Eggers and Harris’ What Can a Citizen Do?

Here’s a delightful  trailer for Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris’ What Can a Citizen Do? forthcoming from Chronicle.

 

 

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Teaching and Learning About Slavery: The Royall House and Slave Quarters

I recently visited the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, MA, an important site on enslavement in the north during the Revolutionary War period. In addition to the well-done tour, I was impress with the evolution of the site from one focused on the family and house to one emphasizing the role and significance of the enslaved who made it all possible. You can read about that in this article.  As is true for so many families and institutions in the north and overseas, wealth was gained through Caribbean sugar plantations. Slowly this complicity is becoming more known — institutions are grappling with how to deal with the fact that they exist because of enslavement. I highly recommend exploring their website as it is rich with resources such as documentation of those enslaved by the Royalls,  the important story of Belinda Sutton and her petitions,  and  Parallel Lives, Common Landscape: Artifacts from the Royall House & Slave Quarters. I plan to use this alongside the Whitney Plantation in my teaching of enslavement this coming year.

 

 

 

 

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Coming Soon: Kekla Magoon’s The Season of Styx Malone

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This book. Oh, this book. How much do I love you?

The Season of Styx Malone is not out for a couple of months yet, but I just had to write something so that you all get it on your radar. I knew Kekla Magoon from her other work,  say such hard hitting urban YA works as How It Went Down, a delightful futuristic reworking of Robin Hood, and X: A Novel, her collaboration with  Illyasah Shabazz which I adored, adored, adored.  And now this — one of the most delightful middle grade books I have read in some time.

The black Franklin boys, 10 year old Caleb and 11 year old Bobby Gene, have spent uneventful lives in a small town outside of Indianapolis. It is a place where everyone knows each other, where children can roam without parental worry, and where the bigger world stays away. While Bobby Gene is relatively content, Caleb is not. He wants to see the world outside of Sutton, but that isn’t going to happen if his father has anything to say about it, refusing to sign permission forms for yearly field trips to the city’s Children’s Museum.  When his father says he is extra ordinary, it infuriates Caleb; he wants to be more than ordinary not less. That it is the dangers for black boys out there that is behind this, a belief that staying under the radar is best, that it all comes from a paternal place of love and fierce desire to keep them safe, matters little to this boy yearning to break free.

And then a stranger comes to town. One Styx Malone, a sixteen year old foster child who gives them a summer to remember. They meet in the woods, not far from the boys’ home, where they are trying to figure out what to do with a bag of ill-gotten fireworks. (Won’t spoil how they got them other than to say it is hilarious.) Styx, exuding cool with an improbable candy cigarette dangling out of his mouth, convinces the boys that he can help them — mediate or parlay he says — to get rid of the loot for something better. And so begins the Great Escalator Trade in which they trade up and up and up to get the object of their dreams.  The escapades and adventures are absolutely delightful, at times breathtaking, and all completely true to the circumstances of these characters and the book’s setting. That is, it all seems completely plausible. This is because Magoon has not only created a wonderful array of characters, nuanced and unique each of them, but she has placed them in a superbly constructed world. There is a timeless quality to the boys’ lives that makes one understand why their father is trying so hard to keep them so penned in, yet Caleb’s yearning is so beautifully rendered along the way that it makes for a contemporary feel as well.

In addition to superb character development, elegant world building, and compelling plotting, Magoon is outstanding at sentence level writing. I was too busy reading to stop and mark favorites, so will reread to do so. Meanwhile, to give a taste, here are a few I picked out randomly:

Styx twirled the candy cigarette over his knuckles. “Your old lady’s really keeping the jam on you, eh?”

It didn’t occur to us to study his every move or wonder what he was hiding. How could he have been hiding anything? He was too busy showing us a whole new world.

The white of the sky and the chug of the train, the speed and the rocking and the grease scent tipped me toward giddy.

This is a book that leans toward happy while exploring deep themes that aren’t so happy. There are moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, others that will bring you to tears, and still more that will have you pondering. The Franklin family and Styx Malone will be staying in my heart for a long time. I hope they will do likewise in yours.

 

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Sengbe Pieh (AKA Cinque) celebrated in Sierra Leone

This is so cool. When I was in Sierra Leone in the 1970s no one knew about the Amistad story. That has now changed and I saw mentions when I was there several years ago. Now there is this: a portrait of Sengbe Pieh (known as Cinque in the US) on the left side of the Big Market in Freetown, painted by Alusine Bangura. Thanks, Gary Schulze, for the photo.

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How To Do a Beloved Classic Today: Anne with an E, Season 2

Thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas‘ smart and enthusiastic tweets for  Anne with an E, Season 2  I moved it up in my to-view pile. Now I’ve finished it and agree with Ebony wholeheartedly. This, to my mind, is a great model on how to expand, consider, interrogate, and so forth a beloved classic.

For those who aren’t aware, “Anne with an E” is a Netflix series based on L. M. Montgomery’s beloved book series Anne of Green Gables. I first read them a few decades ago when the books were popular among my then-fourth grade students. I haven’t seen any kids reading the books in many years, but they are still adored by those now-long-grown-up young readers from then. Add in an earlier also beloved television adaptation and it is understandable that a new one is going to have a tough road ahead.

The first season of “Anne with an E,” to the best of my knowledge, while adding in some backstories here and there, did not veer drastically from the books. This second season however — new characters, new places, new themes bring the larger world into insular Avonlea. One character heads off to find himself by working on a ship and befriends a black Trinidadian who shows him his homeland and takes the story into significant places of race, racism, and more in that time and place. Several other story lines address gender identity and the varying responses to that — some predictably horrid and others remarkably okay. To my mind, Anne’s character is maintained throughout and lends itself to considering different ways of living.

Now I’ve seen some dreadful changes with classics, but this isn’t the only one that I feel works. Another is Jacqueline Wilson’s Four Children and It, a clever updating of the now very problematic original, E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It.  Problematic because of racism, stereotyping, and more. I loved the original for many reasons, but am a fan of Wilson’s updating too. (ETA I was remiss when first writing this post in not mentioning Kate Saunders’ outstanding Five Children on the Western Front which justifiably won the 2015 Costa Award. My review is here.)

I’d love to see more of this. Maybe Doctor Dolittle? (Let’s forget about the awful Eddie Murphy movie which has nothing to do with the original book other than a vet as the main character and a bunch of talking animal friends.) Be so interesting to see the good doctor called out on his racism. (Here’s an interesting article on the history of the controversy of the book.) How about changing Prince Bumpo (from The Story of Doctor Dolittle) into something other than the sap Lofting makes him? In one edition a few decades back, that story line was completely rewritten by Patricia and Fred Mckissack, but I’d love to see someone do something even more drastic along the lines of the new Anne with an E.  Perhaps by making Bumpo far more an active agent in the story along the lines of Bash?  Hmmm…. what about doing what Matt Johnson did to Poe so wonderfully in Pym: A Novel

Anyway, if you are a fan from childhood and too much away from fidelity to the original will distress you, this isn’t the adaptation for you. But if you are someone with both a childhood love for them and an openness to opening up the world in these books, I recommend the Netflix series highly.

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Looking Back on 2018 Books

Literature, whether for adults or young readers, often reflects its time. Each year at awards time, along with such perennial debates as popularity versus literary quality, subjectivity, and age appropriateness, critics often focus on thematic treatments that are on the general public’s minds. Recent times have been challenging for many, with societal concerns such as human rights, gender issues, racism, gun violence, civil rights, and equity dominating our national conversation. Notable in 2017 was the passionate response by children’s book creators to these issues, intertwined with that of identity and representation. Whose story gets told, and who gets to tell it?

That is the start of Roxanne Feldman and my Horn Book Magazine article “2017 in Review: The Year in Words.” It is in the magazine’s award issue, alongside speeches such as Erin Entrada Kelly‘s Newbery one (as those who followed my druthers for this award, you won’t be surprised that I was delighted with it).  We explore what the awards suggest in terms of diversity and #ownvoices as well as other interesting aspects to last year. Hope you check it out!

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Gail Herman’s What Was the Holocaust?

My fourth grade students are big fans of the Who Was? book series. Strong readers, by and large, they can gulp one down in a day. I haven’t read many of them, just those that feature outliers of particular interest to me, say  Who Was Charlie Chaplin? by Patricia Brennan Demuth and Who Was Lewis Carroll? by Pam Pollack and Meg Belviso. While I was dubious that it would be possible to present these complicated men in such a format, I found both titles to be solidly researched, informative, and appropriate for the intended audience.  And that has been it until What Was the Holocaust? by Gail Herman.

Now some context to what follows. I’m the child of German Jews on both sides, some were murdered, some survived camps, some managed to get out. All were persecuted while living in Nazi Germany. You can read more about them here. As for me, having grown up in a family that did not practice any form of Judaism (only identifying via ethnicity) nor lived in Jewish communities (I grew up in southern and midwestern towns and cities) and with a strong connection to Germany, the Holocaust was a pretty vague idea to me. In fact I can only recall two instances during my elementary school years.  One was a woman with a tattooed number on her arm at a summer vacation colony my mother’s parents went to and being aware that it had been done at concentration camps. Another was sneaking into my father’s study to look at a book full of the skeletal people in the camps in the same way, to be brutally honest, I looked through National Geographic. Strange was strange be they people of my own ethnicity close to death or people from far away with practices that fascinated me. I was somewhat aware that my father’s father had been killed in such a camp, but it seemed so far away in the past as to have no emotional resonance for me.  It was when I was ten and heading off for a year in Germany (we’d done one when I was seven too as my father was an academic) that a gift from my father’s mother spurred sudden interest. This was The Diary of Anne Frank along with a diary for me. I figured out that the diary she gave me was of the same manufacturer that Anne’s was. Unsurprising since my father and grandmother had come from Frankfurt and lived there when the Franks had. At that point I became pretty obsessed with Anne and more curious about the Holocaust.

As a result of my own experience, I’m pretty clear-eyed, I think, about kids interested in the Holocaust. This past year, as always, I showed a bunch of Charlie Chaplin movies, ending with The Great Dictator. A savage satire of Hitler and his cohorts, it came out in 1940, before the horror of the Holocaust was known. (In fact, Chaplin said he wouldn’t have made the film had he known. But it is wonderful, especially the moving final speech.)  In order for my 4th grade students to understand the satire and irony I had to give them some background on Hitler and the Holocaust. The range in what was known was vast— kids who went to Hebrew School knew a certain amount while those of other religions and ethnic backgrounds sometimes knew very little. I’m guessing that in other communities around the country, especially those where there are no Jews (the sort I grew up in), 10 year olds today probably know almost nothing.

And for those who know nothing, for whom the Holocaust is a very vague concept, this book is a success. (ETA: I’m not seeing this as a book that would be used by an adult in teaching about the Holocaust, but as a book kids would encounter independently and read on their own.) It provides an overview of what lead up to it, the camps, etc. Written in the familiar style of all of the books in the series. I commend the series editors for their sensitivity and awareness of the topic.  Not only is there a letter from editor Jane O’Connor on the decision to make the book, but also another one from Ilyse Shainbrown, a Holocaust educator. My only quibble about the content is the lack of any explanation of what Jews are. Chapter I: Anti-Semitism begins, “Anti-Semitism is the hatred of the Jews” and goes on to the various examples of this hatred from Roman times on. I just wondered if there might have been a way to define who and what Jews were. Perhaps that is too complicated, but I’m sure there will be readers of this book who will have no clue.

Now, let me get to the elephant in the room: the book’s cover. Here it is:

I admit, it shocked me. Now the big-heads are standard for the covers of all of the series, so they kept with it for this one. Did they have to? I showed the book to my colleagues who wondered if perhaps a different format (including a different type face) might work better for such serious topics. Looking through other books in the series, I can some that some could do with a serious overhauling cover-wise, The Boston Tea Party one most of all.

Next I reached out to Penguin, wondering about their thoughts and was very appreciative to hear back from the series publisher, Francesco Sedita who wrote:

As I’m sure you could imagine, we did not come to this cover easily—or even the decision to include the subject in the WhoHQ.  When thinking about this cover, we started with photo research, as we always do, and made a decision originally to not treat the cover with our typical style.  But every sketch that I saw felt wrong.  I realized as I reviewed pass after pass of coves that to treat this title differently—in a different way than titles like What Was D-Day?Who Was Anne Frank?, our upcoming What Was Stonewall?Who Was Helen Keller?, What Were the Twin Towers?, felt disingenuous and like we were purposefully making a statement around What Was the Holocaust?

We sat back for a while, had some discussions with a major account that we took to heart, and worked on the cover once again.  The end product, what you see now, is what we feel is the best way forward.  There were children in many of the photos that we had researched, and we obviously we thought they should not be included in the cover.  We did not make the heads of the men that you see too exaggerated, as we often do on our lighter-topic books, and we chose to keep their eyes away from the camera.

Because we understand that this title in our series is a very difficult one, we included a letter from the editor in, as well as a letter from an educator, in this case. Ilyse Shainbrown.

Again, this was a complex process for us and we believe we are bringing a very thoughtful account of this tragedy to a population of readers that not only love our books (and even collect them) but also need to be introduced to this subject matter in the smart way that the WhoHQ can provide.

While I appreciate the careful thought expressed here, I’m still unnerved by the cover. Having looking through all the series’ covers this one seems different —as does the topic. I understand the need to attract young readers who are unfamiliar with the topic and don’t see the cover is exploitive. That said, I still wonder if there might have been a way to show one figure (as is true for most of the other covers) rather than the column. I don’t know….I think kids will pick it up and read it and that surely is important. So I’m on the fence about it. Anyone else have thoughts about it?

Also, if this is genocide, how about books on other ones?

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