Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘multicultural books for young people

From Francisco Jimenez comes the third book in his series of endearing memoirs about his life as a young person of an immigrant Mexican family of migrant workers. I enjoyed reading about Jimenez’s challenges to obtain a post-secondary challenge, as well as learning more about Jimenez himself. In addition, I appreciated how Reaching Out included background information from earlier memoirs. Thanks to this provision, Reaching Out serves equally well as a standalone book or as part of an informative autobiographical series.

The first chapter of Reaching Out begins by highlighting the arrival of a day that Jimenez has longed for. On Sunday, September 9, 1962, his family drives him to Santa Clare College. It’s a dream Jimenez at times never expected would happen. In the 1940’s, his family emigrated illegally from Mexico to California and began working in the fields. About fifteen years later, when Jimenez was just in eighth grade, the family was deported. Even when they later returned legally, the entire family continued to work in low-paying jobs to survive. And to send Jimenez to college.

As can happen with dreams, this achievement was only the first step in an arduous journey. Jimenez continued to struggle with finances, feelings of being torn between responsibility as a student and to his family, having self-doubt about his abilities to succeed academically, and trying to adjust to living in an essentially English-speaking Caucasian environment. While his peers enjoyed initiations, sports events, and drinking parties, Jimenez buried himself in studies and sought sources of income beyond scholarships. Receiving his first D’s felt like a major disappointment, despite reassurance from his roommate that these grades are typical of one’s first college year. Further disheartening to him was that one of his low grades came even in a Spanish class. You see, even though Jimenez could speak Spanish, he had never written compositions in his native language nor had he read books in Spanish. Still, he persevered and eventually turned those grades into A’s. To afford the ongoing expenses of a college education, Jimenez worked janitorial positions in the summers and during the school year took on several part-time jobs, including that of tutoring students, typing papers, and serving as a reader for a professor. One can’t help but feel inspired by Jimenez’s strong work ethic!

The farther along one reads of Reaching Out, one also can’t help but gain an appreciation for his moral values too. Even in his high school days, Jimenez had wanted to make a difference, and attempted to do so by running food drives to help poor migrant families. By the time he enters college, Jimenez has determined to follow in the footsteps of others who have helped him and become a teacher. During his second year, he also joins a religious organization. Duties for it include working with the poor in Mexico in the summer, along with attending cell group discussions about social issues. Eventually, despite the impact it could have on his classes and on his family’s employment, Jimenez’s sense of right and wrong also lead him to join efforts to unionize farm workers. Being driven myself by a desire to invoke change, I felt a lot of compassion for Jimenez.

Although clearly serious in personality, Jimenez also has a lighter side, which also adds to the pleasure of Reaching Out. He enjoys dances, especially ones in tune to the music of Elvis Presley. Although not a sports fan, he makes a deal with his roommate to attend them if his friend will go to dances. Such a deal leads to a memorable drinking binge, as well as to a mad dash at night to arrive back to the dorm before curfew. Jimenez is also not immune to love. Several later chapters describe the deepening of a friendship with a classmate, who later becomes Jimenez’s wife.

Although there are less direct references in Reaching Out than in his earlier memoirs to his Mexican heritage, Jimenez clearly cares about it and wants to give back to his people. There are references to prejudice, as well as to cultural traditions. All three of his memoirs are based on memories, interviews, photographs, and other records, and make for an educational and fascinating read. A fourth memoir was apparently published this year. I look forward to reviewing it at a later date!

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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.

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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.

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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:

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