Monday, June 14, 2021

A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia

Rita William-Garcia begins her epic story by giving a brief history of the land and people in what would later become the boot of Louisiana as a way to usher readers into the main part of her story, and ultimately situate them in the summer of 1860 in St. James parish on the ironically named Le Petit Cottage, home of the Guibert family and the people they enslaved.

The family is headed by its French-born matriarch Madame Sylvie Bernardin de Maret Dacier Guilbert, who never tires of telling people about her connection to Queen Marie Antoinette and the Bernardin de Maret vineyard owned by her family. Madame Sylvie taken from France by a middle age man who forced her to marry him at the age of 13. And before you go feeling sorry for her, know this - Madame Sylvie is so enamored of Marie Antoinette, she named her personal servant, the enslaved Thisbe, a girl taken from her family at age 6 to serve Madame only, after the Queen's dog, 

Le Petit Cottage has been run by Madame Sylvie's son, the poetry loving, syphilitic Lucien while her grandson, Bryon, 20, is attending West Point. The plantation is losing money and could soon be in the hands of creditors as Lucien waits for his mother to give him the stash of gold she had buried long ago and which she holds over his head. Bryon is engaged to be married, but he prefers the company of men, specifically his fellow cadet Robinson Pearce. Lucien is also hoping to make a good (and profitable) marriage for his daughter Rosalie, his beautiful, educated "quadroon" daughter. Her mother is an enslaved woman that Lucien raped during one of his visits to the slave quarters where he would often go for that purpose.   

After learning that Lucille Pierpont "had her portrait painted and hosted a much-talked-about showing at the Pierpont plantation," Madame Sylvie, now 80, has decided this is something she must also have done, even though the Guilberts can't afford it. And after finding out that a portrait of Bryon's finance's father had been commissioned as a gift to his daughter, Madame is even more determined, and almost beside herself when she learns that the painter was Claude le Brun, a descendant of Madame Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun who had painted a portrait of Sylvie and the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette when they were children. 

Into this cast of the major white characters comes Eugénie Duhon, Bryon's fiancee, and Jane Chatham, the 15-year-old abandoned daughter of plantation owners who only wants to ride her warhorse, Virginia Wilder, and of course, Bryon's lover Robinson, visiting for a few weeks before they return to West Point. 

I kept asking myself why would Rita Williams-Garcia write a story set in the antebellum south from the point of view of white characters. After all, that makes it sound almost like you are going to read an updated version of Gone with the Wind, doesn't it? But that couldn't be further from what Williams-Garcia has actually done here. Because it is through this very flawed, very cruel, entitled family that Williams;Garcia has captured the true horror of the institution of slavery. All the while that Williams-Garcia records the ups and downs of the Guilbert family, standing in the background, quiet, invisible, abused to their white owners are the enslaved Blacks, some of whom we do get to know well.

Had Williams-Garcia focused on only one enslaved character, for example Thisbe, readers wouldn't see how they are all treated and abused. By focusing on this family of enslavers, readers will "witness a brutal period in its benign and overt cruelty, to better understand its legacy of privilege and racism" and how it manifested itself on the people this family considered to be nothing more than property.

I won't kid you - this is not an easy book to read, and yet one that I found hard to put down. There are moments in it when you will pump your arm and say "yes," moments when you will reach for a tissue to wipe away your tears, and moments when you will want to turn away from what you are reading. All I can say is keep reading. This is too important a book to ignore. That said, you may be surprised to discover who the real hero of this story is. And then you will think about it, and you won't be surprised at all.

This book is recommended for readers age 16+
This book was very gratefully received from Keely Platt at Sparkpoint Studio

Monday, June 7, 2021

Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey written and illustrated by Erin Entrada Kelly

Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey
written and illustrated by Erin Entrada Kelly
Greenwillow Books, 2021, 160 pages

Marisol Rainey, 8, lives in Getty, Louisiana with her Filipino mom, her brother Oz, 12, and her white American dad who is an electrician and works on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Three days a week, dad checks in with his family on the computer and one week a month he helicopters home to visit. Marisol is in the habit of naming things, for example, the refrigerator is named Buster Keaton, an old timey actor from a silent film Marisol watched. In the backyard is a tall magnolia tree named Peppina, named after another silent film called Poor Little Peppina, starring Mark Pickford. Peppina the tree is perfect for climbing, or at least that's what Oz and Marisol's best friend Jada George say. Marisol wouldn't know though, because she is afraid to climb Peppina. Well, really she is afraid of falling out of her. But maybe, just maybe Marisol will someday find the courage to climb that inviting tree.

Actually, Marisol has a great many fears and worries, and wonders why she is so scared of everything when it seems that no one else is. Luckily, she also has a best friend who never makes fun of her for being scared. Jada doesn't even care that Marisol has never climbed Peppina, although Jada climbs her all the time and dangles her foot from a comfy branch. Marisol is especially dismayed when finds out that her mother had climbed many trees back in the Philippines when she was a girl, the kalachuchi tree being her favorite. Will Marisol ever find the courage to climb Peppina and see the world from that new perspective?
But one day, just before Jada has to go home, she climbs Peppina higher that usual and discover a bird's nest with a feather and a pink ribbon. Marisol wishes she could see the bird's nest, too. Will this be the incentive she needs to gather her courage and climb Peppina?

This is Erin Entrada Kelly's debut chapter book. Not only did she write it, but she also illustrated Marisol's story with black and white spot illustrations throughout, and the result is just delightful. Told in the third person from Marisol's perspective, the chapters are short, with lots of white space between sentences, perfect for older elementary and younger middle grade readers. And I suspect that readers will find Marisol's worries, anxieties, and challenges completely relatable to their own. She also does have a nemesis of sorts, Evie Smythe, a girl who knows just how to put Marisol down and get under her skin to her make her feel bad (and make herself feel superior). But lest you think Marisol is ALL worry and fear, Kelly endows her with a loving family, lots of interests, curiosity, empathy, and she's really good at getting stuffies out of the claw machine. 

There is no maybe about it, Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey is a book you won't want your young readers to miss. It is a appealing story exploring age appropriate themes like biracial families, siblings, friendship, courage, and facing fear. You might even want to think about pair it with Lenore Look's Alvin Ho series and Katie and Kevin Tsang's Sam Wu is not afraid of...series. 

You can download a useful Teaching Guide for Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was gratefully received from Madison Ostrander at SparkPointStudio

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Fighting Words 
by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Dial Books/Penguin BFYR, 2020, 272 pages

Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse and Attempted Suicide

Life has not been easy for Della, 10, and her sister Suki, 17. They are both in foster care now that their mother is in prison for blowing up a hotel room cooking meth. Six years ago, they had been taken in by their mother's former boyfriend, Clifton, but he has now been arrested and is about to go on trial for child sexual abuse. Suki caught him attempting to sexually abuse Della and filmed what was going on while calling the police. Now, Della is expected to testify at Clifton's trial, but Suki insists that it must be filmed and not done in person. Their new foster mother, Francine, is an old hand at fostering kids and really seems to be on Suki and Della's side. Living with her is the closest to a normal life that they have ever experienced. There is enough food to eat and no one abuses them. They go to school regularly, although Della struggles with the work, but also makes friends with a girl named Nevaeh (heaven spelled backwards) and stands up to a boy in the class named Trevor who is always harassing the girls for wearing or not wearing a bra. 

And so it is in just such an atmosphere that Della begins to narrate their story, seemingly searching for something that she may have missed. Francine, who know exactly what has happened to the girls, keeps asking them if they want to talk to a counselor, but their case worker never follows through with that. Then, Suki attempts suicide, suffering from PTSD and unable to continue to be strong for herself and Della. As the pieces to what happened to Suki while living with Clifton begin to make sense to Della, she decides that she would rather testify in the courtroom at his trial instead of on a recording. She also finds the strength to report what Trevor has been doing to the girls in her class, right under the teacher's nose.  

Fighting Words ends well, but I think it needed a positive ending for it to be considered a middle grade novel. There is a lot of heavy stuff going on in Suki and Della's story, but Brubaker Bradley has included enough humor that it doesn't diminish the experiences of the sisters, but it sure is needed for some relief. I found Della to be a wonderful unreliable narrator (after all, she's only 10). And I was glad this didn't turned into an ugly foster care story. It's always encouraging to read about a positive foster care situation, and while Francine is a little rough around the edges, she is a real softy with her heart in the right place. 

I loved the irony of Della using the word "snow" whenever she was using "colorful language" and she did that a lot. I used to teach in the Bronx and Della's "snowy" language and defensive attitude reminded me of some of the kids I had in my classes, making her such an authentic character for me. I think Brubaker Bradley did a stellar job presenting Della and Suki's story, getting what happened across without being terrible graphic except for the one incident involving Della. But, in the end, I think this book needs trigger warnings - it is definitely not for every middle school reader. 

This book is recommended for readers age 10+

Monday, May 31, 2021

More Picture Book Joy

Reading is Fun

Candlewick Press always has so many wonderful picture books sometimes it's hard to choose what to share with my young readers. Here are a few that I have chosen and which I am sure will become everyone's new favorites:

My Red Hat written and illustrated by 
Rebecca Stubbs
Candlewick Press, 2021, 32 pages
In this intergenerational story, a loving grandfather passes down his red hat to his granddaughter and tells her about all the different possibilities the hat holds for her and which are clearly based on his own life experiences. The hat, he says, can simply be used to keep her warm or dry, protect her from the sun or the rain, help her stand out in a crowd, or hide in one. The hat can hold her dreams, secrets, and fears and it is full of possibility - places to go, things to see, people to meet until home calls her back. Using simple landscape line illustrations, done in a limited palette of colors, Stubbs captures the idea of a child's connection to her family and home while encouraging her to go out and to confidently explore her internal and external world courageously, knowing that there is always place where she is loved and has roots. This is a warm, tender, thought-provoking story for your young readers. Sometimes grandparents can encourage kids to follow their dreams in ways that parents can't because of the different relationship a child has with the two generations.  

Over the Shop written by JonArno Lawson,
illustrated by Qin Leng
Candlewick Press, 2021, 48 pages
In this wordless intergenerational story, a young girl lives with her grumpy grandparent in a rather run down building with their general store on the ground floor, where the granddaughter helps out when not in school. There's a alley cat who is the grandparent's nemesis, but to whom the girl brings cans of food. Above the shop is an empty apartment that they need to rent. A for-rent sign is hung in the window and a variety of people come, look, and leave. Until one day, a mixed race couple come to look at the apartment and decide to rent it, and though grumpy grandparent doesn't seem to want them, the granddaughter does. Slowly but surely the couple fix up the apartment throughout the fall and winter, with the girl's help and when spring comes round, the work is done, and even the little balcony attached to the apartment is alive with window boxes and plants. Next thing you know, the couple is helping out in the store and the girl is so happy, she even manages to lure the cat up to the apartment where it finds a home. What I really loved about this book was watching how the grumpy grandparent's face changes over the course of the story to one that is happy and smiling by the end, demonstrating how important it is to have caring friends and neighbors. Because this book is wordless, readers need to rely on the wonderfully detailed ink and watercolor illustrations to see to story's progression. Interestingly, the dedication is to trans activists of all ages. I just love the subtleness of gender in this book about inclusiveness. 

No Buddy Like a Book by Allan Wolf, 
illustrated by Brianne Farley
Candlewick Press, 2021, 32 pages
In this book extolling the wonderful things readers can find in books, they are reminded throughout that a book is nothing without a reader and their imagination: "But Books are only smears of ink/ without the reader's mind/  to give the letters meaning/ and to read between the lines." The unnamed narrator focuses on nonfiction and what readers can learn, like how icebergs stay afloat, or how to learn something like cooking and baking. Books can teach readers about space and how to build a telescope or take them on journeys anywhere in the world they would like to go. The only thing a reader needs besides knowing how to read is their own imagination. Told in an ABCB rhyme scheme, this lyrical tribute to books and reading will delight young readers just starting out on their own "...aboard the Book Express." Where will it take them? Wherever they want to go. The mixed media illustrations for this charming oversized book are bold and colorful, and includes diverse group of young readers. One of the things I used to tell my very reluctant fourth grader readers is how a book can open up so many new worlds and adventures for them. How I wish I had this book to read and show them what I was talking about. 
Ellie's Dragon written and illustrated by
Bob Graham
Candlewick Press, 2020, 40 pages
One day, Ellie finds a tiny dragon. Holding it in her hand, its little claws tickled her and so she named it Scratch. At first, she made scratch a little bed out of a match box, but when he grew some, he took up residence in her dollhouse. Ellie and Scratch spent lots of time together, even if her mom couldn't see him. At first, Ellie took Scratch everywhere, even to preschool where the other kids loved him, but, like Ellie's mom, the teacher couldn't see Scratch. But when Ellie went to kindergarten, she forget to bring Scratch with her. By Ellie's 8th birthday, Scratch had learned to fly, though sometimes Ellie still took him places with her. As Ellie grew, Scratch began to fade, until one day, he just slipped away out the window while she slept. Ellie sometimes still thought about Scratch, but the fully grown dragon soon found a new home with a little boy down the street, who now takes him everywhere. This is such a wonderful example of how imaginary friends begin, bring comfort and companionship, and when the time is right, slip away, but are never completely forgotten. Graham's watercolor and ink illustrations are simple, colorful, and whimsical, the writing is straightforward, with humor and warmth. Though the story has been compared to the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" because it does have a touch of the same kind of melancholy, Ellie's Dragon has a much happier ending. 

Mindi and the Goose No One Else Could See
by Sam McBratney, illustrated by Linda Ólafsdóttir
Candlewick Press, 2021, 40 pages
Mindi is afraid of a great big goose that no one else can see. You couldn't call it an imaginary friend, though, since she was so fearful of this goose. And no matter what her parents do to keep it away, even though they couldn't see the goose, it just doesn't leave. So her dad decides to consult with Austen, a wise old man who has help other people before. The plan is simple enough - take Mindi on a long journey to his farm. While there, a young goat wonders into the house and Austen tells Mindi to give the goat an apricot, and that if he likes her, the goat will return the pit to her hand. Sure enough, the goat returns the pit and Austen even lets Mindi name the little goat. A week later, Austen comes to visit Mindi and her parents, and brings the little goat along. Seeing how Mindi has taken to the goat, Austen makes a suggestion that they trade - he'll take the big scary goose, with the understanding that she will never see it again because his farm is so far away, and she can have the little goat. Is this the happily-ever-after end of the story? Not quite - there's a bit of a surprise at the Austen's farm that no one would have expected. Though not quite as charming as McBratney's stories about Little Nutbrown Hare, this is still an excellent book about dealing with children's fears and anxieties. The mixed media illustrations are beautifully done, ranging from colorful full page images to spot illustrations. 

I received these book from Candlewick Press in exchange for honest reviews.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

A Day for Rememberin': Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day written by Leah Henderson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

A Day for Rememberin'
Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day
written by Leah Henderson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Harry N. Abrams, 2021, 40 pages
Most of us don't really know much about Memorial Day except that it's a time when we honor those who lost their lives in combat defending United States and the democratic principles upon which it was founded. And maybe some of us know that it was originally called Decoration Day, a day when families would go to the cemetery with flags and flowers to place on the graves of their fallen loved ones. But how many of us know about the origin of Memorial Day?

Well, now Leah Henderson has explored this question and has written a picture book for older readers that tells the story of one such origin and has chosen Eli, the ten-year-old son of formerly enslaved parents, as the narrator. It's 1865 and the Civil has ended with the Confederate surrender. And for nine days, Eli has wondered where his Papa goes to so early every day. Eli imagines him doing all kinds of things, but he isn't allowed to follow Papa because he is going to school, and as his mother reminds him, " have the hard earned right to learn...Masters locked away learning 'cause knowledge is its own freedom." 
Finally, though, on day ten, Papa wakes Eli up early and they join a procession of other formerly enslaved men and boys and head to the Charleston, South Carolina racetrack, once used for the entertainment white plantation owners. During the Civil War, the racetrack had become a prison where Confederates put captured Union soldiers, who were starved and treated so badly that even the enslaved women would try to sneak the men whatever morsels they could spare. 

Eli discovers that the men have been working to create a cemetery for the 257 dead Union soldiers who had been held in the racetrack. And it's here that Eli has a paintbrush put in his hands to help whitewash a fence with the other children. 

The next day, Eli is up early again, and heads out with his parents to join the procession other Black families heading to the racetrack, now a cemetery. Eli proudly carries the American flag, and the women carry flowers with which to decorate the newly dug graves. 
While this may be a work of historical fiction, the cemetery, called the Martyrs of the Race Track that was created in Charleston, South Carolina by formerly enslaved men, women, and children, is considered by some scholars to be the first observance of Decoration Day, later renamed Memorial Day. In her Author's Note, Henderson writes that she was inspired to write to story after seeing a photograph of about "200 Black children getting ready for what looked like a parade." Curiosity sparked, research led Henderson to the cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina, where she learned that the Decoration Day parade to the former racetrack included over 10,000 newly freed enslaved people were led by about 3,000 Black children. Henderson chose the fictional Eli and his parents to tell their story.

A Day for Rememberin' is such a poignant story about how one community honored the men who they believed fought for them, but also, as Eli reminds readers, about the fear that enslaved people lived with every day, wondering if their loved one would come home at the end of the day, or be sold to someone without their knowing. 

And who better to illustrate this moving, affective story than Floyd Cooper. Using his signature method of oil erasure in earth tones of yellows and browns seems somehow so perfect for this story. The hazy effect of this method doesn't diminish the details and the closeups of people faces really captures their different emotions. 

Besides the Author's Note, back matter includes a short essay on The Roots of Decoration Day, a Timeline of Decoration Day/Memorial Day, a list of other cities claiming to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, Endnotes, and a Select Bibliography. 

David W. Blight a scholar who believes that the birthplace of Decoration Day is Charleston, South Carolina. You can read two of his interesting articles about this HERE and HERE.

Full disclosure: I read a digital watermarked ARC received from the publisher.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
Imagination Designs