Monday, December 5, 2016

Books For Our Times: Refugees

When kids hear the word "refugee" these days, they are probably most likely to think of Syria.  But unfortunately there have been refugees throughout history, from countries around the globe.  There are aspects of the refugee experience that are universal - feelings of dislocation, difficulty with a new language and culture, homesickness, fear, and, for child refugees (and immigrants), often taking on a parental role, both emotionally and logistically (often as translator).  Others are specific to refugees from a particular country, or to an individual.  Picture books tend to focus on the universal; chapter books on the specific.  One of the picture books listed here has more abstract art; the others are quite realistic.  One of the picture books is more metaphorical; the others, quite literal.  Most of the books also address the danger refugees face not just when they reach their destination or from political persecution or war back home, but along the way as well.

All of these books may be disturbing or upsetting, especially to a sensitive child.  We are lucky we have the luxury of deciding whether to expose our children to the harsher realities of our world.

This list is not comprehensive; these are just some of my favorites.

Picture Books

Azzi's family pushing their way on to a boat to escape
Navigating a new land
















Azzi In Between by Sarah Garland.  Azzi and her family flee an unnamed Middle Eastern country, leaving her grandmother behind.  In graphic novel-style panels, the reader sees Azzi struggles with a new language, new friends, new food, a newly depressed, unemployed father - new everything!  But her family has been able to take a special little piece of home with them and Azzi uses it to cheer up her father and teach her classmates about where she is from.  The bleak cover and pictures give way to a realistically happy ending.



Fleeing through the forest

Another crowded, unsafe sea voyage
The Journey by Francesca Sanna.  This new book has gotten a lot of press lately.  Its abstract art may make it less scary but possibly less accessible, although the language makes clear that the narrator's family is in danger.

How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz. My favorite of the picture books on this list.  With simple, straightforward language and gorgeous art, Uri Shulevitz tells the story of his own family's escape from WWII Poland to Kazakstan and how he took solace in a map his father purchased instead of bread, much to his mother's chagrin.  An author's note explains that his journey did not stop there.  Mr. Shulevitz and his family then moved to Paris and then Israel.  In 1959, he came on his own to the United States.  Written in what is his second? third? fourth? fifth? sixth? (he must have spoken Polish, probably Yiddish, possibly Russian, French, Hebrew, and then English) language, this is a beautiful book.   A Caldecott Honor book.

Hiding from soldiers
How Many Days to America? by Eve Bunting.  A family flees an unnamed Carribbean country, arriving in America just in time for Thanksgiving.


Molly's Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen.  My favorite Thanksgiving book and perhaps my favorite holiday book and just plain one of my favorites ever.  For homework, Molly has to make a Pilgrim girl (big "P") out of a clothespin.  Her mother offers to help her and dresses her in the Russian clothes she herself wears.  When Molly brings the doll to school, her classmates ridicule her because the doll is not dressed as a Pilgrim.  But the understanding teacher points out that Molly and her family are pilgrims (small "p") too, refugees from religious persecution just as the first Pilgrims were.  Make sure you have tissues nearby.  Barbara Cohen also wrote another wonderful holiday book, this time about Passover, The Carp in the Bathtub.

Teacup by Rebecca Young. "Once there was a boy who had to leave his home... and find another.  In his bag he carried a book, a bottle, and a blanket.  In his teacup he held some earth from where he used to play."  The boy travels alone by boat, floating for days, until he finally finds land, and a kindred spirit.  Obviously less realistic than the other books listed here, it can be read on a metaphorical level with older children and a literal level with younger children.  The spare simple language is perfect.  The earth the boy carries with him is reminiscent of the seeds Azzi's family brings with them in Azzi In Between.




Chapter Books

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai.  This novel-in-verse tells the story of the author's escape from Vietnam with her family during the Vietnam War.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr and Journey to America by Sonia Levitin.  Both of these books recount how their authors and their families escaped Hitler's Germany, first fleeing to Switzerland and then the former to France and ultimately England and the latter to the United States. Both endure a sudden decline in their quality of lilfe and social status.  I loved both as a child. Both are also the first books of trilogies, a fact I learned only recently

It Ain't So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas.  Zomorod Yousefzadeh is in California with her Iranian family for just a year or two for her father's job in the oil industry.  But the year is 1978 and, unbeknownst to Zomorod (now known as Cindy), the deposition of the Shah, the Iranian hostage crisis, and another oil shortage are on the horizon.  When it turns out her family can't go home because of the political situation in Iran, Zomorod becomes an accidental refugee.  While her family is economically better off than many refugees, Zomorod still faces many of the difficulties common to them all.  As many refugee (and immigrant) children do, she becomes the translator for her parents - not just of language, but of culture, and a caretaker for her depressed mother.  While children may have some trouble understanding the complex politics involved, they will certainly relate to Zomorod/Cindy's desire to fit in.  This book is, like so many on this list, based on the author's actual experience.

What would you add to this list?

Monday, October 31, 2016

The First (Fictional) Female President


This election has brought back memories of a book I loved with uncommon devotion when I was about 10 or 11 years old: The President's Daughter by Ellen Emerson White.  As the title suggests, the focus was not on the first female president but on her daughter, the oldest of her three children.  You can see how well-loved this book was i nthe photo below.  The spine has disintegrated and although you cannot see it, the back cover has fallen off completely.


I'm not sure exactly why I loved it so much.  It was good, sure, but perhaps an odd choice for constant rereading.  In 2016, the one part that I remember clearly is Meg, the daughter, asking her mother if she can vote for someone other than her mom.  Her mom, amused, replies that of course she can.  It makes me wonder if someone's children are perhaps not voting for him (or her) this year. Thank goodness for the secret ballot!

The book was published in 1984 and I apparently purchased it for less than $3.00.  The author then "updated" it in 2008.  Those of you familiar with my purist sensibilities will know that I disapprove.

Did anyone else read the original version?

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Princess and the Shark

The Princess and the Shark.  If I ever write a children's book, that's what it will be titled.  If, that is, I don't care about quality but do care about selling a lot of books.  Based on the very small, unreliable sample size of 2 school libraries that I've worked in, both on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, girls in grades K-2 want books about princesses and their male peers want to read about sharks.

There are other scary, fierce, awesome-looking animals besides sharks.  Why the obsession?  I have no idea.

And the princesses.  When these girls ask for princess books they mean Disney.  I offer them Shirley Climo's The Egyptian Cinderella and they turn up their noses.

Of course there are other requested topics.  Ballet, gymnastics, soccer, and lately, cooking.  The boys also ask for books about the military - soldiers, military aircraft, the navy.  Crafts, especially origami, are big too.

The gender divide is (nearly?) absolute.  To date, I have never had a boy request a princess book or a girl request a book about the military.  I probably have had boys ask for cooking and have definitely had them ask for origami, and I've probably had girls ask for sharks.

So in order to capture the market and straddle that divide, The Princess and the Shark it is!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

After Harry Potter

In the past two days, two parents have come to me saying, "My child has read all of Harry Potter (and/or Percy Jackson) (multiple times)... what's next?"  While I have a lot of great suggestions for the child who's read everything, many of those may not appeal to a child who is just looking for fantasy.  I'm not personally a fantasy reader, so I haven't read all of these myself, but these recommendations come on good authority.  For those kids, here are a few ideas.

Don't forget these classics:

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Chronicles of Prydain trilogy by Lloyd Alexander.  An undeservedly forgotten series.

A Wrinkle in Time quintet by Madeleine L'Engle.

Newer series:

Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins (author of The Hunger Games).  For those children who are not ready - or whose parents are not ready! - for The Hunger Games

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

Not exactly fantasy but may appeal to fantasy lovers:

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.

For fans of fairy tales, these series take them to a new, darker, level:

The Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer.

The SIsters Grimm by Michael Buckley and Peter Ferguson.

The Grimm series  by Adam Gidwitz.

What other books do you suggest for a child who loved Harry Potter and/or Percy Jackson and is ready for something new?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Yay for YA!

I'm not a big reader of YA.  Too much sappy romance, too many vampires, too many dead parents.  I know, there's plenty of YA that does not include any of those elements.  But I don't have the time or energy to seek those out.   But every now and then, a YA book will grab me.  A friend will recommend it, or a review will catch my eye, or I'll hear about a book that interests me and only realize later that it's been classified as Young Adult by... someone!  (Whom?  The publisher?  The Library of Congress?  The author?)

In the last 6 months or so, I have read three stand-out novels that someone, somewhere, has deemed Young Adult.

Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert, seems at first to be a book about baseball, but is really about faith, love, parenting, siblinghood, morality, the justice system, and a tug-of-war between familial loyalty and truth.  When I first started the book, I assumed the title referred to a belief system, but as I kept reading, I realized it also referred, cleverly, to a finding of guilty in the criminal justice system.  A fabulous book for adults, young and otherwise.

I picked up Burn Baby Burn for it's NYC 1977 Summer (Son of Sam, the blackout) setting.   Although I am too young to remember that summer, I lived through it, and am convinced I have a sort of collective memory about it, combined with living in NYC through the 80s and 90s.  Author Meg Medina, thankfully, does not wear rose-colored glasses and lament the gentrification of the city since then (yes, artist could afford apartments here back then, but they often got mugged as they traveled to and from them!).  Her 1977 Queens is the real deal, with a serial killer on the loose and looting erupting during the blackout.  But her characters have their problems writ small (although not to them), too.  Nora is eager to graduate high school and start her "real life" but her teachers are trying to convince her she's college material.  She has a crush on a coworker and there is domestic violence at home, of a sort not often addressed in fiction.  Again, you don't have to be a young adult to enjoy this book.  In fact, you will probably enjoy it more if you lived through that summer or lived in New York during its grittier days.

I've lately become intrigued by books set in the Middle Ages, possibly because there suddenly seem to be a slew of them being published (it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario),  or maybe because of my daughter's fifth grade class trip to a place called Medieval Times.  With the publication of the highly anticipated The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog in September, the trend continues.  In the meantime, pick up The Passion of Dolssa (written, strangely enough in my opinion, by the author of The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, a perfectly fine book, but far inferior to this one) to satisfy your medieval cravings.  Dolssa believes she has a direct relationship with Jesus, who she says appears to her, and who endows her with the power to heal and work other miracles.  The Church has labelled her, and other women like her, a heretic. Dolssa takes refuge in a medieval village where three sisters protect her.  The middle sister, the local matchmaker, narrates the story.  However, I must make one confession.  At the very end of the book there is an epilogue of sorts.  An old woman is in prison and is speaking to someone outside the prison with instructions.  I could not figure out who the woman is.  Apparently I was not the only one who was confused (sigh of relief!), because the author posted an explanation online.  Nonetheless, the book is wonderful despite this lack of clarity (or perhaps despite my denseness!).

What YA books have you read and enjoyed?

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What Do These Books Have in Common?















These books don't look like they have much in common, do they?  One is a mystery for kids involving a treasure hunt through New York landmarks and clues in the forms of poems,.  The other is fiction for adults about women working in the financial industry, based on the author's own experience.  It turns out that they were written by the same author, Maureen Sherry.

And, unusually, the children's book was published (although not necessarily written) first.  While there is no shortage of authors of fiction for adults trying their hands at children's books, particularly picture books (e.g. Harlan Coben, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, John Grisham, inter alia), it is rarer for an author of children's books to then write for adults.

As for the books themselves, I definitely enjoyed Walls Within Walls.  Hand it to a child who loves From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Although the characters are not as fully realized as I'd like, and the plot point of the parents getting swept up in their newfound wealth strained credibility, especially for the mother, the plot was a fun romp through New York.  A sequel set in London is to be published next year.  I am only about one-third of the way through Opening Belle (I love the title!) but so far, it's an engrossing look at the male-dominated world of finance and how women operate in that world.  As someone who frequently used to be the only woman in a roomful of male lawyers, I can relate.

I hope Ms. Sherry writes many more books - for both children and adults.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Summer Is For Reading

This past weekend, we visited my older daughter (now 11!!) at sleepaway camp.  The week leading up to Visiting Day, we had received a letter that consisted only of a list of things we should bring: a fan, more sunblock, more underwear.  Conspicuously absent from the list was books.  She'd gone up to camp with 4-5 books and after 2.5 weeks, I was expecting her to have finished them.  (Last summer, when she was only at camp for a total of 2.5 weeks, she told me she'd had to reread the 4 books she'd brought because she'd finished all of them.)  So, assuming the failure to mention books was an oversight, I hit the bookstore, and this is what I bought.


It was so fun to go to the bookstore and just browse!  I don't do that enough any more - I think most of us don't.  Now that it is so easy to access book reviews and to put books on hold at the library, I usually go just to pick up books I've already reserved.  And when I buy books, it is usually only to purchase something I already know I love.  Browsing is under-rated.  I haven't read any of these,  although I can't wait to do so when my daughter comes home.

And as it turns out, the day after Visiting Day, I received a letter from my daughter requesting... books!

(By the way, don't worry that she is sitting at camp indoors reading all day.  She goes to farming camp and is out all day, petting the goats, visiting the chickens, doing arts and crafts and as well as all the other traditional camp activities.  But I am happy she is has enough downtime to sit (outside!) and read, too.)

How many books does your child go through at camp?