Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Pocahontas"

It’s hard to imagine in today’s technology infused world of recording and oversharing every little thing, that history, even up to a few generations ago, is subjective.  “History is written by the winners”, people say.  Which is true.  History is written by the survivors.  This is also true.  Author Joseph Bruchac plays with these certainties with his book of historical fiction, Pocahontas.

Pocahontas features alternating chapters telling the first person points of view of Pocahontas, then eleven years old, and Captain John Smith, leading up to the seminal moment of the famous story.  From Pocahontas, we learn about her family, her town and her father, Mamanatowic, “the Great Chief of all the Powhatan towns” and her endless curiosity, especially about the “swan canoes,” and the “Coatmen.”  John Smith, in 17th century English, tells his story of a man unjustly accused of treason, imprisoned and distrusted in the New World.  These two stories intersect and eventually come to a head, with Pocahontas’ hopeful words, “We shall live together in peace” (emphasis by the author).

History, as I said, is subjective.  Both Pocahontas and John Smith have different versions of their stories, and each reveals his or her own prejudices as they tell it.  Smith speaks with the wounded, puffed up pride of someone who finds themselves constantly harassed by others.  He admits to telling baldface lies.  Pocahontas, for her part, is young, and in her youth is the forgiveness for little exaggerations and stretches of the truth.  By her own admission, she is her father’s favorite child, and this status affords her great freedom and leeway.  By allowing both his protagonists to be relatable, but unreliable narrators, Bruchac allows for historical wiggle room, so to speak.  Virtually every version of the Pocahontas/John Smith story you will find asserts that the young girl throws herself on John Smith, the prisoner, in order to save his life.  In Pocahontas’ version of events, this is not the case.  Smith’s life is never in danger, and in fact, Pocahontas’ father is welcoming him, and Pocahontas is greeting his as a new brother.  Which is the truth?  Likely, we will never know (until such time as time travel is invented).  The value of the Pocahontas myth, however, is in the girl’s desire for peace and understanding, something that Bruchac maintains in his afterword, writring, “[t]hrough it all Pocahontas appears to have remained an influential voice for peace.”

In his notes, Bruchac admits that “seeing things from the Native American side” of the story came mostly from “the last four decades I have spent deepening my knowledge of my own American Indian heritage by listening to and spending time with the many friends, fellow storytellers, and elders in the Native American community” who have helped him along the way.  Under Bruchac’s careful eye, the Powhatan nation is well represented.  Each of Pocahontas’ chapters begins with snippets of por quio folklore, telling stories of creation, nature and the people.  “Great Hare lives in his home in the sunrise.  There he made the first women and men.  He kept them at first in a great bag,” begins one portion of the story which precedes a chapter in which Pocahontas is full of questions about the nature of things, and the origin of man.  Pocahontas is also peppered with words in both the Powhatan language and 17th century English, for which Bruchac provides two glossaries in the backmatter.

Pocahontas received mixed reviews upon publication.  Kirkus Reviews writes that “[b]oth characters come to life instantly, and the daily accounts are rich with details of everyday life” and “[h]is writing is masterfully stylized to suit all characters in their time and culture, and makes for dense but satisfying reading.”  Publishers Weekly, on the other hand, calls Pocahontas “uneven” and says “Smith's words, meant to echo the cadences of the actual diaries and records that introduce each of his chapters, sound stiff and passive” and “readers may be frustrated” with the style and the resolution of the story.

As I have said, the story of Pocahontas is as varied as it is plentiful.  Standout editions include Kathleen Krull’s Pocahontas: Princess of the New World, featuring beautiful illustrations by David Diaz and Jean Fritz’s The Double Life of Pocahontas.  For readers of Bruchac’s book interested in further reading, Bruchac offers a selected bibliography in his backmatter.  Also, many of the works quoted in the beginnings of John Smiths’ chapters are still available for modern readers, electronically preserved, including The Generall Historie written by John Smith himself.  The Scholastic paperback edition of Pocahontas features a variety of discussion questions, and the book lends itself to interpretation and debate.  Classrooms or reading groups could easily start a conversation about the variations in the story, and what they might represent, or reveal.

The story of Pocahontas is one of the most oft told tales of American history, and one that seems different with every telling.  Whether Bruchac’s story holds more truth than others may never be known (ok, we know it’s better than the Disney version), but Pocahontas is an interesting book nonetheless.  It gives a valuable glimpse into the daily lives the Powhatan people, and yes, flies a flag of peace, understanding and tolerance, one that could, and should, be heeded still today.

Bruchac, Joseph.  Pocahontas.  Orlando: Silver Whistle Books, 2003.  ISBN: 9780152167370

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Under the Mesquite"

This summer I finally accepted the inevitable and read The Fault in Our Stars.  I was prepared for the waterworks.  Then, I read This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl, the autobiography-hybid book about a young woman with cancer who befriended author John Green and became an inspiration to countless people.  This kind of grief I was not prepared for.  The words of a young woman who knows she is going to die, but lives in the face of it, were very sobering.

I bring this up, because having just read about Esther Grace, I was in a better position to empathize with the main character of Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s Under the Mesquite.  The main character, Lupita, does not suffer from cancer, but her mother does.  The effect this disease has on Lupita and her large family is the focus of McCall’s Pura Belpre winning novel-in-verse. 

When Lupita’s mother’s disease is first revealed, Lupita attempts to join the church and dedicate her life to God.  Her mother says no.  “We’ve made other plans,” mother says.  “Someday you’ll thank me for this.”  Instead, Lupita commits herself to her family, to her poetry, and to drama.  Regardless of hurdles and hardships, she shows an aptitude for each.

The trajectory of Lupita’s story is not unusual.  The stages of grief are all there.  But mixed into the anger and acceptance of cancer’s ugly hold on her mother is Lupita’s story of her identity.  Born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico, Lupita moved with her family to the bilingual border town of Eagle Pass, or El Aguila.  As legal immigrants, Lupita and her family are free to jump rope with the border, continuing to visit family on the Mexican side, and even relying on them heavily when Mami’s illness takes a turn for the worse.

Lupita never shows any sense of shame for her background, and indeed embraces it.  Her drama teacher, however, tries to teach her to rid herself of her accent, leaving Lupita’s friends to wonder if she has started to abandon her roots.  McCall treats this issue very carefully.  Losing her accent would be a boon to her acting career (though the reasons for this are varied and problematic), and Lupita knows this.  To her, this is not a way of turning her back on her heritage, but taking a purposeful turn towards her future.  “What - / because I’m Mexican/ I’m supposed to speak with an accent?/ Should I wear a rebozo too?” (Emphasis by the author.)

As I noted above, Under the Mesquite won the Pura Belpre Author Award in 2012.  In their starred review, Kirkus Reviews called it a “promising, deeply felt debut” that “captures the complex lives of teenagers in many Latino and/or immigrant families.”  Children’s Literature says, “This is, quite simply, a beautiful book.”

Since I began this review by referencing The Fault in Our Stars and This Star Won’t Go Out, it only tracks that I bring these two books back into the conversation for connections to Under the Mesquite.  Stories about cancer are not uncommon, but these two books are, and simply reading them must go a long way towards fostered compassion for those that suffer from this appalling disease.  Readers of Under the Mesquite might look to other novels-in-verse for more touching stories.  The Best and Hardest Thing by Pat Brisson tells the story of a young pregnant teenager.  Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is the Newbery honor winning book about a Vietnamese immigrant struggling to find a home and put down roots in America.

McCall, Guadalupe Garcia.  Under the Mesquite.  New York: Lee & Low Books, 2011.  ISBN: 9781600604294

Class Post - Review - "Silver People"

The power of poetry in telling stories is being utilized in literature for young people more and more, to everyone’s benefit.  As I have already said, this year has been particularly fruitful for novels-in-verse, producing such works as Brown Girl Dreaming, Caminar and The Crossover.  In addition to those excellent titles, master poetical storyteller Margarita Engle brings us Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal.

Told in a chorus of voices, with four main characters, Silver People gives a slice of the on-the-ground action in building the “eighth wonder of the world”.  Mateo is from Cuba, but passes as a Spaniard (islanders are unwanted).  Henry is from Jamaica, and speaks English.  Anita is a Panamanian who sells herbs and cures and wields a machete to protect herself from “poisonous snakes/ and mean men.”  Augusto, Puerto Rican born, hailing from New York, is in Panama because of his maps, and is paid in gold, unlike the islanders, who are paid in silver.

Like many of Engle’s other novels-in-verse, Silver People deals with heavy issues, including discrimination, racism, poverty, grief, and abuse, not to mention the backbreaking work of actually digging the famous canal.  Mateo and Henry must navigate the barbs of a very unwelcoming life, with Anita and Augusto’s help.  Engle offers no one an easy solution.  Difficult choices are made, and though the characters might end up in a better place than they started, it is by no means smooth sailing ahead.

With every new character introduction, Engle places her characters squarely on the map.  Language and cultural indications flourish in Engle’s descriptions.  Jamaican Henry is described in comparison to the “sunburned/ American engineers and foremen” and “the medium-dark/ Spanish men”.  The differences between all the nationalities are maintained, as well as they similarities.  Anita says of the ridiculous “Panama hats”, “Don’t they/ understand that Latin America/ has many countries?”

Silver People received a starred review from Booklist.  “Engle tells her stirring story in multiple voices, including President Theodore Roosevelt and even the fauna and flora of the jungle. And she vividly presents her Panamanian setting and the often cruel context of the canal's construction and its system of segregation that separated dark-skinned islanders and olive-skinned southern Europeans from Americans and northern Europeans.”  Kirkus Reviews called Engle’s verse “characteristically elegant.”

The building of the Panama Canal was a huge undertaking, about which much has been written.  For older readers, David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 is essential reading.   Younger readers, or those who are simply looking for, as Hermione would put it, “a little light reading”, might enjoy Elizabeth Mann’s The Panama Canal or other similar titles.  While Mateo, Henry, Anita and Augusto are fictional characters, other voices heard in Silver People are those of real individuals.  Readers interested in learning more could look towards George Goethals, Panama Canal Engineer by Jean Lee Latham or To Dare Might Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Doreen Rappaport.  And of course, any reader who enjoyed Silver People would be well served in seeking out Engle’s other wonderful books, including The Surrender Tree, The Wild Book and Hurricane Dancers.

Engle, Margarita.  Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.  ISBN: 9780544109414

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Yum! ¡MmMm! ¡Qué Rico! Americas’ Sproutings"

When I was in college, I took several classes in Asian cinema, all in a row.  That year, I ate so many noodles, won tons and egg rolls, I couldn’t even count.  Apparently, I am very susceptible to food suggestions.  If I read about a delicious cupcake recipe (and there are plenty of them out there in books for children), I have to try it out.  After reading Pat Mora’s Yum! ¡MmMm! ¡Qué Rico! Americas’ Sproutings, I’m ready for a feast!

In fourteen haiku, Mora and illustrator Rafael López highlight fourteen foods native to the Americas, including vanilla, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate and cranberries.  The haiku highlight the pleasure of the food item (Chocolate: “Brown magic melts on your tongue. / Happy, your eyes dance.”) while an informational insert gives the readers background material on the geographical origin and uses of the foodstuff.  Rafael López’s illustrations feature children, adults and even some animals, of all kinds of shapes, sizes and colors.

To start off, this book is delightful.  The energetic colors and whimsy of the illustrations marry well with the lighthearted poems.  The haiku format make for easy reading, and this is a book that can be enjoyed by any age.  The informational asides are enlightening without being too “teachy”.  The whole effect is altogether mouthwatering.

The foods emphasized by Mora and López span North, Central and South America (though they do not stretch up into Canada).  Mora explores foods’ roots in Native American culture, Mexico, the Aztecs and more.  Occasional use of Spanish vocabulary roots the poems in a Hispanic realm.  The dulces.  Surprise!” (emphasis by the author).
poem for Prickly Pear reads, “Red desert wonder. / Cactus fruit becomes syrup/ and

Yum! ¡MmMm! ¡Qué Rico! Americas’ Sproutings received a starred review from Booklist, which called it an “inventive stew of food haiku” and highlighted López’s artwork: “From blueberries to prickly pears to corn, the acrylic-on-wood-panel illustrations burst with vivid colors and stylized Mexican flair.”  Kirkus Reviews also laud López, saying “Lopez's vibrant, folklorish illustrations make the book a visual feast.”

For young foodies, there are many directions to go after reading this book of poetry.  Cookbooks are plentiful, including books that highlight world cuisines.   The PowerKids Press series Native Foods of Latin America highlight many of the same ingredients found in Yum! ¡MmMm! ¡Qué Rico! Americas’ Sproutings, including chocolate and chiles.  For chocoholics, Melissa Stewart’s No Monkeys, No Chocolate gives a humorous explanation of the harvesting process, highlighting simians’ role in the food chain.

This is a book I will enjoy sharing with my patrons, especially my youngsters.  The bright colors and simple haiku will be perfect for capturing their attention.

Mora, Pat.  Yum! ¡MmMm! ¡Qué Rico! Americas’ Sproutings.  Illustrated by Rafael López.  New York: Lee & Low  Books, 2007.  ISBN: 9781600608926