Sunday, October 30, 2011

Picture Book Review - I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley

One thing I've noticed over the years -- the stories that touch readers most deeply, most personally, are those that come from the true heart of the author. It could be through an experience the author had, a relative or friend's life, a connection to an historical event, or even through something the author read that touched him or her. But when a writer is moved from the very core of his/her being to write something, that motivation is going to come through in the story and to its readers.

Natasha Anastasia Tarpley was motivated to write her picture book I Love My Hair because of her own childhood relationship with her locks and with her mother. As an African American, Natasha's hair needed to be combed out frequently, which her mother would do in the evening. The tender ritual that Natasha's mother acted out, where the two would bond over the combing and braiding of Natasha's hair, resulted in some wonderful memories. And as an adult, those memories returned when Natasha herself was able to find a hairstyle that allowed her to feel "at peace with my hair, at home again with myself".

In I Love My Hair, an African American girl celebrates all that is wonderful about her particular head of hair. She thinks of all the ways her mother can fix her hair, from cornrows to buns to a fluffy Afro style. She loves the way her beaded braids make a fun rhythm that she skips along with down the sidewalk. And readers will see that there's much to love about this gorgeous gir'ls hair, which is "curly as a vine winding upward, reaching the sky and climbing toward outer space." E. B. Lewis's illustrations bring the imagery of Tarpley's text to life, capturing the emotion and spirit of the words and memorializing the love of mother and child. While the story focuses on hair, it's more than that, as you might imagine -- it's family love, healthy self-image and the joyous spirit of hair that makes you feel like flying!

For anyone who's parenting an African American child, this is an essential addition to your bookshelf, one that will help put into words all the reasons there are to "love my hair!".

Bonus: Read an interview with Natasha Tarpley from the kidlit blog The Brown Bookshelf

I Love My Hair by Natasha Tarpley, published by Little, Brown & Company
All ages
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Some days I just let my hair be free to do what it wants, to go any which-way it pleases. Then my hair surrounds my head, like a globe. This is my Afro style."
Highly recommended

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Link Love: Kid World Citizen

Looking to raise your kids to be global citizens? Want to add new elements of multiculturalism to your classroom or homeschool curriculum? Check out Kid World Citizen, a newly developed website that contains a host of ideas to "help young minds go global".

Started by an adoptive mom with a beautiful, truly multicultural family, Kid World Citizen aims to be a destination site for activities, games, educational items, art projects and other sites that help bring global concerns into a child's everyday life. Plenty of pictures and lots of great links are included. And, of course, there's some terrific books mentioned here too -- including the Runaway Rice Cake, a really fun twist on the familiar Gingerbread Man story that sets the tale in China. Love it!

Studies show that multiculturalism is most effective when it's integrated into the overall curriculum, not made into a special theme unit or focus week. As parents, we want Sprout to recognize his place as a citizen of the world, and what better way to do that than to introduce him to different cultures through music, food, literature, and games? Bookmark Kid World Citizen, or follow them on Facebook, and grow your global consciousness along with us!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder

Penny Dreadful is the kind of book that librarians and teachers live for. This is the book that you secretly keep in the back of your mind, just waiting for the earnest boy or girl who comes to you and asks for something new. This is what you hold on to for the summer doldrums or the winter blahs, when kids are tired of required reading and want something comforting. Penny Dreadful is like your favorite flavor of ice cream, reliably tasty and never disappointing.

The plot is simple and remarkably classic. Penelope Grey lives a life that many other kids would dream of, with a huge house, loving if distant parents, a private tutor and every creature comfort. Yet her life is boring, nothing at all like the life of children in books. So Penelope makes one wish, a small and simple wish that something interesting would happen.

She has absolutely no idea what she's in for.

Before she knows it, Penelope's comfortable life is turned upside down. Her father has quit his job and soon the family is out of money. Their lavish lifestyle rapidly disappears. Soon the only option the Greys have left is to move to Thrush Junction, Tennessee, the home of Mrs Grey's elderly aunt who recently passed away. Great-Aunt Betty owned a rambling house there, which she left to Penelope's mom. The plan is to start life over again in Thrush Junction -- and that is just what the family does, with some amazing results. Very soon Penelope has become someone she would scarcely have recognized in her old life, and she's determined to hang on to her new self no matter what it takes.

Laurel Snyder has a good thing going here, something that many writers aspire to but aren't able to pull off. There's scarcely a misstep in Penny Dreadful -- the characters are quirky but believable, the problems are those kids can actually identify with, and there's even a whiff of magic to keep things interesting. Readers will want to move into Thrush Junction and meet Penny's clever and adventurous friends (especially Luella, my absolute favorite. Is it too much to hope Laurel Snyder brings Luella back again??). I love the way Penny relates to the books she's read, wanting to spice up her own life so it more closely resembles the stories she loves. Although at the beginning of the book Penny lives a life of privilege, she's no Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. Rather, she's an ordinary little girl craving an extraordingary life. I was exactly the same way as a kid, and I suspect there are more than a few of us out there (if you're reading this, you probably were too).

Bottom line: Penny Dreadful is a believable yet dreamily hopeful novel that is just right for readers who want something different and still reminiscent of familiar favorites. I firmly believe this is one that will have a long life on many recommended reading lists, and it's a great choice for reading aloud together.

Penny Dreadful by Laurel Snyder, published by Random House
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "With an unfamiliar flutter in her chest, Penelope unfolded the scrap of paper and read what she'd written one last time. I wish something interesting would happen when I least expect it, just like in a book. Penelope refolded her wish carefully and tossed it into the well. Then she leaned over and peered down after it."
Highly recommended

Friday, October 21, 2011

Chapter Book Review - The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright

With some notable exceptions (Charlotte's Web, The Cricket in Times Square, Bunnicula, The Mouse and the Motorcycle), I'm usually not that thrilled with chapter books that have animal narrators. I'm not sure just why -- maybe it feels a bit contrived, and maybe the anthropomorphism just goes too far with some books. Hard to say. With picture books, I'm a lot more forgiving, but a chapter book usually has to run at least a little bit on empathy and shared experience, and, well, I've never been a cat or a dog or a mouse, so how should I know what that feels like?

All that goes out the window, though, for a book that marries Dickensian wit with a nice twisty plot, and lines like "Animals carry time in their bones." More, please!

Carmen Agra Deedy and Randall Wright have crafted a pitch-perfect book in The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale. The plot seems straightforward: alley cat Skilley has found the perfect gig at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, an inn in the heart of London renowned for its amazing cheese. Since the inn is overrun with mice (see: amazing cheese), Skilley's pretty much got a job for life as far as the humans go. But Skilley is not what he seems, and he'll do anything -- including forming an alliance with a rascally mouse named Pip -- to keep his secret hidden. Enter a villain in the form of skulking, sneaking tomcat Pinch, and an even more mysterious personage in the attic, and you have the makings of a novel that captures the very spirit of Dickens' best.

There's a good bit of authentic dialogue here, which might trip up a less fluent reader. However, this is easily handled with the inclusion of a glossary at the back, which provides a great opportunity to teach a few research skills as well. The illustrations by Barry Moser are moodily evocative and put you right inside the Cheshire Cheese with Skilley and Pip as they flee the domineering cook. I love the addition of illustrations in a book like this, where complex vocabulary and plot combine with plenty of white space and pictures, in a balance that keeps readers from being overwhelmed. The drama builds to an appropriately thrilling climax that is complex enough to satisfy adults but not so hard to grasp that kids will be lost. All in all, a perfect title for reading aloud -- with short enough chapters that "just one more" seems a reasonable request.

Bottom line: if you love Merry Olde England and want to share that with your kids, The Cheshire Cheese Cat is the book for you. But don't be disappointed if they read on ahead -- a book like this is too much fun to hold back!

The Cheshire Cheese Cat by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright, published by Peachtree Publishers
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "He was the best of toms. He was the worst of toms." (Love it!)

Bonus! Read more about how this novel came about on the Peachtree Publishers blog.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How White is Your World?

I'm taking a study break from reading about diversity to write a blog post about diversity.

Hmm, can you tell where my heart is these days?

One of my classes this semester is Multicultural Children's Literature. It is nearly the toughest class I've ever taken (save an undergrad linguistics class that was INSANELY hard, but interesting). My reading level for the class is beyond what any reasonable person could handle. My papers and class discussions are challenging. And just when I think I have a handle on it all, something else comes along to upset the apple cart, like the massive paper I need to get cracking on but for which I still haven't chosen a topic.

But really, I think anyone parenting transracially should take a class like this. Because so much of what our children learn about race is formed through how we live our lives, and the materials we choose to bring into them. Through this class I've read and talked a lot about how racial identity is formed -- and it is formed a whole lot sooner than most people think it is. In fact, in this interview Professor Erin Winkler discusses studies that now show children as young as 3-5 years old may begin to use race to identify and exclude. Yikes! And, bias comes as part of the larger process of enculturation, which means kids learn bias from society, not just from the adults in their lives.

Did you get that?

Let me reiterate: kids learn bias from society -- and as most of us know, society does not offer equality of opportunity for everyone.
So it's up to us as parents to educate our kids as much as possible about diversity, particularly where it concerns race. Because studies also show that kids notice race beginning at a very, very young age (see this article - a bit long but worth reading - for more). So ignoring it, or putting off conversations until our kids are older might just result in some serious misconceptions for our children. This is especially crucial for those of us who are parenting transracially, but don't think that just because everyone in your household "matches" that these aren't important issues. Because really, we live in a diverse world, where people look differently and live differently and believe differently. And tolerance is a keystone of the kind of society I want to live in, and where I want to raise my son.

How does this come back to literature? Easy -- look at the books on your shelves, and the DVDs in your cupboard, and the toys your children play with. Does everyone look alike? Are all your bedtime reads "classics" that might harbor hidden stereotypes? Could all the dolls be sisters? Maybe it's time to mix things up a bit. Add in some multicultural family sets. Read a story set in India, or one set in Nigeria. Choose a Thanksgiving title that honors Native Americans. Watch a movie about how families live around the world. Pick out a new friend whose skin is a little darker.

Above all, talk. Talk about skin color, talk about religion, talk about difference. Talk about ability, talk about gender, talk about acceptance. When your kids ask "why is that guy in a wheelchair?", don't shush them. Talk to them about it, and if possible, let them talk to the person in question -- if it's my husband, believe me, he WANTS to talk to your kids about disability. Above all, be open about the things that make us different as people, and the things that draw us together. Because if your kids see that you are uncomfortable talking about how someone is different, what message will they take away from that encounter?

Not too long ago I was at the park with Sprout and a little guy he was playing with asked if I was Sprout's mommy. I said yes, and the boy said, "But you don't look the same." I told him no, we didn't, because Sprout was born in Africa. "Oh, okay," said the boy. "Can he come swing with me?". And that was that. Simple. Honest question, honest answer.

If diversity is a "life lesson" you try to teach your kids, it's going to come off awkward and be hard to approach. If diversity is a walk that you live every day, where your kids see that people come in all shapes, sizes, colors and varieties, then accepting difference will be a natural thing for them. And isn't that what we all want, just to be accepted for who we are, recognized for our unique gifts and personalities?

Be accepting. Be inclusive. And first and foremost, be open -- with yourself, with your children, and most importantly, with others. The richness your world will take on may just surprise you.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Wildwood by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis

Right over our back fence is a patch of land that the owners have pretty much left alone. There's a  plum tree, some grapevines, and blackberries galore. This jumble of wildness presses itself into our fence, bursting over the top and shoving aside random boards in its untameable chaos.

We love it.

And it was this very wildness that I thought of from the first pages of Wildwood, the richly imaginative new novel by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis. The book is set in Portland, OR, but a Portland unlike that most people know, one bordered by the fierce forest known as the Impassable Wilderness. Residents know to avoid these woods entirely. Prue McKeel and Curtis Mehlberg aren't sure just why, as their parents never really talk about it -- but when Prue's baby brother Mac is snatched by a murder of crows who fly into the Impassable Wildness, suddenly everything changes. Prue is determined to get her brother back, and Curtis is equally set on helping her, so, somewhat trepidatiously, into the Wilderness they go.

What they find is something they are completely unprepared for. Armies of talking coyotes, regiments of birds, deposed rulers trying to regain power, and always, everywhere, wildness and magic. Prue and Curtis soon are in the thick of it, trying to piece together which side they should be fighting for and just how Mac could disappear like he did. And the deeper Prue and Curtis get into the woods, the more they discover about themselves, their families, and how dense the wildness really is.

Wildwood is the kind of book that fantasy lovers long for, vividly detailed and fantastically suspenseful. Meloy's writing is offset perfectly by Ellis's illustrations, whimsical and just a bit dangerous. I love the use of color plates inset at points throughout the story -- it reminds me of old editions of the Oz books that I used to pore over. And, in fact, Wildwood owes a lot to L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis and even Lewis Carroll, as readers of these authors will find much that's familiar but also a completely new departure in this novel. Curtis in particular was quite reminiscent of Edmund from Narnia, at least at first, but then Curtis's own character emerges and we can see that he's definitely a personality all his own. My favorite bit was the bandits, especially the Bandit King Brendan, that rakish devil.

I can't wait for the next entry in this series, to catch up with Prue and Curtis and visit Wildwood once more. Share this with anyone who loves magic, mystery and epic adventure -- whether you read it aloud or they jump in all your own, Wildwood is one to curl up with on a stormy winter night (and keep reading long past your bedtime!).

Wildwood by Colin Meloy, illustrated by Carson Ellis; published by Balzer + Bray
Ages 9 up
Source: Library
Sample quote: "'Impassable Wilderness? Oh boy, would that it were. I might have a little more time at home. Nah, I don't know who told you that, but you Outside folk have got it all wrong. 'Course, you're the first of your kind I've ever seen here, so it stands to reason that no one ever made an effort to find out about the Wood -- Wild, North, or South.' He looked at Prue and smiled. 'Seems like you just might be our first pioneer, Port-Land Prue.'"
Highly recommended

For more about Wildwood, check out this interview with Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Maya Running by Anjali Banerjee

"I don't want to be ethnic." Maya Mukherjee is tired of feeling like she's in between. When she and her parents are with other Indian families, Maya's on the outside -- she doesn't speak Bengali, she doesn't wear a sari -- not Indian enough. When she's at school, she's the only brown kid, noticeable for the rice and dahl in her lunchbox and the customs everyone assumes she follows. All Maya wants is to blend in, and to have Jamie Klassen finally notice her.

Then Maya's cousin Pinky arrives from India, and more than ever all eyes are on Maya's family. Exotic Pinky, with her Kathak dancing, her perfume and kohl, captures the attention and the admiration of even Maya's closest friends. Even Jamie, who had been slowly beginning to notice Maya, seems to have fallen under Pinky's spell. So Maya makes a little plea to the gold Ganesh statue Pinky has broug
ht with her. Just a small request, Maya thinks, from the god who "removes obstacles to truth". Suddenly, though, it seems like everything has turned upside down -- and Maya finds herself wishing for changes she never thought she'd be seeking out.

Anjali Banerjee's Maya Running turned out to be much different from what I thought initially, with an element of mysticism that I absolutely didn't see coming. Maya's relationship with Pinky is the turning point of the book, and though she is the one who initially wanted Pinky to come, after Pinky's arrival Maya is more of an outsider than ever. That things don't turn out how she planned is a big stumbling point for Maya, and feeds into the central conflict of a character who is at war within herself. I appreciate especially that Maya is authentic and her struggles are believable, which makes her someone readers can understand and will root for.

As Maya deals with the unexpected feelings that her plea to Ganesh has brought about, she gradually begins to understand the value of not being just like everyone else. Although I felt that Banerjee rushes the resolution a bit -- I would have liked to see Maya resolve her issues in a more realistic fashion -- she still demonstrates that Maya is able to come to terms with her place in society and become more comfortable with who she is.Maya's conflicts are pretty familiar for her age range, and even kids who don't feel singled out for their skin color can relate to her seemingly ever-present visibility. Didn't we all go through a similar thing at this age, where different is bad and all we want to do is blend in? I know this is something we'll deal with as Sprout gets older, particularly if we stay in an area that is predominately white. Hopefully we'll be able to guide him through it, to help him celebrate the uniqueness that is his heritage and to be proud, not ashamed. Books like this, we hope, will help affirm and support him in the process.

Maya Running by Anjali Banerjee, published by Random House
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "There are no black people in our town, so I guess I'm the next best target. When I die, I'll become an exhibit at the local museum. Mayasri Mukherjee, born in India to a Bengali father and an Anglo-Indian mother. Nobody knew exactly how to classify Maya, but we do know this: she was all mixed up. I am Nowhere Girl in my Nowhere Land, between Canada and India."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Library Find - What's Special About Me, Mama? by Kristina Evans

There's a scene in the Pixar movie The Incredibles where Mrs. Incredible tells her son Dash, "Everyone is special." Dash's response is "If everyone is special, then no one is." I think Dash's point is a good one, and it certainly addresses a particular school of thought that discourages singling kids out of the crowd for specific talents, with the idea that doing so will increase competitiveness and jealousy. For the record, I don't subscribe to that notion -- we want Sprout to grow up to learn that everyone is good at some things and not so great at others, and that there's nothing wrong with that.

However, I do think that each child has special qualities and that everybody's uniqueness should be celebrated. That's the message behind What's Special About Me, Mama?, a picture book written by Kristina Evans and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe. In it a little boy asks his mama the title question, and she replies, "So many things, Love", then begins to articulate each one. But the boy persists in his question -- yes, his freckles are special, but Auntie Jade has those too. Yes, his kindness is special, but sometimes he doesn't feel like sharing. So what about him, just him, is truly unique?

Kristina Evans' text is warm and comforting, as the mama continues to affirm her son with loving observations of his individuality. No matter how many objections her son brings up, this mama has an answer for all of them that underscores the point she's making. This is perfect for the stage that all kiddos seem to hit, where they need continual reassurance of parental love and of their own place in mama or daddy's heart. (We're not there with Sprout yet, but I know it's coming!)

And if that's not enough of a reason to pick this up, then how about Javaka Steptoe's illustrations? I have to say, the illustrations were what initially sparked our interest -- not only because the mama and son have skin of different shades, but also because Steptoe's style is truly delightful to look at. Mingling torn paper with materials of varying textures, Steptoe creates collage spreads that you can return to again and again. The expressiveness of the characters is something that drew Sprout's eye right away, and the emotion that Evans creates in the text is mirrored in the faces of each person we meet through the book.The layering of shades adds depth to the backgrounds and draws the story and its message together nicely. We love it!

Bottom line: African American and transracial families will enjoy this one, but there's a lot here for all families -- a message of constant love and affirmation that will resonate with toddlers and preschoolers, and moms and dads too.

What's Special About Me, Mama? by Kristina Evans, published by Disney/Jump at the Sun
Ages 2-6
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Please, Mama, tell me what's special about me! / Your laugh, Love, and the way your laughter fills the house with joy. It's just like when sun fills the sky on a cloudy day."

Monday, October 3, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Nerd Camp by Elissa Brent Weissman

Sleepaway camp.

Those two words conjure up lots of images for most of us: bunkmates, roasting marshmallows, inane camp songs, canoeing, dubious arts-and-crafts projects, even more dubious camp food. Add in enrichment classes (mainly math and science), learning twenty digits of pi, and an all-camp Jeopardy! tournament and you have Gabe's best summer yet -- six weeks at the Summer Center for Gifted Enrichment.

Gabe's never really thought of himself as a geek before. He just enjoys learning, has insatiable curiosity and never met a book he didn't want to crack open. His friends are all the same, and they love their classwork in the Gifted program at school. But now Gabe's dad is getting remarried, and Gabe will finally have a brother. Suddenly Gabe is considering his own life through Zack's eyes, and he's not sure about what he sees. Will Zack think Gabe's interests are cool or impossibly nerdy?

Just in case, Gabe's not telling Zack that the sleepaway camp he's headed for is SCGE. Instead, Gabe describes for Zack the "normal" things he and his friends do at camp. Meanwhile, Gabe's compiling a logic proof determined to settle the question once and for all: is Gabe nerdy, or not?

With Nerd Camp, Elissa Brent Weissman taps into the ongoing struggle many kids have with being accepted by their peers. Geek may be chic in popular culture (The Big Bang Theory, Chuck and other TV shows prove that), but what about in middle school? It can still be very tough to swim against the tide for kids who don't have support from friends, family or peers. Gabe's the kind of kid that has always been true to himself, but when faced with the notion that he might be somehow deficient, he begins to question that self-loyalty. It's only through a summer of scavenger hunts, rocket science and a whole lot of math equations that Gabe begins to see that being who you are is the first step on the road to true contentment.

Weissman weaves a good deal of smart-kid stuff into the plot of Nerd Camp, but strikes a good balance. There's action, comedy and enough gross-out humor to keep boys (and girls) turning pages The plot's never inaccessible, and Gabe remains an "everykid" despite his above-average intelligence. More importantly, she never disparages Gabe or his friends for the things they are interested in, whether that's poetry writing or logical reasoning. And the ending is just right, not too perfect or neatly wrapped up -- believable, which I think is incredibly important for books like this one.

Bottom line: Nerd Camp is a fast, funny read about the kind of kiddo we hope Sprout turns out to be: geek at heart!

Nerd Camp by Elissa Brent Weissman
Ages 8-12
Source: Library
Sample quote: "It was a story that would go down in camp history. But when Gabe settled into his bed and took out his notepad before lights out, he realized that, once again, it wasn't one that he could tell to Zack. Despite all the cool stuff that was filling up the first column, there were just as many condemning things filling up the second."