Friday, March 22, 2019

Poetry Friday: Daffodowndilly by A.A. Milne

My dad was a Welshman and we always had lots of daffs in the house and garden in the spring. When we were kids, he always called that daffodowndillies, which we loved as kids. And this is my favorite poem about this happy springtime flower. I hope you like it, too.

Poetry Friday is a weekly blogging event in which poets, writers, readers, and lovers of poetry share blog posts about poetry. Poetry Friday is being hosted today by Rebecca at Sloth Reads

Thursday, March 21, 2019

New Kid by Jerry Craft

Here is an honest school story based on author Jerry Craft's own experiences as a new kid of color in a predominately white school.

Jordan Banks, an African American 12-year-old has always gone to school in his Washington Heights neighborhood with his friends. Jordan is a smart kid and a gifted artist and really wanted to go to art school. Instead, as he enters 7th grade, Jordan finds himself in a new school, Riverdale Academy Day School or RAD, a black student in a nearly all-white school in the Bronx.

Mrs. Banks works in publishing and is dismayed at the underrepresentation of people of color in it. She's very excited about her son attending RAD, convinced it will open doors for him, and a chance at opportunities she and Jordan's dad didn't have, and couldn't give him themselves. But Jordan's dad isn't quite on board with it, having left the corporate world to work in the neighborhood community center, and promises Jordan, if he's still  want to go to art school by 9th grade, he will be allowed to.

While being shown around on the first day of school by Liam, a rich white boy, the first thing Jordan notices is that everyone is wearing pink or rather 'salmon' colored shirts. The second thing is that there are very few kids who look like him in his grade. There's Maury, who has been at the school since kindergarten and whose father is a CEO, and there's sophomore Deandre and his sidekicks, who likes to bully the younger kids. And there is Andrew - actually there are two of them, one is a braggy white boy who likes to use black slang thinking it makes him sound cool; the other Andrew, called Drew, is a black student on financial aid and who is, like Jordan, constantly being called by the wrong name by teachers and fellow students. Most of the teachers are white, but there is one African American math teacher, Mr. Garner, who is sometimes mistaken for the football coach by the school's white administrators, even after 14 years of teaching.

Resigned to the fact that he's in RAD at least for 7th grade, Jordan slowly begins to make a few friends and I use this term loosely, settle in. Jordan does worry about drifting away from his old friends from the Heights, but eventually reconnects with his oldest and best friend, Kirk. Slowly, as he is pulled into this school and its activities, Jordan begins to realize he can bridge the two different parts of his life. Throughout it all, he chronicles everything in his sketchbook.

My Kiddo and I were both educated in New York City public schools, in my case right up to my PhD, and I've always taught in public school, so I can't speak to the authenticity of what I read in New Kid, though I do believe that Craft has created a very authentic experience at RAD for Jordan Banks. Jordan is part of a strong, loving family that provides him with lots of support. He has a wonderful relationship with his father and his grandfather, and while the family isn't as wealthy as the other kids in RAD, they aren't living in poverty either. And most importantly, Jordan does not come across as a stereotype.

The story covers the whole 7th grade year of school, a year in which there is not one big conflict that Jordan has to deal with and where he comes out a changed person at the end. But that's the point - it is a year of almost daily insults, of often feeling lost and alone, and of micro-aggressions at every turn. Jordan is a great kid, creative and imaginative, observing everything around him and capturing it all in his sketchbook, much of it done with humor. For example, there's the two page black and white spread of his mother trying to take pictures with a camera using film, or his father's instructions for shaking hands, and how about the one called "Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But at Least Get My Name Right."

In addition to Jordan, Craft has created a grade full of characters that at first might be seen as stereotypical (and in some ways they are) but, as you get to know them, they also have their own individuality. The teachers, well...hmm, they were painfully awful.

New Kid is a funny accessible book but one that takes its social commentary very seriously. It is a book that will be appreciated by middle grade readers regardless of their circumstances, either because they will relate to Jordan or because it will enlighten them about what it is like to feel like a fish out of water.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Monday, March 18, 2019

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar

After hearing Anika Aldamuy Denise speak about one of her heroes, Pura Belpré, at the Bank Street Latinx Mini-Conference last week, I knew I had to read her book. And what better place to do that than the place where Pura Belpré had such an immense impact - the NYPL.

Pura Belpré first arrived in New York in 1921, leaving her native Puerto Rico for what she thought would be a to visit to celebrate her sister's wedding, but she decided to stay. Her first job was in the garment factory, but she left that to work in the library.

When Pura came to NY, she brought all the stories her abuela taught her, stories that she loved so much from her homeland. At the library, she discovered there were no stories from Puerto Rico, and decided it was time to change that. 

Pretty soon, Pura was telling her stories to the kids visiting the library, stories about Martina, the beautiful cockroach and Pérez, a gallant mouse.

Later, she made puppets for help bring her stories to life, and soon, more and more people came to hear the wonderful tales Pura had brought with her from Puerto Rico. She began writing down her stories and Pérez y Martina became a book.

This is a beautifully written book about a woman who made such a difference to the children of New York as she told her stories, visiting not only different library branches, but also churches, classrooms, and community centers "planting her story seed in the hearts and minds of children new to this island who wish to remember la lengua y los colores of home."

The idea of planting stories is consistently carried throughout Anika Aldamuy Denise's lyrical text and Paola Escobar's brightly colored folk art style illustrations, with flowers floating over the each of the pages. Scattered throughout the book are Spanish words and phrases, all of which are easy to understand even if you don't speak Spanish. And although this is a biography of Pura Belpré, there is an important subtext at work at well. That subtext reminds us that we don't have to leave our culture behind when we settle in another country, but that we can plant what we bring with us and it will once again thrive.

Back matter consists of an Author's Note (be sure to read that), a Selected Bibliography, the location of the Archival Collections for both Pura and her husband, musician Clarence Cameron White, Articles and Films, suggestions for Further Reading, and the Stories by Pura Belpré Mentioned in This Book.

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

There is a Discussion Guide for this book, which I can't find online, but have scanned it for your use:

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Hedy Lamarr's Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu

When my sister and I were kids, there was nothing we liked better than to watch an old black and white movie on a rainy, snowy, and/or cold Sunday afternoon. And among the films we watched were more than a few starring Hedy Lamarr. She was a wonderful actor. We never would have guessed that she had led a double life as an inventor and that one of her inventions would impact our lives years later.

In her picture book biography for older readers, Laurie Wallmark looks at both sides of Lamarr's life - the actor and the inventor. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna, Austria, Hedy was fascinated by two things as a child - acting and science. She was especially interested in how things worked, discussing them with her father as they strolled around Vienna.

Hedy also liked to see plays, often acting them out at home. When she was older, Hedy became a script girl, and was soon getting small parts in plays. After landing the lead role in one, she was "discovered" by producer Louis B. Mayer, and moved to America with a movie contract and a new name - Hedy Lamarr.

While here, she met George Anteil, a composer and former weapons inspector. Remembering a discussion she had overheard before leaving Europe about a problem with the guidance system for torpedoes, she and George began working together to see if they could solve the problem, getting their inspiration from the behavior of piano wire while playing the piano together.
Hedy and George did solve the problem with a system based on frequency hopping like that used in walkie-talkies, but more sophisticated. They patented their invention and offered it to the United States Navy. Unfortunately, World War II had already begun and the Navy didn't have the time or money to implement the new system, but they did classify it so no one else could use it. Hedy and George must have been so disappointed, but Hedy decided to use her celebrity to sell war bonds for her adopted country, wanting to help defeat the Nazis, who had invaded her homeland Austria. Hedy also volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen, dancing and talking to soldiers on leave and where Friday night were Hedy Lamarr Nights.

And the frequency hopping invention? Forty years after classifying it, it was declassified, the patent had expired so anyone could use it and Hedy and George received no credit for their invention. But Hedy's idea is basically the technology that keeps cell phone calls and text messages private, and allows secure wireless communication between computers and the Internet.
Finally, in 1997, Hedy and George were give the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for their invention - Hedy's response to the award - "It's about time." Can you blame her?

Hedy Lamarr's Double Life is a wonderfully inspirational STEM book, ideal for reading now during Women's History Month, or anytime, really. The text describing the development of the frequency hopping system and the complex communication that would then have to occur between a ship and it's torpedo is presented in clear, easy to follow language and illustrations. But author Laurie Wallmark makes clear that this was not the only invention of Hedy Lamarr's, that she was a woman with a creative mind combined with an understanding of engineering. 

The digitally created illustrations are rich and vibrant, reflecting the art of Hedy Lamarr's times, and capturing some of the glamour befitting a Hollywood legend, but without diminishing her intelligence and creativity.

Back matter includes a Timeline of Hedy's life and invention, a short explanation of the frequency hopping communications system, a Selected Bibliography, Additional Reading About Other Women in STEM, and a list of Hedy's movies. 

Hedy Lamarr's Double Life is an entertaining biography that celebrates both the inventor and the actress equally.

An extensive Discussion Guide for this book is available courtesy of the publisher, Sterling Children's Books.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was sent to me by the publisher.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The 2018 Cybils MG Fiction Winner: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

Candice Miller, 12, isn't too happy to be spending the summer in her deceased grandmother's house in Lambert, South Carolina with her mom and away from her dad in Atlanta, especially now that her parents are divorced. Candice's grandmother Abigail Caldwell had been Lamert's first African American city manager but her notoriety came from being the person who ordered the town's historic tennis courts dug up while looking for a hidden treasure, a/k/a the Parker inheritance. Needless to say, Abigail lost her job as town manager.

Candice has been missing her friends back home, and the only possible would-be friend is shy Brandon Jones, the 11-year-old bookish kid living across the street. They don't really click at first, but when Brandon is picked on by two boys who get a little rough, he finds himself in Candice's house. With nothing else to do, they head up to the attic looking for books. While rummaging around up there, Candice finds a letter containing the first challenge that began her grandmother's search for the buried treasure ten years earlier, and it was in a box marked For Candice. After the reading the letter, Candice is also convinced that there is buried treasure somewhere in Lambert and she sure would like to find it, then maybe they wouldn't have to sell their house in Atlanta. But who are the people mentioned in the letter: Enoch, Leanne, and Siobhan Washington, and the Allen family? And why did the letter writer want to ruin the Allen family? And why did certain people in Lambert fail to protect the Washingtons and against what? And how could Abigail Caldwell have made right what once went so utterly wrong? Oh, yes, and who wrote the letter in the first place?

Most importantly, how was Candice supposed to find the answers to her questions with only her father's old iPod and not cell phone or computer to connect to the internet? Candice decides it's time to share her discovery with Brandon, and as the two investigate the mystery of the buried treasure, they also begin to become friends.

Candice also has her grandmother to thank for sending her all those puzzle books year after year or was she being primed for this mystery? And then there's her grandmother's guiding words of wisdom: "Just because you don't see the path doesn't mean it's not there." (pg. 28).  The more Candice and Brandon research, the more they discover, and the puzzle surrounding the mystery of the buried treasure in Lambert, South Carolina reveals the the town's racial history of bigotry, segregation, and hate, attitudes that are still present among some of its citizens. So, why would anyone ever want to leave a treasure worth $40,000,000 to this town?

The Parker Inheritance is one of those books that will keep you reading simply because you can't put it down. I love a good mystery and I particularly loved this one because to the way it shows readers that, as William Faulkner once wrote, "the past is never dead. It's not even past," it may just be buried as Lamber had buried its past until two determined, smart kids come along and dig it up, forcing the citizens to finally really look at their past history. As each new puzzle piece is solved, a flashback to earlier times reveals the backstory of those people mentioned in the letter, including the mysterious letter writer.

Candice and Brandon are great characters. Candice's desire to solve the mystery and hopefully save the house she grew up in and her parent's marriage and her wish to clear her beloved grandmother's name are the driving factors for her obsession with the hidden treasure. She is a nicely flawed protagonist, as is Brandon, who is bullied by kids who believe he is gay. The town of Lambert is a third character, a place of hidden secrets under a thin deceptive, decorative veneer just waiting to be exposed.

The interjection of Lambert's history and its treatment of the Washington family give depth to Candice and Brandon's discoveries, and also provides a very realistic picture of what live was life for African Americans in living there. Johnson explores themes of race relations, racial identity, social injustice, preconceived ideas, acceptance, divorce, and sexual identity. This makes it sound like an issue-heavy book, but Johnson expertly keeps a light touch when needed. Also, you may wish to read or reread The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, which gets more than a passing shoutout.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library
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