Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Golden Sowers

In honor of Allison’s Book Bag being five years old this year, I’m taking this week to repost my most popular reviews over the past five years. From 2013, as part of a multicultural roundup, there is….

From the time he was four until he was fourteen-years-old, Francisco Jimenez lived in constant fear. It all started in 1940, when his parents moved the family from Mexico to California, with the hope of leaving their life of poverty behind. At the border, the family dug a hole underneath the wire wall and thereby illegally entered the United States. Although Francisco’s father always hoped to return to Mexico, Francisco liked getting an education. If the family returned, he’d lose this because there wasn’t any school in their village. And so naturally his fear of being deported grew daily. Then in eighth grade, it happened. The first chapter in Breaking Through by Francisco Jimenez is about how the family comes to the United States, is forced to return to Mexico, but then re-enters legally with visas. The rest of this autobiographical book, told from the viewpoint of Francisco, is about how the Jimenez adjust to their American life.

What stood out most to me about Breaking Through is how eagerly Francisco tries to learn the ways of his new country. To fit in with his peers, he pays attention to what his peers talk about and do. This leads him to take an interest in music and dances. Many of the songs such as Rock Around the Clock and Venus in Blue Jeans he doesn’t initially understand: “I tried to make sense of them and picture them in my mind. Why would a rock circle a clock? Why would the planet Venus dress in jeans?” He convinces his brother for the two of them to teach each other to dance, because this will help them meet new girls and make new friends. When invited out to a restaurant, he watches for social cues on how to behave. For example, this is how he learns the proper place for a napkin is not on table or floor but on one’s lap. Not everything is about being socially accepted; Francisco also tries to excel in school. When he finds an old Doctor Doolittle book in the dump, he reads a few pages every night to help him learn English. He also watches movies to improve his English. Typing is one of the classes he needs to take to get into college. When he finds an old one, he types every night to improve his accuracy and speed. Last, he copies notes from school onto cards that he studies while on the job.

Breaking Through is largely about being poor. The Jimenez family first moves to the United States from Mexico to escape a life of poverty. For a long time, it seems as if those dreams aren’t going to be fruitful. The father and the children work in the fields, sometimes even during school hours. Despite their multiple jobs, the family isn’t regularly able to pay their rent on time or even put food on the table. Countless times, the family has to find things they need such as sneakers for gym class by rummaging through garbage. This leads to Francisco’s father feeling depressed and to some of the family arguments. Just like Finding Paris is partly a picture of being part of foster care, so Breaking Through is partly a picture of being caught in poverty.

Yet Breaking Through is also about being Mexican. There are references to Mexican foods, music, and heroes. Sadly, there are also run-ins with prejudice. When Francisco’s mom rubs garlic on him to cure him of ringworm, Francisco is called “stinky Mexican”. The two eldest boys have their hearts broken, when girls break up with them after finding out that the Jimenez family is from Mexico. Last, some employers even advise them, “Don’t tell people you’re American. You could easily pass for Americans.”

Happily, in the midst of their struggles are many supportive adults. When Francisco informs his school counselor that he wants to be a teacher, Mr. Kinkade tells him that he’ll need to go college and that this will be expensive but that there are scholarships available. He also looks at Francisco’s schedule and makes substitutions of classes more suitable for college. Later, Francisco’s English teacher also tries to help by writing comments on his papers about how to improve. She encourages him to read for fun to improve his English, but there is no time for newspapers or books. Yet when she gives him Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck to read, Francisco is finally able to identify with a novel. The last example I’ll give you is from an assembly. After reading about how valiantly Francisco tried to become American, I wondered if he would ever have a chance to share from his Mexican culture. One day in assembly he does.

Other than a Scholastic interview, I found little information about Francisco Jimenez. In that interview, he shares how he wrote Breaking Through. Besides relying on memory, he interviewed family members and looked through family photographs and documents, obtained his junior high and high school records, and visited some of the places where the family lived in migrant-labor camps.

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

How would you rate this book?


Cover of "The Road to Paris (Coretta Scot...

Cover via Amazon

Welcome to the fourth installment of Andy’s Sack o’ Books.

The Road to Paris By Nikki Grimes

Paris Richmond is trapped by love. She loves her foster family, who has taught her what a family should be. She loves her brother, who has lived in a group home since he was deemed “incorrigible” for stealing from a previous foster family. She loves – and hates –  her alcoholic mother, whose weakness and selfishness has sabotaged her life.

Paris’ happy life with her new family is shattered by a phone call from her mother, who wants her back. The rest of the story is about how Paris came to live with, and love, her new family. It is also about her conflicted heart. She wants to love her mother. She wants to completely belong to a family. She wants to be with her brother again. But she also wants to remain with the family that loves her.

That’s a lot to put on an eight-year-old girl.

The Road to Paris gets many things right. In some cases, I know with certainty that it does. In other cases, it convinces me that it does even though I have no way of knowing – it sounds right; it fits with what I think I know of human nature.

The author creates a very real and perfect conflict for Paris. For the most part, there are no villains in this story. Paris’ mother has her problems; often Paris hates her, but she also wants to love her and she wants her family to be whole again. When Paris goes to visit her halfway through the book, we find out that Viola is not a monster and that a spark of love has survived the years of hurt. The foster family too is not composed of monsters. How many stories have we seen and heard about kids who bounce from once horrific foster family to another? Paris and her brother have certainly bounced around, but the book is not about those families; it is about the one family that turned out to be the right family.

Nikki Grimes is interested in real life and real feelings, not melodrama. We’ve all seen television shows and movies, and read books, where a character suddenly and without warning has an extreme reaction to something seemingly insignificant. This leads to the realization that the character has A Secret, which of course leads to the inevitable Discovery or Disclosure of The Secret. And of course that Disclosure or Discovery is drawn out as long as possible, for maximum emotional impact. Because that’s drama and drama is good. Right? In The Road to Paris, Paris does in fact have the occasional “freak out” that, to those around her, must seem unwarranted. For instance, there is an early meal at the Lincoln house where Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln each decide to have a can of beer. Why should this send Paris running to the bathroom to throw up, and why does she then seclude herself in her bedroom for the rest of the evening? And why is she surprised the next morning that normal life has continued uninterrupted? The Lincolns don’t know, and never know. Or do they? It doesn’t matter.

At another point in the story, Paris has an unfortunate reaction to sleeping in a completely dark bedroom. And again, this Secret is not kept through the entire book. In fact, Paris immediately spills the beans to one of her new brothers, and the situation is quickly and perfectly resolved.

What I really appreciate about Nikki Grimes’ writing is that she “gets” that many of us have hot button issues, and that we usually don’t take the time to explain our inner workings to everyone we meet. And so we often have reactions that take others by surprise and must make us seem somewhat crazy. However, Grimes does not use this for cheap drama. And the way that she avoids going for cheap drama is that while the Lincolns and others may not understand what sets Paris off, we do. Because while Paris has her secrets, they are not kept secret from the readers. And this is as it should be – the story is told from Paris’ point of view, and so to share some of her thoughts with us but not others would be, well, cheap.

Another aspect of this that Grimes gets right is that Paris’ reactions always fit the circumstances. We understand why she reacts the way she does to the beer. It fits. And we understand why she reacts the way she does to the pitch black bedroom. There is also a situation involving a perceived betrayal by her best friend. Readers may not agree that Paris has been betrayed, but they can certainly understand why she would be upset and why she would never want to go that girl’s house again. We even understand why she would build a wall around herself when another girl tries to be her friend.

 The Road to Paris is a very realistic depiction of a very real situation for many kids. And while alcoholism and foster care are not happy topics, this is not a depressing book. In a way, it is the story of a girl who, after years of pain, finds herself with too much love.

With some hesitancy, on March 26, I started a reading experiment here at Allison’s Book Bag. As part of my Intercultural Communication course, I’ve been studying how people from various countries and cultures view the world around them and interact with one another. For my final project, I needed to read theories, conduct research, and draw conclusions about intercultural communication. After rejecting many possible topics, my husband suggested I analyze books. Because of their being among the most widely accessible and recognized books in my state to both teachers and students, I decided to focus on Golden Sower nominees. Over the past month, I posted my analyses of nineteen multicultural nominees.

I felt hesitant about my reading experiment for two reasons. Trying something new and outside of my comfort zone always makes me feel nervous. For example, the first time I tried Chinese food, I ate only the chicken and cookies. These were the most familiar to me. Actually, the second time, I agreed to try rice only if covered with a sweet sauce. Nowadays, my husband and I enjoy most ethnic foods except spicy ones. As for children’s literature, I grew up reading mostly ones about my European American culture. To my delight, I soon found myself being absorbed in my multicultural reading list. There are authors such as the prolific Joseph Bruchac, whom I enjoyed so much that I want to read more of their novels.

The books for my study fell into three reading levels: primary, intermediate, and young adult. Of the eight primary books, five dealt with racism. Four of those were biographical and dealt indirectly racism or sexism by profiling individuals who had faced discrimination in pursuit of their goals. The fifth issue book tackled racism directly through an overtly moralistic tale. Of the remaining two books, one was a folktale and one talked about daily life. The folklore lacked any clear connection to its Cuban roots. Books about daily life were conspicuously absent except for in I Love Saturdays y domingos by Alma Flor Ada. It is a great example of intercultural communication, comparing the visits of a girl to her American grandparents on Saturdays and her Mexican grandparents on Sundays. As for the authors, African American authors wrote the four books dealing with prejudice, an Asian American wrote about sexism in China at the turn of the century, a Cuban American author wrote the folklore tale, and a Mexican American wrote the story about daily life.

Of the six intermediate books, five of them dealt with racism. Except for the two stories by African Americans, all of them also included references to beliefs, customs, and language. One of the Asian American books even included scenes of characters talking about what it means to be American but also of another culture. While not actually writing biographies, two authors had drawn upon historical events for their novels. The lone exception, Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac, is the only genre story (suspense) in any grade level. As for authors, a range of multicultural ones were represented: African Americans wrote two, Asian Americans wrote two, a Mexican American wrote one, and a Native American wrote one.

With the exception of one book that turned out to be more regional-based than cultural, each of the young adult books dealt with racism. One of the Asian American books even included scenes of characters asking what one’s culture has to do with one’s abilities. Like with the intermediate grade level, while not writing biographies, three of the authors of young adult novels had also drawn upon historical events. As for the authors, a range of multicultural authors were represented: an Asian American author had written one, Mexican American authors had written two, and a Native American had written another. Surprisingly, although I know examples exist, African American authors lacked representation in the Golden Sower nominees at the young adult level. Lord of the Deep by Hawaiian author Graham Salisbury referred to negative attitudes of outsiders towards locals rather than between ethnicities.

One of the criteria for receiving a Golden Sower nomination is that a book must be reflective of a culturally diverse society. My ten-year sample indicates that the committee does pretty well, although there are groups that still need stronger representation. For example, Extra Credit by Andrew Clements is a current nominee written about Arabic culture. (It did not make my research booklist, because I restricted my selections to those by multicultural authors. Arabic authors have yet to earn a nomination.) Beyond that, the gaps I most observed were multicultural stories about daily life on the primary list and genre stories featuring individuals of other cultures for any age level.

A second reason for my hesitancy about my reading experiment is that I wasn’t sure how readers would take to the absence of regular reviews . For the past month, my posts have instead focused on themes within multicultural Golden Sower nominees. To my relief, the hits on my site remained above fifty on a daily basis. Comparing these hits to ones from recent months, where hits ranged between forty and fifty, this reading experiment seems worth trying again.

Time will tell if the topic or the approach is what had the most appeal. At any rate, I intend to undertake more research projects. For example, I work with kids who have special needs. How are authors depicting them and what expertise are they drawing upon? As another example, my husband and I hope to adopt. What novels are out there on that topic? While reading the Austin books by Madeleine L’Engle, I started wondering about the portrayal of families in contemporary young adult books . Am I wrong that most seem dysfunctional? Not to forget the multicultural project that I just finished, I’d like to branch out to books written by authors of other nationalities.

When I first posted about my experiment, I received encouragement from readers that you are interested in reading about culture. What about my above proposed topics? What additional themes would you like to see explored? Are there encouraging or disturbing trends that you see that might be worth exploration? You can help determine my next literary research project!

For convenient reference, all the posts related to my multicultural research project are listed below:

Cover of "Code Talker: A Novel About the ...

Cover via Amazon

Welcome to the third installment of Andy’s Sack o’ Books.

Code Talker By Joseph Bruchac

If foreign enemies invaded your land and killed your people and did everything they could to eradicate your culture, and then they were attacked by foreign enemies, whose side would you take?

Soon after Code Talkers begins, Pearl Harbor is attacked by the Japanese.  The Navajo Tribal Council immediately passes a special resolution declaring:

“…the Navajo Indians stand ready as they did in 1918, to aid and defend our government, and its institutions against all subversion and armed conflict and pledge our loyalty to the system which recognizes minority rights and a way of life that has placed us among the greatest people of our race.”

Remarkable.  This floors me. This resolution is passed at a time when Native American children are taken from their homes, their hair is cut short, and they are made to reject their language and their culture as being worthless.  This is the system that “recognizes minority rights”?  And yet Ned Begay, the fictional character at the center of Code Talkers, is ready to join the Marines and fight the Japanese.  And he’s only fourteen.

Ned is persistent and passionate, and his parents agree to let him join the Marines when he’s sixteen.  (This is still a year too young, but the Navajo don’t have birth certificates and so as long as a boy’s parents tell the recruiters that their son is old enough, that’s good enough for them.)

One of the many challenges during wartime is transmitting messages securely.  The Japanese were adept at breaking U.S. codes.  And so the military devised intricate encryption methods, but this resulted in messages that took hours to decode.  Enter the Navajo language.

The Navajo language was not the first language to be used for the transmission of wartime communications.  Other Native American languages were used in both world wars, and Basque was used in World War II.  But Navajo, it turned out, was especially effective.  According to Wikipedia, at the outbreak of World War II there were fewer than thirty non-Navajo who understood the language.  And the code that was devised – which, for example, used the Navajo word for “potato” for “grenade” and the Navajo words for “iron fish” for “submarine” – was confusing even to Navajos who weren’t a part of the code talker program.

Ned Begay is perfectly suited to be a code talker.  It is interesting that Bruchac did not choose to make Ned part of the “original 29” – the twenty-nine Navajo code talkers who developed the code.  My guess is that this decision was made so that the story wouldn’t get bogged down in cryptography, but rather could skip ahead to the use of the code in combat.  This was probably a wise choice.

When it comes to combat, Code Talkers has plenty.  Amazon says this book is for kids aged ten and above.  I poo-pooed parents who expressed concern over the gruesomeness of the skeleton man legend told of in Bruchac’s Skeleton Man; in the case of Code Talkers, I would tell parents that they should be sure their children are mature enough to handle graphic descriptions of the horrors of war.  Bruchac does not hold back.  His description of Japanese villagers who would rather die than be captured is especially chilling.

I learned a lot from this book.  I had heard of the code talkers before, of course, but I had never taken the time to learn anything about them.  I imagined a few Navajo in a big control room at “Military Headquarters,” receiving and sending messages.  But that really doesn’t make much sense, does it?  If a code talker is going to send a coded message, there has to be another Navajo on the other end to receive it.  And many of those “on the other end” were in the thick of battle, using their forty-pound radios as shields.

Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared: “Were it not for the Navajo, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”  But although the skill, bravery, passion, and strength of Native Americans was finally recognized through their contributions in World War II, I still find the situation somewhat sad.  Why did the Navajo language have to save our butts for anyone to think the Navajo culture was anything other than worthless?  It makes me think of the way our planet’s great biodiversity has become valued due to the promise it may hold for the development of new medicines.  But why should the natural world have to earn its keep?  Why isn’t it enough that nature is beautiful?  And so why wasn’t it enough that Native Americans are people, whose culture is as important to them as European Americans is to them?

Just after school starts, everything changes for Ursula: She develops smallpox. When she recovers, her face is covered with scabs. Despite all of Ursula’s wishes and hopes and prayers, the little holes on her face remain. Yet Ursula might have moved forward with her life, if not for the incident at the stagecoach. A passenger laughs at her and cruelly says that her face looks like Swiss cheese. From that day on, Ursula refuses to leave her room. With nothing better to do, she begins to play the harmonica. One day, the family’s cook sends her a thank-you gift for her music, which he can hear from the family’s restaurant kitchen. And so begins Ursula’s friendship with a Chinese man named Ah Sam that also changes her life.

When the Circus Comes to Town by Lawrence Yep tackles prejudice through different characters. First, Ursula is ridiculed for her face. Her father encourages, “There are donkeys in the world like that man, but most people aren’t donkeys.” Second, there is Ah Sam. His hire didn’t sit well with the town. Folks complained that Chinese used a drug called opium, cheated and stole, and shouldn’t be trusted. Even Ursula initially feels mad at her parents for hiring a foreigner. Third, there is Tom. He is Native American. Upon meeting Ah Sam, Tom tells him that he has the mark. In other words, they have the same skin and eyes. They’re the “ones standing outside looking at the party inside”.

As Ursula becomes friends with Ah Sam, he introduces her to various aspects of Chinese culture. Initially, these are only briefly described. For example, one of Ah Sam’s presents to Ursula is a complicated design of golden threads that spells out the Chinese word for happiness. When Ursula ventures out of her room and into the kitchen and meets Ah-Sam for the first time, he’s using Chinese knives. They look like cleavers, with even the handles being made of metal. As he teaches Ursula how to cook rice, she asks about his long hair and the string designs that he made for her. Ursula learns that Ah Sam hopes to one day return home to China to see his family.

By now, Ursula and Ah Sam have become friends. She invites him to celebrate Christmas with her family. He makes plans to celebrate the Chinese New Year with his cousins and invites Ursula to join them. Ursula’s family learns that the Chinese New Year use a different calendar. Ah Sam also tells them part of celebrating the Chinese New Year involves putting on a circus, but first the cousins wish to practice their tricks by showing them to Ursula and her family. Ursula scoffs at the idea: How can four people put on a circus? Ah Sam responds, “What do you think a circus is? Big tents and big bands and lots of performers?” Well, yes, this is what Ursula thought a circus meant. Ah Sam informs her, “The magic doesn’t come from size and flash.” One of most delightful sections of When The Circus Came To Town describes the Chinese circus tricks. On the heels of that section, readers also learn about other things that happen on Chinese New Year too such as the payment of debts, delivery of money to children, cutting of hair and trimming of braids (queue), and setting off fireworks and beat gongs to scare away bad spirits. All of these are supposed to be important to Chinese people in preparing for the future.

You might be surprised to learn that When the Circus Comes to Town is based on real events. There was no Ursula, but there was an epidemic that disfigured a number of people–including an attractive young woman. Instead of one Chinese cook, there were two. Otherwise, Yep followed the real events that occurred in Montana in the last half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. If you wish to read more, check out Elliot Paul’s memoir A Ghost Town on the Yellowstone.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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