Thursday, September 25, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Ashley Bryan's Puppets"

There is an popular saying that you can’t make something out of nothing.  You can, however, make something out of everything, and this is just what author/illustrator/poet/artist Ashley Bryan has put on display with his newest book, Ashley Bryan’s Puppets.  In 33 poems with accompanying photographs by Ken Hannon, edited by Rich Entel, Bryan introduces readers to his hand made puppets, crafted out debris such as shells, sea glass and fishing nets.  Each puppet has a unique name, appearance and story, inspired by African folklore.

I have loved Ashley Bryan’s books for a long time.  I was fortunate enough to see some of his artwork in person at a New York Public Library exhibition earlier in the year, and it was luminous.  The work on display here is a completely different kind of art.  Bryan has fashioned his puppets, sometimes beautiful, sometimes strange and unfamiliar, from detritus found while strolling on the beach.  Natural elements like bones, shells and peach pits are matched with bedposts, buttons and fabric.  Bryan’s poems bring life with the inanimate objects.  There is “Nkosi – Ruler,” “Kitaka – Good Farmer” and husband and wife team “Serwaa – Jewel” and “Zawdie – Chosen Leader.”  These poems are sometimes funny (like that of “Ewunike – Fragrant,” whose hair was made from a toilet brush) and sometimes sweet (like “Osaze – Whom God Loves”).

This book has been in my library for less than a month, but it has already garnered much attention.  I  The puppets are so detailed, and there is always so much to look at and discover that even the pre-literate can enjoy this book on their own.  Longer than a traditional picture book, this is not exactly bedtime reading, but more of a book that would be poured over in different ways and different times.  The poems can be read individually, or as one, in clusters or front-to-back and back-to-front.  On the final page, the author reveals a riddle held within the pages: hidden puppets, and puppets waiting for the reader to create a poem just for them.  This last element of surprise gives readers and listeners a chance to interact directly with the book.
have found that children love looking at the photographs.

With this book, Ashley Bryan is directly bringing African culture to the forefront, using names from across the continent and from the Yoruba and the Ma-Shona people.  Backmatter reveals the geographical origin of each specific name and directs readers towards a resource to choose names for their own creations.  Bryan plays with familiar characters like Anansi the Spider (“I’m Spider Anansi./ I spin without rest/ A close web of stories/ For cradle and nest.”) and the wise owl (“When poised and full/ I relive the music and wisdom/ Of winged lines,/ A feast of poems/ I’ve memorized.”), and introduces a numbers of new faces, as it were.  The poem for one puppet, “Andito – The Great One,”  references the African American spiritual, “Dem Bones,” proclaiming, “Oh! Hear the Word.”  But the upcycled nature of the puppets reveals something of the Bryan’s own background, reusing discarded items during the Depression.

Ashley Bryan’s Puppets received three starred reviews when it was released this year.  Kirkus Review calls it “A stunning work of creative genius sure to captivate the young and lend pure delight to beachcombers of any age.”  School Library Journal called it a “captivating and beautifully designed book.”

Thankfully for all readers, everywhere, Ashley Bryan is nicely prolific, and has numbers of beautiful books on the shelves.  From Coretta Scott King Award winner Let it Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals to The Ox and His Wonderful Horns and Other African Folktales to Bryan’s autiobiographical picture book Words to My Life’s Song, Bryan fans have plenty to entertain them.  Readers interested in more African folktales can look to books like The Iroko-Man: A Yoruba Folktale by Phyllis Gershator, illustrated by Holly C. Kim, Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky by Elphinstone Dayrell, illustrated by Blair Lent or even everyone’s favorite eight-legged trickster in Anansi and the Moss Covered Rock by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Janet Stevens.

Bryan shows no sign of slowing down in his advancing age, and I for one couldn’t be happier.

Bryan, Ashley.  Ashley Bryan’s Puppets.  Photographs by Ken Hannon.  Photographs edited by Rich Entel. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014.  ISBN: 9781442487284

Class Post - Review - "Brown Girl Dreaming"

It seems like every year there are one or two middle grade books upon which everyone agrees.  Last year, Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck received five starred reviews, as did Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven and Holly Black’s Doll Bones.  The year before that, R. J. Palacio’s Wonder was on everyone’s lips.  This year, that honor seems to going to Jacqueline Woodson’s autobiography-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming.  And it couldn’t happen to a more deserving book.

Starting from Part I, “i am born”, Woodson follows the trajectory of her life from Ohio to North Carolina and up to New York during a tumultuous and watershed time in American history.  In spare but very affecting verse, she writes about her father, whom as a child she did not really remember, her mother, her grandparents and especially her siblings.

2014 has been a very good year for middle grade works in verse, seeing several outstanding examples, including Andrea Davis Pinkey’s The Red Pencil, Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover and Skila Brown’s Caminar.  The past few years have brought more prominence to the genre, with the Newbery Medal going to Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan in 2013 and a Newbery honor to Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again in 2012.  Many pundits agree that Brown Girl Dreaming is the frontrunner for the 2015 Newbery Award.

Woodson’s verse is deceptively simple.  Free verse, with the occasional haiku thrown in, Woodson uses language to evoke the feelings, memories, sounds and smells of her childhood.  “The crickets/ and frogs call out./ Sometimes, there’s the soft/ who-whoo of an owl lost/ amid the pines./ Even the dogs won’t rest until/ they’ve howled/ at the moon” (emphasis by the author).

As I said, Brown Girl Dreaming has garnered great attention this year, including six starred reviews.  Kirkus Review writes, “Woodson cherishes her memories and shares them with a graceful lyricism; her lovingly wrought vignettes of country and city streets will linger long after the page is turned.”  Publishers Weekly emphasizes the strength of Woodson’s descriptions, saying, “The writer’s passion for stories and storytelling permeates the memoir, explicitly addressed in her early attempts to write books and implicitly conveyed through her sharp images and poignant observations seen through the eyes of a child.”

In this narrative, food is culture.  Woodson writes longingly of food, as it connects her to her sometimes disconnected family and her new friends in New York.  Her family gathers, “sitting an running their mouths/ while the pots on the stove bubbled/ with collards and sizzled with chicken/ and corn bread baked up brown/ inside Kay’s big black oven” (emphasis by the author).  Later, Woodson marks the prosperity of her family by the quality of the meals.  Plain pancakes in lean times are followed up with syrup, fruit and butter in more comfortable times.  Woodson’s relationship with her best friend Maria is punctuated by descriptions of Maria’s mother’s cooking.  “She pulls the crisp skin/ away from the pernil, eats the pork shoulder/ with rice and beans/…Yeah, I say.  This is only for us.  The family” (Emphasis by the author).

Because Woodson discusses many seminal moments in American history, there are many directions a reader may go if they want further reading.  Perhaps the first books I would recommend are Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven (and yes, I am aware that I recommend these books a lot, but honestly, they’re worth it).  These books cover topics like the Black Panthers (whose breakfast programs are mentioned in Brown Girl Dreaming) and the Vietnam War, as well as being concerned with self-identity, maturity and responsibility, all things Woodson touches upon in her book.  Another beautiful book that I often find myself steering patrons towards is Cynthia Levinson’s micro-history of the Civil Rights movement called We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March.  Woodson wrote about the training civil rights protesters had to undergo, training to help them stay non-violent and strong.  Levinson gives details about such training, undergone by children and young adults in this startling and stirring account.

When the Newbery announcement is made this coming January, I won’t at all be surprised to hear Brown Girl Dreaming and Jacqueline Woodson’s name being called.  This is a vital book, a pleasurable book.  It is the kind of book that readers of any sex, color or creed can get lost inside.

Woodson, Jacqueline.  Brown Girl Dreaming.  New York: Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014.  ISBN: 9780399252518

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Black Cowboy Wild Horses"

Close your eyes.  Think of a cowboy, a quintessential American cowboy.  The hat, the spurs, the whole nine yards.  Now open your eyes, and look at the cover of Black Cowboy Wild Horses: A True Story by Julius Lester.  Is this the image you pictured?

Probably not.  The image of the American cowboy in media representations has been so overwhelmingly white that it might be hard to imagine anything else.  What Julius Lester and illustrated Jerry Pinkney have done with this gorgeous, transfixing picture book is open up an entire new vista of possibilities for thinking about the classic cowboy image.

Bob Lemmons is a cowboy.  With his black stallion, Warrior, Bob sets off to corral a herd of wild mustangs.  Across familiar landscapes, Bob tracks the animals and bides his time.  He protects himself during a thunderstorm.  When he finds the herd, he is careful, he is dominant, and he eventually brings most of the herd back to the ranch, to the cheers of the other cowboys.

Black Cowboy Wild Horses is not a book for die-hard animal lovers.  Frank acknowledgement of animal cruelty involved in the corralling of a wild herd in the Old West is part and parcel of Lester’s narrative.  This is definitely a picture book for older readers, written around a fourth-grade reading level.

Lester’s text does not make a big to-do about the color of Bob’s skin, letting the emphasis of that image rest on Pinkney’s shoulders.  Lester does mention Bob’s background, writing, “Some people learned from books.  Bob had been a slave and never learned to read words”, going on to say that Bob was fluent in the language of tracking animals.  This is the only mention Lester gives to Bob’s race.  Pinkey, however, with his gorgeous illustrations in pencil, gouache and watercolor, says volumes.  He places Bob in the traditional settings of a cowboy: horses, the wide open prairie, dusty ranches.  The contrast is given between what is familiar, the image of the American West, with what is unfamiliar, a black cowboy.  A two-page spread towards the end of the book features Bob, just coming into frame on the left side, while the page is dominated by white cowboys.  Though subtle, the difference is very telling.

Black Cowboy Wild Horses received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.  The review highlights "[t]he fluid brushwork of Pinkney's watercolors" and says the book is "[n]otable for the light it sheds on a fascinating slice of Americana."

Backmatter reveals more about the author and illustrator’s inspiration for the story, and Pinkney gives an important nugget of information: “ out of three cowboys was black or Mexican”.  These are not the images we have from popular books, movies and television.  That’s what makes a book like Black Cowboy Wild Horses so significant.  By not making a big deal of Bob’s race, Lester is acknowledging that such a thing was not uncommon at all, and in fact was downright commonplace.  This offers young black readers an image in a popular genre that reflects their own face.

In the backmatter, Pinkney lists two famous black western names, Nat Love, a cowboy, and Bill Pickett, a rodeo star.  Several books exist for those interested in further reading, including Pat McKissack’s Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love, Andrea Davis Pinkey’s Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Riding’ Cowboy, Lillian Schlissel’s Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West and Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, deputy U.S. Marshall.

Lester, Julius.  Black Cowboy Wild Horses.  Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.  New York: Dial Books, 1998.  ISBN: 9780803717879

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Jane, the fox & me"

I’m not sure what it is, but there is something about the graphic novel format that allows for such an honest baring of one’s (literary) soul.  Graphic memoirs like Smile by Raina Telgemeier, The Dumbest Idea Ever! by Jimmy Gownley and I Remember Beirut  by Zeina Abirached have become more and more popular, and something like author Fanny Britt and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault’s Jane, the fox & me, which not strictly autobiographical, has to come from some place of truth.

Hélène, a young student with body and self-esteem issues, navigates the now treacherous landscape of school, with the help of Jane Eyre, which she is reading for the first time.  Girls who used to be friends now write hurtful things about Hélène on the bathroom walls and no one rises to her defense.  On an end-of-school camp trip, Hélène gets grouped with the “Outcasts”, a Latin girl who does not yet speak French and a girl whose only peculiarity seems to be a preoccupation with brushing her hair.  A chance encounter with a wild fox and finally reaching the end of Jane Eyre help give Hélène confidence, enough to recognize a new friend when one arrives.

Hélène’s story could easily stand in for any number of children, of all genders, ethnicities, nationalities and orientation.  Having self-doubt is not just a trait of the picked-on, but all adolescents (and adults, for that matter) of all kinds, everywhere, amen.  This is a story that transcends culture.  At the same time, however, Jane, the fox & me is littered with cultural references, like pins on a digital map.  Fashion is often up for discussion, including the passing trend of old-fashioned crinoline dresses and nautical-themed bathing suits.  The inclusion of the character of Lucia Muniz, a recent transfer who only speaks Spanish, is interesting in that she is labeled an outcast (by the narrator, no less) merely for her language barrier, which is later breached by a new friend with a little bit of Spanish in her back pocket.  The addition of this new friend, Géraldine, removes the last names from the other girls’ descriptions, changing them from outcasts to fellow friendlies.

Originally published in French, in Montreal, Canada in 2012, Jane, the fox & me was translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou and published in English in 2013.  It appeared on the United States Board on Books for Young People’s (USBBY) list of Outstanding International Books in 2014.  In 2013, it was named by the New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Illustrated Children’s Books.  The book received at least three starred reviews, and overwhelmingly favorable reviews across the board.  Francisca Goldsmith of Booklist called it “An elegant and accessible approach to an important topic” and stated that “Britt's well-constructed narrative is achieved sensitively through Arsenault's impressionistic artwork” (Oct. 15th, 2013).  Karen Coats from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books highlighted Arsenault’s artwork:

 “Helene's emotional tangle is given poignant expression through Arsenault's pitch-perfect mixed-media art; thin pencil-lined figures picked out against smudgy neutral grays and muted sepia tones highlight both the sharp-edged sources and limned echoes of Helene's everyday sadness, while the depictions of her imagined scenes from Jane Eyre are cleaner and more colorful, bringing in reds and greens, and even on occasion exploding into luminous watercolor landscapes. The contrast is striking and sets up the almost mystical tone of the encounter with the fox, who stands out in the red previously reserved for Helene's imaginary connection with Jane.” (Nov. 2013)

Jane, the fox & me is a wonderful book to give to fans of Jane Eyre, but also to readers who have not yet experienced the classic.  Britt’s narrative does give away details of Jane’s story, but the pleasure Hélène takes in reading it could easily inspire others to take up the tale.  Britt even mirrors Jane Eyre’s beginning with her opening line, “There was no possibility of hiding anywhere today.”

Readers inspired by Arsenault’s artwork could explore her previous works, including the picture books Migrant, written by Maxine Trotter and Spork and Virginia, Wolf, written by Kyo Maclear.

The exploratory nature of Hélène’s narrative would offer a good segue into graphic memoirs, such as those listed above (especially Smile, which tackles some of the same feelings of self-doubt), but also such graphics as Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andrés Vera Martínez and The Color Trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa, all of which touch on issues of identity and adolescence in a way that is tied into the characters’/memoirists’ cultural background.

Britt, Fanny.  Jane, the fox & me.  Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault.  Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou.  Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2013.  ISBN: 9781554983605