Taken together, this anachronistic style of coverage reproduces, in condensed form, many of the worst habits of modern American journalism on the subject of Africa. To be clear, this means that Africa only warrants the public’s attention when there is disaster or human tragedy on an immense scale, when Westerners can be elevated to the role of central characters, or when it is a matter of that perennial favorite, wildlife. As a corollary, Africans themselves are typically limited to the role of passive victims, or occasionally brutal or corrupt villains and incompetents; they are not otherwise shown to have any agency or even the normal range of human thoughts and emotions. Such a skewed perspective not only disserves Africa, it also badly disserves the news viewing and news reading public.
Please go read this “Letter of Concern to 60 Minutes” from a huge group of academics, journalists, and others about the narrow viewpoint of the continent being represented on the show. I think it is all too true throughout the US.
Two new British imports, Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees and Robin Stevens’ Murder is Bad Manners, offer middle grade readers clever young women, wry and witty authorial voices, hapeless teachers, excellent sidekicks, well-developed settings, and page-turning plots. Both are also just a lot of fun.
Mars Evacuees opens at the Muckling Abbott School for Girls where twelve year-old Alice Dare learns that she is one of a handful of kids being evacuated to Mars. This is most likely because of her mother, a celebrity military pilot in Earth’s war with the Morror, invisible aliens who have caused catastrophic climate change. Harkening back to those children who were evacuated from London during WW II, Alice and a similar group head off to Mars. Overseen by military and scientist adults, the children are divided into age cohorts and tended to and taught by some surprisingly personable robots — Alice’s is the Goldfish. She acquires friends: smart and quirky Josephine, good-hearted Carl, and his sweet little brother Noel. When all the adults mysteriously disappear, after coping with some serious Lord of the Flies situations, the four head off to find help, encountering a young Morror along the way. There is an Indiana Jones quality to the story — the way the kids barrel into one over-the-top challenge after another, figure them out, and carry on. While there is tension and you have no idea what will happen, Alice’s voice is so determined and charming, that you are just sure they will survive. And they do and more than that — they save the..well, world isn’t quite the right word…the world and other stuff, shall we say. It is great fun! (Hmm…writing this makes me think this will be my next read aloud.)
Whereas Mars Evacuees is set mostly on a futuristic Mars, Murder is Bad Manners, winner of the 2015 Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize, is set firmly in a 20th century past. It is 1934 and 8th grader Hazel Wong has been sent from her Hong Kong home to the very English Deepdean School for Girls where she encounters the lively Daisy Wells. After a teacher literally drops dead, Daisy organizes the Wells & Wong Detective Society, determined to find the murderer. The timid Watson-like Hazel writes of their efforts, fretting as Daisy, very much the Sherlock of the two (more in terms of leadership as she is far more socially apt than the adult detective), brazenly determines just what they have to do. A diverse protagonist, a school story, a cozy mystery in the vein of Christie, a friendship narrative, and one with some interesting touches regarding race and prejudice, Murder is Bad Manners is all in all a delight. The first in the Wells and Wong series, I can’t wait to read the next one.
Every year I choose a newly published book for my 4th grade class to read in literature circles. It is fun to do a brand new book each year, one that is clearly going to be a classic. For instance, we did The One and Only Ivan shortly after it won the Newbery. This year, before it received its Newbery Honor, I decided it should be Cece Bell’s El Deafo.
Once I started thinking about how to do it I realized the usual literature circle format (especially the roles) weren’t right for Bell’s wonderful graphic memoir. And so I left it more open, asking the children to consider some guiding questions and inviting them to come up with more on their own. Happily, it went wonderfully well. The group conversations were rich and when they came back together as a whole class they eagerly shared highlights.
At the end, each child wrote a blog post response to the book. Since these are private, I have posted excerpts here so you can get a taste of authentic child response to the book. Since I wasn’t at all sure how they would respond to the book or how the discussions would go, I’m delighted with their responses!
Last month I wrote a post about the Blue School’s Keren Lilu’s fabulous unit on Africa is My Home. Inspired, a colleague and I used Keren’s ideas with our own 4th grade students and it went wonderfully well. And so for others who might want to give it a try I’ve put together this page that details her methods so that others can follow them too. Keren also provided this video of the children’s wonderful paintings of Margru’s journey (inspired their study of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series).
Fans of Laura Amy Schlitz are a patient bunch. We know that it takes time for her beautiful, unique, and complex stories to come into being. Happily, the wait is always worth it. Such is the case for The Hired Girl, out this fall from Candlewick Press. In the form of a diary, the entries are written by the only daughter of a hardscrabble Pennsylvanian widower farmer with four sons. Eager to read, write, learn, and gain knowledge of every sort, 14 year-old Joan Skraggs, when we first meet her, has a brutal life and it seems as if there will be no way out for her. Yet being resourceful and clever, Joan …well, you will need to read the book to find out what happens. As you would expect from Schlitz, the language is lush, full of vivid sensory details and emotional resonance. I was immersed in Joan’s 1911 experiences, anxiously following her through pain, happiness, despair, love, humor, knowledge, consideration of class, and serious contemplation of faith. Something you all have to look forward to this fall. Until then, here is the lovely cover. Thanks, Candlewick, for inviting me to do this (my first cover reveal!).
And we are off! Today is the first match of the 2015 SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books. And it is a doozy — Brown Girl Dreaming versus Children of the King judged beautifully by Holly Black. We’ve also got our kid commentators — including one new 7th grader who is doing a fabulous job right out of the gate. You can see all the judges here and the contenders and the brackets here. It is a lot of fun, I promise you!