Sunday, June 24, 2007

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Myers, Walter Dean. Ill. by Christopher Myers (1999). Monster. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0060280778.

Monster is a script. A screenplay written by Steve Harmon, a high-school aged, amateur film maker who is in jail accused of murder. The story switches back and forth between the details of Steve’s present incarceration, flashbacks of the past and finally the trial where he will be judged and possibly sentenced. Included are tidbits of Steve’s first-hand accounts (from his diary?) of the effects jail is having on him.

Throughout the book, as we get to know Steve intimately, we are unsure as to his guilt or innocence. It is through testimony of the various witnesses as well as conversations between Steve and his lawyer that we are allowed to piece together the elements of the events that got Steve where he is: Essentially, Steve was friends—for whatever reasons—with the two actual suspects (King and Bobo) who went into a drugstore with the intention of robbing it, but the “getover” turned foul and Mr. Nesbitt, the owner, pulled a gun in self-defense. There was a scuffle and according to Bobo, the gun ended up in King’s hand. After the gun went off, the two young men grabbed the cash from the register and a few cartons of cigarettes (which Bobo later sold—to an undercover cop and ended up in jail).

So, what does being friends with these characters have to do with Steve Harmon? Well, they allege the Steve was a lookout for them. That his part was to walk into the store to see if there were any police officers and to give King and Bobo a signal. Does he do this? We may never know for sure. At times, Steve alludes to having been in the store, “for some mints,” but in the end, when on the stand, he testifies that he was not in the store that day. What we are confident of, as the reader, is that Steve didn’t mean to be involved.

In the end, he is declared NOT GUILTY (King is sentenced to 25 to life and Bobo goes to jail for some unrelated crime—not having had anything to do with the actual shooting). But, even though the jury sided with him, Steve feels that his relationship with his parents and with the world in general have been somehow tainted. That just by the fact that he was accused of a crime—that his parents wonder why he would even be friends with King and Bobo, on any level—that he is not the person they thought he was. Even his lawyer, who most would think would be jubilant upon hearing the verdict, did not join in Steve’s celebration, but rather turned away from his proffered sign of victory. He wonders what they think of him and if they think that he is, in fact, a monster.

Content-wise, this book is difficult to read. It’s difficult to relate to a protagonist who sits in jail and does not strongly assert his innocence. Sure, he tells us over and over how much he wants to get out of jail and that he’s afraid of the events he hears and sees happening around him, but he never really tries to convince us he is not guilty of the charges against him.

However, on the other hand, the charges against him aren’t one-dimensional. He is charged with murder not because he held a gun in his hand but because he is alleged to have been the lookout. But in reality, in the minds of his parents, lawyer and possibly the jury, he is charged with being associated with the kind of people who might commit such a crime.

And that brings us to the question Steve thinks his father asks himself: Why WAS he friends, or even loose acquaintances with King and Bobo? He is a smart kid. His vocabulary in his diary and in the actual screenplay itself (which we know from the beginning is supposed to be written by him) is eloquent enough. His film club sponsor/teacher even testifies to his character on the stand. Why would a kid who has so much going for him want to hang out with “hoods?” OR is it those elements themselves that pushed Steve to want to be around tougher kids? To prove that he wasn’t soft? To keep from being victimized? This theory illustrates an interesting parallel to how he feels in jail. How he knows he’s not supposed to show any weakness in the jail because it will get him beat up or sexually abused. How he’s not even allowed to smile at the inmate who dishes him up a hefty helping of food for fear that just that little smile will imply something else.

In the way of cultural markings, there is very little in Steve’s own words that implies he’s African-American. He doesn’t use dialect in his diary writings, nor in his screenplay. He is referred to as black by witnesses, but other than that, he could be of any race. However, there are dialectal cues in the quotes of several other people which imply that the other characters are African-American and that the events transpired in a predominantly African-American neighborhood:

Steve remembers overhearing two women talking about the crime:

Woman 1: Miss Trevor say he dead. They had 2 ambulances.
Woman 2: Two people got shot?
Woman 1: I don’t think 2 people got shot, but 2 ambulances came. One from Harlem Hospital.
Woman 2: It’s probably those crack people. They say they’ll do anything for that stuff.
Woman 1: Was he married? I didn’t see no woman working in the store.
Woman 2: That young Spanish boy? I don’t think he married.
Woman 1: No, girl, he ain’t the owner. The old man owned that place. I think he from St. Kitts. (pp. 118-119)

The expressions “he dead” and “I don’t think he married” and “I think he from St. Kitts” in which the stative verb is dropped is a typical element of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). If the reference to Harlem Hospital (Harlem being well-known as a predominantly African-American community) didn’t give away the races of these women, the dropping of the stative verb by both women in at least one instance each is indicative of their culture.

Also, during his testimony, we see a MULTITUDE of verbal cues from Bobo to show that he is speaking in AAVE:

Bobo: Man, this lame-looking brother with an attachĂ© case come up to me and said he wanted to cop some rocks. I was so knocked out by this bourgie dude asking for crack that I slept the real deal. I laid the rocks on him and he slapped the cuffs on me. Cops don’t usually show lame. That was definitely not correct. (p.184)

Unlike the case of the two women, who used a grammatical cue to show their AAVE dialect, it’s Bobo’s actual vocabulary that gives it away with expressions like “lame-looking brother,” “cop some rocks,” “bourgie,” “slept the real deal,” “laid the rocks on him,” etc.

That is not to say that Bobo is definitely African-American just because he uses the vernacular—anyone growing up in a predominantly urban (and especially drug-infested) neighborhood might have the tendency to use such slang (as in the case of Osvaldo Cruz, another witness), however, Bobo is specifically referred to as black.

These varied cues are probably used to show the variety of characters. Walter Dean Myers might have a dual purpose in mind. The first, to enhance authenticity by showing accurate cues to which his African-American and/OR urban audience might relate and the second to be to illustrate that not all people of one race are the same. A variance of characters, if you will. Steve is smart and on the path to greatness (perhaps characteristics that are considered weak or, dare it be said, “white” in his community) and maybe feels a pressure to appear more tough or street-wise for whatever reason. King is a crank addict, looking to strike a deal but in the end resolved to his punishment. Bobo is reckless and unpredictable, and though street-smart, doesn’t seem highly educated (judging by his language which, if he were educated, he would know not to use in a courtroom setting). Steve’s parents are both caring and emotional—not the stereotypical urban, African-American parents who are often portrayed as being overly stern and harsh.

As in content, the format of the book—the mixed media of the screenplay and the diary entries, while keeping us on our toes, is difficult to read. However, I’d argue that anyone who does read it will find the work worth the effort.

Since I am not African-American and am not very experienced with the harsh realities of urban life, I am not suitably equipped to judge the authenticity or accuracy of the characters or events. If, however, they ARE accurate, this book would make a great portal into discussions on a myriad of topics: false charges, snap decisions which change our lives, drugs, urban life and various aspects of unspoken prejudices.

Reviews (per

Myers combines an innovative format, complex moral issues, and an intriguingly sympathetic but flawed protagonist in this cautionary tale of a 16-year-old on trial for felony murder...The film script contains minimal jargon, explaining camera angles (CU, POV, etc.) when each term first appears. Myers' son Christopher provides the black-and-white photos, often cropped and digitally altered, that complement the text. Script and journal together create a fascinating portrait of a terrified young man wrestling with his conscience. The tense drama of the courtroom scenes will enthrall readers, but it is the thorny moral questions raised in Steve's journal that will endure in readers' memories. Although descriptions of the robbery and prison life are realistic and not overly graphic, the subject matter is more appropriate for high-school-age than younger readers.

School Library Journal:
Grade 7 Up-[Steve's]striking scene-by-scene narrative of how his life has dramatically changed is riveting. Interspersed within the script are diary entries in which the teen vividly describes the nightmarish conditions of his confinement. Myers expertly presents the many facets of his protagonist's character and readers will find themselves feeling both sympathy and repugnance for him. Steve searches deep within his soul to prove to himself that he is not the "monster" the prosecutor presented him as to the jury. Ultimately, he reconnects with his humanity and regains a moral awareness that he had lost. Christopher Myers's superfluous black-and-white drawings are less successful. Their grainy, unfocused look complements the cinematic quality of the text, but they do little to enhance the story. Monster will challenge readers with difficult questions, to which there are no definitive answers. In some respects, the novel is reminiscent of Virginia Walter's Making Up Megaboy (DK Ink, 1998), another book enriched by its ambiguity. Like it, Monster lends itself well to classroom or group discussion. It's an emotionally charged story that readers will find compelling and disturbing.

...Myers leaves it up to readers to decide for themselves on his protagonist's guilt or innocence. The format of this taut and moving drama forcefully regulates the pacing; breathless, edge-of-the-seat courtroom scenes written entirely in dialogue alternate with thoughtful, introspective journal entries that offer a sense of Steve's terror and confusion, and that deftly demonstrate Myers's point: the road from innocence to trouble is comprised of small, almost invisible steps, each involving an experience in which a ``positive moral decision'' was not made. (illustrations, not seen) (Fiction. 12-14)

Awards for Monster:
2000 Michael Printz Award Winner
Coretta Scott King Honor Book

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson, Jacqueline. Ill. by E.B. Louis (2001). The Other Side. New York: Putnam. ISBN 0399231161.

The Other Side is about a fence. A fence which separates a field. A young black girl lives on one side of it and her mama tells her not to go to the other side. “She said it wasn’t safe.” But “that summer” there was a little white girl who climbed up on the fence and stared over at the little black girl. And she stared back.

Little by little, the little black girl starts getting clues that the little white girl is lonely. For one, she asked if she could jump rope with the little black girl and her friends, when the little black girl saw the little white girl in town the girl sometimes looked sad and the little white girl even sat on the fence wearing a raincoat in the rain, “She let herself get all wet and acted like she didn’t even care. Sometimes I saw her dancing around in puddles, splashing and laughing.”

One day, when the rains stopped, the little black girl went outside, somehow changed. “I felt brave that day. I felt free.” The little girl asked the little black girl her name. “ ‘Clover,’ I said. ‘My name’s Annie,’ she said. ‘Annie Paul.’” Annie invited Clover to sit up on the fence with her. “ ‘A fence like this was made for sitting on,’ Annie said.”

But Clover’s mama told her not to go on the other side. “ ‘My mama says the same thing. But she never said nothing about sitting on it.’” Clover, not able to argue with that logic climbed up on the fence. And that’s how she spent the rest of the summer. Sitting up on that fence, spending her days with Annie.

Clover knew her mother saw her sitting on that fence and constantly waited to hear her tell Clover to get down. “But she never did.”

Eventually, Clover’s friends—a group of little black girls—let Clover and Annie skip rope with them. Annie jumped to the other side. “When we were too tired to jump anymore, we sat up on the fence, all of us in a long line.”

After sitting on the fence awhile, Annie said. “ ‘Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down.’ And Clover nodded. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Someday.’”

The Other Side uses a very simple concept—a common, non-violent, socially-accepted property marker, a fence—to signify the unspoken barrier between two young girls of different races. Both girls are perhaps lonely and are definitely curious about one another, but have been told by their parents not to cross the fence, giving no other explanation than “it’s not safe.” This is a beautifully simple way to illustrate how cultural barriers are fostered from generation to generation. Ironically, just as in The Other Side, it takes the bravery of a child—someone who isn’t so afraid of getting hurt or who somehow feels “braver” or “freer” than an adult—to consider tearing down these barriers. If not now, then, “someday.”

The language in The Other Side is neither didactic nor preachy. The tone is neither humorous nor serious, it is merely matter-of-fact. The story is told in such a voice that it is believably a child’s account. There are subtle hints that the fence represents more than just a barrier between Clover’s and Annie’s yards. On the first page, the narrator says, “That summer the fence that stretched through our town seemed bigger.” Then, later, after Annie has attempted a contact and been refused by Clover’s friends, the narrator says, “That summer everyone and everything on the other side of that fence seemed far away.” Another linguistic thing I found remarkable about the book was that throughout the book, the narrator uses “that” to refer to something that represents distance. For instance, up until they introduce themselves, Clover refers to Annie as “that girl” (afterward, “that girl” becomes Annie) and until Clover’s friends accept Annie into their circle, the fence upon which Annie and Clover spend their time is referred to as “that fence” (and “that fence” becomes “the fence”).

The illustrations are phenomenal. They are impressionistic water colors but are amazingly realistic. The artist didn’t try to downplay the difference in color by choosing a lighter black girl or a tanner white girl after which to model the characters. Instead, Clover is very dark-skinned and her hair is accurately styled according to the tradition of young African-American girls as is Annie’s reddish-blonde (and obviously Scotch-Irish) half ponytail. Neither girl is remarkably romanticized (translation: over-exaggeratively “pretty”), so the illustrations do not detract from the power of the story but rather serve their purpose to illustrate what’s happening. One thing I did notice was that while the fence remains as a shadowy, preventive figure, everything else in the scenes is brightly lit but summer sunshine (even the rainy scene), perhaps symbolizing the hope surrounding them or the bravery inspired by a care-free summer.

It is striking that seemingly innocent physical barriers end up becoming almost tangible cultural borders. If this book had been written for an older crowd (young adult or adults) it might have used a train track to illustrate the same simple concept. However, using a fence—a normal, everyday sight for most children—is less menacing but still carries the same message.

The ONLY thing that struck me as troublesome is that Annie always seems to be the one initiating contact. She asks for permission to play with the other girls. And she plays uninhibited in the rain. And she is the one who invites Clover to sit on the fence with her. AND she’s the one who suggests that some day someone will destroy the fence. While on the one hand, her bravery and freedom may be historically accurate in the setting (based on the period suggested by the illustrations), it might suggest to readers that white people are more apt to take action while black people wait around for whites to move. Just an observation.

While this story is obviously about race, it doesn’t have to only be about that. A story like this could lead from a racial discussion to conversations about ways we feel “other-ness.” It could also open dialogue about other physical barriers we use to make ourselves feel safer. And why do we feel that separating ourselves makes us feel safe? What is the paradox between wanting to be near others when we are afraid of the unknown and the “security” of barriers we erect?

Reviews (per

Publishers Weekly:
Woodson (If You Come Softly; I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This) lays out her resonant story like a poem, its central metaphor a fence that divides blacks from whites. Lewis's (My Rows and Piles of Coins) evocative watercolors lay bare the personalities and emotions of her two young heroines, one African-American and one white. As the girls, both instructed by their mothers not to climb over the fence, watch each other from a distance, their body language and facial expressions provide clues to their ambivalence about their mothers' directives. Intrigued by her free-spirited white neighbor, narrator Clover watches enviously from her window as "that girl" plays outdoors in the rain. And after footloose Annie introduces herself, she points out to Clover that "a fence like this was made for sitting on"; what was a barrier between the new friends' worlds becomes a peaceful perch where the two spend time together throughout the summer. By season's end, they join Clover's other pals jumping rope and, when they stop to rest, "We sat up on the fence, all of us in a long line." Lewis depicts bygone days with the girls in dresses and white sneakers and socks, and Woodson hints at a bright future with her closing lines: "Someday somebody's going to come along and knock this old fence down," says Annie, and Clover agrees. Pictures and words make strong partners here, convincingly communicating a timeless lesson. Ages 5-up

School Library Journal:
Gr 1-4-… Woodson's spare text is easy and unencumbered. In her deft care, a story that might have suffered from heavy-handed didacticism manages to plumb great depths with understated simplicity. In Lewis's accompanying watercolor illustrations, Clover and her friends pass their summer beneath a blinding sun that casts dark but shallow shadows. Text and art work together beautifully.

The Hired Hand by Robert San Souci

San Souci, Robert. Ill. by Jerry Pinkney (1997). The Hired Hand. New York: Dial. ISBN 0803712960.

Old Sam and his son Young Sam own and run a saw mill in Virginia. While Old Sam is hard-working and industrious, his young son does whatever he can to cut corners on his work—not cleaning the dirt of the logs and thus dulling the saw blades, sawing the boards uneven—forcing his father to resaw them. He wouldn’t even sweep up the saw dust saying, “Get some hired hand to do that low work.”

Before long, a stranger came into town and made Old Sam an offer—if Old Sam would teach the New Hand everything he knew about sawing, the stranger would work for him for a year for free. Things worked out well in the beginning. Old Sam was good and fair to the hired hand, but Young Sam was mean to him and treated him like a servant. “The man never talked back; he just did what he was told.”

One day, an elderly customer came by complaining of miserable back pain. The New Hand told the Sams to go out into the woods and not watch as he fixed the man’s pain, warning that if either of them witnessed it, “’cause something’ bad’ll happen if you do.” But Young Sam snuck near as the New Hand performed a ritual of sawdust, water and blood. It worked. Not only had the New Hand taken away the man’s back pain, but he had also made him young. As the customer pulled away, Young Sam caught up with him and made him pay for the New Hand’s healing.

In the winter, while Old Sam was away visiting a relative, Young Sam was horrible enough to the New Hand to make him leave. Not long after that, the healed man came back with his ailing wife and Young Sam tried to repeat the New Hand’s ritual but, as usual, cut corners, killing the man’s wife. He was arrested and charged with her death.

At his trial, Young Sam repented of his ways and Old Sam begged for his son’s life. A stranger at the back of the room asked Young Sam if he was truly sorry for what he had done and recognizing the voice of the New Hand, Young Sam replied, “’Deed I am, an’ I ax pardon an’ hope you’ll forgive me.”

In response, the New Hand asked the court why Young Sam had been charged with the death of a woman who was standing there with them in the court—the man’s wife was not only alive but she was young. The judge found Young Sam not guilty. When the Sams turned to thank the New Hand, he was gone. But from then on, Young Sam was the hard-working son his father had always wanted.

According to the Author’s Note, The Hired Hand is an African-American retelling of an old European folk tale first written down by Francis Hindes Groome in his Gypsy Folk Tales. Like most folk tales there is a base in reality, a pinch magic and an overarching moral which is, in Young Sam’s own words: “Brethren and sisters, mind what I’m gonna tell you. Don’ be lazy an’ greedy an’ wood-headed. ‘Specially don’ act high-handed and biggity with no one, ‘cause if I didn’t act that way to a man who’s standin’ in this here crowd, I’d be back at the sawmill, ‘stead of headin’ to a jail cell.”

It is always difficult for someone to judge the cultural accuracy of a work produced by a culture not his or her own. Thus, I don’t feel equipped to speak to that aspect. However, I can say that from my own experience with history and literature, I found several elements of the book remarkable with regard to cultural cues. First is the language. The reduction (dropping of ‘d’s and ‘g’s at the end and some vowel sounds at the beginning of words) shown in the dialogue is typical of African-American dialect as seen in other works set in this period (just pre- and just post-slavery in the United States) as is the vocabulary (“ax,” “holler,” etc.) and grammatical errors (“ You got to pay or you won’ be young no more.”).

Other cultural markers are seen in the illustrations—soft lines filled with hushed, earthy water colors. There is not one white character, not even peripheral, in the book’s illustrations. While the Sams—obviously enough well-off to own their own business—are dressed in breeches and vests (Young Sam with suspenders), the New Hand (probably representing the freed slave) wears homespun overalls. Also, the judge in the courtroom scene is African-American. These details imply that Virginia in the 1700’s was “free” and progressive enough for African-Americans to have a place of stature, as Pinkney states in the Artist’s Note, “a sense of time when free blacks were openly a part of several colonial communities, long before the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Most importantly perhaps is the fact that the book, whether a historically accurate representation or not, whether a culturally accurate representation or not, is a good story. It doesn’t just have to be a story about how a young son of a long ago freed man—who has become spoiled by his freedom—can be taught a few things about life, honesty and integrity by the likes of a lowly, recently freed slave. It can also be read simply as good prevailing over bad—not only is everyone happy in the end, but the antagonist learns his lesson. These are some of the basic elements of a good old fashioned folktale from any culture.

In fact, it would be interesting to see what impressions children of varying ages and cultures would be. Thus, this book could simply lead to a discussion of good vs. bad (I avoid the term “evil” on purpose) or it could open a discussion of cultural impressions.

Reviews (per

Ages 5^-9. San Souci and Pinkney's latest collaboration is based on an African American folktale first recorded in 1871 by a black Virginian. Pinkney's characteristic watercolor illustrations portray one of several small Virginia towns where free blacks lived, owned property, and worked in the late 1700s. He successfully blends historically realistic details with timeless folkloric magic, and he enhances San Souci's smooth retelling in the process. An obvious choice for primary story hours, this will also make a welcome addition to African American folklore and history units.

School Library Journal:
Kindergarten-Grade 4. San Souci makes a choice in favor of "softening the heavy use of dialect," found in the original tale. Pinkney adopts a corresponding tone in his illustrations, polishing any harshness away. Pencil sketches showing through his watercolors add character and interest, but never mar the finish. The result is a first-class treat for readers' eyes and ears. However, the prettiness has a price. The beauty (each illustration perfectly composed and delivered in a charming palette of subdued colors; each bit of dialogue tastefully framed; each character devastatingly handsome) keeps drawing readers' attention back to the surface, to the elegance of the presentation. Beneath that surface, down where the folktale's dynamic themes of filial disobedience, sin and redemption, and the search for immortality all converge, is where the real power lies. Libraries looking for African-American folktales should consider this title and bask in the splendor of its delivery.

An African-American folktale from Southern oral tradition, first recorded in the late 19th century. Inspired by a small Virginia anti-slavery town for its setting and drawing from 18th-century costume with the influence of European fairy-tale art, Pinkney works his magic by blending both character and drama with the hushed tones of history.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

De Saint-Exupéry, Antoine (English translation copyright 2000 by Richard Howard). The Little Prince. Orlando: Harcourt. ISBN 0156012073.

The Little Prince is a tale told by a pilot whose plane has crash landed in the desert. While he is fixing his plane, he hears a little voice commanding him to “draw me a sheep.” Since the pilot long ago gave up his hobby of drawing, it takes him several tries to get the sheep right—in the end being a simple box with holes in it so that the sheep can live protected from harm and from running away. The Little Prince tells the pilot his tale of woe of how he, too, crash landed on our planet, having left his own home elsewhere in the cosmos—Asteroid B-612—essentially on a tour of the universe. He went from planet to planet, meeting various people including a man taking inventory of all the stars in the universe, a man whose sole purpose was to constantly light and extinguish a lamp (though, since his planet was so small, he has scarcely lit the lamp when the sun rose again and he had to extinguish it), a planet barely much bigger than a throne upon which sat a king who only wanted someone to rule over and then finally onto a seventh planet, Earth. During his stay here, he had traveled far and wide, met a fox who he had tamed as a friend, and stumbled upon a rose garden. It was there that he discovered that the flower he had left behind on his own planet, a flower who had told him she was one of a kind, was just like all the other flowers on this planet. Even though he found this discovery disappointing, it still made him very homesick—he wanted to return to his asteroid and take care of his flower no matter how much trouble she was. In the end, the Little Prince leaves our planet, but not before the pilot is very attached to him and his strange stories and ways. The Prince chastises the pilot for seeking out and following him through the desert because, in his parting, “I’ll look as if I’m dead, and that won’t be true…You understand. It’s too far. I can’t take this body with me. It’s too heavy.” And with a reminder that the Little Prince will think of the pilot every time he sees a star—just as the pilot will think of the Little Prince every time he sees the blonde sand that reminds him of the Little Prince’s hair—the Prince “fell gently, the way a tree falls. There wasn’t even a sound, because of the sand.”

What a cryptic, but emotionally rich story. The book, author-illustrated, is a classic “picture” book in France, read to children of all ages. However, its content reads like a novel, full of symbolism and mystery. This book is almost Biblical in its openness to interpretation because the representation of the characters and situations depend almost entirely on the reader. This is an example of the interpretation being in the reader’s hand, not in the storyteller’s purpose. Is the Little Prince a symbol of our youth, to whom we must say goodbye in the end, to allow him to go back and comfort and nurture our sensitive (feminine?) side represented by the unique flower left on the asteroid? Or is he a representation of every relationship we have in life? That all relationships have a beginning, middle and end—in which we “tame” one another and become dependent, but ultimately must say goodbye (whether because we outgrow one another, must move on, or feel the need to return to our beginnings)?

There are VOLUMES written about how to interpret this book. As I mentioned, it can be read to smaller children as a picture book and simply be the story of a little boy and the people he meets as he wanders the universe. It could be a story about homesickness even in spite of meeting exciting and engaging new friends. Or for older children, it could be the tale of just how much we appreciate what we’ve left as soon as we have something else with which to compare it (as was the case for me upon arriving in France). The book was written by Saint-Exupery while he was living in the United States for two years, so perhaps older children could see the relevance of the symbols with regard to the author’s circumstances. No matter how it is used, this book is sold, read and cherished the world over by children of every age (even those gray ages).

In the way of cultural markings, this book may be nearly devoid thereof. The book has been translated (and is a best seller) in over 160 languages. Maybe because the book is so “other worldly” it transcends culture boundaries (that’s the only explanation I can offer).

Reviews (per

School Library Journal:
Grade 2-6-Antoine de Saint-Exupery's classic allegory is presented with the original whimsical watercolor drawings and animation accompanying the translated text. The story will delight young readers, and its meaning will stimulate thinking for older ones.

The Pull of the Ocean by Jean-Claude Mourlevat

Mourlevat, Jean-Claude (2006). The Pull of the Ocean. New York: Random House. ISBN 0385903642.

The Pull of the Ocean (originally written in French and called L’enfant Ocean) may read like a familiar tale. Just as in Tom Thumb, the English version of the French tale, Le Petit Poucet, there is a family of nine, a mother, father, three sets of twin boys and a “mal-formed” child. And just as in Tom Thumb, the smallest boy overhears his parents talking and believes that they are going to do the children harm because they can not afford to feed them. So, in the middle of the night, the smallest child—called Yann in this story—wakes the brothers in the middle of the night and convinces them to flee. Yann is mute and speaks through sign language but has an uncanny ability to communicated sophisticated thoughts, especially instructions, to his six brothers. He also has a bizarre sense of direction—probably where the English title came from—and sets them on a journey toward Bordeaux… Toward the ocean. After much hardship and encounters with many different people, the children finally end up imprisoned in a mansion in which they have taken refuge. They can hear the ocean from their dark dungeon—the prize they have spent hungry, tired and wet days of traveling to reach—but are afraid they will now die waiting to be rescued…Never to sea their prize. However, they find a hidden telephone, call their mother—who has been desperately (and ironically) searching for them—and before long are freed by paramedics. All but Yann, who can not be found. The story is told through the points of view of not only the children themselves, but through short snippets of the personalities with which they come in contact. That is how we finally understand what has happened to Yann—through the eyes of an old sea captain who discovers an otherworldly-looking, angelic youth stowed away on his ship.

The story is compelling on its own. It is a crafty retelling of an old tale, with the spin of letting us see the children through the eyes of the different people they encounter—including each other. Because we get to see the situation from so many different points of view, we have the opportunity to “walk a mile” (and really not much more than a mile) of many different people who are, well, different. It is an interesting (and accurate, in my experience having lived in France for three years) opportunity for the reader to live vicariously—to for one moment imagine what life would be like, what perception would be like, in someone else’s mind.

As for cultural markings, not only are there too many to mention while doing them justice, the book itself is French and any remarks I might make on the cultural clues, while probably pretty accurate (alluding back to my intimate knowledge of the French language and culture) would still be seen through an American eye.

Still, this story would be a wonderful book for children (and adults) of nearly any age. For younger children, it’s just a great story—a retelling of a classic tale. For older children, it would be a great way to lead to a discussion of how our filters color our perception—how two people could see so differently the same exact even or situation (even amongst two twins who are purported to be so intimately mentally aligned).

The Pull of the Ocean was the winner of the Prix Sourcieres in France.

Reviews (per

Publishers Weekly:
Starred Review. A mute 10-year-old boy stars in this inventive modern-day play on Charles Perrault's Tom Thumb. Yann, the size of a toddler, is the youngest of seven sons of poor, sour parents and the only one who is not a twin ("Yann came last and alone. Like the period at the end of a sentence"). The lad silently communicates with his brothers, but never with his parents. One night, he overhears his parents bickering and awakens his siblings, letting them know that their father plans to harm them (the author reveals the actual content of the couple's conversation later). Yann then leads the three sets of twins out into the rainy darkness. The peripatetic story weaves together first-person accounts by each twin as well as individuals who have spotted or interacted with the children. Under Yann's direction (he navigates by turning his head in all directions and then pointing the way), the brothers traverse the French countryside, heading west toward the ocean. The story takes a dark turn before they are reunited with their seemingly softened parents. Yet Yann slips away once more, stowing away on a merchant marine ship to continue his journey west. The captain observes, "I had the sudden impression that this child wasn't real, that he had stepped right out of a fairy tale." Indeed, Mourlevat enchantingly blends the harshly real and the make-believe, with the latter tipping the balance as this effectively haunting, fluidly translated tale comes to a close. Ages 12-up.

School Library Journal:
Starred Review. Grade 5–8—A well-crafted mystery awaits anyone reading this fabled jigsaw puzzle. Multiple narratives, each from the point of view of the cast of characters, meticulously reveal pieces of the puzzle while the story slowly unfolds. It is not until the end that one realizes the broader scope of what has happened. Tiny for his age, Yann Doutreleau gathers his three sets of twin brothers together to flee their dismal home after he hears their father's plans to kill them the next day. Malnourished and poorly clothed, the seven boys head out in stormy weather toward the ocean. Only Yann stands out as an oddity and they must carry him in a sack to avoid attention. On their journey, they cross paths with a list of unsuspecting characters, each strangely compassionate toward the boys' plight, each unknowingly contributing to a doomed adventure. Poverty and hardship echo throughout this modern "Tom Thumb" story, but it is ultimately the spirit of brotherhood that is the highlight of this tale. It is a memorable novel that readers will find engaging and intellectually satisfying

The Magic Hat by Mem Fox

Fox, Mem (2002). The Magic Hat. Orlando: Harcourt. ISBN 0152010254.

The Magic Hat is the story of a hat that comes “from out of town” and moves “like this” and “like that” and every time it lands on someone, it turns them into an animal indicative of who the person was before. Finally, a wizard comes to town and makes the hat “STOP.” With a wave of his magic wand, the wizard turns the animals back into people and then quietly, “with a mischievous smile” leaves town with the magic hat on his head.

In my interpretation, the hat is indicative of the filter through which people see when they travel “into town” from somewhere else (figuratively speaking)—meaning we have our own little magic hat we impose on people when we look at them. Just like the hat turned a grumpy old man with a cane into a “warty old toad,” a fat sleeping man with a sandwich on his belly into a “sleepy old bear,” and a mother carrying a baby in her arms into a “kangaroo,” our own “magic hats” turn people into whatever we want them to be. To me, this means that we have the power to decide who people are, and since we are essentially ALSO the wizards who come into town and change the animals back into people, we are the only ones with power to stop our own filters and change our own minds (and, in essence, STOP the stereotyping).

The story is told through rhythm and rhyming, giving the entire book a snappy cadence, making it fun to read and easy to remember. The cartoonish line-drawings, brought to life through watercolor fill (by Tricia Tusa), add to the liveliness of the book. Both of these elements—the language and the illustration—work together to make the story a fun, engaging book. BUT, it is the underlying message that is important. The problem is, that because the book is presented in such a humorous way, the message (at least my interpretation thereof) may not come through (for younger children anyway, and this IS a picture book) without the guidance of an adult.

Therefore, this is an incredible book on its own and serves the purpose of being an amusing read for children as well as an exposure to fun and simple poetic verse. However, for a more in-depth purpose, a teacher or storytime leader could easily ask the probing questions like “What do you think the hat represents?”, “Why does the man on the bench turn into a sleepy bear?” or “Who do you think the wizard is?” to lead children to a discussion about the filters we see through and the power we have to change/control them.

Reviews (per

Publishers Weekly:
The titular topper of this rollicking, rhyming read-aloud is indeed magic: when it blows into town one day, it plops down on the head of resident after resident, instantly transforming each person into an animal. Each time the chapeau lands, Fox (Time for Bed) reprises the refrain, "Oh, the magic hat, the magic hat! It moved like this, it moved like that! It spun through the air!" At this point the author inserts a varying line (e.g., "Like a bounding balloon"; "For a mile and a half"), and a flip of the page reveals what animal the new hat-wearer becomes (in the above instances, a baboon and a giraffe). Kids will eagerly join in the guessing game, which Tusa's (Camilla's New Hairdo) fittingly silly, bustling ink-and-watercolor illustrations whip up into high-octane action. Her clever details add to the clues; for instance, a fruit-stand seller juggles bananas as the hat transforms him into a baboon. A supporting cast of animated children witness the zany goings-on, reacting gleefully to each transformation. These characters' unbridled enjoyment will almost certainly evoke the same response from readers. Ages 3-7.

School Library Journal:
Preschool-Grade 3--A whirling, magical hat sweeps into a bustling park, transforming each adult on whom it alights into a fun-loving animal. Rhymed verses add to the humor and allow listeners to predict what will follow as the page turns. A group of delighted children takes up the path of the hat's swirling confetti, until, at last, a large, but impish wizard appears. He restores the characters to their former selves and leaves a large, spotted egg that hatches, distracting the crowd as he turns to leave. But that's not the end. Donning the hat himself, the wizard becomes a high-spirited boy, framed by starlight, kicking up sparkles. Tusa's ink-and-watercolor images dance with life (even the flowers seem to be in motion); kinetic, double-page designs spill off the pages. Add this to your favorite headpiece storytime. Children will be bursting to participate.

Monday, June 4, 2007


Welcome to Multiculturopia! This is a blog where I will post book reviews of multi-cultural children and young adult literature for my, ta-DA, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults class (LS 5903--special topics) at Texas Woman's University. Pardon the construction as I get things set up. Feel free to take a look at my other blogs: Poetropia--a blog dedicated to youth poetry and BooBookBlog--dedicated to children's literature.