Monthly Archives: March 2016

Pamela S. Turner’s Samurai Rising


My interest to date in samurai has been close to zero, my tolerance for violence and gore minimal (Game of Thrones had me running in the opposite direction), and being a pacifist I usually find books with endless descriptions of battles and war plans tedious. Yet all of this went out the window when I started Pamela S. Turner’s Samurai Rising. Immediately I was besotted, eager to return to it when I was forced to put it down to do other things,  fascinated by the topic, taken by the exciting storytelling, appreciative of Turner’s way of addressing the issues of research; all in all it was a riveting read.

The very real story of a famous Japanese samurai,Yoshitsune, Samurai Rising is also Turner’s journey as she sifts through all the stories to see what is true and what is not; it is the story of pride and vengeance, of politics; it is one view of Japan in the late twelfth century. Turner does a remarkable job making a complicated story accessible to young readers (not to mention much older ones like myself). Aware of just what will be confusing, she works to help distinguish similar-sounding names, provides the bricolage of setting, elegantly slipping in “surely” and “probably” when necessary to both show there is no way to know for sure and to still provide the story of small tidbits of information to help the reader imagine what things actually looked like and felt like.

One of the many things I liked about the book was Turner’s way of slipping in wry and pithy comments here and there to clarify.  Say on Page 19 when after a paragraph culminating in a quote describing the military brilliance of Yoshitsune’s great-grandfather, she had a short one sentence paragraph: “No pressure, Yoshitsune.” Or how about on Page 127 when she writes, “You know strife has gone on too long when even the samurai are sick of violence.”

The end notes are fascinating as Turner uses them to not only indicate her sources, but to add in more information that she couldn’t squeeze into the main narrative. There’s a lengthy bibliography and even more information on Turner’s website, including some very interesting videos for those that want to get a sense of kendo and the dance done by Yoshitsune’s lover as described by storytellers and then Turner in the book. There are maps throughout the book to help readers get a spatial sense of what is happening, a helpful cast of characters at the beginning, and an index. Finally there are Gareth Hinds’ dark and brooding illustrations, capturing the movement and drama and ominous nature of the history being told.

One of my favorite books of 2016 so far, I recommend it highly.



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David Denby’s Lit Up

Finished David Denby’s Lit Up yesterday evening. Denby spends his time observing English classes in several different high schools and hones in on what happens as gifted teachers lead students grappling with difficult texts. While it is mostly on the more traditional approach to literature instruction (a class tussling with one book, mostly so-called “canon” ones), Denby is very appreciative of one school’s focus on individual reading, writing glowingly of Penny Kittle’s work and with respect for Dick Allington’s research. In his bibliography he’s got works like Jeff Wilhelm’s Readacide. Also Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren of which this reminded me — both being explorations from the perspective of nonfiction writers, not educators. Denby writes movingly of the kids’ backgrounds, what they are dealing with, their teachers too. The latter is especially interesting in terms of their different approaches and methods in their classrooms. What came through for me wasn’t so much the individual books studied as much as the passion and efforts of the teachers and the effect on their students. Denby is cranky in spots about devices, genre works like The Hunger Games, and isn’t necessarily in love with the specific 24 books of the subtitle (I am not of his opinion that they are necessarily so life- changing), but overall this is a thoughtful and worthwhile read.

Originally posted on facebook and goodreads.

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John Jeremiah Sullivan in his fascinating New York Times piece ‘Shuffle Along’ and the Painful History of Black Performance in America‘ about the forthcoming Broadway show (that I just saw and loved this past week), mentions the 19th century dancer Juba, reminding me of Walter Dean Myers’ posthumously published novel of last year, Juba! A Novel.

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Children’s Literature and the Censorship Conversation: A Conference


On Saturday, April 16th The Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature is hosting a conference on banned, challenged and censored books for young children. Led by experts in the field, the conversations will revolve around the experiences of those who have been censored, the development of controversial works and the viewpoints of authorities on books, produced in 2015-2016, that have been challenged or censored.

Speakers at the conference will include Robie Harris, author of It’s Only Natural (Candlewick) who will be a discussant on the panel, “Developing Challenged Children’s Books: Authors and Their Editors” moderated by children’s book historian, Leonard Marcus. Pulitzer Prize recipient, David Shipler will lead a panel entitled, “Why Are Young Adult Books Challenged?”with panelists including Pura Belpré winner, Meg Medina. Bank Street College of Education’s Children’s Librarian Allie Jane Bruce will be a panelist on “Context and Controversy: Banned, Censored and Contested Books for Children Today” moderated by Elizabeth Levy. Joan Bertin,Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship will deliver the closing keynote speech. In between panels, attendees will have the opportunity to network with presenters. Books by authors will be available for purchase from the Bank Street Bookstore

For more details and to register for this important conversation go here.

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Another Take on Privilege

A decade ago I wrote the following Letter to the Editor in response to a New York Times article, about a wealthy US do-gooding family (“In Niger, Using a Vacation to Help the World’s Poor”). Not only is this sort of thing still happening, but it has become big business. And so I was glad to see Jacob Kushner’s article in Monday’s Times, “The Voluntourist Dilemma.” If you really want to help, as I wrote a decade ago give money or better yet, as Kushner concludes, make it your career. (Similar to what I feel about teaching:)

To the Editor: Regarding Claire Spiegel’s ”Niger: Using Vacation to Help the World’s Poor” (Journeys, Aug. 20): if readers have $4,500 per person (not including air fare) to spend on a two-week vacation helping the world’s poor, then I would suggest contributing most of that amount to a reputable nongovernmental organization and then going on a more modestly priced vacation to help out.

Monica Edinger
New York, N.Y

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Reviewing When We Think We Know or A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Alexander Pope

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the conundrum that happens when reviewers think we know, but don’t. My friend Roxanne Feldman addressed this beautifully in her post, “Doing the Diversity Thing Diversely, Part 3: How Can We Know When We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know?,” focusing in on the reviewer’s difficulty when:

DKDK One is unaware of one’s lack of knowledge in a particular area. More often than not, one also believes that he/she actually has solid knowledge about the matters at hand. This often makes it difficult for anyone to obtain actual knowledge.

Roxanne then goes on to unpack two examples. The first is her evolving response as a Chinese reader to The Five Chinese Brothers. Writes Roxanne:

I myself have engaged in several discussions over the years on the portrayal of Chinese culture and characters in children’s and YA books.  I always do this with much trepidation: since there is no way that I can truly be the spokesperson for an entire (and extremely complex) culture, even if it is considered MINE.  (I am now even more aware of the differences between Chinese and Chinese American Cultures.)

Having defended the book some years ago against others who saw the illustrations as racist, Roxanne now feels:

I have also come to realize how much I also DKDKed! My insistence to support the use of yellow for the faces is based on my personal experiences: as a Chinese girl growing up in a homogeneous environment, proud to be a member of the “yellow race,” and never having to contend with my ethnic identity.  It is a highly biased stance (and I wanted to break the connection of Yellow=Undesirable, what an naive idea!)  I disregarded the real experiences of Chinese and Asian American child readers.  Just because I don’t find being labeled “yellow skinned” hurtful does not mean that there are not many who are indeed hurt.  In this case, I believe that their views are more valid than mine.

Roxanne’s next example is from the Kirkus review of my book, Africa is My Home. Before the book was published, my biggest anxiety was that a reviewer would catch something that I or the illustrator had overlooked and managed to get glaringly wrong. It hadn’t occurred to me that a reviewer would do so inaccurately as happened in the Kirkus review, a case of the reviewer not knowing what he/she didn’t know. Do read Roxanne’s thoughtful research and unpacking of the “flaw,” the lack of variety in skin tone in the illustrations.

How do we review when we worry about what we don’t know? Take my favorable New York Times review of Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil. As someone who is passionate about how the continent of Africa is represented, I wanted to do right by the book while recognizing that my knowledge about the Dafur conflict and its people was limited to news accounts. I did some research and fact checking for my review, but there was no way I could do enough to be absolutely 100% certain that all was correct. In the end it came down to trust, that Andrea with her stellar reputation — having done her own copious research and reached out to some seemingly excellent experts — had gotten it right.

Or how about when we are of the ethnicity or culture represented in a book, but have polarizingly different responses to the way it has been represented as happened last year during the discussions around The Hired Girl? My background as the child of secular German Jews probably had something to do with my enthusiasm for the book. Yet devoted and practicing Jews with very different backgrounds from mine did not see eye to eye, some loved the book while others did not (a range of these responses can be seen in this Heavy Medal post) . What are we to make of these varied responses in lieu of our concern about equity? What to think about what we Jews knew in or didn’t know in terms of that book as it represented our culture? Did we assume and trust too much? Or not enough?

Having been brought up by German parents and spent years in Germany as a child, I am sensitive to representations of things German. This has made my reading of books set there to be perhaps different from someone without my background. In a recent book set in 1980s East Berlin, little errors kept pulling me out of the story, say a bratwurst sandwich (these are eaten with rolls, not in an American-style sandwich), a stove described as too small to roast a turkey (not a usual part of German cuisine), and so forth. In another forthcoming book of a similar time and place I found that the author was more successful with the  German stuff, perhaps because, unlike the previous writer, she had spent significant time in East Berlin during the time in question. In this case, something else specific to my experience caused distractions — the child American main character’s ease with the German language based on seemingly minimal previous experience. As someone who spent time in Germany as a child, some of it in German schools, my experience was significantly different. Now does it matter? The story is not about the child’s experiences in the schools, after all. And understanding German is critical to the plot. I doubt any reviewer is going to give any thoughts to the boy’s remarkable ability with the language unless they’ve had experiences that will alert them to it. Presumably reviewers have and will assume sufficient familiarity with German culture and history to do justice to such books.

So what do we do as reviewers? I think we can only be as aware as possible, be open to corrections, to be conscious that we probably don’t know as much as we think we know, and try to go beyond that dangerous “little learning” about which Alexander Pope is so scathing.





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Forthcoming on Broadway: Shuffle Along

This past weekend I was wowed by Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed. Written and directed by the legendary George C. Wolfe, with jaw-dropping choreography by the awesome tap dancer Savion Glover, and show-stopping moments by a stellar cast that includes Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter, this is one unique and mesmerizing show. A complex one too — both elements of the original 1921 musical as well as a piercingly blunt history of it as well. Music, race, racism, joy, pain, artistry, talent, complexity, fame, and more — all are in this fabulous show.

To learn more check out this recent NPR piece,  these interviews, and the video below.


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