Jul 29, 2017

Our National Parks: In the Canyon and Other Wonders of Nature

It's midsummer. 
There's no better time to  gather 'round the old blog-campfire to share books about our amazing National Parks. The titles include a light-but-illuminating journey into the Grand Canyon and a pre-park-designation foray into the wilderness. In the first, the trails and travails are manageable, even for the young girl gracing the story in verse. It is fiction, but depicts realism in image and words. In the second, the effort to "tame and claim" the wild (and eventually preserve precious spaces) involves attempts at refinement and formality that defy imagination. It is an historically accurate portrayal of the people and places involved, with informative and impressive back matter.

Beachlane Books, 2015

IN THE CANYON is written by word-master Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Ashley Wolff.
Scanlon's rhyming text blends expository content with a poetic adventure in this engaging story of a girl's travels to the "rocky cup" of the Grand Canyon floor. The illustrator's saturated colors and detailed images, often accented with heavy black lines and dramatic perspectives, will take readers along on a physically and emotionally engaging story. 
Back matter includes a glossary that clarifies some terms and phrasing. This is obviously written by someone who knows the Grand Canyon firsthand and shares the narrator's affection for it. The endpapers incorporate labels for significant landmarks within the canyon, and
the final spread allows for discussion of figurative language in which sprawling cities present opportunities for readers to explore their own "rocky" canyons and integrate memorable travels.

Charlesbridge Publishing, 2016
Next up, you'll really want to know more about this book and the individual who helped change our history. MOUNTAIN CHEF: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service  is written by Annette Bay Pimentel and illustrated by Rich Lo. 
The timing on this book is ideal, but it is also a book that will appeal over time. Published in 2016, during the 100th anniversary year of the National Parks, it also intersects with a cultural cooking craze that integrates gourmet elegance, natural ingredients, and celebrity chefs. It describes an adventure that sets a high bar for the current trend of GLAM-ping (glamour-camping).
This is a kid-friendly biography of esteemed Chinese chef Tie Sing, and it deserves the multiple 5-star ratings it has received. It was also named to the NCSS (National Council of Social Studies) notable books list for 2016-17.
The story of Sing's part in the creation of the National Park Service begins with his reputation as the best of the trail cooks of that era. As such, he was hired by a millionaire to prepare and serve extraordinary meals to an entourage of potential supporters (early lobbyists?). The goal was to help them appreciate and preserve our national wonders for future generations rather than exploit them for private gain. Sing's incomparable meals were served on linen cloth with china and crystal table service, all hauled on the backs of mules along with gourmet ingredients.

Sing's story is told with illustrations that reveal the natural setting but remain firmly focused on Tie, his talents, and the near-tragic events that challenged him.  His creativity and resilience allowed him to successfully salvage the campaign to secure his beloved mountains for posterity. Backmatter adds intriguing details, including the harsh reality of discrimination against Chinese (immigrants and US-born) at that time. Even though Tie was a native born American citizen, his rights were stripped away because of his descent from immigrants and his surname.

Another author who appreciated and championed the value of the National Park Service is the incomparable Jean Craighead George. Together with the remarkable artist/illustrator Wendell Minor, she created picture books (and other formats) that celebrated, documented, and warned readers about the need for the parks to preserve and protect the complex wildlife within their boundaries. You can read about some of those powerful picture books in this post from several years ago, here.

Whether you've been park-trekking all summer or have never set foot in a single preserve, these books will make them matter to you. If you're already a committed supporter, you'll find your engagement swell. If you've managed to live contentedly without much thought for these resources, especially with warnings of budget cuts  coming soon (deep, stark cuts), these b looks are all the more important for you to read. 
And to share with young people.
It's their heritage, their world that's at stake. 

Jul 22, 2017

Refugees? Immigrants? Assumptions and Stereotypes

My previous post (here)  focused on a recent picture book about the all-too-familiar condition of being a refugee: STORMY SEAS: Stories of Young Boat Refugees.The details of even a few people and events throughout history are heartbreaking and powerful. In many cases, the refugees depicted were also immigrants.
Words matter, and using them accurately matters even more.
Striving to understand and use words accurately can be an effective way to begin to understand ourselves and others.
So...let's explore these concepts, as you might with young readers.

Are REFUGEES and IMMIGRANTS the same? Are the words interchangeable?
Charlesbridge Publishing, 2015

In one important way they are all alike: 

Both refugees and immigrants are NEW.
That's why an ideal starting point is 
I'M NEW HERE, written and illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien.

There are countless ways in which REFUGEES and IMMIGRANTS are similar, and significant ways in which they are NOT the same. Rather than link to just any source, one  that might be considered biased or even political, let's take a look at the two terms linguistically, on THE GRAMMARIST.COM, here. What do wordsmiths have to say about the two terms.

 "refugee is a person who is forced to leave his home and travel to another country in order to escape a natural disaster, war or persecution. ..."
"An immigrant is a person who leaves his home and travels to another country in order to become a permanent member of the population. ..."

Not all refugees are choosing to "never return", and would, in fact, return to their homelands if it were safe to do so.
On the other hand, some have suffered to such a degree that they abandon any thoughts of returning to their homeland.
Not all immigrants are moving to a new homeland entirely by choice. Conditions may not be such that they must flee for their lives, but may include situations that limit their choices, hopes, and future.
On the other hand, some are eagerly seeking a new homeland despite leaving behind safe and loving people and comfortable settings. They may, in fact, face more struggles in the new land, but welcome the challenge and adventure of the move. 

A Venn Diagram of the two words would reveal many elements in common, but some that are critically different. Both are leaving behind homeland, family, and history. Both include a wide range of ages, health conditions, and educational levels. Both immigrants and refugees may travel illegally, while others travel legally.

Despite all of the commonalities, the distinction is:
REFUGEES = No CHOICE, running AWAY FROM danger, might return if they could
IMMIGRANTS = CHOICE, running TOWARD a new home, no plan to return

In fact, especially in recent times, this essential distinction has been blurred in the public consciousness. This confusion is compounded further by social attitudes toward poverty and dependence. 
Some refugees have multiple resources, but the ones who are destitute are the subject  of our opinions and public discussions.
Some immigrants have adequate financial means and social supports in place, but the ones who are destitute or struggling are more visible and are also the subjects of public discussions.

In debates (and rants) about refugees and immigrants, understanding the nuances of the terms (and the individuals) is worth the effort, especially when it comes to the next generation. In order to explore these confusions and assumptions, offering and discussing a wide selection of books provides many examples over the course of history and involving varied circumstances and ethnicities. Many outstanding picture books that are worth including are featured in the following blog posts, and I recommend them highly:

Jul 16, 2017

Refugees on STORMY SEAS: A Never-Ending Story

The surface of our planet is more than 70% water, so it is no surprise that a major method of transportation, throughout history, has been by boat. Whether water travel is viewed as luxurious, adventurous, necessary, worrisome, or terrifying depends largely on a person's options and reasons for travel. Certainly the vast majority of those onboard the Titanic, even the seasick, employees, and immigrants (unlikely to ever see native lands again) began their journey with the reasonable expectation of arriving safely at a US port in a matter of days. At worst, it was a temporary discomfort undertaken for a valued purpose. At best, it was a glorious adventure and a status symbol, even for those whose status was in no need of bolstering.

Certainly, none of those boarding could have imagined that an iceberg would change their perceptions and their fates in a matter of hours. 

On the other hand, a boat trip as a refugee is only undertaken with the reasonable expectation of death. Empathy alone doesn't allow us to put ourselves in the desperate-but-hopeful mindset of refugees boarding objects that bear less resemblance to boats than do the crayon sketches of toddlers. 
Refugees are people fleeing fates more horrid than we can possibly imagine. Sadly, they are real and very conceivable to the refugees themselves. That's been true throughout the plight of "boat people" spanning millennia, hemispheres, and ethnicities.
Annick Press, April, 2017

STORMY SEAS: STORIES OF YOUNG BOAT PEOPLE addresses that long history of refugees. Written by Mary Beth Leatherdale and illustrated by Eleanor Shakespeare, this picture book aimed at middle grade readers opens with a timeline of "boat people" that precedes the Mayflower. Five true stories from refugee history on the water are humanized through the eyes of actual young people:
Ruth and her family escaping Nazism; Phu fleeing war-torn Vietnam; Jose  escaping Cuba; Najeeba leaving Afghanistan and the Taliban; Mohamed, an orphan, runs from his village on the Ivory Coast. 

I agree entirely with the synopsis from Indiebound.org: 
"...Stormy Seas combines a contemporary collage-based design, sidebars, fact boxes, timeline and further reading to produce a book that is ideal for both reading and research. Readers will gain new insights into a situation that has constantly been making the headlines."
I'll go so far as to call this an extraordinary resource, compelling in content and useful as a resource to launch research. From the introductory timeline of  "boat people" who have attempted escapes through to the more recent examples, these stories all depict refugees pursuing an opportunity to make new homes in an area of North America that eventually becomes the United States. Naturally, our current global refugee crisis is dealt with at the conclusion.
My only caution is to include additional books and information in refugee discussions to balance the "America-centric" approach. There are stories of refugees with other destinations throughout the world, and of other countries who are facing the moral decicion of extending a welcoming hand or slamming shut their ports of entry.

Certainly safety and reasonable screening are necessary considerations for any nation. But our neighbor to the north, Canada, has dealt with those issues of national concern while still finding ways to offer refugees new opportunities and safe places to live. I posted a review about another recent picture book, STEPPING STONES: A REFUGEE FAMILY'S JOURNEY (here), and an extensive interview with its Canadian author, Margriet Ruers, here. If you missed those posts, I urge you to read them.

I endorse and am inspired by Anne Frank's memorable quote:

This positive view of human nature leads me forward, but history insists that human nature and nature itself are capable of unleashing devastating circumstances. These include conditions that force people to set foot aboard frighteningly fragile boats, literally and figuratively. Even the most optimistic among us must be realistic. We know that the specifics may change but  "refugee crisis" will repeat and repeat in the millennia ahead. The question should be asked of readers, while they are young, to consider fully what our response can and should be. Books like these allow them to research, debate, analyze, and empathize.

After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010, conditions were so unlivable that thousands of Haitians were evacuated with special longterm visas to live in the USA.Those visas are currently under review, with their termination becoming a real possibility. This return of Haitian natives to a fragile homeland comes at the very time when conditions in Haiti are deteriorating to such a degree that residents are resorting to the high-risk boat route to reach the unwelcoming shores of our country. NPR's Weekend Edition aired a brief but very informative description of this here.

Jul 9, 2017

She Persisted: Past, Present, and Future

Some books launch with so much attention that I choose to pass on reviewing or commenting, regardless of how I feel about them. 
Philomel Books, 2017

I do read them. Often I rate and post a short review on Goodreads. 
There are just SO MANY amazing releases that don't garner widespread attention. I reserve this blog for books that are, in my opinion, deserving of an extra splash of spotlight. My influence-wattage may be small, but I keep plowing ahead to share such books, and also highlight backlist books that remain significant and valuable. As always, those choices reflect my personal opinions. 

In the case of this book, the attention has been extensive, and well-deserved on many counts. Even so, I couldn't resist adding some reflections of my own here about  SHE PERSISTED: 13 American Women Who Changed the World written by Chelsea Clinton and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. 

There are several other current books about amazing women, from individual biographic profiles to collections, from iconic figures to relatively unknown heroines  A great place to find outstanding recommendations is at A MIGHTY GIRL website, which offers well-curated, up-to-date lists of titles for various ages and interests. (HERE). Resources like this provide yet another reason for me to pass on some reviews. Why try to outdo the best of the best?

But then my library hold notification "dinged" and SHE PERSISTED made its way into my hands. It appealed to me on many levels, and yet some elements seemed to "break the rules" of picture books. I read it several times and evaluated carefully, finally deciding to share my thoughts here. 
On the plus side, I adore the art and book design. It has dramatic, red end papers, presents figures that are diverse and expressive, and displays full spreads that feature women with notable accomplishments, including short quotations from their bodies of work.Those quotations, the well-suited and distinctive illustration style for each, and the range from familiar to unknown women are all powerful plusses.I particularly enjoyed the decision to feature a baker's dozen of women as having quirky appeal, although I am aware that is likely as much due to book length as to a conscious choice. I'm always curious about dedications, and both Clinton's and Boiger's do not disappoint.
As much as I enjoy and admire this book in those ways, I feel compelled to add a few "yes, but" comments. The instructive/narrative text is a compressed introduction, an little more than an invitation to investigate further. It feels a bit old for the youngest readers and a bit young for established readers. It does invite research, reading, and investigation, though. That's the point at which I wondered if one of the more familiar women (Helen Keller, perhaps?) might have been omitted in favor of a spread of accessible recommended resources on the back pages. I also longed for citations for the quotations on the back pages. 
The power of this appealing book is to incite curiosity about these (and other) American women, and yet there is no readily available option or comparable books suggested to readers. Some reviewers have commented, too, that the profiles, taken as a whole, demonstrates an oppressive system holding a thumb down on the women's success. Yes, that fits well with the conceptual "persistence" or "grit" theme, but it came off as a bit discouraging.

A curious reader can go to Amazon and find comparable books, or Wikipedia to search for more content, but neither is considered a valid research tool. At least not one as reliable as a curated list in the back of a book that could easily have been included by such a reputable publisher. 
In addition, Senator Elizabeth Warren has made "She persisted" such a catch-phrase that a Google search takes one to memes, merchandise, and to Senator Warren herself, but not immediately to the book. My search for a Chelsea Clinton website in support of this book took me to the Clinton Foundation or to her Facebook page, neither of which references the book or provides further links. The publisher's page, here,  offered little to no additional content or optional links. 
In that sense, I found this to be a book I'd buy, give, and use, but with reservations. I generally feel that celebrity books, especially picture books, rely on the name-value of the author with less-than-industry-standard attention to details like these. Sometimes, as in this case, it feels a bit rushed-to-market. The target age noted is 4-8, and yet I believe sales will trend toward adult fans of Clinton, Warren, and the concept itself. Yes, adults are the buyers of picture books, and they will then share with young readers. In this case, though, I feel it is the illustrator's  work rather than the text that will manage to draw young reader/listeners into the book. I'm not anticipating a rash of "read it again" requests.

Even with those cautions, it is a worthy choice and one that merits a place on your shelves. Read Publishers' Weekly starred review here, and the Kirkus review here, one that noted some of my concerns. With the potential for reaching such a wide audience, I wish that a few more months had been devoted to allow it to reach its full potential.

Jul 1, 2017

2017 NCSS NOTABLE BOOKS: An Interview with author Pat Zietlow Miller

I'm especially excited to include an interview with the very talented author, Pat Zietlow Miller in this post. You'll want to read what she has to say about writing The Quickest Kid in Clarksville. This is a longer post than usual, so after reading the interview,  if you don't have much time , you may want to bookmark this post and come back to it later for further suggested titles and links. In fact, even if you read all the way through, clicking on all the links, you may want to bookmark this post. I'm not suggesting that my words are particularly brilliant, but this post offers a valuable resource you'll want to remember and use. Sooner or later, I hope you'll spend time on it and click through to all of the links, because these books are too good to miss. 

This annual NCSS notable list will be worth knowing about year after year.

First, here's that valuable resource for everyone interested in quality literature for kids. You simply MUST know about the National Council for the Social Studies annual NOTABLE SOCIAL STUDIES TRADE BOOKS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE. For the full list for 2017, click here. 
Each year I've used the current and prior annual lists as a teacher, as a writer, as presenter, and  as a reader. I remain a member of this professional organization even though I've retired from the classroom, but anyone can access the lists on the site linked above. Titles are grouped  in broad categories, are selected in collaboration with the Children's Book Council (CBC), and include picture books targeted to a wide age range, along with nonfiction and novels. 

I was particulary excited to see THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE, written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Frank Morrison, was on the 2017 list. It's that delightful achievement of a winning story that incorporates historic information and individuals.  The author, Pat Zietlow Miller, is a favorite of mine (and a writing friend). The inspiring athletic figure embedded in the story, Wilma Rudolph, is also a favorite of mine.  I've written about this terrific book in several posts, and on Goodreads. The NCSS Notables categorizes it with other  titles involving social interactions and relationships.

Below Pat's interview I've featured (with links) several of the other titles on the notable list that I've reviewed and/or featured in prior posts. 
But first, here's that interview with Pat:

Congratulations, Pat, on having QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE named to the NCSS Notable Books for Young Readers list for 2017. Your books have garnered many awards in the past, but how are you feeling about this specific honor and how do you hope it will impact the use of this book by young readers and their parents and teachers?

I’m excited about having THE QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE on this list because I love the story of Wilma Rudolph and want to make sure more kids know who she was and what she accomplished.

I’m also excited because being part of this list shows that fiction books can educate and inform readers as much as nonfiction texts.

QUICKEST KID IN CLARKSVILLE provides important information about the amazing and inspiring athlete, WILMA RUDOLPH, but it does so indirectly, embedded in the fictional story of Alta and Charmaine. Can you share a bit of the origin story of this book? Did you start with an interest in writing about Wilma Rudolph, or a story about young characters and their competition, cooperation, and friendship?  Which came first, the chicken or the egg so to speak?

Alta and Charmaine came first. I started out writing about two modern-day girls who competed in everything to see who was the best. They ran. They jumped. They skipped rope. And, the story was fine, but it didn’t have the spark I wanted. Something was missing.

An editor suggested I add a historical element, and I immediately thought of Wilma Rudolph, someone whose story I knew and admired. So I had both girls look up to Wilma and want to be just like her.

But I didn’t think to set the story in Wilma’s hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, until a writing friend of mine suggested it. Once I did that, and learned Clarksville’s history with segregation and how Wilma helped the town take its first steps toward integration, the story finally came together properly.

Although set in the historical context of the segregated south, the social dynamics between the girls feel familiar and authentic for contemporary situations. I imagine you were able to find specific historic details about Wilma Rudolph’s triumphant return to her hometown, and the conditions she set to participate, but how did you arrive at specific details within Alta’s story? The economic differences and interpersonal challenges were very credible; in particular, Alta’s awareness of Charmaine’s new shoes as compared to her worn ones.

The shoes were inspired by a personal story. When my twin sister and I were in middle school, we really wanted white, low-top, canvas Nikes with a colored swoosh. It seemed like all our classmates had them, even though, as I look back, I’m sure that wasn’t the case. Oh, we wanted those shoes. My sister, who now has a Ph.D. in math, even made a chart showing how many kids in each of our classes had those Nikes.

We already had perfectly fine shoes, without holes, but I remember how much we wanted those Nikes. And then, when my parents relented and got them for us – a true act of love because we certainly didn’t need them – I remember how proud I was to wear them.

So that story of shoe envy totally played a part in deciding how Alta and Charmaine each felt.

Not all of your books are in rhyme, but they all have a lyric, rhythmic lilt to the text. Reviewers point that out and I admire the natural flow of your writing, especially knowing how much effort it requires to make it seem effortless. What led you to the use of Alta’s training chant (Wil- ma Ru- dolph) within her running routines, how do you see it benefiting the story?

I wanted some kind of a running beat in the book and having Alta chant Wilma’s name seemed like the perfect thing. I experimented with a few different ways of her using the name before settling on this one. Again, my critique group helped me determine which version worked best.

And, thank you, for talking about the story’s rhythmic lilt.  Flow and rhythm are very important to me whether the story I’m writing rhymes or not, and I spend a lot of time working on them.

One of the coolest things that happened after this book was published was that a school took words from the book and turned them into a chant that students performed. You can see it here.

Your books have generated many eager-reader connections (Sophie’s Squash “adoptions”, Wherever You Go for graduates). Whose idea was it to generate make-your-own athletic trading cards? (link here). Have you heard from readers, families, and teachers about how these are being used? 

That idea came from the Chronicle Books, the publisher. It was ingenious, but alas, I can take no credit for it.

What types of responses and feedback have you had about this particular book, and from whom? Is there something about this book that holds a special place in your heart?

I’ve heard from lots of schools who have used the book with gym classes or paired it with WILMA UNLIMITED, a great, straight nonfiction picture book biography of Wilma Rudolph written by Kathleen Krull.

And, I got to Skype with a classroom of kids in Clarksville, Tennessee, which was so very cool.

This book is special to me, because of how it evolved from initial idea to the finished product and because of how much I learned writing it. 

Here’s a blog I wrote outlining the book’s journey. It’s called “It takes a village … to write a book.” But it just as easily could have been called, “Why writing a picture book might make you lose your mind.”

To make it work, I had to be like Wilma and never give up.

Thanks, Pat, for taking the time to share your journey with readers here. 

Click on Pat's name above, or HERE, to learn more about her and her other books. Stay tuned for her upcoming picture books, WIDE-AWAKE BEAR, and  BE KIND in early 2018. 

Now here are quick connections to a few of the other NCSS Notable Books I've written about in previous posts: 

It is listed among titles involving social interactions and relationships.

Category: History/Life and Culture in America

Category: History/Life and Culture in America

Category: Biography

MISS MARY REPORTING: The True Story of Sportswriter Mary Garber, written by Sue Macy, illustrated by C. F. Payne.

Category: Biography

Category: Biography

Category: World History and Culture.

Category: Biography
Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.