Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground by T.R. Simon

I don't usually like to read second books in a series before I read the first book, but I made an exception for Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground, and I'm glad I did. I was immediately pulled into the mystery that the two main characters find themselves involved in, but this book turned out to be so much more than just a mere puzzle.

When Zora Neale Hurston was young, she lived with her family in a town called Eatonville, Florida, the first all black community in the United States. The story begins there one night in 1903 when Zora and her best friend Carrie Brown, both 12, discover two loose horses in the Hurston yard. Recognizing the horses as belonging to Mr. Polk, a mute neighbor, the two girls sneak out and head for his place to see what happened. There, they find Mr. Polk injured and a fire in his cabin. But Zora and Carrie aren't the only ones who noticed something happening, so did Old Lady Bronson, the town's conjure woman, who took charge of Mr. Polk's injuries, and to the absolute surprise of both girls, spoke to him in a strange language and heard him answer. When Zora presses Old Lady Bronson for answers about what she and Carrie just witnessed, the conjure lady makes a deal with her: if she keeps quiet about the night's events, she will tell Zora "a story worth hearing."

The story shifts back to 1855 and a young black girl named Lucia begins narrating her story. Leaving her Caribbean island home of Hispaniola with Prisca and her father Master Frederic, her white owners, Lucia finds herself living enslaved on a plantation in Florida named Westin. Up until moving to Florida, Lucia had been treated well by Master Frederic and was best friends with Prisca. But, three years later, Master Frederic has died and Prisca's stepmother decides to sell Lucia, claiming the plantation needed money and it was part of her marriage contract with Master Frederic that Lucia would be sold.

The story continues to alternate between Zora and Carrie's present and Lucia's life of slavery. Slowly, however, the two stories come together in a surprising way as Zora and Carrie learn the truth about Mr. Polk, Old Lady Bronson and their own connections to slavery and Eatonville's past, and that "history wasn't just something you read in a book. It was everything your life stood on. We who thought we were free from the past were still living it out." (pg 174)

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground is a gripping coming of age work of historical fiction and Simon has done a stellar job bringing the characters, the time periods, and the setting to life. Carries is an intelligent, though somewhat cautious girl, while Zora is an impulsive, curious, and intelligent girl, and Old Lady Bronson knows when she finds the two girls at Mr. Polk's place that Zora won't be happy until she is told the truth about the night's events.

Simon goes easily from time period to time period without jarring the reader, ending each section with enough to really keep the reader going simply by igniting their curiosity to discover, like Zora, what is going on. 

And Eatonville? Setting in a novel is always important, but here so much of the action in this novel centers around the town of Eatonville, founded in 1887, that it actually becomes another important character as Lucia's 1855 story begins to merge with the event's of 1903 Eatonville. I can't say more or I'll give too much away and you definitely want to find out the answers on your own. 
Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground may be difficult for some readers. Simon tackles the brutality of slavery head on and without apology. This may make some white readers uncomfortable, but if you can get past you discomfort, there is a lot of painful truth to be found here. Prisca's stepmother and her children are classic examples of white attitudes about black people, but what is made clear is that this attitude persisted into the 20th century and, I am sad to say, even into 21th century. This is certainly a thought-provoking element in the novel and I hope people do think about it.

Do read Simon's short biography of Zora Neale Hurston at the back of the novel, and check out the timeline of her life. There is also an annotated bibliography of Hurston's work, and a list of children's books that were adapted from the folktales she collected.

You can find more information about the history of Eatonville, Florida HERE 

You can find a useful discussion guide prepared by the publisher, Candlewick Press, HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

And yes, I can't wait to read the first book, Zora & Me

Friday, October 12, 2018

24 Hours in Nowhere by Dusti Bowling

Thirteen-year-old Gus is small for his age, but much smarter than most of his classmates. And he's hoping his good grades will be his ticket out of Nowhere, Arizona, a small boring, poverty-stricken trailer park town in the middle of, well, nowhere. Gus' size makes him an ideal target for bullying by the not-too-bright Bo Taylor; unfortunately, Gus' smarts don't always help him when it comes to Bo. Such is the case when Bo tries to force feed Gus with a Jumping Cholla cactus. Fortunately for Gus, Rossi Scott, a Tohono O'odham that Gus has a crush on comes along to save him, by offering Bo her beloved dirt bike, Loretta.

Feeling guilty about his safety costing Rossi her bike, Gus heads over to Bo's trailer to try and buy it back. But there's a big dirt bike race coming and without Loretta, Rossi doesn't stand a chance of beating Bo again. So Bo offers Gus a challenge - that Gus go into the Dead Frenchman Mine and bring back a big chuck of gold. Gus accepts the challenge even though he knows the mine is dangerous, that cave-ins have killed a number of gold seekers and coming out alive would be quite a feat.

While buying supplies, Gus runs in into his former old friend Jessie Navarros. When Jessie started hanging out with the other Mexican kids in school lunchroom, and speaking Spanish, Gus, who doesn't know Spanish, thought it was a pretty clear sign that Jessie was no longer wanted to be his friend. And yet, he feels compelled to tell him about the deal he made with Bo.

Later, just as Gus sets off for the mine, one of Bo's pals, Matthew Dufort, shows up. Matt has been ordered to accompany Gus into the mine to make sure he brings back a piece of real gold, not just a painted rock. Once inside the mine, they hear voices that turn out to be Rossi and Jessie, there to talk Gus out of the challenge and the mine. But Gus is determined.

No sooner does he start chiseling away, than he breaks though the wall that reveals another chamber in the cave. But then, they hear a rumbling sound and the old Dead Frenchman Mine does what old mines often do - it collapse around them. No one is killed, but with the entrance blocked, will the be able to find their way out? More importantly, will they actually find gold?

24 Hours in Nowhere has everything - excitement, humor, adventure, all contained in a dangerous setting. And it all happens within a 24 hour time frame, measured by Gus' watch, the only thing his dad ever gave him. All of these characteristics will hold a young readers attention, as will Gus' wry wit, and the vocabulary words he inserts in his first person narrative (preparation for the SATs - his real ticket out of Nowhere). 

Bowling has also sensitively addressed some pretty intense themes - poverty, bullying, child abuse, child neglect, and prejudice - and somehow the hot, barren desert in which a collapsing mine is located seems the most appropriate setting, almost as though it were another character. But then I remember how beautiful the desert is when it is in bloom, and we see the characters in this novel also starting to bloom. Of course, a death-defying adventure could do that to a person. So Bowling also addresses themes hope, friendship, and personal growth in some of her characters.

I lived in Arizona for four years and I still love it, especially the desert, and I thought it especially clever that Bowling has taken one of Arizona's more popular historical legends - the Lost Dutchman Mine - and reworked it as the Dead Frenchman Mine.

24 Hours in Nowhere will definitely take young readers somewhere and it is really worth the trip.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher, Sterling Children's Books

Monday, October 8, 2018

Brave Red, Smart Frog: A New Book of Old Tales by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason

When I was a kid, my mom bought my sister and me a big book of fairytales we were supposed to share. Neither one of us liked the tales we read very much, and the book basically became a dust collector. So when my Kiddo came along, I told my mom "No. More. Fairytales. Please." But had Emily Jenkins' Brave Red, Smart Frog been around, I certainly would have encouraged her to give a copy of it to my Kiddo.

Here are seven classic fairytales that have been turned on their ear and are just wonderful. Yes, well-known favorites like the Brothers Grimm's Snow White and Hansel and Gretel are here. Jenkins has also included three by Charles Perrault, The Fairy is renamed Frog and Pearls and The Three Ridiculous Wishes has become simple The Three Wishes, and of course, there is Red Riding Hood. The Frog Prince is here, but not exactly the one originally by the Brothers Grimm; and you couldn't retell fairytales without including the story of The Three Great Noodles.

The fairytales that Jenkins chose are more or less faithful to the original versions we know, but not totally. Instead she has written them as she would want to tell them herself.  Her justification: the organic nature of stories. Fairytales were originally told orally and with each telling, each teller made little changes. Even after they were written down, they continued to change bit by bit. Jenkins intention was to "bring out what's most meaningful to [her] in the stories" in the tradition of those earliest tellers of fairytales. The seven stories chosen for this volume are all familiar to you, but there is the delight of discovering what Jenkins has done to them.

And as you read, you will noticed that there are small ways in which the tales connect to each. Some of the characters live in "a frozen forest, cold as cold ever was." Nothing grows, the streams are always frozen over, even horses can not walk through this forest. Other characters live in a sunny, warm place on the outskirts of the frozen forest but almost all find themselves there for different reasons. A woodcutter who is granted three wishes lives there, a huntsman goes there to cut the heart out of a vain queen's beautiful stepdaughter, a young girl in red walks through this forest to meet her dying grandmother for the first time, and two children, taken to the forest by their father, discover a candy house after they are abandoned there. And sometimes one character passes through the story of another. I found that by connecting the stories through the setting made the characters feel less isolated and therefore, their stories felt less dangerous, and I could see the point of each one in a new way.

Each tale is introduced with a watercolor and ink illustration by Rohan Daniel Eason that really captures the cold, dangerous, haunting atmosphere of the forest and you can see, the cover reflects the interconnectedness of the stories placing Red Riding Hood and The Frog Prince in the same picture.

While there isn't really much new in these stories, Jenkins has managed to bring back some of their magic and charm by making what was old into something new.

Back matter includes an Author's Note, but there is not sourcing for the stories used. And you can find a useful Educator's Guide to download produced by the publisher, Candlewick Press HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was as ARC received from the publisher, Candlewick Press

Friday, October 5, 2018

You're Snug With Me Arts & Craft Activities

As promised, here are the art activities so generously provided to us by Poonam Mistry, illustrator of You're Snug With Me:

With Christmas fast approaching why not try making your own snowflake ornaments to hang on your Christmas tree or around the house. All you will need is:

The attached template
Foil or silver card (optional)
Felt tips/pencil colors/paints or gel pens

Step 1:
Print the templates below and cut around each snowflake or star using scissors.
If you want to make the ornament double sided, you will need to print two of each template.

Step 2:
Color in the designs using pencil colors, felt tips, paints or gel pens.

Step 3:
Gent some card or foil larger than the snowflake/star. Stick down leaving a thick rim around the design. Carefully cut triangles around the edges evenly.
If you want the design to be double-sided, stick the other matching snowflake/star design on the back.

Step 4:
Add extra details in pen/gel pens. You could add glitter or sequins to make it extra sparkly.

To make it hang, put a home at the top of the design. Attach some string and then tie up the loose ends with a knot.

Click to enlarge and print
Here is an example of a finished snowflake and star:

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Blog Tour: You're Snug with Me by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Poonam Mistry

You're Snug With Me by Chitra Soundar
illustrated by Poonam Mistry
Lantana Publishing, 2018, 32 pages
As promised, here is the companion book to the wonderful You're Safe With Me. You're Snug with Me is the story of a polar bear who has settled into her sheltered northern snow-covered den for the winter and has just given birth to two baby cubs. As the cubs grow bigger and begin exploring the den, they also begin to ask questions about what lies outside their safe, snug lair. Mama bear begins to tell them what to expect, always calming their fears with the refrain "you're snug with me." Her explanations and lessons are sage advice for her cubs, as well as for children: if we take care of the earth, it will be there for us just as it should be, especially if we take only what we need because the earth is all we have. More than just a soothing bedtime story, You're Snug With Me is an important environmental story as well.
L: Chitra Soundar R: Poonam Mistry
And once again, Chitra Soundar's beautiful lyrical prose is coupled with Poonam Mistry's wondrously unique illustrations. I have wondered, as I'm sure you have, what influenced Poonam's distinctive style. Well, read on and let her tell you in her own words:

"Growing up in an Indian household meant I was always surrounded by beautiful intricate patterns and designs. Most of the paintings and etchings at home were found in a special room where my parents would pray. These usually depicted scenes from religious stories; some would even be embellished with sequins. They were always so wonderful to look at just like the fabrics and saris stored away in our wardrobes ready to be worn during festivals and special occasions.

While I was at school the pictures I drew were never really patterned. I found drawing people far too hard and would often spend time drawing animals and birds. I had always been fascinated with nature and the complexities of living organisms. Science was a subject I really enjoyed learning about along with Art.

It wasn't until I was in my second year at university studying my BA in Graphic Design and Illustration that I really began to illustrate the way I do. My course tutor had asked us to do a presentation all about what inspires us. I remember my presentation containing images of Kalamkari textiles and Indian fabrics as well as William Morris wallpaper and ceramic tiles. I knew this was what I wanted my work to showcase; my Indian roots. It was only then that I started to experiment with interweaving patterns into my work. I found simplifying shapes would allow me the opportunity to add more patterns into my designs without it looking messy or overdone.

At this point all the illustrations I had made were mostly in black and white. It was only towards the end of my degree that I had started to use colour. The way I did this was through screen-printing. I had always adored printing techniques and wanted to create as much by hand as possible without relying too much on the computer. I began researching other types of art I was interested in too, such as Aboriginal art and African textiles and incorporating these into my style.

One of the most important things for me as an emerging artist at the time was to have a style that was honest but unique. I liked the idea of my work having a hand crafted feel to it and I didn't care if it was fashionable or modern. I loved traditional art and was happy for my artwork to appear authentic regardless of whether it would be popular. During the first two years freelancing my Photoshop skills developed and I properly introduced using digital software into my process. It allowed me the chance to play around with colour and layout and I became a lot more confident selecting colours and arranging my art.

For a few years I worked on editorial projects and advertising ones. You're Safe With Me was the first picture book I was asked to illustrate. For this book I wanted to produce a body of work that didn't necessarily conform to the normal layout and style of a picture book. I really believe children can appreciate detailed sophisticated art just like adults. It was important that adults could enjoy the illustrations too. I hoped for the book to look like a piece of art and celebrate the intricate, beautiful and fascinating elements of nature, our planet and its wildlife.

Working on the second book in the series You're Snug With Me was a little different. It was a big change to what I was used to creating so a lot more research went into finding out about polar bears and the Arctic. I studied Inuit clothing and textiles and knitwear patterns and incorporated these into the designs. It was refreshing to try my work and style in such a different setting. Most of my illustrations in the past contained leaves and trees so drawing frozen landscapes was exciting and new. Picking my colour palette was another challenge. It was essential for the colours to reflect the icy and cool tones you find in the north. With this book there is a particular focus on the relationship between the mother bear and her cubs. It is a lovely story and one that I hope will be enjoyed by everyone particularly during the cold winter months."

Thank you, Poonam, for sharing your journey as an artist with us. I think we always have a greater appreciation for illustrations when we understand the artist's process.

Poonam has generously sent a craft activity that's perfect for the upcoming holidays, and I will be posting the instructions tomorrow. Meantime, here's a preview of the finished project:

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was provided to me by the publisher, Lantana Publishing
Imagination Designs