Thursday, August 2, 2007

Moses Goes to a Concert

Millman, Isaac. (1998). Moses Goes to a Concert. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374350671.

This is the story of Moses, a hearing impaired, or as he self describes, “deaf.” Moses loves to play his drum with his shoes off so that he can “hear” the vibration through his feet.

One day, Mr. Samuels takes Moses and his classmates—who are all deaf—on a field trip. A surprise trip to see an orchestra. But the important part is that Mr. Samuels knows the percussionist in the orchestra and she is also deaf. Mr. Samuels explains that a percussionist is someone who not only plays drums, but also cymbals, “and even a piano.”

When the percussionist comes out before the concert to take a bow, Moses notices right away that she’s not wearing any shoes—just like he does at home when he plays his drum!

When the music starts, Mr. Samuels give each of the eleven students a balloon. “Hold them in your laps,” signs Mr. Samuels. “They’ll help you feel the music.”

After the concert, Mr. Samuels takes the kids on stage to meet the percussionist who then tells the students the story of how she became deaf and then learned to be a musician. And then, she even let them try her instruments.

When Moses gets home, he tells his parents all about his field trip and says that you can do anything you put your mind to—and that he will one day become a percussionist, too.

Moses Goes to a Concert is an EXCELLENT book! The text itself is simple and accessible to children of all ages while the illustrations are cartoon-like—not only visually appealing but very instructive as well. On each two-page spread, Moses shows the reader how to sign a sentence that goes along with that part of the story.

When the children meet the percussionist, she signs part of how she became a musician and the reader gets to see the signs. The same goes for Moses when he gets home and signs his story of the field trip to his parents, complete with the illustrated signs.

It has become a popular trend to teach non-hearing impaired children signs—even to young infants. But so often, these signs are taught one by one as vocabulary words, rather than in an authentic conversational sentence. This is where this book is different. The sentences signed on the page are complete sentences in an actual story context, some of the words repeated several times during the story. There is also an illustrated sign alphabet at the end of the book.

What a great way to introduce children to sign language—making it as accessible as a cartoon. AND what a wonderful way for deaf children to see THEMSELVES in children’s literature! There is a great cultural variety of characters, too—showing that the hearing impaired come in all shapes, sizes and colors!

Reviews (via

Publishers Weekly:
The seemingly incongruous premise of this harmonious debut?a class of deaf children attends an orchestral concert?leads to a revelation for readers who may well have assumed that the ability to hear is a prerequisite for enjoying music. Holding balloons that their teacher passes out to help them "feel the music," Moses and his classmates are thrilled to pick up the vibrations. Afterward, they visit with the orchestra's deaf percussionist, who, intriguingly, performs in stocking feet so she, too, can feel the beat. She lets the students play her instruments and, using American Sign Language (precisely illustrated in easy-to-read diagrams), explains how she worked hard to achieve her career goal. Back home, Moses tells his parents about his day, signing a message of universal value: "When you set your mind to it, you can become anything you want." An introductory note explains how to interpret the sign-language diagrams, which are integrated throughout the clear and colorful illustrations. Fiction and instruction make beautiful music together on these cheerful pages. Ages 5-up.

Millman's story, illustrated in delicate watercolors, ought to pop open a few young eyes (and perhaps some adult eyes as well). Moses and his school chums, all deaf, are off to a young people's concert. They take their seats up front, where a row of percussion instruments is arrayed between them and the orchestra. When the percussionist appears, she is in her stocking feet; she is deaf, and will feel the music through the floor. Moses's teacher hands out balloons that they will hold in their laps and that will help them feel the music. After the concert the percussionist, using sign language, gives the students a little inspirational talk, which Moses delivers to his parents later that evening. The power of Millman's book comes from the simple fact that he levels the playing field; of course deaf children go to concerts, but conveying how they enjoy music removes yet one more barrier between those who can hear and those who cannot. Moses also appears in inset boxes, signing comments aimed at readers and encouraging them to attempt signs. A few spreads are given over entirely to signed conversations, with effectively diagrammed hand movements and facial expressions. The final page illustrates the signed letters of the alphabet. (Picture book. 5- 9)

School Library Journal:
PreSchool-Grade 2?A group of deaf children is taken to a concert where the youngsters meet the percussionist, a friend of their teacher, and learn to their surprise that she is also deaf. She explains to Moses and his class how she became a percussionist even though she had lost her hearing and helps them understand that anything is possible with hard work and determination. She lets the children play on her instruments and feel the vibrations on balloons that their teacher has given them. Cheerful watercolor illustrations show the multiethnic children enjoying themselves at the concert, while smaller cartoon strips feature Moses's additional comments in sign language. A page displaying the manual alphabet and a conversation in sign language in which Moses tells his parents about his day enhance the upbeat story

The House You Pass on the Way

Woodson, Jacqueline. (1997). The House You Pass on the Way. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. ISBN 0399239693.

Staggerlee, born Evangeline Ian Canan, has a secret. She’s different. She’s not like dazzling Dotti, her older sister, who is very social and popular. She’s not like Charlie Horse, her older brother, good at piano and so overcome by it he can go for days playing without stopping to eat. She’s not like Battle, her younger brother, just a baby. She’s not baby Hope, the new sister—so beautiful Staggerlee keeps catching her parents photographing her. No, Staggerlee is her own person. Different. Content to spend her days walking by the river or in the barn alone with her harmonica.

She’s different because her father is black and her mother is white. She’s different because she likes girls ever since her friend Hazel kissed her. But Hazel isn’t her friend and she has moved away. Staggerlee is different and she feels all alone. Not alone by choice like her mother who is just a quiet woman, sneered at by the predominantly African-American community of Sweet Gum in which they live, but alone because she can’t tell anyone about herself.

That is until she meets her cousin Trout. Trout’s different, too. She was adopted at birth by Staggerlee’s estranged aunt Ida Mae. Ida Mae is Staggerlee’s daddy’s sister who hasn’t talked to him or Staggerlee’s family since before he and her white mother got married twenty years ago. But when Hallique, Staggerlee’s other aunt, dies suddenly, everyone realizes how important forgetting past problems is. How important family connections are. How unimportant races lines should be. So, Trout comes to visit, sort of as an ambassador.

But Trout is more of a connection than just family. It is through Trout that Staggerlee finds she isn’t as alone as she thought. Trout’s not only different because she’s adopted. She’s different because she’s like Staggerlee. Trout likes girls.

They spend the summer together, walking by the river, singing in the barn, drinking lemonade on the front porch. When Trout leaves, Staggerlee hopes it’s the beginning of something—not the end.

But as spunky as Trout seems to act, she isn’t as strong as Staggerlee thought. When Trout gets back to Ida Mae’s house, she gets a boyfriend, Matthew. Because sometimes it’s just easier to pretend. It’s more acceptable. It’s less “different.” This breaks Staggerlee’s heart in so many ways. But Staggerlee doesn’t regret anything. In fact, since Trout’s coming, Staggerlee feels changed in some way. She feels stronger. She has been invited to sing in the choral and is making friends. She’s not so different anymore either. Just in a different way. After all, they are just fourteen—who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Another linguistically rich text, full of texture and color, wonderful visual imagery. Woodson uses this imagery to carry a current of symbolism throughout the book. Staggerlee spends a lot of time pondering the seasons, not just winter versus summer in temperature but also in time passing—of the workers on her father’s farm, the harvesters whose work marks the seasons passing. There’s also the constant presence of Creek, her dog, as well as the ever-present river which seems to be more of a friend than a moving body of water. We see evidence of this on the first page:

It was winter that finally made Staggerlee remember. Something about the way the cold grabbed hold of her as she walked along the river, her dog, Creek, galloping behind her, their shadows like ink against the white snow. And in the distance, the house sitting big and silent with all her family’s land spread out beyond it. Even the land seemed vast and muted now. Staggerlee turned to look at it—remembering all the corn and collards, all the wheat that had been harvested. The land didn’t seem capable now, flat and snow-covered. All spring, men had come, men her father had hired to work the land. And Staggerlee had watched them moving slowly through the fields, plowing and planting, their faces lined and weathered. Then fall had come, and these same men had returned to harvest the corn and wheat that seemed to grow for miles and miles. Then winter—and the men faded into the thick quiet. Even their laughter—the way it carried back to the house from the fields—where was it now?

And then again, by summer, the workers are back—their laughing voices punctuating Staggerlee and Trout’s playing while in the fields:

The summer moved past them slowly. Each morning, after cooking and cleaning, they walked down to the river, their fingers laced, Creek dancing around them. On hot afternoons, they pulled their shirts up and pressed their bare stomachs into the cool earth.

They were left alone. Each morning, Staggerlee’s father went to the airport. His hired hands moved slowly through the fields, watering and feeding the crops there. Some afternoons, Staggerlee and Trout joined them in the fields and sat listening to the men’s tall tales of fifty-pound fish they had almost caught in the Breakabone River and money they would one day make. And once, when they had fallen asleep among the tall stalks of corn, Staggerlee and Trout woke to hear the men laughing and telling stories about different women they had loved.

The other chapters in the book always seem to begin or close with these same references—to the weather. For instance, the chapter where she shows Trout her secret hiding place, “It rained the morning Staggerlee showed Trout the barn—a cold late-summer rain that seemed to turn the whole world gray.” Once Trout is gone and Staggerless must go on with life—going back to school: “School started on a clear day at the end of August, and Staggerlee took to walking the six miles rather than riding the bus on pretty days.” And when things start to look up for Staggerlee: “Winter came early. By the end of October there was a sprinkling of snow on the ground. Staggerlee walked through it slowly, heading home.” Even when Staggerlee finally heard from Trout after months of silence, both Staggerlee AND Trout make reference to the weathery landscape.

Trout writes:
“I think about Sweet Gum all the time, and when I close my eyes now, I start remembering that line of trees along the water and imagining them heavy with snow.” The letter arrived on a cold day in January, after months and months of silence.

The letter continues:

It’s hard to sit in that study hall and not think about you. And I’ve tried. I sit there with my book propped in front of me and the words start blurring and becoming you standing at the river smiling or you and Creek running fast ahead of me yelling, “C’mon, Trout.”

With the snow on the ground, Sweet Gum and last summer seem ancient somehow, dreamy—like it all happened to someone who wasn’t me.

And then Staggerlee reacts to the letter:

That afternoon, Staggerlee folded the letter slowly and returned it to its envelope. She sat staring out at the snow, wanting to make sense of it all. She’d have to go back, she knew, if she wanted to remember. “Pull on your boots,” she whispered. “Take yourself down to the river.”

Even the very last passage of the book echoes this seasonal theme:

And Trout? What would she be doing tomorrow? The next day? Next week?

Waiting. Staggerlee thought. They were both waiting. Waiting for this moment, this season, these years to pass. Who would they become? she wondered. Who would they become?

I though this was an amazing book. The first half is about Staggerlee’s being different because she is both bi-racial and the granddaughter of a famous musical couple who were killed in a bombing on a night they could have been performing on the Ed Sullivan show. That first half raises a lot cultural questions about difference. But it is the second half, the tender relationship forming between two girls who are different for different reasons but also similarly different for another. They find solace in one another. In being able to tell, work out what the future might or might not hold and for once to have a shared moment of just being themselves and not being alone.

Reviews (via

Publishers Weekly:
The daughter of an interracial couple, 14-year-old Staggerlee is already an outsider when she wonders if she is gay, too. PW's starred review called this a "poignant tale of self-discovery" and praised Woodson's "graceful, poetic" prose. Ages 12-up.

Gr. 6^-9. Woodson takes the gay identity story far beyond the simplistic problem novel and connects it with every outsider's coming-of-age. Staggerlee is happy in her interracial family, but she is a loner at school and in her African American community, and she longs for a friend. Somehow she knows not to talk about the kiss she shared with a girl in her class. Then her girl cousin Trout comes to visit and they fall in love, but when Trout returns home and finds a boyfriend, Staggerlee is alone again. There's a lot of family history framing the central incident of the story (including famous grandparents who were killed by a bomb during a civil rights demonstration), and it's not always clear why, in such a short novel, we have to be told so much of the past before we can get to the immediate drama of the present. What many teens will relate to is the uncertainty, the sense that Staggerlee doesn't know who she is becoming and where her journey will take her.

A newfound confidante and a breath of common sense clears away a teenager's guilt and dismay over her dawning sexual preference in this thoughtful, deceptively low-key story from Woodson (From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, 1995, etc.). The middle child in the county's only mixed-race family, Evangeline defiantly changed her name years ago to Staggerlee, after the anti-hero in a ballad, but the finger-pointing has driven her within herself, leaving her friendless and lonely--lonelier still for the memory of the pleasure she took in kissing a girl in grade school. Along comes Trout, another self-named teenager, from a branch of the family that had cut off her parents after their marriage. The attraction is quick, strong, and mutual; Trout's visit may be a short one, but it's long enough for each to open up, find the courage to say the word gay--and to remember that they're only 14, too young to close off options. Woodson takes readers another step down the road when Trout later writes to admit that she's gone head over heels for a guy, and Staggerlee, though feeling betrayed, realizes that she and Trout are both growing and going their own ways. A provocative topic, treated with wisdom and sensitivity, with a strong secondary thread exploring some of the inner and outer effects of biracialism. (Fiction. 12-15)

School Library Journal:
Grade 6-9. In this understated story set in a small, mostly African-American community in the South, Staggerlee Canan is shunned by her peers because her mother is white. This is not the sole cause of her isolation, however. She has a secret. In sixth grade, she had kissed another girl. Rejected by that friend, Staggerlee has no one to talk to about her sexual feelings until her adopted cousin, Trout, visits for the summer when both girls are 14. Both wonder if they are gay, but sexual identity is really only one of the things that troubles them. Their platonic intimacy is the intense kind shared by friends who see themselves as different from the crowd. Asked by Trout to say whether she's black or white, Staggerlee replies, "I'm me. That's all." That they seem to be taking different paths in the end adds to the story's poignancy. This richly layered novel will be appreciated for its affecting look at the anxious wonderings of presexual teens, its portrait of a complex interracial family, and its snapshot of the emotionally wrenching but inarticulate adolescent search for self. It's notable both for its quality and for the out-of-the-way places it goes.


Nye, Naomi Shihab. (1997). Habibi. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0689801491.

Habibi is the story of Liyana, a teenaged Arab-American girl whose father—who she calls Poppy—wants to take her family back to his homeland. The Holy Land of Jerusalem. Palestine. At first, all she can think about is leaving her life which was just beginning to get REALLY interesting since Jackson had unexpectedly kissed her at the movie theatre. Now what would happen with that? She was about to start high school. What about all of her friends? And her father had been an immigrant when he had come to the United States to go to Medical School—he had thought that hot dogs were made of dog meat. Now she would be the immigrant.

But it was important for Poppy that she and her brother Rafik know the land where he had grown up. For them to know their Sitti—their grandmother.

As much as Liyana wanted to make her father happy, it was hard to think of all she’d be leaving behind for a land she didn’t know. A land completely foreign to her. A land where she wouldn’t be able to wear the same clothes or experiment with make up. Or kiss boys. And things didn’t look any brighter when her family was singled out and asked to stand in the “trouble maker” line at the airport upon their arrival.

After being swept away by a hubbub of noisily celebrating Palestinian relatives, their lives settle into some sort of normalcy. Though Rafik and Liyana both go to different schools, they both make friends—even a friend in a refugee camp, Khaled, they meet chasing down a neighbor’s escaped chicken. Little by little, Jerusalem becomes their own. It becomes home. She even begins to appreciate her Sitti, her grandmother, who though her ways and thoughts may seem archaic, is a dear loving woman, similar in many ways to the American grandmother Liyana left behind.

Still, though the family is getting used to life in Jerusalem, there is an unavoidable trouble brewing. What seemed like small annoyances upon their arrival are now turning into major security issues. Liyana has a hard time dealing with the dichotomy of wanting to love Jerusalem and the American in her who wants to rebel against the hypocrisy.

Then, Liyana meets—and falls in love with—Or. She thinks his name is short for Omar, an Arabic name. But it’s not until she is smitten with him that she realizes his name is Omer—a Jewish name. Despite the political tensions of the region, Liyana’s family, even Sitti, accepts Omer’s friendship. But just how long will this be possible? There is military strife every day. Khaled even gets hurt during a bombing and Poppy is even arrested. But what good does it do to worry about it? The best thing—the thing they end up doing—is just making the best of the moment. A time when both Jews and Arabs can share the Holy City of Jerusalem and be friends.

I love this book. I have read it several times and never get tired of the language. It is rich in description without being too heavy, giving the reader colorful images of what the Holy Land looks, sounds and tastes like. And we get to see it through the eyes of a young American girl who, while she is of Arab descent, sees things with a Western filter.

I also like how Nye shows a slow crescendo of tension with regards to the politics. When Liyana and her family first arrive in Jerusalem, there are things they must remember—certain behaviors and ways of dressing—for their own safety. This is the case in nearly every foreign country. There are always going to be nation/culture-specific taboos and mores. But these things escalate the longer Liyana is there. And we as readers get to feel that tension mount. We get to experience vicariously the day to day rumblings in the belly of the beast that is imminent war.

However, fortunately, we don’t have to look at that animal in the mouth. Nye ends the book at a happy time. A time when Liyana and Omer are at least allowed to be friends. When Sitti and Omer can sit and eat together—all of Liyana’s family—without worry. We as the reader know that sadly that time has passed.

Another thing I loved was the depiction of being caught between two identities. One place this was especially apparent was when Liyana first arrives in Jerusalem and the few days thereafter:

But this bustling group of aunts and uncles swirled in circles as Sitti, their grandmother, threw her strong arms around each one of them in succession, squeezing so tightly that Liyana lost her breath. “She’s blessing you,” Poppy whispered.

Liyana had an impulse to stand very close to Poppy, for protection, and also for translation, so he could keep her posted on what was being said. Tears poured down Sitti’s rugged cheeks. Suddenly she threw her head back, rolled her tongue high up in her mouth, and began trilling wildly. Liyana had never heard anything like it. Aunt Saba and Aunt Amal began clapping a rhythmic beat. Mom looked startled. Rafik raised his eyebrows.

Poppy shook his head, waving both hands in Sitti’s face to quiet her down. “That’s her traditional cry,” he explained. “She uses it as an announcement at weddings and—funerals.”

I thought it was interesting how both Liyana AND Poppy seem to feel out of place. As though they are both equally torn between the pull of their American identity and the spectacle before them. Liyana seems scared but intrigued while Poppy seems almost embarrassed. Both father and daughter seem to be sharing the same space of “otherness.”

She wished she had no heard that an Arab boy who was found kissing a girl in the alley behind her house got beaten up by the girl’s brothers. What was wrong with kissing? Everybody else kissed constantly over here—but on both cheeks, not on the mouth. Had people reverted to the Stone Age just because everything in Jerusalem was made of stone?

See? I see this as another instance of Liyana’s American side pulling at her—a resistance to assimilate into the culture because she can not see the sense of the rules in the new culture. She even feels the impulse to ridicule the practice (or lack thereof).

I can identify with these impulses. I lived in France for three years, but that first year was HELL. I kept asking people why, since the French had “been around” for so much longer than we Americans, they still did so many things so inefficiently. I HATED France for a large part of that first year. I talked about the U.S. all the time. It wasn’t until I had been there for nearly nine months that I had FINALLY given up my cement to my American culture—and had formed a new French identity—that I began to see the wonderful complexities of France. And that was a WESTERN country. I can only imagine how much harder that would be in the case of an American living in an Eastern country. Especially the Middle East—where military, political and cultural strife are rampant.

Liyana’s mother seemed happy because the schoolyard would spend his recesses was surrounded by a high stone wall. She’d recently started talking about “safety” in a way that made Liyana jumpy. Liyana never thought about safety unless someone else brought it up. She didn’t want to think about it, either. She wanted to live in an unlocked world.

We see here that Liyana is used to living in what she considers to be a “freer” world. She learns that the definition of nearly every concept is dependent upon the culture. That “free” in Jerusalem does not mean the same thing as it did back home.

Reviews (via

The New York Times Book Review:
Adolescence magnifies the joys and anxieties of growing up even as it radically simplifies the complexities of the adult world. The poet and anthologist Naomi Shibab Nye is meticulously sensitive to this rainbow of emotion in her autobiographical novel, Habibi…. Habibi gives a reader all the sweet richness of a Mediterranean dessert, while leaving some of the historic complexities open to interpretation. (Ages 10 and older)

Liyana Abboud, 14, and her family make a tremendous adjustment when they move to Jerusalem from St. Louis. All she and her younger brother, Rafik, know of their Palestinian father's culture come from his reminiscences of growing up and the fighting they see on television. In Jerusalem, she is the only ``outsider'' at an Armenian school; her easygoing father, Poppy, finds himself having to remind her--often against his own common sense--of rules for ``appropriate'' behavior; and snug shops replace supermarket shopping--the malls of her upbringing are unheard of. Worst of all, Poppy is jailed for getting in the middle of a dispute between Israeli soldiers and a teenage refugee. In her first novel, Nye (with Paul Janeczko, I Feel a Little Jumpy Around You, 1996, etc.) shows all of the charms and flaws of the old city through unique, short-story-like chapters and poetic language. The sights, sounds, and smells of Jerusalem drift through the pages and readers glean a sense of current Palestinian-Israeli relations and the region's troubled history. In the process, some of the passages become quite ponderous while the human story- -Liyana's emotional adjustments in the later chapters and her American mother's reactions overall--fall away from the plot. However, Liyana's romance with an Israeli boy develops warmly, and readers are left with hope for change and peace as Liyana makes the city her very own. (Fiction. 12+)

School Library Journal: Grade 5-9. An important first novel from a distinguished anthologist and poet. When Liyana's doctor father, a native Palestinian, decides to move his contemporary Arab-American family back to Jerusalem from St. Louis, 14-year-old Liyana is unenthusiastic. Arriving in Jerusalem, the girl and her family are gathered in by their colorful, warmhearted Palestinian relatives and immersed in a culture where only tourists wear shorts and there is a prohibition against boy/girl relationships. When Liyana falls in love with Omer, a Jewish boy, she challenges family, culture, and tradition, but her homesickness fades. Constantly lurking in the background of the novel is violence between Palestinian and Jew. It builds from minor bureaucratic annoyances and humiliations, to the surprisingly shocking destruction of grandmother's bathroom by Israeli soldiers, to a bomb set off in a Jewish marketplace by Palestinians. It exacts a reprisal in which Liyana's friend is shot and her father jailed. Nye introduces readers to unforgettable characters. The setting is both sensory and tangible: from the grandmother's village to a Bedouin camp. Above all, there is Jerusalem itself, where ancient tensions seep out of cracks and Liyana explores the streets practicing her Arabic vocabulary. Though the story begins at a leisurely pace, readers will be engaged by the characters, the romance, and the foreshadowed danger. Poetically imaged and leavened with humor, the story renders layered and complex history understandable through character and incident. Habibi succeeds in making the hope for peace compellingly personal and long as individual citizens like Liyana's grandmother Sitti can say, "I never lost my peace inside."?

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Laziest Boy in the World

Namioka, Lensey. Illus. by YongSheng Xuan (1998). The Laziest Boy in the World. New York: Holiday House . ISBN 0823413306.

When a baby boy, Xiaolong, was born who was so lazy he didn’t even bother to kick or cry, his parents thought he just wasn’t strong enough. His sisters—who don’t count because they are girls—let him watch as they fly their kites or play tug of war. Xiaolong is content to watch because it would take too much effort to participate—though he imagines what he would do if he did have enough energy to play. Xiaolong doesn’t learn to dress himself until he’s ten years old (and even then, he’s too lazy to make sure his clothes are properly fastened) and he fails at his only job because he’s too lazy to pull hard enough on the ox’s reigns to keep it from going into the mud. He even stays home, with a ring of bread around his neck while his mother runs errands—so he won’t starve to death while she’s not there.

One night, while everyone is sleeping—except for Xiaolong who was too lazy even to get up to go to bed—a thief climbs in through the window and starts to rob Xiaolong’s family. He is grasped by an unfamiliar feeling—anger—and the impulse to actually do something. So, he purposefully spills a pot of slimy rice soup all over the floor so that when the thief comes back by, he slips and falls, waking the entire house.

When word spread that lazy Xiaolong had saved his family from robbery, they were surprised and praised him. Xiaolong was very pleased, but not from the praise—just that little bit of movement of stopping the thief had triggered unfamiliar but happy sensations in Xiaolong’s muscles. He began walking, slowly, and moving more until finally, he learned to fly kites along with his sisters and realized that participating is ten times better than watching.

What an adorable way to say, “Get up off your butt and stop watching the world pass you by,” as well as, “Watching the world go by may be entertaining, but getting up and going is so much more fulfilling.” I was puzzled by the complacency and nonchalance of Xiaolong’s parents. I’m not sure if this is a cultural thing or a folk tale thing. Is it Chinese to let your children do as they please and merely hope they’ll grow out of their behavior? Or is it just something we as readers of a folk tale must suspend our disbelief of for the purposes of the story? That element of the story was very frustrating to me.

Textually, this was another book with few cultural cues. The story mentions that Xioalong is from China, that he was “the only son, the precious one who would carry on the family name,” that “all the other children in the family were girls, who weren’t supposed to count,” eating with chopsticks, tending to a rice paddy and rice soup—these are the cues that reveal the setting of the story and that it is an Asian one.

But it is the illustrations, with their mixed media of acrylic, watercolor, pen and colored pencil, which really drive the cultural setting home. The dress, the houses, the furniture made of bamboo, the shrine in the home with the incense are all details which allude to the cultural origins of the story. However, I ask the question again, do I recognize these as Chinese because I have been to a Chinese restaurants and have seen similar artifacts? Are these articles accurate portrayals of a Chinese family’s typical belongings, dress and manners? The artist is Chinese, but do I use that as a reason to rationalize the impulse to assume accuracy? We have already learned this semester that such an assumption about other artists can be erroneous (African-American vs. continental African, Mexican vs. Puerto Rican (or other Hispanic groups, different tribes of Native Americans) and misleading. The question remains, how does an “outsider” judge the cultural accuracy of images and texts without first-had experience or insight from an insider? Should we merely trust the producers of these books? In my opinion, the fact that we have learned to question everything—to look at these books with a critical eye—is a step in the right direction (and a way to open dialogue amongst our young readers—a legacy we owe them) but is it enough? If not, what is the solution?

Reviews (per

Publishers Weekly:
Sloth does not a chipper tale make, at least not in this sluggishly paced story. As a baby, Xiaolong doesn't cry or kick much, "because it was too much work." In boyhood, washing his face proves so taxing that he cleans the left side one day and the right side the next ("There was usually a dirty stripe down the center of his face"). But while Namioka (The Loyal Cat) finds opportunity for amusing anecdotes in Xiaolong's lethargy, there is something inescapably sad and pathetic about him. Too long in arriving, the tale's turning point occurs after a thief creeps into the house one night and rouses Xiaolong to anger?and action. Xuan (Ten Suns: A Chinese Legend), using a combination of acrylics, watercolor, pen and colored pencil, gives Xiaolong's face a range of unorthodox expressions, but the task of rendering an almost inert hero seems to daunt him, too. Xiaolong ends up looking like someone who's mentally challenged as well as physically slow?in other words, like someone parents won't want their children to laugh at. Ages 4-8

School Library Journal:
Kindergarten-Grade 3-In a rural village in old China, Xiaolong is born lazy. Since he is the youngest child and the only boy, his family indulges him to the point that he grows up barely able to take care of himself. Specific incidents dramatize just how lazy he is. When he is hungry, he won't turn over to reach for bread; when he falls off a water buffalo, he lies in the mud for hours looking at the sky. However, when he sees a thief enter his house one night, he pictures his family's grief at their imminent loss and cunningly foils the intruder. This unaccustomed action makes him a hero and changes his idle ways. The deliciously subtle humor of the text is not matched by the heavy-handed illustrations. While Xuan's dreamlike paintings, reminiscent of Marc Chagall's work, are authentic in detail, his portrayal of massive figures and a hero who is lazy of eye as well as of limb teeter just this side of grotesque, more caricature than character. Still, the well-written story should be fun to read aloud, and is sure to make the most indolent child feel superior.

In China long ago, there lived a very lazy boy named Xiaolong. When Xiaolong was a baby, he was too lazy to kick or cry much, and things haven't changed as he has grown older: he is so lazy that he washes the left side of his face one day and the right side the next. It takes a dramatic crisis--a thief breaking into his home--to provoke Xiaolong into taking a satisfying and messy action that changes his future. Fiction that reads like folklore, this is both fun to read and visually appealing, showing a setting quite different from the typical U.S. town but characters much like folks at home today. Xuan, who also illustrated Ten Suns: A Chinese Legend (1998) by Eric Kimmel, uses detail in dress and household artifacts to add both humor and an authentic sense of Chinese culture. The book is a good choice for reading aloud or storytelling. Unfortunately, there is no help with name pronunciation and no guide to cultural details.


Yep, Laurence. (1995). Hiroshima. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 0590208322.

Hiroshima is a novella of historical fiction about the first atom bomb dropped by the United States armed forces on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II. The true part is the war part. Pilot Colonel Tibbets, flying the Enola Gay. The bomb is fact. It killed thousands of unsuspecting people on the day of detonation and for years after. The fictionalized part is how we see the day through the eyes of two young girls—Riko and Sachi. Sachi goes to school, but because of the war, they are given jobs to “help defend Japan against the American invasion” they know is coming in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sachi and her classmates help the adults wreck houses. They sort through the remains, looking for useful parts they can save and reuse, such as roof tiles. It is hot, dusty work and the muggy air makes the dust stick to their sweaty faces. To make the work go faster, the children chant in time as they wield their shovels.

But Riko works at the army headquarters answering phones and taking messages—work that would normally be done by soldiers.

Before long, the bomb is dropped—and the author includes a concise definition of what the bomb is, how it works and what happens at detonation—and the city is destroyed. Riko is killed but Sachi survives—though the skin on her face and one arm is melted. Sachi ends up going to the United States for plastic surgery, becoming one of the famous Hiroshima Maidens whose medical procedures become very controversial.

The ingenious thing about this novella is that it tells the story of a seriously tragic event creatively through the eyes of two young adults. It is simple in it’s description—matter of fact, even—as though much more detail would render the work overly dramatic and therefore obscene. This element of sparse detail may be a subtle cultural marker—in contrast to the typically American Hollywoodization to many such stories. In just fifty pages, the author manages to report on a factual event, seemingly without really taking sides, but revealing how two young girls might have interpreted the incident.

As for cultural cues, I didn’t see anything particularly cultural per se. There are details mentioned very matter-of-factly, such as how Japanese houses are made of wood and paper causing them to catch fire easily, subtle references to the labor service corps—suggesting an element of socialism or communism, or simply a war youth corps and reference made to physical artifacts such as streetcars and castles (but nothing to typical enough to give away the geography of the setting other than to explicitly say that it is in Japan).

So, is it devoid of cultural markers? Or are we, as American readers (or I as a non-Asian reader) conditioned to think that if it doesn’t have the stereotypical markers we recognize, then it’s not multicultural? Do we have to read about rice, kimonos and paper cranes to think of something as accurately Japanese? Does the absence of such features help to bridge a gap? To make what might be a foreign story, less “foreign” by excluding details that might mark it as Japanese? These are the questions this story raised for me. In my opinion, the absence of those details made the story stronger because in its simplicity, it is deeply pure and truer to the events—it avoids clouding the readers’ minds with images that simply get in the way of the author’s purpose (which is, I assume, to teach the readers about a historical event while imparting a sense of the emotions that may have come along with it).

Reviews (per

Publishers Weekly:
Yep's account of the bombing of Hiroshima and its devastating aftermath is at once chilling and searing, hushed and thundering. Within a factual framework, the author sets the fictional story of a girl named Sachi, allegedly a composite of several young residents of the bombed city. On the morning of August 6, 1945, 12-year-old Sachi and her classmates pull on their pitifully inadequate air-raid hoods when an alarm sounds, signifying the approach of an American bomber. They and others feel, ironically, a deep sense of relief when the aircraft passes by-the plane's mission, in fact, is to scout out the weather over Hiroshima; if there are clouds, the Enola Gay will be directed to drop its atom bomb on another city. But a single gap opens in the clouds directly over the target site, and "the sunlight pours through the hole on to the city." This is the last bit of brightness in Yep's story, which with haunting simplicity describes the actual bombing: "There is a blinding light like a sun. There is a boom like a giant drum. There is a terrible wind. Houses collapse like boxes. Windows break everywhere. Broken glass swirls like angry insects." Though Yep's spare, deliberate description of the bomb's consequences delivers a brutal emotional punch-and though it is on the whole extremely well suited to the target audience-his novella has some jarring stylistic elements. Broken into brief chapters ("The Bomb," "The City," "The Attack," "Destruction," "Peace?"), the narrative is choppy. The text, for example, makes a hasty chronological jump from the announcement that WWII is over to Sachi's experience as one of 25 "Hiroshima Maidens," who in 1955 traveled to the United States for plastic surgery to correct disfiguring burns. And although expressing an opinion is clearly the novelist's prerogative, it should be noted that the story Yep relays is hardly balanced; witness the two simple sentences about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which make no mention of the resulting human casualties: "Four years before, on December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked American ships in Hawaii without warning. Caught by surprise, many ships and planes were wrecked at the naval base, Pearl Harbor." Yet in what is one of his tale's most haunting moments, Yep interjects the resonant words of an American-the Enola Gay's copilot-who, surveying the destruction just after the bomb has hit Hiroshima, scribbles a note to himself: "What have we done?" This powerful chronicle ensures that what was done on that awful day will remain in readers' memories for a very long time. Ages 8-11.

School Library Journal:
Grade 4-6?Through a stacatto, present-tense narration that moves back and forth between the experiences of a 12-year-old girl and the men on the Enola Gay, Yep's novella tells the events of the day the first atomic bomb was dropped and its aftermath. Sachi survives but is badly burned; her sister dies and her soldier father is killed in action. For three years the girl spends most of her time indoors, as newcomers to the city fear the scarred survivors. Then she travels to America for plastic surgery, which enables her to take part in her society again. She returns to Japan, hoping to help other victims. Yep ends with two chapters on the destructive potential of nuclear warfare and on some of the efforts being made toward disarmament. His words are powerful and compelling, and the facts he presents make readers realize the horrors of that day and its impact beyond. As a fictional character, Sachi never becomes much more than a name, but even so, readers will be moved by her tale. Hiroshima has a more adult format than Junko Morimoto's more personal My Hiroshima (Viking, 1990) or Toshi Maruki's Hiroshima No Pika (Lothrop, 1982), both of which tell the story in pictures as well as in words.

Tree of Cranes

Say, Allen. (1991). Tree of Cranes. Bostob: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 039552024X.

Tree of Cranes is the story of a little boy who comes home from a cold day playing near a carp pond his mother has asked him not to. The boy sees his mother folding paper cranes—it is tradition that if you fold a thousand paper cranes, your wish will come true—she tells him she may fold TWO thousand. Then, his mother feels his head and notices he is very warm. She makes him take a hot bath and go to bed after a bowl of rice gruel. In the meantime, she goes outside and digs up the pine tree she and her husband planted when the boy was born. As she begins hanging the cranes on the pine tree, she tells the boy of how when she used to live in California, there was a tradition of decorating a tree a certain day each year—a day “of love and peace. Strangers smile at one another. Enemies stop fighting.” She puts candles all over the little tree and lets the boy help her light them until it is a beautiful, shining tree. The boy asks his mother what she would wish for and she tells him just the promise that he never visit the carp pond again. The next morning, when he awakes, the kite he has “always wanted” is sitting next to the little tree. It was the boy’s first Christmas.

This is a beautiful and simple story of someone’s first Christmas. Not the Christian traditional experience of telling the story of the Nativity, but the essence of the festivity—the celebration of “love and peace” that transcends the original purpose of the holiday. The story seems to be sort of a mystery—we don’t find out for sure if it’s about Christmas or not until the end of the book—and it is told in such a way that sends the message of the fun and merriment of the season, but without being preachy or somber. It’s another perspective of the holiday.

Without the pictures—gorgeous watercolors with rich hues and fine black-lined detail, so vivid they’re almost photos—just reading the text, there is not much to suggest cultural cues. There is nothing exceptional about visiting a pond, folding origami, a mother who fusses over a child when he has been out in the cold, digging up a small tree, decorating it and waking up to a kite. The hints that the book is about an Eastern Asian place are very subtle, but you’d almost have to already know about that culture to catch the references without the pictures. Carp ponds, rice gruel, tea, sour plums, yellow radishes and the famous reference to paper cranes, are all clues as to the culture referenced. So, linguistically, the text seems to be fairly neutral, leaving the illustrations to do the work of cultural representation. It is so well done that while reading, most might not even catch the reference that the action takes place “seven days before New Year’s”—right at Christmas time.

It is in the illustration that most of the cultural cues are revealed. Asian gardens, sparse décor, the large wooden bath, the clothing, the boy using chopsticks to eat, the bonsai-cut pine tree and of course the obviously Eastern Asian facial features of the characters all point to the fact that this story is somewhere “other” than a Western setting. The question is, are these visual cues evident because they are stereotypes or because they are authentic representations to which we have been exposed and are used to? Or both?

Reviews (per

Publishers Weekly:
Heedless of Mama's warnings, a Japanese boy cannot resist playing at an ice-cold pond "filled with carp of bright colors." When he comes home, he is immediately treated for a cold, with a hot bath and rice gruel. His mother's attitude chills him more than the weather, though; he cannot understand why she seems to be ignoring him. Hearing a noise in the garden, the boy spies Mama digging up the pine tree that was planted when he was born. She brings it inside and decorates it with paper cranes and candles. It is a Christmas tree, the first for the boy, and the first in many years for his mother, who tells her son she comes from "a warm place called Ca-li-for-ni-a." The story is a poignant one, illuminated with finely drawn illustrations reflecting the serenity of a Japanese home and the quiet love between mother and son. Say ( The Bicycle Man ; El Chino ), who came to this country from Japan when he was a teenager, again exhibits a laudable sensitivity to Eastern and Western cultures--and to both the differences and the similarities between them. Ages 4-8.

When the young Japanese narrator comes home with a cold after playing in a forbidden pond, his mother ``barely looks at him'' and puts him into a hot bath and then to bed without so much as a story. She's busy folding silver paper cranes; later, she brings in the little pine planted when the boy was born and decorates it with candles and the cranes, explaining for the first time how she celebrated Christmas in California, where she grew up. The boy is allowed to light the candles, and next day he receives a gift--a kite he especially wanted--for his first Christmas. Say's exquisitely designed illustrations are as elegant as those for The Boy of the Three-Year Nap (1988, Caldecott Honor). Geometric forms in the austere Japanese architecture provide a serene background for softer lines defining the appealing little boy and his pensive mother. As in Say's other books, there is an uncompromising chill here from parent to child: it's true that the boy has disobeyed, that his mother warms and feeds him, and that in the end they share the tree's beauty; still, her longing for ``peace and quiet'' seems exclusionary, and her cold uncommunicativeness while preparing the lovely tree is at odds with its message. Beautiful, honest, but disturbing. (Picture book. 4-8)

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Dorris, Michael. (1994). Guests. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 0786820365.

Guests is the story about a Native American boy in turmoil. On the one hand, Moss greatly wants change—he wants to experience his “away time” in which he’ll find his purpose in life and thus, a new name; on the other hand, his father has invited some strange guests to the yearly feast and Moss strongly feels that their presence will taint the tribe’s once-a-year opportunity to feast and celebrate.

In a rebellious fit of rage, Moss tells his parents that he will simply not attend the festival but will instead go out into the forest. Even he’s not sure if he means it. But, a certain turn of events—following a girl from the other side of the village, Trouble, and following her out into the forest—makes up his mind for him. He wanders further into the forest where he becomes lost, alone and terrified that he’ll never find his way home. He is torn between what he knows he should do and that’s stay in one spot and wait to be found and what he thinks is his only choice and that’s go further forward and face the consequences of his bad decisions.

Once there, hungry and tired, he meets a porcupine who rather gruffly counsels him to accept himself by telling him, “You are what you are.” Moss has an epiphany about himself, his place in the world and in his community and about the “guests.” But by then, he wonders if it’s too late. Just then, he meets Trouble and they discover that while they both thought the other gender had it easier, they have many of the same complaints. Trouble ends up showing him the way back to the village where they both go to the feast.

In the end, the guests eat with them and invite the Indians to bring food to THEM next year, in response to which Moss’ mother tells a story about a little girl named Never Enough whose foolhardiness and greed separated the peoples. Moss realizes that even though his father invited the guests, he didn’t want them there either, but that he had made his decision out of a need to be true to himself.

I had a very difficult time at the beginning of this book. I found myself lost in space and time. It wasn’t until several pages into the story that I realized it was set in pre-colonial or colonial times. But then, when I understood we were reading about a village of Native people back before the whites began causing friction, I allowed myself to be swept along by the story and the description—both of which I enjoyed, for the most part.

If I had one criticism, content-wise, it would be that there were perhaps too many subplots. I couldn’t tell if the story was supposed to be about Moss and his turmoil with regards to wanting change on the one hand and resisting it on the other; whether it was about change in general (as in both Moss’ and Trouble’s); or whether it was just a sliver of Native life with a few life lessons thrown in.

One example of this is, when the kids find their way back to the camp, Trouble appears later visibly upset from crying and with a bruise on her cheek, but the issue of this abuse (or if it was really considered abuse by a majority of the tribe) is not really explored so I wonder why it appeared in the story at all. It seemed pretty “drive-by” to me.

Linguistically, I found the story to be very rich, especially for a “juvenile” aged book. There are several passages that seem very realistic to me and helped set the scene—they helped me visualize what life at a Native American at that time might have been like, and how Moss must have felt:

I tried one last appeal to my father. “These people are not our relatives. We don’t even know their names. We can’t talk with them because they speak a language no one but they understand. They make me uncomfortable with their oddness.”

“Me, too.” My father always surprised me when he spoke to me without acting like a father, almost as though I were another grown-up. I didn’t know what to say, and so he filled the pause that followed with a big rock I couldn’t move. “Yet we can’t turn them away. An invitation once given cannot be taken back.”

(I found this quote to be doubly interesting when taking into consideration what the expression “Indian giver” is supposed to mean.)

I wanted to listen to Grandfather’s familiar stories and to say awake late, my head against his side, as the fire died down and we watched together for the stars that formed the outline of the bear to rise. I wanted this year to be just like last year and the year before that, as far back as I could remember.

But the guests would spoil everything, even blur my memory of other feasts. I wished they had never left wherever they came from before they got here. I wished they would return there again and forget the trail through the sea that they had followed. I wished they would grown their own food, trap their own furs, keep their pots and thin cloth and hard-headed hammers. I wished for just one more right time before things began to change.

There are many more such examples—all rich in their language and description. But one thing I found to be refreshingly absent, and I cringe even to write it down, and that is language. In the other texts I have read so far by Native American writers, their use of interlanguage seems so heavily contrived that it might eventually do a disservice to the progress of modern (and hopefully someday mainstream) Native American literature. I don’t remember one instance where a Native American language vocabulary word was thrown in for effect and I do believe that it actually helped the story along. In my honest and humble opinion, the use of interlanguage, if not skillfully done, can hinder more than help the flow of the story and in turn, the taste in the reader’s mouth.

Reviews (via

Publishers Weekly:
At dawn, as the "light from the smoke hole in the roof turned from black to gray," Moss is playing with a string of wampum when it breaks apart, scattering abalone shell beads in many directions. The design of the beads had held a story "from long ago," and even Moss's grandfather can't recall the beads' arrangement. "Now you owe us a story, Moss," he tells his grandson gravely. Dorris (Morning Girl) gives this boy in search of a story a fine tale to tell. Moss, a gentle and penetrating narrator, reaches deep within himself and delves into the fertile ground of his tribe's legends. Disgruntled that his father has invited strangers from another tribe to the family's harvest feast, Moss disappears into the woods, where he unexpectedly experiences his "away time," a rite of passage that involves-in Moss's case-a conversation with a special porcupine. This episode, and his unprecedented communication with Trouble, a village girl who follows him into the forest, transform Moss by the time he returns home to share the feast with his family and their guests, whom he holds responsible for "every strange and confusing thing that had happened to me today." Though his narrative may at times seem a little subtle for the intended audience, Dorris has drawn a piercing portrait of a boy and the powerful traditions that shape him. Ages 8-12.

Gr. 4-7. Without portentous stereotypes, Dorris tells a story of a Native American boy who leaves home to find himself. Moss isn't sure why he walks away into the forest. His life seems stale. What's more, he's mad at his father for inviting a group of white strangers to be guests at the village harvest festival. Lost and alone, Moss opens up to the natural world and becomes "the forest's welcomed guest." He meets a fierce runaway girl, and they help each other get home. Moss knows that he hasn't encountered a noble mentor on his vision quest; he hasn't suddenly become "a man." What he has found is a new view of himself and the world around him. He realizes he has been selfish and inhospitable. And now he can see that neither the guests nor the village hosts are comfortable at the feast. They can't understand each other. The strangers are hungry, but why are they so greedy and grasping? Even for a sensitive boy, Moss seems too articulate about his inner journey. But Dorris dramatizes that universal experience of feeling stuck at home, as well as the excitement of finding what you didn't know was there. As in Morning Girl (1993), the encounter with Europeans is seen through the eyes of a young person. Several stirring old creation stories woven into the narrative underline Moss' quest for both freedom and responsibility. Dorris' casual sentences are simple and beautiful, showing in their very particularity that Moss discovers the wonder of familiar things.

A brief look into Native American life just before it is irrevocably changed in this rite-of-passage tale of a young Indian boy. Moss is annoyed with his father for inviting the strangers--white men--to the village's annual harvest festival. He declares that he will not celebrate with the guests and goes to the edge of the village to sulk. There he meets Trouble, a girl about his age, and boastfully announces that he is going on his ``away time''--a boy's solitary journey into the forest to become a man and take a new name. Trouble does not believe him, so Moss foolhardily treks alone into the forest to prove her wrong. In the forest he learns about life, nature, and beauty from a grouchy old porcupine and transforms himself from a selfish little boy into a sensitive young man. Moss and Trouble meet again, and this time he shows a real interest in her. They develop a bond born of mutual understanding and return to the village to share in the festival. Interspersed with Moss's story are Indian legends that give the whole an added richness and depth, but the abrupt ending leaves the reader dissatisfied. Dorris obscures the simple story by weaving in too many threads--the white men, Trouble's troubled homelife--that dangle at the conclusion. A book that might have been outstanding had it delivered more or attempted less. (Fiction. 8-12)

School Library Journal:
Grade 3-6-Moss's father extends his hospitality to a group of strangers who speak an entirely different language and who make the boy "uncomfortable with their oddness." When his efforts to convince his parents that the guests should not participate in his people's harvest feast are rebuked, Moss runs away into the nearby forest. There he meets Trouble, a distant relative, and in trying to impress her, finds himself forced into his "away time." Lost in the woods, he learns to look and listen, and begins to realize what it means to be a man during an encounter with a porcupine. He also finds solace in his conversations with Trouble, who eventually helps him find his way out of the forest. Though she is struggling with the strictures placed upon young women in her clan, they share universal early adolescent emotions about the lack of understanding their families afford them. Dorris's writing is elegant, full of evocative images and lush metaphors. He develops his intriguing characters in a leisurely way, and places little emphasis on plot. Young readers will need to work hard to piece together the clues that suggest the setting (someplace by the sea) and the identity of the guests (probably white settlers since they arrived after following a "trail through the sea"). They will be able to comprehend the words, but some may miss the story's ultimate meaning.

Rain Is Not My Indian Name

Smith, Cynthia Leitich. (2001). Rain Is Not My Indian Name. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0688173977.

Cassidy Rain Berghoff is a teenaged girl living in tiny Hannesburg, Kansas where everyone knows everyone (and gossip is rampant). On New Year’s Eve, Rain’s birthday, her best friend (and secret crush), Galen, skips the dance to spend the evening with her. He tells her that her ex-second-best friend Queenie has dumped him for another guy—and that’s Queenie’s loss in Rain’s opinion. Rain and Galen sneak out and run around town, celebrating Rain’s birthday in their own tame, but clandestine way. Had Rain known that Galen would be killed by a runaway fire engine on his walk home, she would have insisted her grandfather drive him.

As if Galen’s death weren’t enough for Rain to deal with, she is torn between loyalty and obligation—her Aunt Georgia is having an Indian Summer Camp and Rain happens to be one of the small group of actual Indians in the town; and politics—Galen’s mother, Mrs. Owen is fighting for the position of mayor and has taken on the platform of fighting the Indian Camp as a frivolous use of city funds. Rain uses the excuse of being the town’s newspaper photographer—making it a conflict of interest for her to get involved.

On top of that, Rain’s brother Fynne and his new fiancée are secretly expecting a baby and are suddenly going through Rain’s dead mother’s things to make room.

In the end, Rain discovers that everything she thought to be true about her relationship with Galen (and his relationship with Queenie) is not at all what it seemed. She learns the cruel role race plays in these relationships. And in the end, she discovers how important it is to stand on the side of the Indians and give up the pressure to cater to Mrs. Owen. Finding a few other guys interested in her, she decides to let Galen go and to move on with her life.

Rain Is Not My Indian Name was such a problematic book for me. I liked the story. I liked the characters. I wasn’t necessarily bored with the plot, though it did seem like a long canoe ride down a tranquil river (and I don't mean that as a Native American reference!). But, in all honesty, I didn’t know what the point was exactly. There didn’t seem to be just one overarching message. Though being Indian was central to Rain’s family history and her place in the community, we didn’t really get to know the specifics about her particular tribe or how she felt about her Indian-ness other than how it related to the situation she was in (and even then, not exhaustively). I’m not sure whether I like that or not.

If the purpose was to spend 135 pages with a modern-day Indian girl who goes through normal, everyday situations and deals with normal, everyday problems, Smith pulled it off beautifully. I guess I have to say that I liked the fact of Rain’s Indian-ness not being what the book was “about” but that it was just another important part of her identity (like being a girl or like playing a sport or like being in theatre or something—just another part of what made Rain, Rain) was refreshing. Then again, I would have liked to have more details about her particular tribe. I guess that’s the result of having read a lot lately about how tribes can be so different from one another and being Native American is not just some umbrella term to mean you live in a teepee and wear buckskin.

On the one hand, how else are author’s going to present such interesting information in an accurate way without sounding didactic; but, on the other hand, if the book had been too much “about” her specific tribe, it WOULD have been didactic—and more books need to be written and published about Native-ness being a part of someone (just as much African-American or Latin-American literature is starting to do) so that the characteristic of Native-ness is just that… a NATIVE AMERICAN in a situation that any European American might find themselves in.

There were a couple of times in the book where Native-ness is mentioned by Rain (since the story is in the first person) that were very real and revealing to me:

At school, the subject of Native Americans pretty much comes up just around Turkey Day, like those cardboard cutouts of the Pilgrims and the pumpkins and the squash taped to the windows at McDonald’s. And the so-called Indians always look like bogeymen on the prairie, windblown cover boys selling paperback romances, or baby-faced refugees from the world of Precious Moments. I usually get through it by reading sci-fi fanzines behind my textbooks until we move onto Kwanza.

I love that quote. It’s so realistic and sounds just like something a teenager would say.

Rain is not my Indian name, not the way people think of Indian names. But I am Indian, and it is the name my parents gave me.

They met for the first time at Bierfest, during one doozy of a thunderstorm.

Mom used to call Dad her “rainy day love.”

Third grade. Mrs. Taylor’s class. The assignment was to dress up as an important person and give a report about that person to the class. Two sources. I got it in my head that I wanted to pick an Indian woman, and a trip to the library narrowed my choices to Sacajawea or Pocahontas.

I chose former Kansas senator Nancy Kassebaum instead.

The preschool song about counting “little Indians” popped into my head. I’ve always hated that song. “I know of nine Indians living in town,” I said.

“They prefer ‘Native Americans,’” the Flash told me.

I shoved the tune out of my head and shifted my camera strap.

He jotted down the number. “I’ll call Mrs. Wilhelm to double-check.”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“Look, I know you’re from here,” the Flash said, “and everybody seems to know too much about each other in this creepy little town. But if Nat has to run a correction, she’ll shish kebab me. Your future sister-in-law is my only professional rec.”

Part of the deal with being a mixed-blood is that every now and then I feel like I have to announce it. “What are you?” people sometimes ask Fynn. It sounds like they want him to ID his entire species. Because my coloring is lighter, I usually get the next standard questions: “How much Indian are you?” (About forty-five pounds’ worth.) And “Are you legally (or a card-carrying) Indian?”…

I don’t mind as much when it’s Native people asking, probably because they show respect for the tribal affiliation, for my family. They never follow up with something like “You don’t seem Indian to me.”

I’ve never asked about the phrase “seem Indian,” but I figure it involves construction-paper feathers, a plastic pain pony and Malibu Pocahontas.

Such quotes are SO revealing! And they are so strategically placed in the text as musings that they never really seem to be “trying too hard” to teach the reader a lesson in “multiculturalism.” Brilliant!

Here are a few more:

This looks like what you want,” Dmitri said, jumping down from his doorway, holding a dreamcatcher. “Hang it above the bed.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said, “but dreamcatchers are kind of…trendy, don’t you think?”

“My mother made it,” he answered.

What with that foot crowding my mouth, I could hardly find a reply. Too bad Dmitri couldn’t sell me a word-catcher to let the good ones through and trap the rest.

I washed my hands and considered mentioning to Dmitri something we had in common, our Ojibway heritage. But I’d grown up so far away from it. I felt ashamed by how much I didn’t know.

Mom had always tried to tell Dad that Fynn and I needed to know about our entire family heritage. Dad would always reply that there was a lot he didn’t know himself, and it sure hadn’t hurt him. We were only St. Patty’s Day Irish and Bierfest German, but I was pretty sure they hadn’t been talking about those particular family lines.

Being a mixed-blood girl is no big deal. Really. It seems weird to have to say this, but after a lifetime of experience, I’m used to being me. Dealing with the rest of the world and its ideas, now that makes me a little crazy sometimes. But the Flash seemed like a pretty open-minded guy. And, sure, I would’ve been tempted to make fun of him anyway, but he was trying hard.

I thought for a moment. What was I supposed to say? It was just so obvious. “Do you have any idea,” I began, “how weird it is to be an Indian in Hannesburg, Kansas?”

The Flash didn’t look impressed. “Do you have any idea,” he answered, “how weird it is to be Jewish in Hannesburg, Kansas?”

“You’re Jewish?” I asked.

“My whole life.” He leaned back, threading his fingers behind his head.

The thought shot through my head like a bottle rocket. “But you don’t seem…” Oops, I thought, sinking slightly in the chair. I wished again for that word-catcher to le the good words through and trap the rest. Maybe I should be the person to invent it.

Anyway, just these few examples show that you can BE Indian and relate and identify with parts of it, not know a whole lot about it, feel guilty about that lack of connection and still be a “normal” person. If that was the point Smith was trying to make, then, I got it.

Reviews (via

Publishers Weekly:
Multiple plot lines and nonlinear storytelling may make it difficult to enter Smith's (Jingle Dancer) complex novel, but the warmth and texture of the writing eventually serve as ample reward for readers. The sensitive yet witty narrator, 14-year-old Cassidy Rain Berghoff, grows up in a small Kansas town as one of the few people with some Native American heritage. That experience alone might challenge Rain, but Smith creates a welter of conflicts. Rain's mother is dead (she was struck by lightning), and as the novel opens, her best friend is killed in a car accident just after he and Rain realize their friendship has grown into romance. Six months later, her older brother urges her to go to her great-aunt's Indian Camp. At first she shrugs it off, but later volunteers to photograph the camp for the town paper and begins to share her Aunt Georgia's commitment to it. When public funding for the camp becomes a contested issue in the city council, Rain decides to enroll. Some of Smith's devices such as opening each chapter with a snippet from Rain's journal add depth and clarify Rain's relationships for readers, although other elements (the detailing of song lyrics playing in the background, for instance) seem stilted. Even so, readers will feel the affection of Rain's loose-knit family and admire the way that they, like the author with the audience, allow Rain to draw her own conclusions about who she is and what her heritage means to her. Ages 10-14

School Library Journal:
Grade 5-9-Rain and Galen have been friends forever, but for Rain's 14th birthday, the thrill of finding that her burgeoning romantic feelings are being reciprocated puts the evening into a special-memory category. The next morning, she learns that Galen was killed in an accident on the way home. Plunged into despair, Rain refuses to attend the funeral and cuts herself off from her friends. Skipping to six months later, the main portion of the story takes place as she thinks about Galen's upcoming birthday and summer plans are complicated by the girl's Aunt Georgia's Indian Camp and political efforts to cut its funding. Rain participates in nothing and her family members, loving though they are, seem preoccupied with their own needs and concerns. Gradually, Rain's love of photography resurfaces and lands her an assignment with the local newspaper. She becomes involved in examining her own heritage, the stereotypical reactions to it, and her own small-town limitations. There is a surprising amount of humor in this tender novel. It is one of the best portrayals around of kids whose heritage is mixed but still very important in their lives. As feelings about the public funding of Indian Camp heat up, the emotions and values of the characters remain crystal clear and completely in focus. It's Rain's story and she cannot be reduced to simple labels. A wonderful novel of a present-day teen and her "patchwork tribe."-

Whisper In the Dark

Bruchac, Joseph. (2005). Whisper in the Dark. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN-10 0060580887.

Whisperer in the Dark is a horror story about an ancient evil who has been twice buried in the caves and tunnels near Providence, Rhode Island (near Brown University) who, after years of imprisonment has decided to come back and seek revenge against the Narragansett man who shut him away, Cononchet. And Maddy, who is half European-American and half Narragansett, is just who he has come after.

It all started with a phone call. After asking several times who was there, Maddy received a whispered, “I am. I’m coming for you” before the line went dead. She thought it was maybe her best friend Roger up to his usual tricks—he and Maddy are both great fans of horror films and scary prank calls—but something about that whispered response told Maddy, deep in her gut, that the threat was read. She remembered the Narragansett legends her Grama Delia about the “Whisperer in the Dark” a Narragansett pawwaw (medicine man) who had become so evil that he had morphed into a non-human creature of pure evil who liked to drink the blood and rob the heads of his victims.

Maddy tries to shake it off, but when her Aunt Lyssa’s dog Bootsie is injured by a mysterious creature with razor sharp claws. As she’s rescuing the dog, she notices a messaged, scratched deeply on her back door. “I am here.” Now she has no doubt that the Whisperer in the Dark is after her. After a crazy chase all around Providence and after many taxi cab rides provided by her Indian (Asian Indian) friend Mr. Patel, Maddy and Roger finally make their way back to Maddy’s house in order to save Aunt Lyssa from her impending beheading by the Whisperer in the Dark. She finally defeats him by using his one weakness (light/fire) in the form of a laser pointer.

The police said that the murdering madman was not the Whisperer, but rather an escaped psychopath named Wilber Whatley. But, Grama Delia told her that all the excavation around Providence had let the Whisperer’s spirit escape—leaving no proof who the real monster was.

This book surprised me. It was the first story I’ve ever read about a Native American whose purpose is not to present the ancient customs of Native life, but rather the Native-ness of the character is merely a part of the character’s background—a normal girl in her early teens who happens to be Native American. The story isn’t ABOUT her Native-ness, but rather the horrifying situation she is in—the horror overshadows her origin.

HOWEVER, the book does seem to meander AWAY from the story to tell historical and personal background that seems to have very little to do with the present. Therefore, the premise of having a “normal” girl who happens to be Native American in a situation of peril is defeated by the here-let-me-teach-you-about-Native-Americans asides. In other words, those flashbacks and informational tidbits, while interesting under another context, feel somehow disconnected from the story and, in turn, artificial. I think it does the story a disservice. It comes off as didactic—injected for the purpose of maintaining that the book is a Native American book. This can do more harm than the intended good.

Another thing I noticed was that there were cultural references made that, while humorous, make me scratch my head. I’m not sure if they help or hurt the story or the cause of the presentation of the Native American (or this half-Narragansett girl) as just like anyone else—they seem to imply she is aware of herself as being “other.” Then again, on the other hand, poking fun at oneself is sometimes somehow freeing—making one’s otherness less serious can sometimes lighten the mood. I’m not sure how to feel about it.

For example, early on in the book, Roger calls her and this is their exchange:

“Did you just call me?” I said.
“You mean right now?”
“No, before this, like a minute ago.”
“No, ma’am.”
“Are you sure?”
“Honest Injun.”
I groaned a little at that, which had been his intention. We were good enough friends to tease each other that way, like my saying, “That was white of you,” sort of semi-sarcastically whenever he did something dumb. It’s the kind of thing real friends can do with each other.

This exchange reminds me of the “real friends” teasing I have with my Mexican-American, Pakistani/Indian-American, and African-American friends I have had. My Mexican-American friend used to say how something I did or said was very “Mestican.” My Pakistani/Indian-American friend calls me a FOB (Fresh off the Boat) for keeping Hot Mix (this yummy, very spicy, Asian snack) in my car. My African-American friends are constantly calling me a chocolate sandwich—all white bread on the outside but thickly chocolate inside. I’m proud of these exchanges. It makes me feel more connected to them and it takes away the tension of being too serious. But I wonder if this is okay. *shrug*

Another one (admittedly less humorous):

The next thing I knew, Roger was paying our fare and the two of us were standing on the curb outside Mr. Patel’s cab.

“Remember, Maddy,” he called back to us over his shoulder as he leaned out the passenger side window, “if you need help, just call for Patel.” He grinned broadly. “We Indians must stick close together.”

I thought this was cute and PREGNANT with meaning and history. And for some reason, I was a little disappointed that this wasn’t explored more.

As for cultural markers, one of Maddy’s musings very clearly summed up the overarching cultural tone of the book:

It isn’t easy at times being Indian. I know I’m half white, but it doesn’t make the Indian part of me any less. Plus, I look Indian. My skin is dark, my eyes are slanted, and my hair is thick and black. My dad used to say that all I had to do was put on a buckskin dress to look just like a Narragansett girl from the seventeenth century.

But I live in these times, times when people find Indians interesting but sort of quaint. Modern-day people claim to be rational—even though they believe in urban legends and their kids all read the Harry Potter books and dream about being wizards. So if you start talking about Indian stuff as if you really believe it, they may just look at you as if they pity you for believing crap like that. And if you talk about the past, a lot of people say you should just forget it. Live in the present day. Whatever happened, happened. This is the twenty-first century. Forget about it. But Indians don’t forget. I might listen to Eminem on my Walkman and play video games and send e-mail, but that doesn’t make me a different person. It doesn’t change the beat of my heart. We Indians know what century we are living in , but we also remember how we got here. And we remember the stories created along the way.

This is an interesting and revealing quote—and as I said, it encapsulates the tone of the book—however, as I also mentioned, it was very disconnected from the story. Just after this quote, Maddy launches into a dialogue with Roger about the Whisperer in the Dark. This disappointed me. Maddy talks about how hard it is to be an Indian, but the author doesn’t put her in any situation IN THIS BOOK to illustrate this point, making the assertion seem somehow besides the point.

Linguistically, this book was very troubling to me. With regard to its content/reading level, it read quite, well, “young” to me considering it is marketed as a Young Adult book. The characters’ ages are not known, but they act and speak a little young for a YA book—they are somewhat clinical and one-dimensional. Also, there are Narragansett words peppering the book, but the way they appear—as Maddy’s seemingly subconscious utterances where she doesn’t know from whence they come or why she knows them—seems a little unbelievable. It almost trivializes the Native language—which seems to be counterproductive to having a story about Native Americans. It just doesn't seem to be the most effective use of interlanguage.

As a story, I hate to say, I was disappointed. I also read Eagle Song by Joseph Bruchac and was delighted by how well-integrated the Native American references were into the actual story. So, when I chose to read Whisper in the Dark, I expected more of the same. As a horror story, Whisper in the Dark was not very convincing, it was poorly organized and the information about Native Americans was so poorly-integrated it made it a “page counter” for me. I couldn’t wait to get it overwith.

Reviews (via

Gr. 5-8. Thirteen-year-old Maddie lives with her aunt Lyssa in Providence, Rhode Island. Her parents' death in an automobile accident has left her among the last living descendants of Canonchet, a Narragansett chief who died fighting for his people's freedom. Although of mixed race and living with her white aunt, Maddie learned many of the Narragansett ways from her father, and Grama Delia continues to share with her the stories of their people. When Maddie receives two threatening messages and discovers her Irish setter wounded by beastlike slash marks, she is convinced the Whisperer in the Dark--a formidable Narragansett monster--has come for her. To confront it, Maddie relies on the assistance of a loyal friend and a good-hearted cabbie, and on the power of her Native heritage. Like The Skeleton Man (2001) and The Dark Pond (2004), Bruchac's twining of Native lore with contemporary situations is unique and interesting. This supernatural/horror tale, though slight, will prove compelling enough for upper-elementary children and younger teens; the illustrations add to the youngish feel.

School Library Journal: Grade 5-8–Thirteen-year-old Maddie, the descendant of a Narragansett sachem, lives with her aunt in Providence, RI. She and her friend Roger love to share scary stories, which helps her to deal with the trauma of her parents' recent death. Maddie doesn't quite believe her grandmother's tale of the Whisperer in the Dark, the Narragansett vampirelike creature who comes with his razor-sharp claws only after his victim is paralyzed by fear. Then she receives a frightening hang-up phone call. She and Roger discover the words I'M HERE scratched into her back door and soon find her dog cowering and covered with deep lacerations. In between hearing chilling whispers and seeing visions reflected in a window, Maddie tells Roger about the legend. When he suggests that her aunt might be in danger, the two friends rush home, and the book comes to an exciting conclusion. Maddie's narration is swift and spare, creating a mood of terror tempered by Narragansett words and chants of courage. The end of the story turns out to be logical and reassuring as a probably-not-supernatural maniac is brought to justice. This fast-paced, macabre novel is perfect for reluctant readers, youngsters who have graduated from R. L. Stine's Goosebumps series (Scholastic), and for those who might not otherwise encounter Bruchac's Indian legends.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Munoz Ryan, Pam. (2000). Esperanza Rising. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 043912042X.

Esperanza Rising is the tale of the true courage it takes to leave one’s comfort zone—physical, geographical, emotional, linguistic—and learn to make a new start, a new life, in a foreign place. Esperanza is a young girl who lives on her father’s farm in Mexico. Their family is well-off and respected amongst the farming families but there are dangers—banditos who out of desperation and jealousy raid the farming families. Not much of this seems to affect Esperanza—who cares mostly about the upcoming grape harvest, her thirteenth birthday which will come at the end of the harvest and the new doll her father will give her. Sure, her father has taught her the importance of the land and of connecting with her history and the land itself, but her daily preoccupations have more to do with herself and the activities that befit a young wealthy girl.

All this changes when her father fails to return from working the cattle. She’s worried about him being late, but consoles herself with the thoughts of how he’ll serenade her in the morning. But he doesn’t come. And to make things worse, Esperanza’s uncles show up the next day with a silver belt buckle, engraved with the ranch’s brand—her father’s belt buckle. Her father was dead.

After Esperanza’s uncle tries to coerce her mother to marry him—and fails—he sets the harvest on fire. Esperanza and her mother flee in the middle of the night, with immigration papers, headed for the border of the United States. Esperanza, forced to ride in the lower class train cars, gets her first real exposure to class difference and thinks herself better than those around her.

It’s when she gets to California that she begins to realize that she is now a campesino just like the others and that in order to survive, she’ll have to roll up her sleeves. But she is reluctant—that is, until her mother falls ill and Esperanza has to work twice as hard to earn the money her mother needs in order to get better. She even saves up enough to bring her beloved Abuelita to California—the cure she’s sure her mother needs.

This story is a great account of riches to rags and the struggles of the immigrant worker. Readers get an intimate look at what the lives of the poorest, most put-upon and perhaps hardest working people of the Great Depression looked like.

The linguistic considerations of this book are very interesting. The first half of the book is set in Mexico and the text seems to echo this fact in that nearly every other paragraph has Spanish peppered throughout. However, once Esperanza gets to the United States, the occurrence of Spanish fades to nearly nothing and then nearly always in the actual dialogue. It makes you wonder whether it is because maybe Esperanza doesn’t speak English, or she feels pressured to only speak English. Or maybe she’s trying to forget the pain she left behind in Mexico and shuts out the vocabulary that reminds her of it. There is no explicit explanation for the change, but it is, nevertheless, an interesting linguistic phenomenon of the book.

In most instances where Spanish occurs, the English translation immediately follows. This seems less authentic than if the author were to allow the context to explain the meaning of those words. On the other hand, later in the book there are two specific instances where the English translation is not given and they are actually obscure enough words, that I—even with my Spanish minor and history of travel in Hispanic countries—did not recognize (comal and carpetas). One thing I found interesting was that many food items which have become mainstream in the English language (especially in the South/Southwest) such as tortilla, tamale and burrito were all italicized, implying that it was somehow foreign (other instances of this appeared—dulces, sopa de albondigas and flan de almoneda—where italicization seemed perfectly natural).

One thing that rang particularly authentic was how in the narration, Esperanza’s father was referred to as “Papa” but when actually speaking to him, Esperanza called him “Papi” several times. At first, the reference to her grandmother as “Abuelita” in the narration seemed to counteract the authenticity of the first instance (with the father), however, it was mentioned explicitly that “everyone called her Abuelita”; hence, explaining why such an intimate term of endearment shouldn’t be awkward in the narration.

As for the story itself and its themes, this is not your typical tale of immigrant hardship. This isn’t the story of a poor, homeless family in search of the land of plenty in the United States, but rather a tale of refuge. Given the choice, Esperanza and her mother would have stayed on their ranch to carry on the legacy her father worked so hard to build. It’s still the story of a clandestine journey—though they both have papers, they are still running from Esperanza’s angry and evil uncles—and of hunger and hard work. It is the story of learning humility.

It also gives us a fictionalized window into the hardships migrant and immigrant workers suffered before standing up for their rights—as well as how hard it must have been to choose between standing up for yourself and doing as you were told in order to survive.

As to the cultural accuracy/authenticity of this book, the author herself recounts in the Author’s Note that not only has she done her research on the growers activities and injustices, but that research was started and fuelled by the stories her grandmother told her of her own journey to the United States, going from a prominent ranching family to a campesina.

Reviews (via

Publishers Weekly:
"With a hint of magical realism, this robust novel set in 1930 captures a Mexican girl's fall from riches and her immigration to California," said PW in our Best Books citation. Ages 8-12.

Gr. 5-8. Moving from a Mexican ranch to the company labor camps of California, Ryan's lyrical novel manages the contradictory: a story of migration and movement deeply rooted in the earth. When 14-year-old Esperanza's father is killed, she and her mother must emigrate to the U.S., where a family of former ranch workers has helped them find jobs in the agricultural labor camps. Coming from such privilege, Esperanza is ill prepared for the hard work and difficult conditions she now faces. She quickly learns household chores, though, and when her mother falls ill, she works packing produce until she makes enough money to bring her beloved abuelita to the U.S.. Set during the Great Depression, the story weaves cultural, economic, and political unrest into Esperanza's poignant tale of growing up: she witnesses strikes, government sweeps, and deep injustice while finding strength and love in her family and romance with a childhood friend. The symbolism is heavy-handed, as when Esperanza ominously pricks her finger on a rose thorne just before her father is killed. But Ryan writes movingly in clear, poetic language that children will sink into, and the books offers excellent opportunities for discussion and curriculum support.

School Library Journal:
Grade 6-9-Ryan uses the experiences of her own Mexican grandmother as the basis for this compelling story of immigration and assimilation, not only to a new country but also into a different social class. … Set against the multiethnic, labor-organizing era of the Depression, the story of Esperanza remaking herself is satisfyingly complete, including dire illness and a difficult romance. Except for the evil uncles, all of the characters are rounded, their motives genuine, with class issues honestly portrayed. Easy to booktalk, useful in classroom discussions, and accessible as pleasure reading, this well-written novel belongs in all collections.

Buried Onions by Gary Soto

Soto, Gary. (1997). Buried Onions. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company. ISBN 0152013334.

Eddie is a young Mexican-American man, living in Fresno, California where he is an off-and-on (mostly off) student at the local community college. His father, his cousin and several of his friends have been killed in gang activities and other crimes, so Eddie is basically trying to live, stay alive and survive. He works during the day, biking through neighborhoods, spray-painting street address numbers on curbs and hoping that his customers will see how hard-working he is and give him other odd jobs to do. When there’s money, he stocks up on cheap food and does his best to live on it and stay out of trouble. But, since the main activity for people his age is to start trouble, he realizes the best way to avoid it is to just stay home.

As if that weren’t enough, he has his aunt and his cousin’s best friend pressuring him to take vengeance on his cousin’s killer, but Eddie knows that two wrongs don’t make a right—and even if it did, it would only land him in jail. And Angel, part-time drug-dealer and car-thief, can’t be trusted.

Eddie gets a break one day. A man named Mr. Stiles hires him for what seems like it’ll be pretty long-term yard work. He even trusts Eddie enough to let him drive the truck to the dump. However, while Eddie stops at his apartment on the way back, the truck gets stolen, plunging Eddie into a period of paranoia and despair. He drops out of school, begs money from his mother and his godmother and spends most of his time avoiding Angel who he knows has a gun and is looking for Eddie. When Eddie’s soldier friend, on furlough, gets stabbed and almost dies, Eddie realizes just how messed up things are in Fresno and once things are righted with Mr. Stiles (but not until after Eddie has spent the night in jail), Eddie does what he’s been avoiding for so long—he joins the service, something he sees as his only way out of the life that he’s sure will lead only to death.

This story is an amazing window into the life of a young Hispanic male in Fresno. While no dates are mentioned, the book was published in 1997—ten years ago—and I doubt that things have gotten any better. While the tone of the book is dark and we are constantly hoping that Eddie will find a way out of the teetering high-wire between running from being in gangs and being the target of petty but dangerous crimes, Eddie shows us just how difficult it can be to just “live a straight life”:

The good life is one where you go to work, do an eight-hour shift, and return home to your family, where your kids are wild for you. After all, you’re the daddy. Mountains rise from your shoulders, coins jingle in your pocket, and the food on the table is your doing. A good life is a long, busy evening of watching TV, where every third or fourth joke is actually funny. Maybe you throw down a beer, play checkers with your oldest kid, or kick back on the lawn when it’s hot and all the dogs on the block have something to say to the moon. You don’t car if the mosquitoes on your neck set their needle-thin heads into a vein. You want to share your blood, share because you’re a young father and you got lots more where that came from.

What did I know? The working life was a scam. I could stencil every curb in Fresno from pagan Monday to holy Sunday, tattoo them with numbers so that no one, drunk or sober, could ever get lost. But no matter how hard I tried to live a straight life, I could still mess up.

And that’s the main message of the story. First, that Eddie has a skewed, Disney-ized perception of what “the good life” is—maybe it’s something he got from TV, but it’s certainly not something he has ever seen for himself… not in his neighborhood. Maybe in the white neighborhoods where he stencils curbs. And secondly, everything Eddie does is in order to stay out of trouble—he even runs from fights, a sign of weakness, but also a sign of intelligence—but no matter how hard he tries, one stop off at his apartment to wash the dirt off his face and get a drink of water—not holding up a bank or robbing a liquor store—a simple stop by the apartment is all it takes to mess everything up. He sees that it’s not his fault—that it’s the fault of the neighborhood, of people not motivated enough or so bored they can’t help it but to cause trouble for others and themselves. And that his only way into the “straight life” is to get out of Fresno.

Linguistically, this book read very authentically. There was Spanish on nearly every page, but it was slipped in and so pregnant with the context that it needed no explanation. Here’s an example:

The lawns were deep and very green, and the flower beds saluted with all kinds of fistlike flowers. Most of the people were white, not Mexican. Most people there keep to themselves, not like here, in my area of southeast Fresno. We sit on front porches, our gaze following anyone who comes into our neighborhood. We know each other, marry each other, and hurt each other over small matters. Bad as things are, could be, we never commit suicide like the gavachos who can’t take it. We live to the end, even if the end is when you are nineteen and crumbling on a dirty floor.

Another example:
I rode through a new subdivision, so new that the front yards were foxholes of moist earth. They were going to plant shrubs and trees and, in mi loco imagination, they were going to bury their onion. This way, they could cry out their sadness right on the front lawn.

I snagged a quick glance through the window at my neighbor, Mrs. Rios. She was crowing with a friend. I imagined they were breaking powdery donuts into halves and dunking them in creamy coffees, locked in the communion of older women talking chisme She was a retired nurse who had once put me back together when I had gotten into a playground fight. I had taken a blow from a stick on the bride of my nose and one on my ear, plus a couple of whacks to my back as I chased a dude with the brown, jacked crown of a beer bottle. She had patted the blood from me and cooed,.” “Ay, Dios” over and over.

And, finally, used in dialogue:

‘How come you never answer your phone?’ She asked, immediately starting in.
I got her a lawn chair.
‘I’m never home.’
>‘Mentiroso!’‘It’s true,’ I said, my arms out as if asking for alms. ‘I’ve been busy.’

These instances are just a few examples of how natural the interlanguage reads. There is no reason to translate the Spanish because it is inferred by the context. In fact, explaining the Spanish here would make it seem somehow artificial and would break up the incredibly strong voice of the narrator. A few times when the words are translated, they are said in English first and then repeated in Spanish, somehow making these occasions read less artificially:

I had dropped out of City College, where I was taking classes in air-conditioning. I quit no long after my cousin, mi primo, Jesus got killed.

It was eleven o’clock and already everyone had retreated inside, either to get away from the heat or to tune into the Mexican soap operastelenovelas.

‘No! Go! Andale!’ La senora waved a dish towel at him.

There are occasions where the Spanish is said first and the English translations immediately after, but they somehow don’t read awkward. Maybe because it happens so rarely in the book:

He was at a club with Angel, his best friend and carnal, a blood brother.

The most artificial use of interlanguage, in my opinion, is when Spanish is used in dialogue and then immediately followed by the English translation—still within the dialogue. However, the few instances I saw it in this book, it still didn’t read awkwardly because it wasn’t the EXACT translation, but rather and extension of the Spanish:

She was already stepping toward the kitchen. ‘It’s cochino, so dirty here.

In my inexperience with such an intimate portrayal of what might be considered a small subculture—Mexican-Americans living in southeastern Fresno, California approximately ten years ago—I have no authority to say whether or not the cultural cues (the homelessness, the drugs, the unemployment, the petty crime, the culture of vengeance, the lack of hope for anything “better”) that permeate the atmosphere of this book are culturally accurate or authentic. I can say that the Soto’s voice and his combination of complex sentence structure, rich description and natural use of code-switching is very convincing. In other words, if the content/events of the book are not realistic, I would never know because the author is so incredibly skilled at the craft of writing, the main character’s perceptions so clear and vivid, that I was utterly convinced and pulled along by the story.

Reviews (via

Publishers Weekly:
This bleak, claustrophobic novel perfectly captures the cyclical despair of its [19-year-old, Hispanic protagonist], said PW; Soto leaves this bitter street tale unsweetened to the end. Ages 12-up.

…This unrelenting portrait is unsparing in squalid details: The glue sniffers, gangs, bums, casual knifings, filth, and stench are in the forefront of a life without much hope… Soto plays the tale straight the only sign of a “happy'' ending is in Eddie's joining the Navy. The result is a sort of Fresno Salaam Bombay without the pockets of humanity that gave the original its charm. A valuable tale, it's one that makes no concessions. (glossary) (Fiction. 12-14)

School Library Journal:
Grade 9 Up?Life is a struggle for 19-year-old Eddie as he survives one day at a time in Fresno, California…. Soto's writing is apt; he provides readers with strong images through the eyes and voice of Eddie. The young man frequently describes his surroundings, "I returned to my apartment, which was in a part of Fresno where fences sagged and the paint blistered on houses....Laundry wept from the lines, the faded flags of poor, ignorant, unemployable people." Additionally, the author stirs more senses with his descriptions of smells and sounds. The only drawback to the story is that it is somewhat repetitious. Characters are introduced, then reenter the story with repeated delineation. Still, Soto's descriptions are poetic, and he creates deep feelings of heat and despair. A powerful and thought-provoking read.