Bronx Masquerade

by Nikki Grimes
First sentence: “I ain’t particular about doing homework, you understand.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some tough situations, but nothing “objectionable”. The format — short stories with poetry — is great for reluctant readers, as well. It would be in the young adult (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

I read this back during my poetry section of class and was expecting a novel in verse. While I don’t think it’s that, it is a fascinating look into the power of poetry. Set in the Bronx (obviously), the book follows a group of students in an English class as they study the Harlem Renaissance, and then decide they want to try writing poetry themselves. That turns into an Open Mike Friday once a month, which morphs into once a week, as the various students — black, Latnix, and white — learn to express themselves and understand other people throughout the year. Interspersed with commentary from our “narrator” Tyrone, it’s a good look at how poetry not only can help people express ideas and feelings they couldn’t otherwise, it also is a way to understand other people.

I liked how we got a peek into a bunch of different lives, even if that meant we didn’t get to delve deeply into one person. I think the purpose of the novel was to explore connections that poetry makes, not so much to explore one person, and once I realized that, I was able to enjoy the book more. I’ve never read anything by Nikki Grimes before, though I’ve heard a lot about her, and this made me curious. I’ll definitely have to check more of it out.

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Module 14: Yes! We are Latinos!

Ada, A. F. and Campoy, F. I. (2013). Yes! We are Latinos. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Genre: Poetry with non-fiction mini-essays.

Book Summary: A series of narrative poems, followed by a brief narrative non-fiction essays about different aspects of Latinx history and culture. These are not based on any one person, but are a composite of the different variety within the Latinx world.

Impressions: I loved this one! I don’t often read poetry collections (and when I do, they are usually the humorous ones. My current favorite is I’m Just No Good at Rhyming) and I didn’t quite know what to expect. What I got were some narrative poems, each telling a story about a different child’s Latinx identity. It served as a reminder that even though we (white people, the media, etc.) lump all Latinx people together, there’s a lot of diversity and richness of heritage within the culture. (And, I was reminded, that they don’t all get along!) I really enjoyed the historical information that came after each poem, which told a bit about the history and culture of the person in the poem preceding. I knew quite a bit of the information already, but it was good to be reminded of the history (and some of it recent history) and how much of the United States was originally Spanish. (And that the Brits weren’t the only oppressive colonizers in the world.) Definitely a highly recommended collection.

Review: While the review was short and more oriented to the plot than any opinions about the book, Leon-Barrera did remark that the book was “refreshing” especially because of the vast representation from the Latinx world. She also wrote, “The vignettes also help to illustrate the meaning of being mestizo–the blending of indigenous, African, and Spanish lineage-mentioned in the introduction and explored throughout.” This was something I noticed but didn’t realize was as important as it is. She also commented on the inclusion of Asians in Latin America, which, she wrote, “is often overlooked in children’s literature”.

Leon-Barrera, M. (2013). Yes! We are Latinos.  School Library Journal. 59 (8), 94.

Uses: This was used as part of our city’s Big Read a few years back. It could also be used in a poetry writing workshop for middle or high schoolers, since these are all accessible, free-verse, narrative poems.

Readalikes:

  • Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle – This is the most obvious read-alike, as it is a non-fiction memoir in verse about Engle’s childhood and her family in Cuba.
  • The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya – Another Cubano novel, this one focusing on the struggle to keep history and culture and family together in America. It’s also a David vs. Goliath book, in that a big developer wants to take out Arturo’s family’s restaurant in order to put in a huge multiplex.
  • Gabi a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero – A young adult book about Mexican-American culture and the struggles between older generations and their traditions and younger generations.

The Poet Slave

by Margarita Engle
First sentence: “My mind is a brush made of feathers”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is talk of torture and beatings, but nothing graphic. It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This slim novel (sort-of; it’s touted as a biography, and it is biographical, but I’m not sure it really counts as a “biography”) depicts the childhood and early life of noted Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano, who was, for much of his life, a slave. Although the verse is spare, Engle doesn’t hold anything back: Juan was not only taken from his parents to be a pet of his first master, he was denied his freedom (his first master willed him his freedom at her death) and sold to a horrible woman who beat, tortured, and nearly killed Juan. The poems/chapters are told from varying points of view: Juan, his parents, his owners, and one of his master’s sons. They tell of his desire to learn, to express himself, and the punishments he received because of them. It’s heartbreaking.

Engle has captured not only the difficulties that Juan faced in his life, but his capacity for hope, for happiness, and for creativity. Her poetry is beautiful, and she allows Juan’s story to come through.

Definitely recommended.

I’m Just No Good at Rhyming

by Chris Harris, Illustrated by Lane Smith
First sentence: “A door.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: Oh, it’s SO silly. And no potty humor. It will be in the poetry section of the bookstore.
Release date: September 26, 2017

I loved Shel Silverstein’s poems when I was a kid. I would read Where the Sidewalk Ends over and over, giggling at all the silliness. And when my kids were little, I discovered Jack Prelutsky, with much the same result for them: we loved the ridiculous poems.

This book is this generations Silverstein and Prelutsky. I know that’s a HUGE statement to make, but that’s what it reminded me of. I picked it up late one night, not knowing what to expect. And ended up not only giggling madly, but sharing with both A and K all my favorite poems. And there were a lot of poems to share. From the “Alphabet Book (By the Laziest Artist in the World)” to (one of my personal favorites) “The Duel” and “Re-Verse” and “Trapped!” and  “L-O-V-E” and and… it was full of things to giggle over and share.

There were some sweet moments, too, like Harris’s observations on grownups in “Grown-ups Are Better (I)”, where he ends ” Grown-ups are better at most stuff, you see,/From tying a shoelace to chopping a tree./But children are gooder and grown-ups are badder/At just about all things that matter.” Or the (almost) final poem “Let’s Meet Right Here in Twenty-Five Years”.  And Lane Smith’s illustrations were perfect for this. Again, equal parts silly and ridiculous, but with a dash of wink-wink on the side.

There was really so much wonderful about this.

Booked

bookedby Kwame Alexander
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy pilfered off the ARC shelves at work.
Release date: April 5, 2016
Content: There’s a wee bit of romance and some difficult situations with bullying and divorce. Give it to readers ages 10 and up. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The thing that I admire most about The Crossover was the style of it all. The way the poetry flowed on the page, the way that Alexander captured the rhythm of his characters in the ebb and flow of the poetry.

And lest we think lightning only strikes once, Alexander gives us Booked, repeating much of what I loved about his first book.

Instead of basketball, this time Alexander immerses us in the world of competitive soccer. Nick and his best friend Coby are extremely good, playing not only in competitive leagues but also for fun on the weekend plus the FIFA video game. It’s their whole life. Except, for Nick, it’s not that simple. His parents are going through a rough patch, and they separate so his mother can go help train a horse for the Kentucky Derby. His dad is a linguist and insists that Nick read this dictionary that he wrote, something that Nick resents. And, he’s bullied by these twins at school. There are bright spots: his mother makes him take this etiquette class, but there’s this girl he kind of likes (and who kind of likes him back). And the librarian at school is WAY cool. So, maybe Nick can find a balance in his life after all.

Not only is the story complex and compelling, I again, adored the poetry. Alexander has a way of making something as “stuffy” as poetry accessible and cool, which is wonderful.  I loved how the voice and the form of the poems changed depending on the characters (Nick was ostensibly our narrator, but there were appearances from other characters as well). I loved the footnotes with definitions of some of the bigger words (including snarky asides).  It’s fun and engaging, and yet Alexander tackles tough subjects like bullying and divorce with grace and ease. It’s not just a smart way to get reluctant readers interested in books or unsure kids interested in poetry. It’s a fantastic book.

Full Cicada Moon

by Marilyn Hilton
First sentence: “I wish we had flown to Vermont instead of riding on a bus, train, train, bus all the way from Berkeley.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy sent to me by the publisher rep.
Content: There isn’t anything objectionable, and it’s a novel in verse so it’d be appropriate for the younger readers. Good for conversation as well. It’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Mimi Yoshiko Oliver is obsessed with space. It’s 1969, the height of the space race, and she wants to be an astronaut. The problem? She’s a girl. No one takes her desire seriously, especially in her school in Vermont. It also doesn’t help that she’s Afro-Asian, one of the only people of color in an all-white community.

As she goes through seventh grade and the beginning of eighth, Hilton gives us Mimi’s struggles and triumphs, from her attempts to get into shop class — there are some pretty strong gender norms in the late 1960s —
to her struggles to make friends. There are lots of stories about racism in the south in the 1960s. It was actually quite refreshing to be reminded that even northerners had issues with civil rights.

It’s a lovely novel in verse, as well. Hilton captured Mimi’s sense of wonder an awe at the world around her as well as her desire to go into space. It wasn’t overly detailed, something which might bother some readers but I found I didn’t mind. Perhaps it’s because I’m older, and I remember what it was like (sort-of). But, I also think it was a conscious choice on Hilton’s part to make it more accessible to those reading it. So, on the one hand, it’s historical fiction. But the other, it didn’t really feel all that much like it.

Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Mimi and her family, as they adjust to a new home, broaden their horizons, and have a memorable year.

The Conference of the Birds

by Peter Sis
First sentence: “
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s nothing. I found it in the kids poetry section, but it’s more an adult poem; something to ruminate on. So I moved it to the adult poetry section.

So, I blame Books on the Nightstand bingo for this. I started my card back in May, and the one I ended up with has a square for “written for adults but with illustrations”. I had no idea what to do with that. Then, we got a competition of sorts going at work (we all have bingo cards going and the first one to blackout wins… something), and I was doing inventory in my sections (the kids books are basically my fiefdom. Seriously. I have had  many coworkers tell me they just “don’t mess with Melissa’s sections”.) and discovered this book. It’s not a children’s book, so it fits the bill: adult book, with illustrations (but not a graphic novel).

Bascially, it’s an adaptation of a 12th-century Sufi poem, about an epic flight of birds, who fly through thick and thin, through days, through the deepest despair, in order to find their True King, Simorgh. You can pretty much sense the allegory dripping off of this poem (Deeper Meaning for my mother). And I’ll admit: I needed to read this poem this week. It gave me the reminder that I can get through all the valleys of my life, and maybe there will be fulfillment in it all.

But, what I truly loved was Peter Sis’s art. The book itself is gorgeous: thick pages, that are just luxurious to touch (and should be, with such a high price for a slim book). And the paintings were done in muted earth tones, with layers of depth to them (at least to my untrained eye). It’s a book I could imagine going back to when I just wanted to page through something lovely.

It’s not something I ever would have picked up on my own, so I’m grateful for the extra push from the bingo game. Sometimes getting outside of your comfort zone is a good thing.