Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Shackles from the Deep: Tracing the Path of a Sunken Slave Ship, a Bitter Past, and a Rich Legacy by Michael H. Cottman

Michael H. Cottman may be a Pulitzer Prize winning African American journalist and author, but he is also a passionate scuba diver. And it was because of his love of diving that he was brought into the history of a slave ship called the Henrietta Marie while attending a meeting of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers in Key West, Florida in 1992.

The story of the Henrietta Marie began in 1981, when shackles had been found on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. This was followed by the discovery of a ship's cannon, and finally, a few years later, a ship's bell. The bell was an important archaeological find because it gives the name of the ship and the date of the bell - Henrietta Marie 1699.

Knowing it was a slave ship, and feeling a strong emotional connection to the Africans that had been crammed and shackled in the ship's hull, Cottman decided he wanted to trace the history of the Henrietta Marie and to understand just how the slave trade worked. His quest was a much personal as it was professional.

Cottman's journey began in London, England, where he was able to learn more details about the slave trade, including the sheer numbers  of slaves exported annually (between 12,000 and 15,000), most kidnapped by raiding parties in Africa. While in England, Cottman also traveled to the location of the foundry that produced the cannons discovered on the Henrietta Marie.

Each piece of information Cottman discovered only led him to more questions and he found himself compelled to really follow further and further in the wake of the Henrietta Marie. From England, Cottman went to Barbados in the West Indies, where slaves were sold to wealthy plantation owners, then on to Jamaica, another port where slaves were also sold.

Finally, Cottman traveled to Africa, arrived in Dakar, Senegal. Here, he visited Gorée Island. Here, the author explains, is the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves), where kidnapped Africans would be chained up to wait in the heat until it was time to walk through the Door of No Return and board ships like the Henrietta Marie that would take them far from their homes to be sold at auction.

Cottman quest was an emotional one for him personally, knowing that he had descended from Africans like the ones who were on the Henreitta Marie. In a sense, that makes their story also his story. Does his journey provide Cottman with any kind of closure about his own history, or is it impossible to come to terms with the kind of inhumane, brutal treatment shown to the men, women, and children by their Europeans captors?

Michael Cottman's journey to discover the history of the slave ship the Henrietta Marie is both an informative endeavor and an emotional one. Certainly, his own emotions from the gamut of deep sadness to anger. But, he also includes a lot of information most likely unknown by the reader from each person and place that he visited, such as the Door of No Return in Senegal.

I found it so interesting that each place that Cottman visited, and wherever it was possible, he felt a compulsion to dive into the waters where the ship had been moored, feeling that it was a way to connect more strongly to the Africans who had been there before him and under such terrible conditions.

And while the writing has a definite journalistic feel to it, it is not unpleasant, difficult or graphic, and is a means for Cottman to include a lot of background information without sounding pedantic.

Shackles from the Deep is Michael Cottman's is homage to those many nameless men, women, and children who were taken out of Africa against their will, and he had given them a voice readers won't soon forget.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was sent to me by the publisher, National Geographic


Monday, February 20, 2017

2016 Cybils MG Finalist: Slacker by Gordon Korman

Cameron Boxer, 13, has worked hard to perfect his lifestyle - exerting as little energy and effort as possible on anything this isn't related to gaming and exerting maximum energy and effort on gaming for hours on end, all in service of his goal - winning the Rule the World tournament and defeating his nemesis the Evil McKillpeople.

Only when dinner starts to burn and the house fills with smoke, and Cameron is so wrapped up in the online game he's playing in the basement with his online friends that he doesn't noticed what happening round him until the fire department arrives, do his parents finally put their foot down. It is time for Cameron to put down the controller and get involved in real life.

But if gaming is your life, there's only one thing to do - enlist the help of your friends Pavel and Chuck to help you create a new school club by hacking into the school's website. And so the Positive Action Group or P.A.G., is created complete with mission statement and slogan "because helping others is an education in itself" and Cameron is its president. The phony P.A.G. thrills his parents and puts Cameron back into the gaming business.

The only problem is that the P.A.G. catches the eye of Daphne Leibowitz who has the perfect cause for the club to embrace. Her idea is to capture the aging beaver that has been eating every wooden thing in sight all over town after being left behind when younger beavers moved, and building a nice new beaver lodge for it. And Daphne isn't the only one enthusiastic about the club. Mr. Fanshaw, the guidance counselor, hopes the club will help sell the Fall Charity Raffle tickets, most of them still sitting in his desk. Then, Freeland "String" McBean, star football player but failing student, hopes being part of the club will help get him back on the team. Even Cameron's younger sister Melody has joined the club -to get under his skin? Maybe. But not everyone is welcoming this new club, certainly not the Friends of Fuzzy, the high school do-gooders club, whose president Jennifer isn't happy to have middle school competition.

And, naturally, everyone expects Cameron to act like the president of the club and lead them, all of which proves to seriously cut into his gaming time instead of increasing it.

Slacker is, for the most part, a very amusing novel. It is told in the first person from a multiple of perspectives, among them Cameron, Pavel, Daphne, String, Mr. Fanshaw, and Jennifer, president of the Friends of Fuzzy. Why so many narrators? Each one has their own motive for using the Positive Action Group to achieve their own goal. It sounds confusing, but it really isn't, mainly because Korman is a genius at the art of multi-perspective novels. And he does it all with lots of humor.

Interestingly, I found that I did not like the mean, self-serving Cameron from beginning to end, even though he is finally able to make himself step up to the plate when it counts. I found him to be a rather thin character in comparison to the other characters in the novel. And yet, even though I thought Cameron's obsessive gaming annoying, it is just the kind of book that middle graders will really love. It's not heavy or sad or sentimental, and it gets Cam out of the basement and away from the screens, so I guess you could call it an eye-opening story for him (and others like him), but, personally, I think it's just a lot of good, clean (but improbable) fun.

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

Cybils Middle Grade Fiction Winner: Ghost (Book #1 of Track) by Jason Reynolds

Eight-grader Castle Cranshaw has called himself Ghost ever since the night three years ago that his father tried to shoot him and his mom. Hiding in the corner of his favorite store, the owner said they looked like two ghosts because of how scared they were. And that was also the night Ghost learned to run and he's really fast.

So it isn't surprising that when he comes across a group of students practicing track, he unofficially runs along with them. The team's coach knows natural talent when he sees it, and invites Ghost to join the team, the Defenders.

The next day there is an 'altercation' at school and Ghost is told to call his mother to pick him up. Suspended half a day for fighting, Ghost knows he can't call his mother at work, so he pulls out Coach Brody's card, says it's his uncle and calls him at work (Coach drives a cab when not coaching). Coach agrees to pick him up but under one condition - if Ghost messes up in school one time, he's off the team, a condition that Ghost's mom can accept as well.

It doesn't take long for Ghost to find that he really likes running track with the team, even as he finds it physically challenging, especially since he's running in a pair of old high tops instead of proper running shoes.

But he solves that problem when he steals a pair of expensive running shoes he has been trying on from a local store. Oh, yes, the 'altercations' in school haven't exactly stopped, either. And then, just before their first big race, Coach finds out about how Ghost acquired his fancy running shoes. Coach Brody may be a real hard-nose, but he holds on to Ghost, showing him the right way to run and, more importantly, the right way to live.

Told in the first person by Ghost, there is humor, drama and suspenseful anticipation in his story. But, there is also trauma. After his father chased him and his mom out of the house, and down the street in a drunken rage and with the intention of killing them, Ghost hasn't really stopped running - from his life and for his life. Bothered and bullied at school for living in the projects, for not being as nicely dressed as the other kids in his middle school, Ghost is accustomed to lashing out at those around him. But as he gets to know Coach Brody better, Ghost sees that there just might be a better way to handle all the scream inside him.

I think the use of running as a coming of age metaphor is brilliant. As Reynolds has said, that name Castle gives himself, Ghost, means running so fast no one can see you, which is just what Castle wants as the book begins. But, as he trains and turns into a more polished runner, readers also witness Ghost literally running from his old life and into a new one, one in which he does indeed want to be seen and recognized.

Ghost is the first book in Jason Reynolds' projected Track series and it is one of the best reading surprises I've had in a while.

An excellent Reading Guide for Ghost is available from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Year of the Dog (A Pacy Lin Novel Book 1) by Grace Lin

The Lunar New Year lasts for 15 days, and technically, it ended on February 11th this year, with the first full moon and the traditional Lantern Festival. We were still reading and enjoying Grace Lin's book The Year of the Dog, her first Pacy Lin novel, on the last day of the New Year, but it is just too good not to write about - better late than never.

The Year of the Dog has arrived and the Lins - Pacy, her mom and dad, her older sister Lissy and younger sister Ki-Ki - are celebrating with all the traditional customs and foods. In the Year of the Dog, Pacy learns, you are supposed to find your best friends, as well as yourself and what you want to do with your life.

Pacy isn't sure what finding yourself means for her, though. She knows she's Chinese, but her parents are Taiwanese and she doesn't speak either language, but her mom and dad do. She was born in the US, so she's also American, and at school she is called by her American name, Grace. But, to Americans, she is too Chinese, and to Chinese people, she is too American. Will Pacy really be able to find herself in the Year of the Dog?

So far, Pacy has been the only Chinese student at school, besides her sister. But, the day after celebrating the New Year, Pacy returns to school and discovers that there is a new Chinese girl named Melody, who is also Taiwanese American. The two girls become instant best friends.

As the Year of the Dog goes by, Pacy experiences many things, some are traditionally Chinese, others very American. First, there is the family's trip to New Jersey to celebrate Pacy's new born cousin Albert's Red Egg party, in which eggs are dyed red and brought to the baby for luck, along with red envelopes full of money.

Then, at school, the students are given an assignment to write and illustrate a book of their own as part of a national contest. Pacy is excited at first, but soon realizes she can't think anything to write and illustrate that interests her. Later in the year, Melody and Pacy decide to participate in the Science Fair, which doesn't go exactly as planned. Pacy is also excited when the teacher announces that the class play will be The Wizard of Oz. Hoping to get the part of Dorothy, her enthusiasm is spoiled when her friend Becky tells her that she can't be Dorothy, because Dorothy's not Chinese.

By the end of the school year, Pacy has finally come up with an idea for her book project, and then school is over, and summer arrives. Melody and her family are going to spend a week at TAC camp, a camp for Taiwanese Americans, and Mrs. Lin decides it would be good for her family to go as well. Pacy is signed up for an art class, but she isn't very welcomed by the other girls in the class who speak Chinese and call her a Twinkie (yellow on the outside, but white on the inside).

The fall goes by, with very funny and touching descriptions of the Lins celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Lin children want these holidays to be celebrated traditionally, but their parents keep wanting to celebrate in a Chinese way. I thought this touching because I think everyone in the US puts their own cultural spin on these holidays. I know my family did (American southern and Welsh), and I know the families of my friend's did the same thing.

So when Chinese New Year comes around again and the Year of the Dog come to an end and the Year of the Pig is welcomed in, we know Pacy has found a new friend, has spent time with her family, including her grandparents from Taiwan, but has she succeeded in finding herself and what she wants to do with her life?

In her afterward, Grace Lin writes the she wrote The Year of the Dog because it was the book she wished she had when she was growing Asian in a Caucasian community, not because she had been a miserable and gloomy life, but because it was different and she wanted to express the difference in an real and upbeat way. Which is why some of the vignettes in the book don't come to a neat conclusion - after, all sometimes life doesn't either.

But what Lin does do is address issues that do impact children who are not white but life in a white community. For example, when Pacy is told she can't be Dorothy in the play. Cast as a munchkin, she is given the job of handing a gift to Dorothy, and worries that being in the spotlight for a few seconds will be a problem for the audience.

Lin has included lots of information about what life is like in a Chinese American family. I loved the annual trip to NYC's Chinatown to buy Chinese groceries for the year. I also love shopping in Chinatown, though I only buy what I can carry on the subway.

Lin tells Pacy's story simply and directly. It is narrated from Pacy point of view in the first person, but alternates with anecdotes, or really real life lessons, told by her mother from her childhood in Taiwan. Lin also gives detailed descriptions of the food that the family eats, and now that I am more familiar with real Chinese food, thanks to my Kiddo and her husband who comes from China, I could really appreciate these mouth-watering details.

I also really liked that Pacy's family in loving and intact. There is no one major problem that must be dealt with, both mom and dad are present and aware of their children's lives, and they do lots of things together as a family and with other families. All that makes The Year of the Dog an endearing, often humorous work that I think young readers will most definitely enjoy.

Grace Lin has posted some great activities for readers of The Year of the Dog HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

Monday, February 13, 2017

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord

I originally posted this on my other blog, The Children's War, but I thought I would share it here as well. In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson is just such a classic story, perfect for the Lunar New Year.

It is the Year of the Dog (1946), the war is over and China is no longer an occupied country.  In Chungking (now Chongqing), members of the House of Wong are preparing to celebrate Chinese New Year when a letter arrives from Brooklyn, NY that will change the life of Sixth Cousin AKA Bandit and her mother forever.

And so as the Year of the Dog became the Year of the Boar (1947), Sixth Cousin Bandit becomes Shirley Temple Wong and soon she and her mother were sailing off to their new life.  Arriving in Brooklyn, Shirley finds herself living in a small third floor apartment.  And it wasn't long before she is enrolled in P.S. 8, regretting that she hadn't bothered to learn any English from the records her father had sent from America as her mother had done. 

Confused and anxious, Shirley is put into Mrs. Rappaport's 5th grade class.   She begins be feel very lonely and isolated because she doesn't know English or American games and no one really wants to play with her once they discover that.  When her father buys her roller skates, roller skating proves harder to do than she had expected and she gives it up.  When Shirley proves to be a poor stickball or stoopball player, she is left out of the game.  One day, she gets into a fight with Mabel, the tallest, toughest girl in class, but Shirley stands her ground despite two black eyes.

Seeing her eyes, her parents insist on reporting it to the police, but on the way, Shirley notices Mabel is following them and she determines to say nothing about the fight.  Impressed by Shirley's silence, Mabel takes her under her wing and teaches her how to roller skate, and play ball.  And she introduces Shirley to the thrill of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player to play in the major leagues.

Though no without its trials and tribulations, Shirley life has definitely taken a turn for the better.  But there is a big surprise in store for her before the Year of the Boar comes to an end.

Though this novel may feel a little dated, it remains a wonderful story for any young reader who may also be an immigrant to the US.  It is, after all, a tale of coming to terms with two cultures - that of your own and that of your adopted country.  And to her credit, Bette Bao Lord has really captured some of the difficulties involved in adjusting to a new life in a new country, showing us that it isn't always easy.  Perhaps she was drawing on her own experience of coming to the US as an 8 year old. 

Lord does include a nice, though subtle tip of the hat to Shirley's two cultures - because this novel starts at the beginning of the Chinese New Year, the chapters are divided into months of the year 1947, with both the English word and the Chinese character given for each month.

I loved her depictions of Brooklyn and the fact that Shirley goes to a public school, where she has the opportunity to meet all kinds of different kids - Latino, African American, Jewish among others.  This kind of diversity was how it was when I was in school in Brooklyn and why I sent my Kiddo to public school.  And the Brooklyn Dodgers - well, people were still taking about them when I was a kid even though they had long ago moved to LA. 

So in respect of New York, Lord did indeed get it right, but I had a little problem with what felt like a romanticized picture of China and the House of Wong.  The war hit China pretty hard and Chungking (Chonqing) was very badly bombed.  I seriously doubt there were family compounds like the House of Wong left.   Perhaps it was done to show the difference between the two cultures that are so much a part of Shirley's life and who she is. 

The colorful cover and the black and white illustrations at the beginning of each chapter were whimsically illustrated by the late Marc Simont.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was purchased for my personal library

Good Luck, Good Health, Good Cheer and Pass a Happy New Year

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