Thursday, April 30, 2015

Thinking About...Visibility as Cultural Diversity: A Continuum

What do Karen Lynn Williams’s A Beach Tail and Lauren Child’s The New Small Person have in common? They are both picture books offering visibility for characters of color without specific cultural substance in the narrative. Illustrator Floyd Cooper brings rich and welcome cultural content to Williams’s fine text in A Beach Tail with his illustrations showing an African American child and father. Child’s book is blithely illustrated in the same spirited style she typically uses, but her choice to make the main character and his family dark-brown-skinned in this fresh take on dealing with a new sibling is one I appreciated. Her visual style is vastly different from Cooper’s—there is far less realism and gravity to it. But it's so consistent with, and perfectly matched to, her narrative storytelling.

In Victoria Jamieson’s graphic novel Roller Girl, main character Astrid Vasquez, who aspires to become a junior roller derby jammer (the one who scores points!), mentions that she is half Puerto Rican. Astrid looks as if she could be part Puerto Rican, but this dimension of her identity is not developed beyond that reference. Unlike books in which mention of a character’s race or ethnicity feels like a pale effort to incorporate diversity, it worked for me here, perhaps because there is diversity incorporated without further comment in other ways, too, most notably in the fact that Astrid's Roller Derby hero, Rainbow Brite, is African American.  Also, Astrid's heritage is simply a background fact to the story, and while I would have welcomed additional cultural content, its absence didn't feel like a failure, perhaps because Astrid’s (Puerto Rican) dad does not seem to be part of her life. Everything about Astrid feels authentic to me, including this aspect of her identity to which she is not strongly connected at this point in her life. However, as I continue to think about Roller Girl with great appreciation, I also continue to wonder about it in the context of both what it offers and what it might lack in terms of visibility and representation. 

Roller Girl felt to me akin to Varian Johnson's The Great Greene Heist in the way diversity is simply a fact of the world that its characters inhabit. On the one hand, Johnson's middle school setting and characters are intentionally diverse -- and by that I mean he was clearly making a choice as an author. On the other, his world felt to me like the one children and teens inhabit today (well, except for the Oceans 11-inspired plotting, which is a few steps removed from wholly realistic fiction, but oh, so much fun!).

I think there is both a need for reflecting this kind of broader diversity--the culturally diverse spaces children inhabit, the world in which they live--authentically, and also tension and challenge in trying to do it in a way that does not feel either off-handed or offensive.

A title that I'm far less certain about is Peter McCarty's new picture book First Snow. McCarty's illustrations feature beautifully drawn pen-and-ink animal characters in a story about a puppy experiencing snow for the first time. His name is Pedro. He is visiting his cousin Sancho and his family. I'm struggling with these animal characters having Spanish names. (There is no other cultural content.) At the same time, one could ask, given the fact there are many books with animal characters, why not give them names that might resonate with Spanish-speaking children?

Visibility exists across a continuum, from books like The New Small Person and A Beach Tail and Roller Girl  to ones that are deeply imbedded in cultural identity and experience  (Niño Wrestles the World by Yuyi Morales is one obvious and delightful example).  But I think animal characters without any cultural content are simply no substitute, and potentially problematic. (By contrast, Chato's Kitchen by Gary Soto and Susan Guevara is a book featuring animal characters brimming with cultural content.)  

A book that I think gets it right  in terms of being diverse and inclusive in a way that is exciting because it's so genuine is the new young adult poetry anthology Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation edited by Brett Fletcher Lauer and Lynn Melnick. Non-fiction is a different beast from fiction, obviously, and these days any anthology worthy of any note at all has made an obvious effort to be inclusive. But this offering, in part due no doubt to the anthologists' decision to include 100 poets, excels at reflecting incredibly diverse dimensions of identity and experiences, but the end result isn't either disparate or forced. Instead, it's unifying, because it feels so much like the world in which we live. 

Happy Día!


On April 30 each year we celebrate  El día de los niños/El día de los libros, an literacy initiative conceived by author Pat Mora nineteen years ago. Libraries and schools across the country are engaged in all kinds of creative programs to promote family literacy and diversity.

Want to join the celebration? Sing to a baby.  Read to a child. Buy a book for your family, or the family next door.  Take your kids to the library. And keep the celebration going year-round!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book of the Week: Roller Girl

Roller Girl

by Victoria Jamieson

Published by Dial, 2015

239 pages

ISBN: 978-0-8037-4016-7

Ages 8-14

Astrid Vasquez and her best friend Nicole can barely tolerate her mother’s regular Evenings of Cultural Enrichment until she surprises them with a roller derby match. For Astrid, it’s a life-changing experience: she’s hooked on roller derby, and is especially struck by the star player of the Rose City Rollers, Rainbow Brite. When she learns that there is going to be a roller derby summer camp for girls 12-17, she immediately signs up and assumes Nicole will, too. But Nicole has other plans for the summer. She wants to attend dance camp with Astrid’s long-time nemesis and Astrid feels betrayed. As Astrid go through hard weeks of training, leading up to a junior bout during the half-time of a pro roller derby game, she makes a new friend but still feels the sting of losing Nicole. Roller derby gives her an outlet for her anger as she discovers she has a fierce competitive streak. And when Astrid unintentionally hurts her new friend it’s an opportunity for self-reflection, but there’s plenty of roller derby action here, too, as novice skater Astrid gains skills and confidence but, realistically, never gets to be really good. Along the way, she gets some tips about finding her own inner strength through an on-going secret correspondence with her hero, Rainbow Brite, through notes she leaves and receives the Rose City Rollers locker room. This witty, original, and action-packed graphic novel was written and illustrated by a skater for the Rose City Rollers who is known by the name Winnie the Pow. As a result of her inside expertise, readers will get a good sense of the game and how it’s played, as well as unique aspects of derby culture.  (KTH) ©2015 Cooperative Children's Book Center

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

CCBC Book of the Week: Moonpenny Island

Moonpenny Island

by Tricia Springstubb

Illustrated by Gilbert Ford

Published by Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins, 2015

229 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06-211293-4

Ages 8-12

Flor’s uneventful but happy life is dealt two simultaneous blows. Her best friend Sylvie, the only other 11-year-old in their Lake Erie island community, is sent away to attend a private academy at the same time that Flor’s Mom leaves, ostensibly to care for her ill mother. But Flor knows that her grandmother’s many relatives living nearby could help her out and suspects her Mom’s leaving has more to do with the escalating arguing between her parents. Money is tight, and sometimes Flor imagines that it’s hard for her mom being the only non-white person, let alone the only Spanish-speaker, on the island. Meanwhile, Flor’s perfect older sister Cecelia has become secretive and distant, abandoning Flor just when she needs her most. Welcoming the distraction of island newcomers, Flor finds herself intrigued by eccentric Dr. Fife and his daughter Jasper and their study of trilobites. Friendships and connections, both enduring and unexpected, play important roles in a story rich with character development, which successfully blends a compelling plot with thoughtful introspection, all framed by the appealing small-town island setting. (MVL)  © Cooperative Children's Book Center

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Book of the Week: Please Excuse This Poem

Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation

by Brett Fletcher Lauer and Lynn Melnick eds

Published by Penguin, 2015

304 pages

ISBN: 9780670014798

Age 14 and older

The task of selecting 100 poems and poets for this anthology must have felt both limiting and liberating. Limiting because if these poems are any example—and they surely are—the talent pool of young poets in America is deep and diverse. That isn’t a surprise, but it must have made the number 100 feel like a huge challenge at times. Yet as hard as choosing must have been, 100 poems also allowed for remarkable inclusiveness. The result isn’t at all forced. Instead, the work as a whole feels like a gathering you might find in any large city, and certainly across America: multicultural and diverse in every sense of the words. The poets’ experiences and observations here are always personal, sometimes intimate, sometimes deeply unsettling. The poems themselves are often thick with images and full of surprises. These selections are more challenging as a whole than what is often found in young adult anthologies (a genre that has languished in recent years). At the same time, across the offerings are poems that will invite readers easily in, and which poems those are will inevitably vary from one reader to the next. It’s impossible to not come away from such a rich collection appreciative not only of the poets’ talent, but of the ways language is flexible enough to be bent and shaped and crafted to speak so many distinct and powerful truths. And for young adults whose inclination is to write poetry themselves, it’s impossible not to come away from this volume with words—their own words—sounding.   © Cooperative Children's Book Center

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book of the Week: My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay

by Cari Best

Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015

32 pages

ISBN: 978-0-374-38819-5

Ages 4-8

Zulay, who is blind, wants to be treated like the other kids in her elementary classroom. And mostly, she is. She and her three best friends (one white, one Asian American and one African American, like Zulay) help one another in class and play together during recess. When the other students go to gym, though, Zulay has to work with Ms. Turner, who is teaching her to walk with a cane. Zulay doesn’t want to use a cane because it makes her stand out as different. When their teacher announces an upcoming Field Day, however, Zulay is determined to run a race in her new pink shoes, and this motivates her to work hard with Ms. Turner so she will be able to participate. The training pays off and she is able to run around the track using her cane, with Ms. Turner at her side. Inspired by a real child the author met on a school visit in New York City, the story is refreshingly realistic. Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s spirited illustrations show uniformed students in a public school where accommodation is shown as an integral part of their inclusive community. The name labels tacked to the desks of all twenty-two students in Zulay’s classroom, for example, are written in both print and Braille.  (KTH) © Cooperative Children's Book Center