Monday, September 24, 2018

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas


A powerful book that depicts the very real and personal stories that are likely behind every white-officer-kills-unarmed-black-person tragedy we hear about in the news.

I hope this book might be especially compelling for those who are sure they aren't racist, yet they can't quite bring themselves to fully support Black Lives Matter; maybe this book can give them a little more insight to help them better understand the movement. I think those who do support Black Lives Matter, and already follow black activists on Facebook or Twitter, will have their beliefs reaffirmed. And for those who live in the "Garden Heights" of America, I don't know how this book is being received, but I hope they feel they are understood, and that this book does them justice.

For all the ways this book is relevant to current events, I think it was smart to not actually reference "Black Lives Matter", which is a politically charged phrase. Instead, the author does a remarkable job just showing how every life really does having meaning, even in the "hood", and even when the media tries to make the victim look like a thug in an effort to justify their death.

Similarly, the book doesn't even mention "code switching", but it's clear that's what Starr is doing when she switches been "Garden Heights Starr" and "Williamson Starr".

The book touches upon a lot of different topics within racism, and we see characters who span the spectrum. There's Starr's white friend Hailey who suffers from "white fragility" (again, a phrase not actually used in the book) and believes herself to be so "beyond racism / color-blind" that she is unwilling to examine her own beliefs and actions. There's Starr's Chinese friend Maya, who is caught between Starr and Hailey, but who eventually represents the power of allyship among people of color (another phrase not actually used in the book). There's Starr's white boyfriend Chris who genuinely wants to know Starr, and their relationship goes to show that Starr isn't about hating all white people. Then there's Starr's Uncle Carlos, a good cop, who's there to let us know it's also not about hating all cops.

At times, the books is heavy-handed in its messages of social justice, but I think for a teen book, that's okay.

Above all, the book is well-written. Starr's narrative voice really sounds like a teenager's, and the swear-laden dialogue is honest and believable. The book marches forward at a good pace, and still I felt like I was frequently on the verge of tears, with a lump in my throat.

Besides a lot of cussing, the book also includes references to sex. It's definitely a "teen" book, and I think it's best read by mature readers who will think hard about racism and other questions of community, family, identity, and activism.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki


I was excited to see a picture book about the Japanese internment. On the one hand, I am thrilled that there is a book at this level that addresses this topic, but on the other hand, the story felt disconnected, and I didn't feel it had a clear message.

The book starts with a short paragraph introducing the Japanese internment. It sets just a little bit of context, enough for young audiences.

The opening scene is from within the internment camp. At first the book is like a non-fiction presentation of Japanese internment camps. Being narrated in the first person by a Japanese-American boy, there are glimpses into the past that show how the narrator felt different and picked on in school, before being sent to the camp. Even though he's just a boy, I didn't quite like how he happened to be smaller than all his classmates, and not very good at sports, perpetuating the "emasculated Asian man" stereotype.

At one point, there is a scene in which the narrator's older brother shockingly talks back to his father. This moment is meant to be the catalyst for the creation of the baseball field, but the connection isn't explained, and the story feels disjointed.

Just as the story starts to get into how everyone in the camp is getting into baseball, it suddenly jumps to after the war. The narrator is back to playing baseball with his white teammates, and the events of a particular game parallel a dramatic game he played inside the camp. There is a climactic moment - and then the book ends. I didn't get a good sense of closure.

I did appreciate the sepia-toned illustrations. I thought the images of the barren desert, long lines outside of barracks, barbed-wire fences, and armed guards were poignant and accurate depictions of Japanese internment camps.

I also think any young baseball fan would really enjoy this book. It's perhaps less of a book about Japanese-Americans playing baseball in internment camps, and more about a Japanese-American boy who learned to play baseball while in an internment camp, which later on helped him to fit in better with his white classmates.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed


In the Author's Note, the author praises Malala Yousafzai, and it seems to me that the main character Amal is a fictionalized version of Malala. Like Malala, Amal is a Pakistani girl who is passionate about school and learning. Books have a very special place in her heart. She believes girls and boys should have equal opportunities, and she is brave enough to speak out when others won't. Though Amal doesn't have Malala's platform for change, she realizes that one person can make a big difference no matter who they are, where they live, or what their station in life is.

Amal has dreams of becoming a teacher, but everything falls apart when she is forced to live as a servant in the house of the village's most ruthlessly powerful family. Initially she is being punished for acting "disrespectfully", but her situation is basically one of indentured servitude; she must work for as long as it takes her father to pay off his debts, but since the cost of her room and board are constantly being added to the debt, there is little chance of him ever being able to pay it off.

As Amal becomes accustomed to the life of a servant, she realizes first that life really is not fair, and second, life is about choices. All choices have consequences, and the challenge is being brave enough to make the right choices, even when it's hard.

I enjoyed this story, and the warm depiction of life in Pakistan. But a few things prevented me from giving it 5 stars. Generally speaking, I like children's books to wrap up nicely, but this one had a bit too much open-endedness for my liking. I'm okay with Amal's future being uncertain in a hopeful way, but I was bothered by not knowing what would become of Jawad Sahib. Also, towards the end, the driver Ghulam is the most anxious about losing his livelihood, yet we have no assurances about what would become of him. And though Omar was a great friend to Amal at the beginning of the book, we never get to see them re-connect.

I was also disappointed that Jawad Sahib and Nasreen Baji weren't more fully developed characters. I thought there would be some complexity when Jawad Sahib was presented in a softer light in his mother's presence, and also when he showed just an inkling of humanity at the knowledge that Amal could read. But in the end, he was simply evil through and through. This seemed particularly bothersome because his mother, Nasreen Baji, turned out to be so kind and decent, and with the two of them still living in the same household, it's hard to see how she could not have had more of a positive influence on her son. I kept expecting to see a glimmer of redemption in Jawad Sahib, or a streak of callousness in Nasreen Baji, to give the family more depth, but they remained one-dimensional.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes


In 1870, slavery had already been abolished in the U.S. But many people who were formerly enslaved didn't have the means or the motivation to go north in search of other opportunities, and so they continued on in the only life they had ever known, living in the same shacks they lived in as slaves, and working for the same man who owned them as slaves. Sugar is a 10-year-old girl who lives and works with other formerly enslaved people on the River Road sugar cane plantation in Louisiana.

With a good number of formerly enslaved workers leaving the plantation, Mister Wills, the owner, decides to hire Chinese workers to address the labor shortage. The original River Road folks are anxious, afraid they will lose their jobs to the Chinese workers.

Sugar has the open-hearted, open-minded wisdom of a child, and she doesn't understand why she isn't allowed to play with Billy Wills, the owner's son with whom she gets along splendidly. She also doesn't understand why she isn't supposed to befriend the new Chinese workers, who fascinate her.

Admittedly, I felt a bit wary going into this book. On the one hand, the Chinese people were referred to as "Chinamen" - a derogatory term - and their queue-styled hair and Eastern-styled clothing marked them as "different". Would this book reinforce the "perpetual other" stereotype of Asians? Yet, back then, Chinese people really were completely unknown to many Americans, and the use of "Chinamen" is historically accurate. In the end, I think the author did a good job portraying the Chinese workers as different, but not "exotic"; just people, like everyone else, working hard for a living. About half-way through the book, Sugar learns to say "Chinese" instead of "Chinamen", but I'm not sure it was effectively made known that "Chinamen" is actually offensive, and using "Chinese" is not just a matter of preference.

Sugar and Billy, together with "Beau" - the youngest Chinese worker - eventually bring together the River Road community so that everyone understands everyone else just a little better.

I really enjoyed this story, and its peek into a little-known part of U.S. history. I gave this book just shy of 5 stars because the short, matter-of-fact sentences eventually became tiresome and choppy, though they started out as a simple way to convey Sugar's childlike thinking.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye


Aref is a young boy in Muscat, Oman who is so sad to be moving to Michigan, where both his parents will be graduate students at the University of Michigan for the next 3 years. In the week leading up to his departure, he spends quality time with his grandfather, Sidi, while putting off his packing and wondering how he can possibly leave the only home he's ever known.

I have to admit, I found the book slow to start. First I had to get past the realization that the book wasn't really about a turtle. Then, I was looking forward to reading about how things would go in Michigan when my daughter told me that the book ends before the actual move. After adjusting my expectations accordingly, I realized the book is not so much a story in the conventional way, but more like a lovely, poetic homage to Oman, and to the kind of special relationship a boy can have with his grandfather.

As Aref's adventures with Sidi help him to come to terms with his upcoming move, we come to see that Aref is the "turtle of Oman"; like the turtles who "carried their homes on their backs and swam out so far and returned safely to the beach they remembered" (page 210), Aref would be packing his most favorite possessions to bring with him to America, and would return again to his beloved homeland in just a few years.

This book gave me the kind of nostalgia you feel when you are in a moment, and realize that some time in the future, you will look back on that moment and feel sad because you miss that time in your life. Aref and his grandfather create beautiful memories together, but I can't help but wonder, "What if Aref's parents need to extend their studies much longer than the expected 3 years? What if they come back, but the 3 years apart take their toll, and Aref and Sidi never regain the same close relationship? What if Sidi dies while Aref is in America?!" I guess the book isn't about any of those things, anyway.

Ultimately, a good book for anyone interested in learning about another culture, or for a child feeling anxious about an upcoming move. (Even if they don't plan to return, their love for the home they are leaving may draw them back some day.)