None of the Above: A review

None of the AboveNone of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This groundbreaking novel depicts Kristin Lattimer’s struggle to accept herself after realizing that she is intersex. I had difficulty getting into the book at first because of the extremely privileged lives the protagonists have (homecoming dresses that cost hundreds of dollars, separate limos for each couple, rings from boyfriends with actual gemstones in them, the fact that each of these high school students owns their own car and none of them have jobs). However, once the story picked up, I mostly enjoyed it. The reason I didn’t give the book more stars is because the story is (view spoiler)

Also, the reason that she has apparently never had a gynecological appointment even though she is 18 and has never menstruated is that her mother died of cervical cancer when she was a little girl. I guess only living with a man meant that no one noticed or cared about her lack of menses and accepted her explanation that as a dedicated track athlete she just didn’t get her period. If her mother had died of breast cancer or in a car accident or whatever that might have made sense. But the main reason you go for gynecological appointments is to screen for cervical cancer. The idea that her father would get a buddy of his to proscribe her birth control without a proper exam in this context is not believable (hide spoiler)]

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We Need Diverse Libraries: Collection Development and the Diverse Books Movement

This spring I had the opportunity to present on how library collection development can support the movement for increasing diversity within children’s literature at the Simmons Graduate Student Symposium. I argue that diverse collections are essential for living up to the American Library Association’s commitment to providing equitable access to information resources. Our patrons of color, our LGBTQ patrons, our patrons with disabilities all deserve access to information and recreational reading that reflects their experiences. In addition, exposure through literature to the a greater diversity of human experiences can help combat the implicit biases that lead to microagressions and more overt forms of prejudice and violence.

You can watch my presentation here:

The power point slides for my presentation can be downloaded from the Simmons Library and Information Science Media Lab here. My presentation is part of a panel. The entire panel includes presentations by Emily Coolidge Toker on “Agency in the Foretold, Agency in Narrative Construction: Naming and Claiming ‘the Anna’ in Jane Yolen’s Sister Light, Sister Dark,” and by Nicole Cunha on “Censorship of Disabled Characters in Fantasy: What That Means For Children’s Literature and Libraries.”

Series Review: Anna Hibiscus

Anna Hibiscus is a young girl, approximately five years old (she has her first day of school in one of the books), who is a lot like the little kids I know: she likes to climb trees, play with her cousins, listen to her grandparents tell stories, swim at the beach, and sing (although audiences make her nervous).  Unlike most kids I know, Anna Hibiscus also lives in Africa (Amazing Africa!) in a compound with her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and her twin brothers Double and Trouble. The books are real page turners–we find out that Anna dreams of seeing snow in the first book, and by the time she goes to visit her Granny Canada in the fourth book I was just as excited about snowmen and sledding as Anna (and I grew up in Ohio!)

Written by Atinuke, a Nigerian-born storyteller currently living with her family in Wales, the Anna Hibiscus books paint a picture of Africa rarely seen in Children’s Literature: an Africa that is urban, with happy, comfortable people, living out their lives much like people do in the rest of the world. While most of the children’s books set in African countries that I have seen focus on either the triumph of the human spirit in times of catastrophe, like A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park or Brothers in Hope by Mary Williams (both about the Lost Boys of Sudan) or retell folk tales like The Tortoise’s Gift: A Tale from Zambia retold by Lari Don. Of course, there is nothing wrong with either of these types of children’s books per se, but as a whole children are left with a picture of Africa where either everyone is suffering the ravages of starvation or living in a timeless village setting that places Africa outside the flow of history. The Anna Hibisicus books are a welcome change. On her website, Atinuke says that she wrote Anna Hibiscus to because of the ignorance most children in the UK had about Africa. I am willing to guess that children in the United States know as little or less than the children in the United Kingdom, so I am grateful to Atinuke for writing these books.

Anna HibiscusAtinuke does not paper over the real struggles African countries, like other places across the world, have with poverty. In Anna Hibiscus, Anna becomes bored one day and decides to join the “gate girls” in selling oranges along the street outside her family’s compound. She enjoys the hustle of it and is proud of the money she has earned until her uncles come home and wonder why the gate girls haven’t been able to sell any fruit. When Anna confesses to what she has done, her family chastises her for turning the work that those children, many of whom are orphans, do into a game and thereby depriving them of their livelihood. The next day Anna spends all day walking back and forth to the fruit market to get more fruit for the gate girls so that they can make up the money lost the previous day. Thus the poverty some people in African cities face is acknowledged without judgement and without poverty becoming the defining characteristic of African life.  Similarly in Hooray for Anna Hibiscus, Anna wants to see the other side of the city across the lagoon, and when finally allowed to ride the ferry, chooses to wear her best clothes. But when she gets there she learns that the other side of the city is very impoverished and she ends up giving all of the clothes she is wearing to children foraging for food in a trash heap.

But lest you think that the Anna Hibiscus series is too weighty for young readers, Anna also plays flash-light hide and seek with her cousins during a power cut (Hooray for Anna Hibiscus), gets blamed for the antics of her twin brothers (Good Luck Anna Hibiscus!), makes new friends (Have fun Anna Hibiscus!), and finds herself acting mama to a baby chick welcome home anna hibiscus(Welcome Home Anna Hibiscus!).

What makes the Anna Hibiscus stories so wonderful is the way that Atinuke weaves the familiar and the unfamiliar so that children reading the books in the UK or US can see the ways that their lives might seem strange to other people–keeping dogs in the house, sleeping alone in a room–while normalizing things that are different from most Western children’s experiences.  Deep questions of modernity and tradition, poverty and privilege, racism and acceptance, weave seamlessly into stories of visiting relatives, playing children, and making friends.

My only complaint is that Atinuke is not more specific in naming the setting of these books. We are told only that Anna lives in Africa (Amazing Africa!), and while the descriptive details of the story indicate a West African setting–a city with roads and lagoons, Harmattan winds–no explicit country is named. By not naming the setting, Atinuke unwittingly contributes to misconceptions that Africa is one homogenous place, or even a single country.

That one flaw aside, I highly recommend the Anna Hibiscus books to  young readers and anyone interested in seeking out more diverse Children’s Literature.

Book Review: Karma by Cathy Ostlere

karmaA novel in verse, Karma by Cathy Ostlere alternates between the journals of Jiva/Maya – the Canadian born daughter of a bi-religious Indian family –and Sandeep–a Hindu adolescent orphan with amnesia. Karma is the story of a girl from a troubled family navigating troubled times. Born to a Sikh father and a Hindu mother who emigrated to rural Canada to escape the censure of their families, Jiva’s identity is conflicted. Perhaps nothing symbolizes this more effectively than her name: Jiva is the name her father gave her and the name on her birth certificate, but it is Maya–the name her mother gave her in defiance of her father– that she uses throughout the book.  The book opens with Maya and her father on a flight to India with an urn containing her mother’s ashes and as the story unfolds through flashbacks we learn how unhappy her mother was in Canada, in part because of the racism of the community, but also because of the expectations of her husband.

Just after Maya and her father arrive in India, Indira Gandhi is assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for  her decision to send the army into the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a Sikh holy site, to suppress a militant Sikh separatist movement. In response, anti-Sikh mobs instigated an organized pogrom in which at least 8,000 Sikhs were murdered, 3,000 in the city of Delhi alone. Maya and her father are caught up in the violence and separated when their hotel is attacked. Maya disguises herself as a boy, flees Delhi, witnesses several atrocities, and when found by Dr. Parvati Patel, refuses to speak.

At this point the narrative switches to Sandeep’s diary, which he is keeping on the insistence of his adoptive sister, the doctor who treats Maya.  Parvati sends Maya to live with her family and hopes that Sandeep, who is a friendly, sociable guy, will be able to draw Maya out of her shell so they can find out who she is, where she belongs,  and how to get her back home. But Maya is not welcome in Sandeep’s conservative village, and Sandeep’s adoptive father concocts a plan to get her out. During the ensuing adventure in the Thar desert, Sandeep and Maya fall in love.

I read this book in two days and it has taken me just as long to figure out what how to review it. Clearly it pulled me in–there were several times I found myself glaring at my husband for daring to interrupt me while I was reading. But even while I was reading it, I felt vaguely uneasy with it and it took me a while to put my finger on why.

So, first the good stuff. Writing a novel is an ambitious undertaking. Writing a book-length manuscript of poetry is an ambitious undertaking. So writing a novel in verse is doubly ambitious and difficult and I applaud Cathy Ostlere for the simply act of sitting down and writing this book. The language is beautiful and powerful and often moved me to tears (and not just because of the tragic subject matter. Here is one of my favorite poems, from early in the book when Maya first gets to Delhi:

Chai

A hand tugs at my arm
holds up a small earthen cup.

chai chai

It belongs to a boy, small,
yet his face is old. he could be
nine or twenty or thirty-seven.

one rupee chai

He puts the chai into my hand,
presses my fingers around
the unbaked clay.

drink now chai chai

The tea is brown like a puddle

one rupee

And swirling like an eddy.

chai rupee rupee chai

I hear voices rising out of the cup.

chai rupee rupee

Crying.

chai rupee rupee chai

Weeping.

chai rupee chai chai

Like crows plucked alive.

eat rupee rupee eat
aii hungry rupee chai

The air rings with longing
and pain.

aii rupee aii rupee

The ground shakes with heartbreak
and sorrow.

aiii rupee aiii chai

I raise the cup to my lips.

aiii aiii aiii

The tea slides down my throat
and I swallow India.

(p. 46-47)

Ostlere captures the chaotic energy of the Indian capital and the everyday tragedy of poverty in this and other poems. Once the anti-Sikh riots begin, the poems stretch to encompass the horrors of murder and the darkest acts human beings are capable of.

Where she loses me is love.

Sandeep’s diary begins on November 13 and ends on December 4. The diary begins as “a record of the comings and goings of a troubled mute girl” (p 182). In other words, Dr. Parvati Patel has asked her brother to follow Maya around and write down everything she does.  Ostensibly this is in the hopes that Maya will reveal something of her past to Sandeep, either through her actions, or Parvati hopes, through a return to speech prompted by Sandeep’s easy-going nature.  What it actually means is that Sandeep is something between a spy and a stalker, talked into keeping his diary because Parvati describes Maya as “too pretty to be mistaken for a boy” (despite her disguise) and about his age. The final hook? The girl’s name is Maya, the name that Sandeep cries out in his sleep–the only remnant from his forgotten life before the Patel family adopted him. How does Maya feel about all this? Who knows, she’s not talking! But apparently by December 5 when she starts a new diary, she has totally fallen for Sandeep as well.

While Maya’s self-imposed silence may make sense from a trauma perspective, it makes me uneasy in the context of romance.  Voiceless, Maya becomes an object of mystery, an object of pity, and an object to be fought over, but never a subject of her own making. In the roughly 175 pages of Sandeep’s notebook, we see him watching her, overhearing conversations about her, punching people who malign her character, but rarely actually interacting with her. Where does the love come from? Instalove is a common problem in young adult (and well, any romantic) literature, but given the overall weightiness of Karma the superficial nature of the relationship between the two main characters is particularly unfortunate. If this is supposed to be a story about how love can flourish and triumph in the worst of times, the love must be more believable.

Despite these misgivings, I found Karma to be an important and compelling read. The winner of more than half a dozen awards, including the South Asia Book Award Highly Commended Book and the R. Ross Annett Children’s Award, Karma is the kind of book that will stick with you long after you finish reading it. It makes you think about the big questions of human nature, love, and forgiveness.

Book Review: P.S. Be Eleven

P.S. Be Eleven (Gaither Sisters, #2)P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The sequel to One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven follows Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern back to Brooklyn after their summer visiting their mother Cecile in Oakland, CA. While the Gaither sisters spent the summer learning about the Black Panthers and the power of the People, they must now re-learn how to live with Big Ma and her constant fear of creating a “Negro Spectacle.” Uncle Darnell returns home from the Vietnam War, Pa has a new girlfriend, the Jackson 5 are creating a sensation, and the Delphine has to navigate sixth grade.

Once again Rita Williams-Garcia captures the turbulence of growing up in the late 1960s by placing the larger social changes in the context of everyday childhood. The themes and conflicts of this book as familiar as sixth grade–how can I impress my teacher? will anyone ask me to the sixth grade dance? will I get to see my heart-throb perform live?–and family–what is my place in this new family dynamic? The big questions of racial and gender equality and war and peace are woven into the smaller spheres of home and school.

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Is Ladybug Girl a feminist? Gender roles in David Soman and Jacky Davis’s Ladybug Girl Series

In my perusal of the internet in search of non-sexist picture books, I have come across several people hailing Ladybug Girl by David Soman and Jacky Davis as a feminist celebration of children’s imagination. Being drawn to children’s books that break down gender and other stereotypes, I had to check out the series for myself.  Overall I would say that these are some of my favorite picture books, but that they do fall into some of the more typical traps of gender stereotyping.

Cover of "Ladybug Girl"

Cover of Ladybug Girl

The  series justifiably garners a lot of praise for depicting a young girl using her imagination  to be independent and capable. Whenever Lulu finds faces a challenge, whether that is building a fort in Ladybug Girl, finding her trusty dog Bingo in Ladybug Girl and Bingo, facing down an army of giants in Ladybug Girl and the Bug Squad, or finding ways to compromise in Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy she reminds herself that she is Ladybug Girl and Ladybug girl can do anything! Whether the challenges are part of her imaginary play, like the army of giants, or real-life conflicts with friends, she is able find the courage and strength to find her own solutions. This is a powerful antidote to tropes that cast girls and women as damsels in distress.

However, I think the series is more accurately a celebration of imagination rather than feminist offering for young children. While the companion board book Ladybug Girl Dresses Up shows Lulu in a variety of costumes, including typically masculine characters like Sherlock Holmes, the character that gives the series its name is the tutu-clad Ladybug Girl. As a woman who has always insisted that I can climb trees and go hiking in skirts just as easily as pants, I appreciate the fact that the tutu doesn’t slow her down. Still, she may be deviating from the princess norm, but she is hardly escaping the expectation that girls find their power in ruffles and bows.

Cover of "Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy&...

Cover of Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy

The books become more enmeshed in problematic social norms when we exit the world and see her interacting with other children and her family. Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy introduces Lulu’s friend Sam from music class. The two children struggle to find common interest on the playground–Sam wants to play diggers, Lulu doesn’t want to get sand in her boots, Lulu wants to play on the teeter-totter, but Sam isn’t interested. Realizing that she never has trouble finding fun things to do when she is Ladybug Girl, Lulu invites Sam to join her in imaginative play. He agrees, and as Bumblebee Boy works with Ladybug Girl to vanquish a giant snake, save Bingo from a monster, and otherwise defend the playground from danger.

While I appreciate using imagination to find common ground, I couldn’t help but notice that the imaginative games change when Lulu has a male playmate. Left to her own devices, Lulu rides giant turtles, builds forts, and hunts for treasure. When Sam joins the game, it becomes an “us vs. them” world of superheroes in conflict with villains.  On the way to the playground, Ladybug uses her strength to help an elderly neighbor carry groceries; Bumblebee Boy uses his stinger (a stick) to battle a monster (the tire swing). From Lulu’s concern with getting dirty in the sandbox to her grudging admission that “being a princess wouldn’t be so bad,” the play preferences of the two children reflect gendered stereotypes about how girls and boys play.  I find the minor character of Dragonfly Girl–who wears pants and is excited to be able to breathe fire–to be more compelling, but she does not get very much attention in the series.

Cover of "Ladybug Girl at the Beach"

Cover of Ladybug Girl at the Beach

Unfortunately, gender stereotypes extend beyond the children and their play styles. In Ladybug Girl at the Beach, we see Lulu’s father loaded up like a pack-horse carrying all the umbrellas, bags, and blankets  necessary for the family outing to the beach, while Lulu’s mother walks with the children.  While Lulu’s father is present in many of the books, he has few lines, making him more of a background presence in Lulu’s life than an active figure. This reflects common beliefs about the different roles of mothers and fathers. Lulu’s mother, on the other hand, has the time, energy, and money to prepare art projects and cupcakes for all of Lulu’s friends in Ladybug Girl and the Bug Squad. 

Lulu lives in a very specific world–one where everyone is white (except for some background faces at the playground), where pre-school children enroll in music classes, where people live in large houses with giant libraries on acres of land (and yet can walk to a playground).  While such settings are not unrealistic–there are in fact plenty of upper class families out there who take camping trips together, and trips to the beach, and have entire fields of sunflowers in their yard–I would like to see Ladybug overcoming some of the challenges that happen when children encounter kids from backgrounds different from their own.

Despite all of this deconstruction, I want to re-iterate that I really enjoy this series. I have read all of them to my son, and get excited when I find a new one at the library. The stories deal with real problems children face without being at all didactic or preachy, and the art is lovely. It would be a five-star series if it just worked a little harder at avoiding stereotypes and including more diversity.

Sing Along Picture Books Part II: Books that aren’t songs, but beg to be sung

In my previous post, I mentioned a few of my favorite picture book versions of children’s songs. Sometimes, though, a picture book will come with no musical notation, no “to the tune of ___________” encouragements, and yet will beg to be sung nonetheless. Or at least, they do if you are the kind of person who tends to make up silly, random songs for everything from diaper changes to walking up the stairs.

charlie parker

I first encountered Charlie Parker played be bop by Chris Raschka at a musical story with a musical therapist from Boston Early Intervention at our local branch of the public library. The woman who does story hour sang the story, snapping her fingers and tapping her feet as she went.  When I later checked the book out of the library, I expected it to have some sort of musical notation to lead me to her tune.  Nope. But really, no notation is needed. Chris Raschka captures the rhythms of jazz in his writing. You might not arrive at exactly the same tune we use, but I guarantee that you will be tempted to belt out reeti futi reeti futi reeti footi ree!

jazz baby

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that so many of the books I find myself singing have jazz themes. Lisa Wheeler’s Jazz Baby introduces you to a scat singing, blues dancing family and their rollicking neighborhood as they celebrate and ultimately rock their jazz baby to sleep. We love this book because it is fun to read (and sing!), and because it places the baby in the context of extended family and neighbors in an urban setting. So many picture books reduce the family to its nuclear manifestation, or worse, a simplistic mother-baby dyad. In Wheeler’s book, Uncles, Aunts, Grandma, Grandpa and all the neighbors join the fun. R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations provide the cast with a multiplicity of skin-tones, to capture the true diversity of our families and our world. A 2008 Geisel Award honor book, Jazz baby is great for early readers as well as reading aloud.

moo moo brown cow

I feel a little silly putting Jakki Wood’s Moo Moo Brown Cow in a post about picture books that aren’t meant to be sung, because it seems so obvious to me that it is meant to be sung to the tune of “Baa baa, black sheep.” However, none of the official descriptions or reviews I have read say anything about singing it so I am going to put it in this post anyway. In Moo Moo, Brown Cow, a curious kitty asks all of her animal friends about their offspring, beginning with “Moo, Moo Brown cow, have you any calves? Yes kitty, yes kitty one spotted calf” and working up to “Glub glub rainbow trout have you any small fry? Yes kitty, yes kitty can you count all ten?” This book gives an opportunity to practice several different concepts: colors, animals and their babies, animal sounds, and counting. I would not recommend this book for colors though, as the illustrations don’t always match the text (the picture of the white duck is very clearly yellow).