Thursday, June 9, 2011

Me, Frida

I have slowly but surely been working my way through the award-winning books from last year.  I haven’t written about much of what I’ve read because I feel that my blog’s purpose is to introduce you to books you haven’t seen or heard of before.  But the Pura Belpre winners are a little different.  The information about the award is here.  Especially here in Montana, books about Hispanic culture aren’t easy to find.  I grew up in San Diego, though, so Hispanic culture was a huge part of my upbringing (I even majored in the Spanish language in college!).
So when I saw Me. Frida on the new nonfiction shelf at our public library, I picked it up immediately  (As a side note, have you noticed how often I say we pick things up at the library?  The circulation clerks groan when they see us coming!).  Diaz won a Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor Award for this book, and I’ll talk about those gorgeous paintings in a minute.  First, I’ll focus on the text.
Noresky takes just a moment in Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s lives to look at here.  It is 1930, the time when Diego Rivera was invited to go to San Francisco to create a mural celebrating the city.  Frida, who was a young artist, newly married to Rivera, was just beginning to find herself artistically.  What is interesting about Novesky’s choice is that this snapshot of their marriage says so much about them and society at large in the thirties.
One of the biggest themes in this book is inspiration.  When Frida and Diego first arrive in California, they do a lot of exploring.  They look at skyscrapers, the redwoods – all overwhelming, big, towering things.  This is where Diego (who Novesky describes as “big as an elephant”) finds his inspiration.  He thrives on the enormous; Frida is lost in it.  Frida, who paints herself as a small, soaring bird, despairs in all the enormity.  Instead, once Diego begins to work on his mural, she begins to explore the minutiae of San Francisco – the street markets, the neighborhood of Chinatown.  It is the little details – the smells, sounds and colors – that inspire Frida and get her working. 
Even their painting sizes are different – Rivera paints the mural, with all of San Francisco as his subject.  Kahlo begins to paint small portraits, including a portrait of their marriage.  It is clear from the text that although their marriage is slightly unconventional (of course, none of the really salacious details are covered in this picture book biography), there is room for both kinds of inspiration and artistic vision here.  However, their marriage comes up against the conventions of society when they travel to San Francisco.  Where it seems that they see each other as individuals, San Francisco expects to see Mr. and Mrs. Diego Rivera.  At the various events that they attend, Diego is the focus, while Frida stands uncharacteristically quietly by his side.  You can sense the constriction Frida feels – unable to express herself and be recognized for her own worth.  There is a defining moment, when American society first recognizes Frida for herself, and then her painting is chosen for exhibition.  This is when Frida finally begins to soar.
When we speak of inspiration and artistic vision in this book, Diaz’s artistic vision is just as much of a force as Kahlo’s.  The paintings are vibrant with backgrounds streaked and crackling with rich paint.  His choice of primed linen for the foundation of these paintings gives texture, contrasting with all the dark lines and streaks of color.  This use of texture is something I admire when looking at paintings in books.  You can almost feel the texture under your fingers, inviting you deeper into the painting. 
Diaz uses Kahlo and Rivera’s styles as guides here, so a reader familiar with their art will feel instantly at home.  The cover portrait of Frida is recognizable and iconographic, mimicking many of her self-portraits.  Diaz’s imaginative art also uses motifs from their work within his paintings, to give even more depth to readers’ knowledge about these two influential artists.  It is amazing to me that Diaz can meld his own style so effortlessly with Kahlo and Rivera’s styles, paying homage to them and staying distinctive. 
I strongly believe this will have a place both in arts and programs and in studies about Mexican art and culture.  But even if neither of these things are of interest to you, pick up this book to see a young artist growing into herself , creating art full of life and love.

Me, Frida.  Amy Novesky; illustrated by David Diaz.  Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Great Migration

I first heard about The Great Migration on School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal blog, which covers the Newbery award throughout the year.  Especially since I am without my close-knit library community here in Helena, I try to pay attention to what others are reading (and liking) this year.  While I have some people I “talk books” with here, I really miss having review journals to go through and my trusted group of librarian friends to talk with on a daily basis.
Anyways, back to this poetry collection.  Eloise Greenfield is a famous author of poetry for children, with many awards on her shelf.  Jan Spivey Gilchrist is also a noted award-winning illustrator, who has collaborated with Greenfield multiple times.  But this isn’t their only shared history.  The jacket copy notes that both of their families were part of the Great Migration. 
The Great Migration happened between 1915 and 1930, and included more than a million African Americans, according to Greenfield’s author’s note.  Many of these people were trying to escape the hopelessness, racism and poverty of their lives in the South, and had heard rumors of a better, happier life in the North.
Greenfield begins this collection of poetry with a poem entitled “The News”, which begins to build excitement and hope for a new life.  It also shows African Americans encouraging each other to hope and dream.  She then continues on with various people saying goodbye to their lives in the South.  These poems have sorrow and pain – after all, many of these people are going on ahead of their families to find jobs and housing.  But they also include words of hope as they turn towards the North.  All of these poems are free verse, so it is easy for young readers to connect with the people leaving, to feel their hardships and anxiety about their new lives.
Finally as the characters we’ve met, and faceless, nameless others arrive in the North, they turn around to extend a willing, helping hand to those still in the South, worried about this move.  They encourage those left behind to have hope, to move on.  The last section of poems are from Eloise Greenfield’s  own life – her family’s move from North Carolina to Washington DC.  Although at four months old, Eloise is too young to remember the move, she describes the trip and how hard it was for her mother.
Greenfield’s poetry is relatable, strong and moving – worthy of being included in any Newbery debate.  But what astonished me about this book is Gilchrist’s artwork.  It is mostly collage with color washes over the illustrations.  Gilchrist has used a combination of historical photographs and illustrations with her own artwork added in, and this gives the book a gripping feel of authenticity.  You look into the faces of the people moving North, and really see the hope and fears Greenfield is describing.  The personal story that Greenfield tells through her poems comes to life with these photographs.  You see their strength and despair in their lives in the South.  While there are many superb illustrations here, my favorite is on the third page of the poem “The Trip”.  A train steams across the top third of the page, carrying all those people North across a gentle blue sky.   At first glance, below the train is a golden wheat field, mentioned in the text.  But look closer to see figures interspersed in the stalks of wheat, looking North across the page, but still left behind in the South.  It is powerful, aching, and gives the poem a real sense of escape. 
The book ends with a short bibliography for additional research if necessary.  I think both author and illustrator have done exemplary work in this book, and I can only hope it’s recognized for its strengths.  You feel the intensity of this migration from hopelessness to a hope-filled future.  As Greenfield says, these families are “filling up the cities with/ their hopes and their courage./ And their dreams.”

The Great Migration: Journey to the North.  Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist.  Amistad: HarperCollins, 2011.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Romeo and Juliet Code

Maybe you haven’t noticed it, but I do not really like historical fiction.  Go ahead and flip back through my blog posts if you like; I’ll wait here.  See?  These are the books that I like best,  and while there are a couple of picture books with historical themes, there is no typical historical fiction.  And I’m really uninterested in reading historical fiction about World War II – I’ve read plenty, and unless I’ve heard enough buzz, I just won’t make the effort.  So you know that if I’m recommending historical fiction about World War II to you, it has to be pretty good.
Felicity arrives in Boothbay, Maine in May of 1941.  Her mother, Winnie, and her father, Danny, stay long enough to say goodbye, then leave Felicity to get to know her father’s family alone.  They are on their way back to London, where their work is, and leaving Felicity in the United States, where they believe she will be safe.  Britain has already been in the war for some time, so Felicity has grown used to deprivation, bombings, and dark, cold nights without electricity.  She arrives in Maine to find a family she’s never met, a seaside house that no one ever visits, and more secrets than even she can untangle.
Felicity is eleven years old, and her aunt Miami calls her an “odd duck”.  She is grown-up enough to have never called her mother and father anything but their first names (she often refers to them as “my Winnie” or “my Danny”) but still young enough to carry around a stuffed bear, Wink.  She is old enough to stay by herself late into the night in London when her parents are working, but young enough not to wonder why they are always so late, need language coaches for their jobs, or have abandoned her in Maine without even a forwarding address.
But it is obvious that Winnie and Danny are not the only people keeping secrets from Felicity.  Felicity’s uncle, Gideon, was visibly angry with Danny when they left Felicity, and neither Uncle Gideon or Felicity’s grandmother (called The Gram) will talk to Winnie.  Felicity doesn’t intend to eavesdrop , but she hears Uncle Gideon and The Gram talking about someone who is sick, hidden away somewhere in the house, named Captain Derek.  And Uncle Gideon often tries to connect with Felicity, even though she is sure she should stay angry with him after his behavior with Winnie and Danny.
I’m not going to ruin any of the mysteries  in this book by talking about them here.  There are many mysteries contained within these pages.  This story is told through Felicity’s point of view, and it is extremely limited at first.  Felicity believes what she is told, even when it doesn’t fit with what she has observed or overheard.  It takes a long time for her curiosity to kick in, and for her to start to wonder what is really going on in her family, both in Maine and abroad.  But once her curiosity begins, Felicity begins to investigate, to question and to rethin k what she’s seen and heard in the past.
I want to say something about the combination of the title and the cover.  The title refers to a code that Felicity must solve, not necessarily something romantic or tragic.  I think that the entangled boy/girl feet on the cover and the names Romeo and Juliet might make young readers believe there is more romance inside than there actually is.  There is no kissing, hand-holding or even entangled legs within – while Felicity does like someone, it is mostly unrequited, and I think the cover’s misconception might steer readers away who might otherwise have been attracted to its mystery, adventure and historical fiction combination.
I wonder if there are going to be inevitable comparisons to last year’s Newbery-winning Moon Over Manifest.  Both books include family secrets, and combine a mystery with historical fiction.  However, I feel that this book is much stronger than Moon Over Manifest.  I couldn’t get invested in the dual storyline of Manifest.  Here, within two chapters, I had put off all my naptime plans to sit down and finish this novel.  Felicity’s family is full of entertaining quirks which make them warm and exciting to be around.  While Felicity does look back, it is handled in conventional flashbacks to her time in Britain, and not in the more unwieldy dual storylines.  It helps Felicity piece together the solutions to her mysteries as she looks back and remembers details that seemed unimportant at the time.
One other thing I love about this book is that it isn’t tied up in a neat little bow at the end.  I actually liked that Felicity’s parents hadn’t come for her yet by the end of the novel, and in fact much of the mystery surrounding them hasn’t been solved.  But Felicity is in a safe, welcome place and that makes the ending happy still.  I hope this post has made you want to seek out this book and investigate its mysteries for yourself.  It’s well worth it.  Then comment here and let me know what you thought.
The Romeo and Juliet Code.  Phoebe Stone.  Arthur A. Levine Books: Scholastic, 2011.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark library

Alice in Rapture, Sort Of

“Somehow life seemed to be rushing ahead faster than I was ready for.  I’d barely get comfortable with one thing, and then – bam!- something new was happening.” (p. 122-3) 
This quote, to me, is the core of the appeal of the Alice series.  Don’t we all feel like this?  It serves to remind us adults that we aren’t the only ones who feel like life is always changing.  And it helps comfort girls who feel like they are the only ones among their group of friends who aren’t ready to have things change.
If you’re a regular follower of my blog, you know that the character of Alice McKinley has really struck a chord with me since the first book I read in this series many years ago.  I had read various books in the series over the years, but I decided I wanted to start Alice’s journey from the beginning of her preteen years.  I’ve already started blogging about the series here, hereand here.
This is the summer between Alice’s 6th and 7th grade years, and at the beginning, Alice feels that it is going to be a great summer.  She has two really great friends, Pamela and Elizabeth, and a boyfriend, Patrick.  Pamela’s cousin from New Jersey told Pamela that they need to start junior high with boyfriends in order to be accepted, so this becomes “The Summer of the First Boyfriend” according to Alice’s father.
And having a boyfriend requires a whole new set of social skills for the girls.  Since Alice has had all year to grow her friendship with the other girls, Naylor uses this novel to help Alice find her way with Patrick.  These are still young girls, so the most that goes on here is French kissing.  But each girl has a boyfriend during this summer, and they all make different relationship decisions.  Patrick and Alice see each other almost every day, mostly spending time on her front porch talking and holding hands.  Elizabeth believe that she shouldn’t even kiss a boy (because her parents have told her she is not allowed to date) and Pamela’s mother has threatened to cut off Pamela’s extremely long hair if she dates anyone.  Pamela decides to risk her mother’s anger and keep her boyfriend, but Elizabeth’s boyfriend breaks up with her when she won’t kiss him.
Patrick and Alice do lots of things together, including a supervised vacation at the beach, a fancy date at the country club and lots of time spent hanging out with their group of friends.  In other words, this is an appropriate romance for young teens – there is no pressure to do anything uncomfortable at this point in the series, and the teens are having a good time together without getting into trouble.  And when Alice decides that she would rather not have a boyfriend at the beginning of school, they downgrade to “special friends” without too much fuss.
One of the biggest topics in this series is Alice’s mother, who died when Alice was five.  Alice is always evaluating her mother’s absence and her impact on Alice’s life.  There are some real bittersweet moments in this novel.  Alice discovers a box of her mom’s memorabilia in their attic while looking for some clothes.  This brings her closer to her mother as it triggers some of Alice own memories (she hasn’t remembered much about her mother previously).  It also helps Alice begin to know her mother as a woman and a mother.
However, as a motherless girl, there are times when Alice really feels left out.  In this book she begins to find that there are substitute mothers in her life – her Aunt Sally and cousin Carol, who give her advice on what to give Patrick for his birthday; a neighbor who happens to show up when Alice is home sick with the flu; some of her older brother’s girlfriends…Alice isn’t alone.  And in fact, she has many strong women in her life to help her.  She just has to know where to look.
This series is so rewarding.  Every time I dive into one, I read it within an afternoon.  They are comforting and also address the anxiety of change.  It is a feeling we can all relate to, and that’s part of the reason I keep coming back.

Alice in Rapture, Sort Of.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Atheneum, 1989.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library