Monday, October 31, 2016

Spooky book review: Hoodoo

What's worse than being six years old and too sick for trick-or-treating on Halloween? Not much.

My youngest is home with a fever today, and between Dan TDM videos (Minecraft fans know what I'm talking about), we're reading spooky books.

Ronald L. Smith's Hoodoo is a little intense for a six-year-old; I'd say it's geared for 10 and up. And it's creepy as all get-out, so make sure your reader likes a good, scary story.

Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher lives with his grandmother, Mama Frances, in a small Alabama town in the 1930s, conveyed through Hoodoo's wonderful voice and observations: "Supposedly [my daddy] went and put a curse on a man in Tuscaloosa County, but I didn't believe that. I didn't think I'd ever know the real truth."

Mysteries surround Hoodoo. He comes from a family that practices "folk magick," but he's never shown any abilities, despite the heart-shaped birthmark on his cheek that inspired his name: "That child is marked. He got hoodoo in him." Yet suddenly a Stranger is after him, growling strange things about "The One That Did the Deed."

As Hoodoo's nightmares start to affect the waking world, Hoodoo needs to solve mysteries: What does the Stranger want? And how is his father mixed up in it? When Mama Frances and Pa Manuel finally tell him the truth, Hoodoo must learn some serious magic fast, or his entire family--and his town--will be destroyed.

This is a real page-turner, and Smith creates an immersive world where the line between natural and supernatural is believably thin. Hoodoo and the other characters are warm, loving, and funny, overcoming their flaws in interesting (and sometimes heartbreaking) ways. Hoodoo learns about bravery, loyalty, self-sufficiency, and family bonds by the satisfying conclusion.

I'd recommend this for older fans of Goosebumps, the later Harry Potter books, and other scary titles. Sad and frightening things happen in the story; characters kill and die. It's not for sensitive readers. But this is a great, thrilling read. It's such an immersive experience that I found myself jumping at noises in the dark!

Worthwhile, especially for a dark and stormy Halloween night.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Socially conscious kidlit

A recent New Yorker piece got me thinking about how we define "good" kidlit.

Using Goosebumps books as an example, the New Yorker author questions whether financial success, awards, psychological value, or popularity makes a book "good"--by which he means lasting, rereadable, culture-changing "literature."

I found his discussion of "socially conscious" children's books particularly interesting. There seems to be a resurgence in content-driven kids' books with Important Messages for Children. Perhaps this trend is a long-overdue response to the lack of diversity in children's literature.

Many of the books I'm reading lately are excellent: beautiful images, artistic language, powerful messages. I'm proud to share them with kids, and I'm glad the books are getting attention in the world of kidlit.

Of course, now I want more. I'm looking for books from diverse perspectives that aren't explicitly about identity, race, or social status. I'm on a quest for science fiction, slipstream, fantasy, action, and humor that bucks the tradition of white, middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied characters as the norm.

Any suggestions?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: Poetry for Kids: Emily Dickinson

I was lucky enough to snag a copy of the gorgeous, brand-new Poetryfor Kids: Emily Dickinson from Quarto Publishing. If you love poetry and art--or heck, just appreciate thoughtful contemplation of the seasons--check out this book.

Divided into seasons, 35 of Dickinson’s nature poems edited by Dickinson expert Susan Snively dance among beautiful ink-and-watercolor illustrations by Christine Davenier. Classics such as “Hope is the thing with feathers” and “There’s a certain slant of light,” as well as lesser-known poems, are celebrated with bright, lively flowers, insects, birds, and children dancing, reading, cloud-gazing, and running in tall grass (while a snake slithers in the foreground); my only complaint would be the lack of people of color in the paintings with human characters. 

Definitions of challenging words, such as “troubadour” or “pensive,” appear in unobtrusive, italicized text near the bottom of each page (thank goodness poems are not marred with asterisks). 

At the end of the book, two pages titled “What Emily Was Thinking” offer short summaries of each poem, providing not only context (“A cricket’s song helps the sun finish its daily work”) but also simple explanations about how the poem’s craft affects our understanding (“The poem’s gentle rhymes…create a hymn of farewell”). 

This lovely book, a wonderful gift for budding poets, is also appealing for teachers to encourage students’ careful observation and inspiration to write—and paint—our world.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Surrender to the Story: Houston 2016

This weekend I attended my first SCBWI conference!

I drove six hours to Houston and stayed in a very shiny hotel (my car seemed so old and dirty!). The Hess Club was just down the street in an upscale shopping area that reminded me of Southern California or suburban Phoenix.

Unlike the intimate picture book conference I attended in NYC last year, this was much bigger. About 100-150 people, mostly white women my age or older, sat at round tables in a sparkly meeting center listening to authors, agents, and editors discuss elements of craft. The day was jam-packed and well-organized, and by dinner my head was spinning.

Conferences are funny things. So many hungry writers and illustrators, so few gatekeepers standing between us and publishing nirvana. Part of the point is to meet people who might help on your career path. I printed out business cards but only gave out a couple. Schmoozing is not my forte! But I did have great conversations and think that I made some friends.

I signed up for a one-on-one manuscript review with a local author whose work I admire. We had 12 minutes to discuss her feedback. She was incredibly nice, even when sharing some constructive criticism that I didn't like to hear: my main character was coming off as an unlikable stereotype. Ouch.

BUT when we talked about what I was trying to do--show a kid who is sweet inside, tough outside--she seemed interested in continuing the conversation (our time was up!) and told me to contact her. Extremely generous. So I'm not hopeless!

When I got back to my table after my critique, my tablemates sympathized with my less-than-stellar response. They'd all been in my shoes, which made me feel better. That's the benefit of writing conferences: tough-love feedback combined with commiseration from like-minded folks.

Here's to new friends and building community in this crazy profession!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Review: Last Stop on Market Street

Have you read Last Stop on Market Street yet? It's the first picture book AND the first Latino author, Matt de la Pena, to ever win the Newberry medal. If you haven't, pick it up, because it's gorgeous.

Of course, even with a book this lovely, there's controversy. Apparently, some commentators think that diversity can't exist simultaneously with quality. Which is ridiculous.

This deceptively simple story, with equally deceptively simple pictures by Christian Robinson, chronicles the journey of a little boy, CJ, and his grandmother across town by bus. Along the way, CJ asks his grandmother questions like "How come we gotta wait for the bus in all this wet?" and "Nana, how come we don't got a car?"

His grandmother answers with grace: "We got a bus that breathes fire, and old Mr. Dennis, who always has a trick for you." (Sure enough, Mr. Dennis the bus driver has a magic trick for CJ.) In the illustration, the bus has the image of a fire-breathing dragon along its side, merging imagination with reality the way young children do.

On the bus, CJ and his Nana interact with a variety of people, and Nana sees the beauty in each person. My favorite line comes after CJ asks about "crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors, / graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores." The illustrations show a cityscape, but a flock of grey and black pigeons flying across the front of buildings and a fence prepare for Nana's answer:

"Sometimes when you're surrounded by dirt, CJ, you're a better witness for what's beautiful."

The mixed-media art looks like cut paper layered and painted or colored to create a bright, textured cityscape. Simple shapes, gestures, and details convey surprising depths of emotion with what appear to be a few strokes.

The language conveys CJ's and Nana's voices in realistic, imperfect syntax, capturing spoken word. Narration features rhymes and rhythms that float across pages like improvisational jazz, perfectly suited for reading aloud again and again.

This book made me think of Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day, another beautiful story about a simple day, as well as Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood (and Sesame Street)--celebrations of vibrant city life and loving communities. I want to live on Market Street, a testament to the beauty, amid the "dirt," that its creators witnessed there.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Review: Thunder Boy, Jr.

I love Sherman Alexie's writing, so I was excited to see he has a new picture book.

Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is a cute story--with deeper themes--about a chubby-cheeked kid who doesn't think his name is "normal." His real name is Thunder Boy Smith, named for his father, but people call him "Little Thunder," which he thinks "sounds like a burp or a fart."

With charm and humor, Thunder Boy imagines all the other names he might like to be called: Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth, or Can't Run Fast While Laughing. This part of the book practically invites kids to come up with their own names based on what they find important about themselves--as well as celebrating Native American naming traditions.

Morales's illustrations are bright and energetic, with Thunder Boy and his little sister dancing across the pages (parents nearby, particularly the father, smile, hug, and reach out to the children) against a textured background filled with colorful abstract shapes. In the end, this short, sweet book becomes a meditation on identity and family, as well as on the importance of a name.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Banned book review: I Am Jazz

Banned books stun me. Seriously? We're still doing this?

When I read about a school in Wisconsin cancelling an author's reading--of a PICTURE BOOK--for fear of lawsuits, and then 600 people packed a library a week later to hear that author read, I knew I had to check out this book.

I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, with illustrations by Shelagh McNicholas, is a sweetly illustrated, gently narrated story of a little girl--she appears to be about 7--who likes "dancing, singing, back flips, drawing, soccer, swimming, makeup, and pretending I'm a pop star."  Her best friends are Samantha and Casey...but "I'm not exactly like Samantha and Casey."

Jazz has "a girl brain but a boy body. This is called transgender." The story goes on to describe how as a very little child, she felt wrong dressed as a boy or when told to do "boy" things. Her parents, holding her on their lap, talk with a doctor, and afterwards hug her and say, "We understand now. Be who you are. We love you no matter what."

Jazz grows her hair and wears girl clothes to school, and though she has (very gently handled) challenges with other kids and teachers, her parents tell her "being different is okay" and Jazz remembers "the kids who get to know me usually want to be my friend."

Illustrations are soft, pastel watercolors with flowing lines and rosy cheeks. Empathetic faces convey love and joy. I wish there was more racial diversity among the people; Jazz in real life (on her reality TV show) has an olive complexion, but in the book she and her family are rendered very pale-skinned.

I Am Jazz is a celebration of uniqueness, reminding readers that we are all different, which makes us each special and deserving of love, respect, and understanding.

When I read this with my 6-year-old, we talked a little about how it's good for people to be who they are inside. He nodded and said, "That book's OK. But I like more adventure. Or scary and funny together. That's what I like."

All right. Knowing what you like is a good step toward accepting who you are!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review: One Crazy Summer

Rita Williams Garcia's One Crazy Summer hooked me right away. Narrator Delphine, a spunky 11-year-old girl, travels across the country with her sisters to see their mother, but spends her summer at a Black Panther camp for kids in 1960s Oakland, California.

Having just read Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming, similarities jumped out: the strong first-person voice of a young black girl coming of age in the 1960s, and an absent mother who returns and struggles with her own identity. Although One Crazy Summer is fiction and Brown Girl Dreaming is memoir, both resonate with an unforgettable, confident character growing up in a turbulent time and place.

Traveling alone from New York City to Oakland to visit their mother, who deserted them six years earlier, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern hope that Cecile will greet them with open arms. Instead, a woman dressed like "a secret agent" strides ahead of them, demanding that they "keep up." This mother doesn't want them in the house--especially the kitchen--so she sends them to the Black Panther-led Community Center down the street for free breakfast and activities.

This is a different view of the Black Panthers than Delphine--or most readers--has from TV (or history books). At first, the girls are frightened of the tall men with black berets, and Crazy Kelvin seems to enjoy being a bully, but soon they are welcomed to a hot meal, free clothing, and arts and crafts with kind Sister Mukumbu and Sister Pat. As Delphine says, "I started to think, This place is all right. I watched the white guys leave unharmed, laughing even. I couldn't wait to tell Big Ma all about it."

The mystery is their mother. Why does she refuse to call Fern by her name? Why does everyone call her Nzilla instead of Cecile? What's she hiding in her kitchen? And most of all, why isn't she the mother the girls want her to be?

As the summer wears on, the girls find a sense of belonging, which inspires them to overcome their fears. Delphine undergoes an unexpected transformation, from overly responsible mom-substitute to independent young woman learning to speak up for her own needs. Her sisters flourish and grow into themselves, too.

Although real trouble affects the characters, Williams-Garcia keeps the story age-appropriate while not sugar-coating the girls' experiences. Their mother doesn't become a traditional "mommy, mom, or ma," but she and the girls learn to appreciate one another's strengths, coming together as family by the end.

Overall, this is an uplifting, sweet, empowering novel with doses of poetry, history, and community responsibility. I highly recommend it for kids between 8-12 (and grown-ups too!).

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Anthology ahoy!

So excited! An essay I submitted some time ago will be published in an anthology!


The anthology is a collection of birth stories, and mine is about giving birth five days after evacuating from Hurricane Katrina. The editor said the book should be available sometime before December. I will definitely share the word when it is!


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Review: Brown Girl Dreaming

How did I not know that Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming was a book in verse?!

Highly awarded, this memoir (in verse!) describes the author's childhood in the 1960's and '70s in Iowa, South Carolina, and Brooklyn. Woodson paints portraits of places and people with spare-yet-lush poetic language. Each poem could stand alone, some moreso than others. Together, they offer a prismatic collection of memories crafted into a gorgeous merging of form and subject.

Beginning with the day she is born, Woodson introduces a marvelous voice: an adult Jacqueline who knows things the infant Jacqueline couldn't know. Yet later poems are imbued with a childlike quality that allows the reader to hear the young Jacqueline's adoration of her grandfather, confusion at moving from her beloved South Carolina, and wonder at her ability to tell, and later write, the stories that pour out of her.

Born in Iowa to a mother who misses her family in South Carolina and a father who can trace his family's heritage to a son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Woodson sets her narrative firmly in a historical continuum. The second poem describes Martin Luther King, Jr., planning his march in Birmingham, John F. Kennedy as president, and Malcolm X "standing on a soapbox / talking about revolution."

Without going into much grown-up detail--the narrative stays close to what the child Jacqueline knows and experiences--Jacqueline's mother leaves her father and takes the three children to South Carolina to live with their grandparents. In a big house in a small town, their grandfather--who the children soon call Daddy--is a supervisor at a printing press who loves to garden and their grandmother teaches part time and takes on "daywork" cleaning white people's houses.

The Civil Rights movement is a constant. In "south carolina at war," young Jacqueline describes "teenagers...sitting / where brown people still aren't allowed to sit / and getting carried out, their bodies limp, / their faces calm." In another poem, their mother participates in "the training," where demonstrators learn nonviolent techniques:
How to sit at counters and be cursed at
without cursing back, have food and drinks poured
over them without standing up and hurting someone.
Even the teenagers
get trained to sit tall, not cry, swallow back fear.
Little Jacqueline absorbs the quiet determination and bravery of her family and community as she learns to write her name and have her hair pressed in her grandmother's kitchen. Woodson balances a child's preoccupations with the grown-up world's slow progress, creating a textured narrative that works on multiple levels.

When Jacqueline's mother leaves for New York, where an aunt and other family lives, the children ache for her return while reveling in their grandparents' love. Returning from her second trip with a new baby brother in tow, the mother and four children move to New York, eventually settling in Brooklyn near an aunt, an uncle, and friends from South Carolina. Still, the children feel torn between worlds: North and South, urban and rural, parent and grandparents.

Bit by bit, Jacqueline finds her talent despite feeling overshadowed by her brilliant older sister and brother and "the new baby." Although sad events take place, Woodson handles them with tenderness and gentle honesty, never getting too deeply into the world that the adults must be experiencing yet remaining clear-eyed. This child-focus makes for a YA-appropriate portrayal of a girl coming of age surrounded by a loving family in a time of tremendous change.

A portrait of the artist as a young girl, inspirational for all ages.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

It's been a while since I've read a book for adults, and Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle had me rubbing my eyes. Some things you can't unsee.

I recently encountered the term slipstream, fiction that crosses boundaries of sci-fi, fantasy, and literary fiction, or "the fiction of strangeness." The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle fits that bill. It reminded me of magical realist books that explore a moment in history, such as Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or Roy's The God of Small Things. Unlike those novels, however, I felt lost and a little annoyed with Wind-Up Bird. More of a mashup of Camus' The Stranger and Burroughs' Naked Lunch, this novel lingers between existentialism and surrealism, finding meaning--and escape--in the bottom of a dry well.

Strange things happen to Toru Okada. He wants only a quiet life with his wife Kumiko, but when their cat disappears, Toru--having recently quit his job--is tasked with spending his days finding it. Soon he begins receiving mysterious phone calls, meeting strange people, and exploring an abandoned house at the end of the street, known as the "Hanging House" because of the awful ways the family died.

A sense of ennui and foreboding surround each odd interaction, from retrieving the laundry to chatting with teenage May down the block. This subtle sense of disparate elements building toward something kept me reading, but Toru Okada is a difficult character to care about. Languid and aimless, he drifts along, listening to the bizarre stories of the people he meets and quietly struggling to make sense of the nonsensical. I'm sure there's a metaphor in there about modern society ignoring a spiritual and historical past it doesn't want to remember. But I found myself distanced and frustrated.

Mysteries deepen when Kumiko disappears and Toru is pulled into a world of surreal psychic phenomena, including a "prostitute of the mind" and a politician with a false face (surprise!). The story is bizarre enough that I wanted to know how everything came together, and I wasn't disappointed by the ending, though I did feel as though I wasn't quite "getting it" when reality and dream-reality finally collide.

I was turned off by some of the explicit violence, most of which occurs as part of elderly Lieutenant Mamiya's stories about his service during the Japanese occupation of Manchukuo before WWII. This seems to be the history modern Japan hopes to sweep under the carpet, but its horrors won't go away easily. And now they're in my head, too.

By all accounts, Wind-Up Bird is a revered work of literary fiction by a modern genius. I had high hopes when I picked it up. Unfortunately, its combination of existential detachment and detailed gruesomeness didn't speak to me as a reader.