Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘European or European 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?

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.

The 2017 National Ambassador for Children’s Literature is Gene Lune Yang. A requirement for each ambassador is to have a platform, and Yang’s is “Reading Without Walls”. Yang 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 decided to post roundups once a month on the theme of diversity. I’m starting with picture books about the immigration experience.

In The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, a grandfather invites his granddaughter to pick an item from his library for him and he’ll tell its story. She picks a matchbox diary. The rest of Fleischman’s picture book reveals the assorted items inside the matchbook diary and their significance. For example, an olive pit reminds the grandfather of Italy, where life was hard, and he’d suck on an olive pit to help with his hunger. The photo is of his father, who like many Italians moved to America to earn money to send back to their poverty-stricken families back home. A hairpin served as a reminder of the dreams his family had. They believed America had streets of gold, and that the mother would soon wear big hats like the other wealthy women. My least favorite part of The Matchbox Diary is the style. I often couldn’t tell who the speaker was. In addition, in writing the story as a dialogue exchange, Fleischman sometimes left out transitions that would have made the context clear. My favorite part of The Matchbox Diary are the detailed illustrations. The watercolor paintings look like old photographs. You can read more about the inspiration behind The Matchbox Diary here.

When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest tells of Jessie and her grandmother, who live in a poor unnamed village in Eastern Europe. One day the rabbi, who teaches the community’s young people to read, shares the news that his brother has died and left him a ticket to America. The rabbi doesn’t feel that he can leave his people, and so he gives the ticket to Jessie. He tells her she can live with the rabbi’s brother’s widow in New York. On the ship that takes Jessie to America, immigrants swapped stories of their dreams of America, with its streets of gold and land of plenty. Upon arriving in America, Jessie discovered that instead there were too many people and too much traffic. But she also learned to read, made a living sewing beautiful garments, and found a beau. When Jessie Came Across the Sea is a sweet story about love and bravery, both it and The Matchbox Diary lack the nuances more often found in books written by those with personal immigrant experience. Similar to The Matchbox Diary, my favorite part of When Jessie Came Across the Sea are the panoramic watercolor paintings.

The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.–Grandfather’s Journey

In Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say, the narrator described the conflict one feels by being from two countries. The story started out being about his grandfather, who left his home in Japan to see the world. He explored North America by train, riverboat, and foot. Deserts amazed him, and endless farm fields reminded him of the ocean he had crossed. Factories and skyscrapers bewildered and excited him. He marveled at mountains and rivers. For a long time, the grandfather longed to see new places, but then eventually he wished to see his homeland again. He settled back in Japan with his wife and they had a daughter. She gave birth to a son, the narrator of the story. The grandfather always told him tales of California, and one day the narrator visited California for himself. Grandfather’s Journey is a poignant story with lavish illustrations. I related to the grandfather’s sense of adventure, and to the narrator’s longing for his two homes.

Hannah is My Name by Belle Yang is about a Chinese family who emigrate to the United States and try to assimilate while waiting for the arrival of their green cards. The family wants to become Americans more than anything in the world. Why? Because in America one is free. Yet becoming American isn’t easy if one is born elsewhere. The first thing they needed to do was find an economical place to live. The next thing they needed to do was file papers and hope that the government accepted their applications. Without those papers, the family can’t work. But without work, they can’t pay bills. Naturally then, the parents get jobs. While they live in fear of capture, Hannah learns English in school. My own immigration experience as a Canadian was much easier, and sometimes I even forget that I too was a foreigner. Yet I faced enough hurdles with paperwork, and anxiety over whether my visa would get renewed, that I can sympathize with the struggles of the family.

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 national best seller. Winner of many awards. A major motion picture. Atonement is a literary novel by Ian McEwan, set in the 1930’s in England. It is about a young adolescent girl’s imagination and her older sister’s moment of flirtation with the son of a servant. My husband and I both read this book. The features which stood out the most to us were McEwan’s style and his portrayal of characters.

The style in Atonement at times had me checking my watch and at other times made my heart race. One might blame the plot for my reaction. The first half of Atonement focuses on the preparations of a play by a younger sister for her soon-returning brother, the divorce of parents faced by three visiting cousins, and the changing feelings for a childhood friend. My husband said that for the first 100 pages not much happened. Yet at the least two of those scenarios, that of marital conflict and sexual arousal, has been the entire subject of thoroughly enjoyable novels. So, in my mind, style is at least partly to blame for two reasons. First, if not much happened in those first 100 pages, it’s because McEwan choose to present mostly the internal thoughts of his multiple characters instead of showing them in action. Second, at times, scenes felt overwritten. I could well imagine McEwan being able to write a lengthy chapter about a father breaking a coffee cup. As for the remaining 200 pages, the pace became more pleasurable. My husband and I would both agree that one reason is a lot more happened. The love interest of the older sister went to war, while both the older and younger sister served as nurses. At the same time, I’ve read books about war where I found myself yawning, and so style deserves a lot of credit. Indeed, McEwan’s attention to detail really brought to life the trauma and brutality of war.

While my husband and I might have felt that his style didn’t always work, McEwan’s portrayal of character earned a lot of admiration. I’ve read a lot of novels where each alternating chapter flips back and forth between the two main characters. This results in an overly structured feeling, which I mostly dislike. In Atonement, perspectives sometimes switch within chapters. Other times, McEwan focuses on lead character for several chapters. As such, the decision of when to change viewpoints seems solely dependent on it worked for the sake of moving forward the plot. This results in a more organic feeling, and really worked for me. Now I must admit, I have read other novels too wherein viewpoints seemed to change on the flip of a coin. The problem with them, in contrast to Atonement, is that the switches often felt arbitrary. Or maybe the characters simply weren’t developed enough for me to see them as individuals, with the result that I often felt confused by who was speaking and when. That’s not an issue in Atonement, where I felt very early as if I could easily describe each of the characters to my husband.

For the past couple of years, my husband and I have tried to pick a book that we’ll both read and discuss. We use lists of best-sellers and award-winners to make our selection. Atonement’s plot is what initially appealed to us. While that actually turned out to be at times lackluster, there was still much we found to like about Atonement. As such, it gave us a couple of weeks of engaging reading, as well as lively discussion, which is exactly what we want from a book we pick to share.

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

How would you rate this book?

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!)


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Spring Reviews

Almost a year after I announced that it was time to take a step back from this blog, Allison's Book Bag is still here. I'm slowly working back up to weekly reviews again. Each week, there will be one under any of these categories: Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, religious books, or diversity books. Some will come in the form of single reviews and others in the form of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Freddy the Frogcaster and the Terrible Tornado by Janice Dean
  • The Distance Between Us by Reya Grande
  • Hearts of Fire from The Voice of Matyrs

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