story could’ve just as easily been about any two other animals, but my friend and I picked it due to a cat being one of the main characters. This is a sweet story about appreciating the friends you have.

ChristmasKittenPerfect for the holidays is The Christmas Kitten by Andrew Charman. The adventure starts out in an animal shelter, where cats of all sizes were enjoying themselves. They were happy to be inside and to have a regular source of food, even if the surviving the shelter meant dealing with a few fights. All the cats were content that is except Oliver. He wanted a family, and decided to escape to find his dream. If you’ve ever read Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman you’ll find the structure for the rest of the story familiar. First, Oliver encounters mice, next dogs, then bears, and finally the big zoo cats. Some of the animals are scared and others think themselves too good for Oliver. But even when he’s accepted, none of the animals feel like family. Then he meets another cat, who shows him where the real source of family is. Other than my disliking that shelter cats were portrayed as being pleased with their lot in life, which is nothing like reality, I adored this book.

This review is dedicated to Marlo, who regularly surprises with packages full of all things cat. There might be a toy, a movie, or a book. If you want to read more about her story, follow this link: Bonded Together by CKD.


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Summer Reviews

Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression by Joni Eareckson
  • The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary by Samantha Glen
  • Brothers in hope : the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan–refugees by Mary Williams
  • The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee

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