Monday, January 31, 2011

A Place Called Timbuktu

In my family somebody was always going to Timbuktu. It’s where you went for a difficult to find item on your shopping list or if you had to drive car pool to an out of town game and got lost after dark or if your teen daughter’s lost or borrowed possessions were scattered all over town at friends’ houses. Then you had to go from here to there and all the way to Timbuktu. The journey led by writer Christina Kessler to the real town called Timbuktu has been much more interesting, and a lot less wear and tear on my nerves.

TROUBLE IN TIMBUKTU by Cristina Kessler, Philomel Books, 2009

Ayisha and Ahmed are 12 year old twins living in changing times. They are of the Bella people and until slavery was outlawed in 1976, their people were slaves of the Taureg. Although the twins themselves were not slaves, Ayisha observes that the Bellas’ knowledge of the desert and their survival skills made life after slavery easier for the Bella than for their Tuareg masters. Yes, this observation is going to matter.

When the story begins, Ayisha is neither rich nor poor. Her father earns a comfortable living, that is he is able to support his family, as a blacksmith. Bold and bright, Ayisha must live within a set of restrictions different from slave and master, the customary place of women in Timbuktu society. Girls do not go to college or have careers, but that is exactly what Ayisha hopes to do.

Ayisha is close to realizing this dream of receiving permission to further her formal schooling when she and her brother are swept into protecting their country’s national treasure from the toubabs (meaning, tourists). Somehow the word suits this pair of scheming foreigners, but I will leave the reader to decide this and follow Ayisha and Ahmed on their adventure. If you watched recent newscasts of Egyptian citizens locking arms and surrounding their museums to protect their priceless artifacts, you will have an idea of the passion driving Ayisha and her brother.

Award winning author Kessler lived in Africa for 19 years, and this is where her books are set. She now lives with her husband Joe on St. John, in the U. S. Virgin Islands.

It’s clear the author knows the setting intimately and has a love for the land and the people. She plunges the reader into the raucous sounds of the marketplace, the cries of the merchants, the bellowing of camels. Cahaaaaaarh, cahaaaaarh.

Fast forward to the revelry of a wedding. Fabrics rich in color clothe the women who tell stories with their faces and hands as they dance. The men stamp to the drum beat. The women ululate. Aiyaiayaiyaiyaiyai.

While the twins protect their country’s ancient treasure, they slide like shadows into a family mystery. All this against the burning beauty of desert sands and sunsets.

The author thoughtfully provided glossaries in French, Tamashek, and Arabic. I wish she’d also included a key to pronunciation. Languages matter in this carefully crafted book, as the reader will appreciate.

And what does Timbuktu mean? This is the legend: 11 centuries ago Buktu was left to guard a tim--the word for well in the Tuareg language of Tamashek.

Guarding a well in the desert was no small duty. Nor is having to go to Timbuktu when you are a car pooling mom.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

From Cuba to Nebraska

America is a land of opportunity, freedom, and safety. Most of us–or our ancestors--came here from someplace else, different times, different reasons. Our stories are our treasure.

THE RED UMBRELLA by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Knopf, 2010

Lucia is 14, a typical teen with a best friend, a social life about to blossom, and a crush on a boy her best friend thinks might feel the same way. Does he?

It’s 1961, two years after the Communist revolution. Not much in Lucia’s life has changed. Yet. Then soldiers arrive in her town. Freedoms disappear along with some of her neighbors. Her friends are changing, too. Then comes the creepy realization that her family is being watched.

Fearing that the new regime might take their children away to indoctrinate them, Lucia’s parents do what they must. Fearfully and bravely, they make arrangements for Lucia and her brother to travel to America alone. Ultimately, the children arrive in Nebraska and a life with a family, neighbors, schools, classmates, and customs very different from the land and home they remember and miss.

Most histories are written from the perspective of adults. It’s their letters, diaries, and journals that writers delight in discovering. Author Gonzalez based The Red Umbrella, her first novel, on the experiences of her parents and the children who came to the United States to escape Castro’s regime. The program was called Operation Pedro Pan and 14,000 unaccompanied minors were participants.

Young teens will relate well to Lucia and her struggle to fit in as a teenager in a new country. They will note that teen attitudes are much the same, however. Most of all, they will want to befriend her.

To ground the reader, each chapter is introduced with a headline from a major United States newspaper reporting on the revolution. A list of Spanish words and English translations adds authenticity.

Read more about the author at her website.

My thanks to two Book Log readers who sent links to lists of books and authors that expand on the immigration experience in general and Latin-American roots in particular. Some of the listed authors also write books for children, so if you decide to focus on a culture, as our home schooling readers do, I hope these links will give you much to explore.

Erin Lenderts sent a link
to “20 Essential Works of Latin American Literature”

Julia Watson sent a link to “50 Greatest Works of Immigration Literature”


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Another Winner

Birmingham Sunday by Larry Dane Brimner was recently named an Orbis Pictus Honor Book by the National Council of Teachers of English.

The Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children is an annual award for promoting and recognizing excellence in the writing of nonfiction for children The winner this year was Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca.

Birmingham Sunday was one of four honor books.

Among other awards won by Birmingham Sunday:

Notable Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies awarded by the National Council for Social Studies/Children's Book Council.

Teachers’ Choice Award

Moonbeam Silver Medal
The Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards are presented by publishing services company Jenkins Group, Inc.

National Parenting Publications Awards: Gold Award and "Top Pick"
More here

EUREKA! Gold Award (California Reading Association)

Kirkus “Best Book” List for 2010

Chicago Public Library “Best of the Best” Book

Kansas Reading Circle “Best of the Best” Book

For more about the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award
see website.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Honoring Sacrifice with Service

Yesterday many observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a day “on,” not a day “off.” Acts of service took place in communities across the country. A book which sums up the challenge, the courage, and the continuing march forward was published two years ago. I discovered it recently and am so glad I did. Its message is timeless.

OUR CHILDREN CAN SOAR: A Celebration of Rosa, Barack, and the Pioneers of Change, by Michelle Cook, Bloomsbury, 2009

The sweep of history and the flow of this meticulously executed book are enhanced by these gifted artists, some of the most celebrated illustrators in the children’s field: E. B. Lewis, James Ransome, Eric Velasquez, Pat Cummings, Leo and Diane Dillon, Cozbi A. Cabrera, R. Gregory Christie, Bryan Collier, AG Ford, Frank Morrison, Charlotte Riley-Webb, and Shadra Strickland

Inspired by phrases that appeared at rallies, on blogs, and in text messages during the 2008 presidential campaign, author and editor Michelle Cook collaborated with Bloomsbury on developing the text. Bringing the interpretations of major talents together could so easily have resulted in a choppy effect. It works! The synergy of the parts and the power of the whole make a strong impression on readers, no matter their ages.

Each double page spread leads to the next, just as the courage and accomplishments of each generation lay a foundation for the children to come. As the jacket announces, this is a story for everyone, “for it is on the backs of our ancestors that every child is raised.”

Ancestors singled out here are George Washington Carver, Jesse Owen, Hattie McDaniel, Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Barack Obama. Short biographical sketches of both historical figures and illustrators are included.

This book doesn’t lead to a conclusion. It does point to a future. The title is repeated in the last lines, the final spread, illustrated by E. B. Lewis:. “so our children can soar! And higher and faster and stronger they go.”

May this always be true: higher, faster, stronger.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Everybody Wins!

Focusing a spotlight on “the best of the best” as the American Library Association calls its awards presentation at its annual mid-winter conference benefits everyone. The awards announcement brings to the fore books a committee of thoughtful, bleary eyed–from all that reading--librarians judge to be quality, literary books. Before and after the awards are announced Newbery “buzz” inspires discussion among writers, teachers, librarians, parents, avid readers of children’s books, and authors, the ones who won, the ones who were considered on the short list, and the ones who look to the winners as models for making their own work better. Young readers become the ultimate winners because the bar for quality literature is kept high.

For a complete list of winners announced this past Monday see the website for the American Library Association!

Happily, I reviewed a number of those honor and medal winners, and they are linked here. Others that I haven’t read are now on my to-read list so I'll know what everybody else is talking about.

Coretta Scott (Author)Book Award recognizing an African American author of outstanding books for children and young adults
Winner: One Crazy Summer by
Rita Williams-Garcia

YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist:They Called Themselves the K.K.K.:The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Literature Written for Young Adults honor book: Stolen by
Lucy Christopher

Pura Belpre (Author) Award honoring a Latina writer whose books best portray, affirm, and celebrate the Latino cultural experience.
Winner: The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan,Illustrated by Peter Sis

Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picturebook for children
Honor Book:
Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children's literature
Honor Books:
Dark Empire by Joyce Sidman
One Crazy Summer by
Rita Williams-Garcia
Heart of a Samurai by Marji Pieres (Read weeks ago and to be blogged along with several books relating to Samurai warriors and their code of honor.)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Night Noises and Newbery Buzz

Poetry explodes across the imagination like fireworks across a dark summer sky. Fireworks fade. Poetry changes lives.

DARK EMPEROR & Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen, Houghton Mifflin, 2010

Here’s a book that’s perfect for reading on a summer night, whether you are reading to yourself or aloud to a young listener, or even sharing each page, like a piece of hoarded dark chocolate, with your entire family. Your setting for this read-aloud should be a porch swing or a screened porch, so all the sounds of the night can accompany your voice. Why am I blogging about this book now when so much of the country is digging out from holiday snows? The
Newbery discussion is on. When asked to name favorites for this prize that will be awarded on January 10, Dark Emperor comes up, again and again.

Young people are discovering poetry, the pace and rhythm of words and phrases, syllables that slide, slither, or soar. Both boys and girls are filled with questions. Always. Pair poetry with information and add illustrations that match the depths of the text. Voila! You have Dark Emperor and a whole community of readers is abuzz with discussion.

Poet Joyce Sidman says she has always loved the concept of nighttime. ...”there are all sorts of creatures that prefer the night and thrive in the dark. Why? And how?” Dark Emperor is her exploration of those questions.

Poetic introductions to unsung critters that often sing tunes of their own are accompanied by sidebars that add eye-popping information. Who knew baby porcupines are called porcupettes? Or that Mama Porcupine keeps her babies happy with treats of raspberry leaves?

Sidman’s books have already won Caldecott Honors, including Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems and Red Sings From Treetops.March 25 Book Log!

See Sidman’s website and
enjoy the night sounds on the trailer for Dark Emperor.

For more information about the Newbery, see the website for the American Library Association!

Do you have favorites in this year's Newbery hunt?

Hillview School Library