Monday, July 11, 2011

What a Revolution Looks Like

Tweens and Teens who watch the news see revolutions all around the globe, in the Middle East and Africa, especially. Those countries seem far away. However, their grandparents will remember a revolution in the 1960's that happened only 90 miles away.

90 MILES TO HAVANA by Enrique Flores-Galbis, Roaring Book Press, 2010

This is about the Pedro Pan operation in 1961 during the Cuban Revolution. 14,000 children were sent from Cuba in a mass exodus. Parents were prevented from leaving, so the children sailed to new homes alone. Told in first person, present tense by Julian, youngest son of a well to do family, the story pulls the reader in with Julian’s mother’s command, “Don’t look away boys...I don’t want you to ever forget what a revolution looks like.”

Julian loves family and wants to please, save, help, take care of each member. His loyalty is steadfast. He makes friends from whom he can learn. His observations and developing skills build to his maturity and usefulness. An artist at heart, Julian expresses himself differently, with insights that surprise. This is a coming of age story, but it has so many layers of meaning and richness within that story.

Any revolution can be better understood by how it looks on a personal level. Bullies in power beget bullies at each level below them. Julian sees bullies in his Cuban neighborhood, at his school, and in America in the camp where he and his brothers are first to learn about America. The bully at the American camp, who was a classmate of his brothers in Cuba, becomes an even meaner bully in the United States, demonstrating how a bully’s inner fears drive his need to intimidate others.

Each character is well fleshed out. There are several casts of characters, from home, to camp, to small communities outside the camp, to Miami, to the school and new home in Connecticut. Trust issues arise. Misery results when misunderstandings occur.

I tried to figure out how old Julian is. He can work math problems that sound as if he could be in the 4th or 5th grade making him, maybe 10 or 11. However, when you are the youngest of 3 boys, it may not matter what your age is, you are still the youngest of 3 boys.

One of Julian’s brothers (Gordo) comes close to being a bully. The middle brother (Alquilino) has more sense and a greater interest in keeping peace, thinking first, acting afterward, weighing the potential. In a reverie near the end of the book, Julian says, “maybe my brothers were making too much noise for me to hear my own thoughts.” To me, that voice seems 9-11, that revelation closer to 11. At this point it’s clear that Julian understands how to make choices for the right reasons.

The author is an artist and lecturer and lives in Forest Hills, New York with his family. He was 9 when his life was changed by Operation Pedro Pan. He and his two older brothers spent months in a refugee camp in southern Florida and this novel is directly inspired by that experience.
Flores-Galbis dedicated this book “To my parents who were brave enough to let go, and my older brothers Anibal and Fernando: tormentors, teachers, and titans whom I will always look up to and love.”

Earlier this year, I blogged about Pedro Pan from a girl’s point of view Under the Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez. Entry here. 90 Miles to Havana is told from a boy’s perspective. Both books will be of absorbing interest to boy or girl readers.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Who’s in Your Photo Album?

Here’s a great way to prepare for a family reunion, real or imagined.

FINDING FAMILY by Tonya Bolden, Bloomsbury, 2010

Being twelve can be boring. Delana’s homelife is especially bland, considering she’s being raised by her grandfather and her Aunt Tilley who tell her tales about family members she’s never met. Unknown faces stare into space from the family’s many photos, photos on the walls, the tables, and stuffed into albums. Each photo has a story Aunt Tilley loves to tell. Delana isn’t fond of listening. Then Aunt Tilley dies and life turns from boring stories to shocking tales.

Delana finds out her grandfather bought his own freedom and then tried to relocate the many members of his family that had been sold and scattered. His hard exterior gives Delana the idea that he doesn’t love her, but she discovers how much love this man has for family. His life is bound up in finding and protecting family. Delana learns who she is and who her people were, an overwhelming experience in this coming of age tale set in the early 1900's in Charleston, West Virginia.

The author has written more than 20 books for children and young adults, and counts a Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award among them. In her author’s note, she confesses to collecting photos because the expressions on the faces made her wonder about the people and their lives.
The black and white photos illustrating the pages of Finding Family give witness to how well this works.

Many people today store their photos online. Boxes and albums of pictures may be the legacy of past generations only, just as my mother left me stacks of boxes and albums. I have countless pictures of groups, all lined up and smiling, individuals posing with small children in their arms, and many other scenes peopled with vacationers and a variety of state line signs in the background. No information on the back. I have no idea who these people were or why they were important to someone on my family tree. However, author Bolden inspires me to give a second life to these photos, to imagine who they were and make up stories about them. My mother's stacks of photos of unknown people is now a writer's treasure trove of ideas.

Still, I wish somebody had written on the back of my ancestors’ photos Names? Dates? Events?

Memo to self: be sure the photos I’ve taken carry identifying information. Whose feet are those?

Hillview School Library