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Cricket in the Thicket – Perfect Picture Book Friday

19 May

This week’s addition to Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Book Fridays comes to us from the heart of bug country, the Great Plains. What do you think of when you think of Kansas?

You’re not in Kansas, anymore, Toto….

Well, that’s what I used to think until I spent the week with Carol Murray at Highlights Summer Camp last July. When not writing/revising and attending workshop sessions, we rambled through the bug-filled countryside of Pennsylvania, discussing all things kidlit. And that’s how I found out she’s from Kansas. Now, whenever the Sunflower State (and wind) comes up in casual conversation (it happens daily, trust me), I immediately think of Carol. 

Seriously, though, I’ve been eagerly anticipating her book for nearly a year, and I’m sure that she has been waiting far longer than that while Melissa Sweet finished those luscious illustrations. So here it is!

The cover immediately lets readers know they’re in good, buggy company. And the whimsical dedication page 

also sets the tone with playful humor. The first poem I read wasn’t the first in the book. I just opened it to a random page and was treated to the following:

 

Spinning Spiny-Back

I spin,

and spin, 

and when I need

a peppy picker-upper,

I spin a little more,

and then

I eat my web for supper. 

In the text box in the lower right hand corner of the page we learn: “Spiny-backs are orb weavers. When they build a new web, they take down the old one and eat the discarded silk, which is a great source of protein. Spiny-backs are champion recyclers.”

I flipped to another page to find one of the more unsavory-named critters, the dung beetle:

 

Let’s Hear It for Dung Beetle!

I don’t get much respect, and I suspect you didn’t know

that I was very popular in Egypt long ago.

A sacred bug. Oh yes, indeed! A charm with magic power.

Too bad you didn’t know me in my former, finest hour.

 

Don’t you just love the internal rhyme in the first line? And the hard “c” and “ch” sounds in the third line. (Can’t you just hear that crusty scarab scrabbling through the dung?) And the alliterative “efs” that lead softly into the lingering “hour”? This poet has chops!

Each poem is beautifully rendered via mixed media illustrations and accompanied by fascinating tidbits about the featured bug. I can imagine any number of children who will delight in memorizing these poems and reciting them whenever they find a ladybug, damsel fly, dung beetle, jumping spider, walking stick, preying mantis, or even the lowly common fly. The book features 27 bugs in all and includes three pages of back matter that provide even more cool facts about each one. 

Want to know something amazing about the Monarch caterpillar and butterfly? Well, I’m not going to spill the bugs. You’ll have to read the book to find out! Happy reading!

TITLE: Cricket in the Thicket

AUTHOR: Carol Murray

ILLUSTRATOR: Melissa Sweet 

PUBLISHER: Henry Holt, May 2017

TARGET AGE: Preschool-Adult (yes, adults will love them, too)

 

 

Lucky Boy – Shanthi Sekaran

3 May

In a nation overtaken by arguments about immigration and the building of walls, Shanthi Sekaran’s new novel

underscores the complexity of the situation.

But immigration issues are more than a decorative backdrop in Sekaran’s novel. They provide the disturbing context for its premise: two women fighting for the right to raise one child, one of them the birth mother, the other unable to conceive a child of her own. The former is a young, undocumented immigrant in the U.S., who works as a nanny-housekeeper for a Berkeley family. The latter is an affluent daughter of successful Indian immigrants who made California their home in the 1970s.

I thank the Muses that we live in the San Francisco Bay Area midst so many talented, astute, and diverse authors. In recent years, we were fortunate to host Mary Roach, Lalita Tademy, and Nayomi Munaweera at our women’s literary dinner. This year, we were lucky to dine and talk with Shanthi Sekaran.

Given the current state of immigration upheaval in the U.S., Lucky Boy is certain to raise even more questions about longstanding failures related to immigration detention, deportation, and the fate of children of undocumented immigrants.

However, other questions tend toward the personal: What defines motherhood? What is most important when raising a child? What do we mean when we consider the best interests of a child?

Two narrative threads course through Lucky Boy, one of Soli, the teenager from a tiny village in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the other of Kavyah, a 30-something, second generation Indian-American living near the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley, California.

Kavya, a chef, enjoys a privileged life, one where the greatest challenge turns out to be getting pregnant. When we’re first introduced to her, she and her husband, Rishi, are getting ready to attend the wedding of one of her childhood rivals and friends.

“Preeti Patel was getting married and sealing forever her victory over Kavya. Over the years, the girls had grown from playmates to rivals and begrudging friends. To be fair, it was Kavya who begrudged; Preeti was endlessly gracious, completely unimpeachable in her maintenance of friendship. Preeti was infallibly interested and interesting, and if she felt superior to Kavya, she never spoke of it, never mentioned her own achievements. That was left to the mothers.”

On the other end of the immigrant spectrum, we have Soli, an 18-year-old desperate to leave her dead-end village.

“She was leaving! The promise of it stoked a flame that blazed through her….Already, this existence was nothing but a distant prick of light. Electrified by the promised of forward motion, Soli stretched up to kiss the sky, growing and growing, until she too was a flaming tower, a castle of light, sparking from the eyes, spitting streaks of joy.”

Part of the desperation stems from being abandoned by a succession of boyfriends and romance who, one by one, have all left for America.

“Popocalco offered no work, only the growing and eating of a few stalks of corn. When the money left, the people followed, except for the very poor and very old….always the same faces…not exactly waiting to die, Soli believed, but not quite living, either.”

Soli, an “Indio,” shares only the pleasant details of her former village life with her employers, the Cassidy family. She keeps the “thinner times” to herself.

“You don’t know poverty until it’s you who has to feed and clothe your children, her papi used to say. Poverty is a pit that rumbles in your gut. You squash it down and pack it over with family and drink and music, but still it rumbles, threatening any day to erupt and send you and everything you know careening down a hillside.”

How did Soli and Kavya’s story come to be? Sekaran described hearing a brief report on NPR in 2011 about an undocumented Guatemalan woman who was being threatened with deportation and fighting to be reunited with her child. The court ruled in favor of the adoptive parents. Horrified, Sekaran sought to understand how seemingly good people could be so eager to take this woman’s child. In the process, Lucky Boy was born.

Sekaran researched the case she’d heard on NPR. She also talked with adoptive parents, immigration lawyers and their clients, social workers, and infertility specialists. She read policy reports, including how current detention practices violate immigrants’ rights. And she shadowed a chef so she’d know what it was like to cook on a massive scale for a sorority house.

When it came time to revise her early draft, she studied the way Toni Morrison played with time  in her novel, Beloved. Sekaran then used similar techniques to shape the temporal structure of Lucky Boy, skillfully intermingling flashbacks with current events.

The novel raises many questions, including What defines motherhood? What is best for a child? What is the motivation behind wanting to take away another woman’s child? And on a more political level, How does our current immigration system create untenable situations and fail on so many levels?

I was gobsmacked by this book.

Having written for California Rural Legal Assistance, I had some idea about how horrific the trip across the border can be for those without documentation, but to feel it through the story of a teenage girl who’s filled with so much yearning for a better life? This, my friends, creates a form of empathy that intellectual knowledge and statistics cannot. The sheer weight of the details add to the pain. I had no idea that immigrants are being detained and moved to detention centers that are sometimes no more than tent encampments. They may not have proper clothing or bedding for cold weather even if their detention center is not heated. They can be abused (and often are) by their guards and treated like criminals.

And despite having committed no real crime, they are treated as if they have no rights. They often have no idea where they’re being taken or held, or when they’ll be transferred either to another facility or across the border. They have little access to any form of communication with the outside world, including lawyers. It’s a Kafka-esque system. One that fills me with dread when I put myself in Soli’s shoes.

The only difference between these unlucky immigrants and Shanthi’s parents? The U.S. government wanted her parents and their medical skills, similar to immigrants today who have desirable technology expertise.

Yes, this is tough subject matter, but there are also frequent moments of humor that ring so true, you may smile or laugh out loud. In a conversation between Soli and the cousin she has sought out in Berkeley, Soli’s cousin exposes the irony for many living in the Bay Area:

“‘Nobody here has any goddamn money,” Silvia told her. “Even the people who have money don’t have money.”

Soli asked why.

“It’s their houses, their houses are vacuum cleaners that suck up all their money. Those pretty trees? Money. Those nice flowers? Good paint, no water stains? Money and more money.”

“But they have homes. That’s something.”

“Mortgages,” Silvia said. “They don’t have homes. They have mortgages.”‘

Thus begins the education of Soli.

The story heats up when Soli’s status is discovered, she’s detained for deportation, and also separated from her son, who’s placed in foster care with Kavya and Rishi.

Against all odds, from the confines of multiple detention centers (where phone privileges are given or restricted arbitrarily) she tries to fight for the rights to her son. After days, possibly weeks, of being given only intermittent access to a phone, here is Soli on the morning of the first custody hearing. A guard has told her the phone “isn’t working.”

“But there was the phone. Soli could see the phone. The phone existed.

Soli tried a different tack. ‘Senora, they are taking my son away from me. I need to call the court. I will lose him. The phone in the office? The office phone?’

Her jaw clenched. ‘Get back to your cell.’

‘I need the phone.’

Silence.

‘I need the phone.’

‘I’m calling backup.’ She looked slightly frightened.”

Weeks of frustration, desperation, isolation, and sleepless nights come to a head.

“‘I need the phone,’ Soli growled. She shoved the guard to the side and ran for the phone, but the guard was faster and stronger….

‘Don’t put me there. Please don’t put me there. Please.’

A door opened to a cushioned sunlit closet. The hands threw her in, and she bounced off a wall and landed hard on the padding.

The door shut.

From a skylight, the sun glared down.

Hours came and hours went. Somewhere in Berkeley, people were walking into a room, saying things about Soli and her son….The night passed. She didn’t move.”

Compare this to Kavya’s preparations for the hearing.

“The morning of the hearing, Kavya woke up, showered, dressed, and vomited. It happened so suddenly that she had no time to lunge for a trash can. One second, she was fastening her top button and the next, she found herself covered in a yellow sheet of bile…When she got to the kitchen, her mother was waiting. She’d asked her to babysit that day, had explained to her the reason for the hearing, the possible outcomes…something in her wanted her mother there, in case things went very badly, in case she needed to come home, quit her job, and crawl into bed for days.”

Clearly, lives will be shattered no matter the outcome of this dispute, as lives will most likely continue to be shattered in this country for the near and perhaps distant future. But if Sekaran’s novel can open some eyes to the devastation wrought by our national policies and immigration system, then perhaps the future will change for the better.

I hope so.

Thank you to Shanthi Sekaran for writing such a beautiful and important book. I can only hope that it gains wide readership.

 

 

 

What Lies Between Us – Nayomi Munaweera

29 Apr

This past Saturday, a friend and I hosted a women’s literary dinner at my home. The guests of honor were Nayomi Munaweera

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and her devastating new novel, What Lies Between Us.

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First, a little background.

Fifteen years ago, Nayomi was earning a PhD in English Literature when she realized she wanted to write fiction instead of WRITE ABOUT fiction. So she dropped out of school (cue parental angst), moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and spent the next decade working various jobs while writing Island of a Thousand Mirrors, a novel about the Sri Lankan civil war and its effect on families. 

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Nayomi’s preferred cover

The novel won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region, was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and was chosen as a Target Book Club pick this past January. Here’s the Target cover:

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This latest edition includes information about Nayomi’s family (including photos), book group questions, recommended further reading, and a sneak peak at the first chapter of her new book, What Lies Between Us.

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This new novel explores the much more private trauma of sexual abuse, mental illness—including postpartum psychosis, and its impact on families. It depicts the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship bound by a thin strand of desperation with the tensile strength of a spider’s web. A strand that extends to a new baby girl, a strand that will come to break.

“Motherhood. With her birth a new person is released in me. A person who has nothing to do with the person I was before. I had not known until I crossed into this new land what would be asked from me. What is asked is everything.”

The novel also shines a light on how patriarchal and class-based cultures pressure women to make choices that follow others’ expectations rather than their own preferences. And how patriarchy fashions a woman’s sense of self as a reflection in someone else’s eyes. And that reflection is often fractured, missing essential pieces.

Early on in the novel, the narrator tells us “It was something I learned then. That you could take the crumpled remains of something destroyed and smooth them into newness. You could pretend certain things weren’t happening even when you had seen or felt them. Everything done can be denied.”

But much later, she capitulates: “Nothing is forgotten or finished. All of history is lodged in the earth, in the water, in the strata of our flesh.”

Nayomi shared the background behind her story, saying that women who kill their children are often considered monsters. She wanted to explore what was hidden behind that label. What were the stories behind women such as Andrea Yates who drowned all five of her children in the bathtub? Nayomi’s research found that these women often do show early signs of distress, but no one really understands just how close to the edge they are until it’s too late. Similarly, the young mother in this novel is surrounded by co-workers in the medical profession and other intelligent people who don’t fully comprehend the depth of her struggles. 

San Francisco Chronicle writer, Anita Fellicelli, gave What Lies Between Us a stellar review. She wrote: “Trauma is rarely captured in literary form with as much fiery intensity as it is in Nayomi Munaweera’s devastating second novel, What Lies Between Us…the novel sinks into the kind of heart-wrenching darkness found in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’…It’s a testament to the power of Munaweera’s dazzling, no-holds-barred storytelling that the novel’s climax still feels shocking.”

I agree. This book shattered me.

And I must disagree with the Kirkus reviewer who lauded the book before saying: “The melodramatic framing device only distracts from the crystalline precision with which Munaweera renders the richness of the immigrant experience as well as her character’s singular longings, fears, joys, and demons.”

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That statement left me wondering if the reviewer was male, because every woman I know who’s read this book did not think of the story’s setup as a “melodramatic framing device,” but as real life fallout resulting from sexual abuse and/or mental illness, experiences that many women share. Experiences that are often hidden from consciousness while heavily influencing the course of their lives. Some end up killing themselves or becoming society’s monsters.

So, be off with you Kirkus! To me, it’s not so much about the “richness of the immigrant experience” as about the darkness that lurks within too many women’s lives.

Nuff said.

 

Parts and Even More Parts – Perfect Picture Book Friday

22 Apr

So you’re looking for a couple of books from a brilliant author/illustrator? Ones that will make kids say “ewwww” page after page, all while laughing uproariously? Ones that kids will want to read again and again and again because each little twist is ingenious?

Tedd Arnold’s will do the trick:

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For the most part, his rhyme is spot on,

“I just don’t know what’s going on

or why it has to be.

But every day it’s something worse.

What’s happening to me?”

 

but purists will note that the rhyme on the second spread is—inverted! **!!Gasp!!**

“I think it was three days ago

I first became aware—

That in my comb were caught a couple

pieces of my hair.”

 

Now, one could argue that this book was published in 1997 and the rhyme police have gotten much more strict in recent years. But I will tell you that if you’re an author-illustrator and you come up with something as original as:

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“Then later on (I don’t recall

exactly when it was)

I lifted up my shirt and found

this little piece of fuzz.”

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“I stared at it, amazed, and wondered,

What’s this all about?

But then I understood. It was

my stuffing coming out!”

Editors may give you a “Get Out of Rhyme Jail Free” pass. Page after page of inspired body part distress.

Not content with one body part book, Arnold published a second called “More Parts” (not reviewed here), and a third called “Even More Parts” in 2004. Originally published under the “Dial Books for Young Readers Imprint,” they are now published by Puffin.

“Even More Parts” takes a literal look at body part idioms and their horrifying consequences.

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Tongue-tied, anyone?

Although each page includes small comics of several idioms for each body part, Arnold selects the funniest to fill the spreads. The end papers include mini illustrations of many more. Bonus: All of these books should engage even the most reluctant readers AND PARENTS.  

“Even More Parts” could also be used to support Common Core Curriculum in kindergarten through second grade.

Check them out!

Titles: “Parts” & “And Even More Parts”

Author/Illustrator: Tedd Arnold

Publisher: Puffin

Ages: preschool-second grade

This post is in conjunction with Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Book Friday.

I Need My Own Country! – Perfect Picture Book Friday

18 Mar

Time for Susanna Leonard Hill’s PPBF!

But first, let’s form a new political party, one run by children’s picture book writers and illustrators. It will be the nicest, most generous political party ever. There will be sharing of snacks and toys and saying please and thank you. No hitting, biting, bullying, or other anti-social behavior. There will be copious amounts of laughter at brilliant puns, riotous rhymes, and lyrical bedtime stories sending us into the land of nod. 

I don’t know about you but I’m thinking about moving to Canada, a place where reasonable human beings live. Where people are thoughtful and nice to each other. But first, a civics lesson:

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Continue reading

Mother Bruce – Perfect Picture Book Friday

4 Mar

Time again for Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Book Friday nomination:

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I haven’t laughed so hard while reading a picture book in a lonnnng time. Yes, I’ve smiled, giggled, or uttered the occasional guffaw. But here I found myself laughing through page after page of the most hilarious sight gags that only an author-illustrator can conjure. And my twelve-year-old son who’s too cool for school? He laughed out loud over and over again—and then read it again.

Story: Bruce, the grumpy bear, doesn’t like sunny or rainy days or cute little animals. But he DOES love eggs and makes extravagant gourmet dishes with them. He believes in supporting local businesses (a beehive) and asks Mrs. Goose if her eggs are free-range.

FOODIE ALERT!!!

That’s when this San Francisco dweller started laughing. Bruce’s epicurian lifestyle proves uneventful until one fateful day when he tries to hard boil eggs on the stove and the fire goes out, leaving the eggs in a cuddly warm bath. He runs out to find more wood, only to return home to:

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Yes, Bruce is stuck with a gaggle of goslings who thwart his attempts to abandon them. So ol’ Bruce makes the best of parenting (as we all do) until it’s time for the grown goslings to migrate. But Bruce still can’t get them to leave. His solution to this problem is downright ingenious and even more hilarious than what has come before. 

And the final twist that follows Bruce’s “dreams of new recipes—that don’t hatch” is a perfect last page. Parents won’t be filing this one away in desperation, saying that “it must be lost.” It’s a book they’ll want to read again and again and again and again to their little goslings.

TITLE: Mother Goose Bruce

AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR: Ryan T. Higgins

PUBLISHER: Disney/Hyperion 2015

AGES: 3+

 

 

 

 

Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea – Perfect Picture Book Friday

12 Feb

You may notice that I no longer have any widgets down the right column of my blog. I made the mistake of trying out a new blog theme for about 20 seconds then switched back. The widgets followed me to the new theme, but they abandoned me on my return. I feel betrayed by all things starting with the letter “W.”

Soooo, a “Happiness Engineer” is now toiling away behind the scenes, trying to engineer my happiness. Not sure it’s within the realm of possibility, but I am trying to keep calm and carry on. [UPDATE: Happiness Engineers Rock!! Widgets restored (most of them) “W” now stands for “WONDERFUL, WHIZ kids at WordPress!!”]

Here’s my entry for Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Book Friday!
There is more tongue-in-cheek fact-stretching in Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea than you can shake a pair of Levis at, but it’s sooo much fun, you just don’t care. The author gives you the real low-down about the origins of Levi jeans in the back matter. The rest is pure, ah, fabrication. Take a look! 

(FIRST SPREAD)

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The voice SCREAMS at you from the first sentence. This is what makes agents and editors turn the page and keep reading:

“GOLD!” somebody yelled. Next thing anybody knew,

the whole world rushed to California and

started digging up the place. The trouble was,

they rushed so fast, they lost their pants.

(SECOND SPREAD)

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Well, they didn’t exactly lose them. The pants

just disintegrated. They were that flimsy.

Corduroy, wool tweed, flannel, burlap, velvet, worsted,

serge: they didn’t last long in the gold fields. Right quick

they got worked down to the size of a handkerchief.

Soon, every miner was sluicing for color in his long johns—

or naked as a jaybird. Yessir, all of California was mining

in the vanilla.

 

Filled with juicy language like “gnashing their clashers” and “rattling and racketing and rolling,” and coupled with illustrations painted on old jeans, this book’s a sure fire winner! If you want to do a craft with the kiddos, I’d suggest painting those ol’ blue jeans. Just make sure they’re the original Levi’s, OK?

Title: Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea

Author: Tony Johnston

Illustrator: Stacy Innerst

Publisher: Harcourt/Houghton

Year: 2011 (Yes, I know it’s not new, but it’s new to me!)

Ages: 3-8 yrs 

 

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