Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
by Duncan Tonatiuh
In 1943, Sylvia Mendez, her two brothers, and three cousins all go to the local 17th Street Elementary School to register. Sylvia’s light-skinned cousins are accepted, and she and her brothers are told they’ll need to enroll at the inferior Mexican school, father from their home. Sylvia’s parents aren’t having it, and push back, filing file suit, undertaking multiple appeals, and ultimately prevailing. Tonatiuh’s account details the family’s many struggles, from the complexities of the legal process to the personal attacks Sylvia experiences. After rigorous research, and interviews with Sylvia herself, Tonatiuh delivers a story that is both compelling and inspiring. And his archetypal artwork, with its Pre-Columbian influences, connects the contemporary fight with its formidable ancestry. The strong lines, simplified postures, and fixed profiles convey the family’s resolute determination; theirs is a victory that comes from strength, and a strength that comes from family.
I met Mal Peet when his gorgeous, expansive novel Life: An Exploded Diagram won a Boston Globe Horn Book Honor the year I served on the jury. I sat beside him at dinner after the Awards ceremony, and reveled in his gruff, take-no-prisoners affability. He somehow managed to be warm and exacting, all at once. It’s that quality that I love so much about his work. His observations are searing and precise, yet grounded in an unmistakable affection.
And boy, howdy, could he spin a sentence.
He got a late start in the author business–his first novel was published when he was 56–but he leaves behind a wonderful body of work defined by its ambition and uniform quality.
Mal Peet died Monday at the age of 67. I’m going to revisit some of his writing today. You should, too.
When I Was the Greatest
by Jason Reynolds
This funny, gritty, tender story follows three young men growing up in Bed-Stuy, navigating the pressures and tensions that would pull them up or drag them under as they make their way to manhood. There’s Ali, bright, respectful and curious; Noodles, tight, irascible, and full of bravado; and his brother Needles, sweet, fragile, and genius. Needles struggles with Tourette’s, a syndrome his neighborhood doesn’t really understand, and finds solace in knitting (Ali’s mother’s very good idea), something else not everybody gets. Ali and Noodles have his back, until one night, at a house party, all hell breaks loose, and everything breaks apart.
There is so much to love here. The crisp writing crackles with wit and rings with authenticity. The exploration of maleness, and the ways in which young men are called to define themselves, is bare and nuanced. Every single character lives and breathes in three dimensions. But for our playing card purposes, it is these boys’ inextricable relationship that beats at this marvelous novel’s heart. Theirs is a special bond, and no matter what comes at them, they belong to one another.
For those looking for an especially immersive and gratifying experience, I recommend Random House Audio’s extraordinary audiobook recording, narrated by J.B. Adkins.
Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents
by Lita Judge
Roaring Brook Press, 2014
This bright, instructive exploration of different mammal families offers lots of concrete information about what mammal babies need and how mammal parents meet those needs. Sections feature a brief identification of a particular need on a single spread, followed by a few pages with specific examples of different species attention to it. The text is full of fascinating explicatory zoological detail about everything from food to shelter. But the star of this charming outing is Judge’s open, inviting portraiture that finds a perfect balance of natural authenticity and friendly accessibility. The informative text provides the facts and figures, delineating our common place in the natural world, and the warm, soulful imagery makes good on that promise, allowing the reader to feel the connection as well as understand it. In a world where growing up can feel like a daunting endeavor, how comforting it is to know that we’re all in it together.
The Thing About Luck
by Cynthia Kadohata, with illustrations by Julia Kuo
I am a huge fan of Cynthia Kadohata’s work. Huge. I was on the committee that selected Kira-Kira, her first book for children, as the 2005 Newbery Medal winner, and I have loved every subsequent book. There is a quiet, raw honesty that runs through her writing, a transparency of language that sneaks up on you and, out of events that seem mundane, delivers something exquisite and profound. It’s like magic.
The Thing About Luck tells the story of a Japanese American farming family toiling amidst a flurry of bad luck. Sunny’s parents have been called away to Japan on emergency family business, leaving Sunny and her little brother Jaz in the care of her grandparents Obaachan and Jiichan, saddled with the back-breaking work of itinerant, contract wheat harvesting. Kadohata paints the circumstances in vivid, albeit plainspoken detail: Sunny’s fear of mosquitoes (she had malaria once); Jaz’s difficulty connecting; Obaachan’s strict, traditional ways; Jiichan’s tireless effort; and an impossibly thorough explanation farm machinery. And somehow, in the spaces between these definitions and explanations, she offers a tender, immediate, indelible portrait of family that is as touching as it is unique. These are people who love one another deeply, and Kadohata’s ability to show us that love, in the conflicts and struggles that would threaten it, is simply staggering.
Award-winning and best-selling author/illustrator/graphic novelist LeUyen Pham will deliver her lecture “Wandering Wonderland: An Immigrant’s Story Told Through Books,” on Thursday, March 5, 2015. Pham’s work includes a delightful variety of picture books, from the Orbis Pictus honor The Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman and the Freckleface Strawberry books by Julianne Moore to her own stories Big Sister, Little Sister and A Piece of Cake; illustrations for the New York Times best-seller The Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale and the Scott O’Dell Award winner Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill; and a range of graphic novels with Jordan Mechner and Alex Puvilland, including Prince of Persia, Solomon’s Thieves, and Templar. For this, the third annual Butler Lecture, Pham is literally “drawing” on her own childhood, producing a series of comic panels that explore her earliest experiences with particular books for children.
The lecture will take place at 6 p.m., followed by a reception with refreshments and a book sale and signing; it is free and open to the public, though registration is required. This an evening not to be missed.
To register, please visit: http://gslis.dom.edu/newsevents/butler-lecture-2015-featuring-leuyen-pham
For more information, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Butler Lecture is generously underwritten by the Butler Family Foundation.
My Book of Life By Angel
by Martine Leavitt
Farrar Strauss Giroux, 2012
The grief surrounding her mother’s death and the havoc it wreaks on her family pushes Angel to breaking. She slips onto the streets, and soon is in thrall to charming, malevolent Call and his “candy.” At first she’s doing favors for his friends, but in short order she finds herself working a corner to support herself and her habit. She is broken and resigned, until Call shows up one evening with eleven-year-old Melli in tow. Angel searches her soul to find an untapped store of resilience and resolve, and sets out to rescue Melli, and maybe, herself.
Leavitt writes in stunning, atmospheric free verse, and somehow manages to craft crystalline beauty from brutal, harrowing circumstances. Angel’s first-person narrative swings between blunt resignation and fierce defiance, beautifully articulating the confused despair of her gradual destitution and the clambering strength of her willful climb back up. It’s a staggering piece of writing–searing and evocative–and leaves the young reader with a profound understanding of the complex circumstances some teens face, full of empathy and free from judgment.