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.

Dona Flor by Pat Mora

Mora, Pat. Ill. by Raul Colón (2005). Doña Flor: A Tall Tale About a Giant Woman With a Great Big Heart. New York: Random House. ISBN 0375923373.

Doña Flor is a folktale about a little baby girl who becomes a giant woman because her mother sings to her. As a young (but still GIANT) girl, the village children make fun of her because she can speak every language—“even rattler”—but as she ages, the villagers see the benefits of having a friend of formidable size. Doña Flor can get the children to the escuela in just one step; the patting of her hands as she makes her fresh tortillas every morning is better than an alarm clock; those extra tortillas can be used as roofs—leaving the houses smelling “corn-good”—and rafts for the children. So, Dona Flor becomes popular with both the villages and the animals—especially the birds who nest in her hair.

But one day, when Dona Flor puts her fresh giant tortillas out to share with the villagers, no one comes. After a little investigating, Doña Flor learns that the village is being terrorized by a puma, a huge mountain lion they have been hearing roar as it stalks the village. Still, try as she might, Flor could not find “that darn cat.”

In the meantime, she busies herself by calming down the harsh wind that is blowing the village houses around by hugging him. But by the time she got that done, the villagers were again troubled by the sounds of the roaring mountain lion. Flor did what she could to calm and cheer up her neighbors—she sat outside the library and read stories in the shade, but the children who normally liked to climb all over her were too scared to come out and listen. She made a new river, hoping its babbling sounds would sooth the villagers, but they were still too scared. After a long hot bath in rose pedals, Flor got the idea to ask her animal friends about the mountain lion. They told her to, “Go quietly to the tallest mesa, which she did. There she found a young mountain lion who was roaring through a hollowed-out tree, making his voice sound more terrifying than it actually was.

When the puma saw that he had been discovered, he tried to pretend to be fierce but Doña Flor told him, “Why, you’re just a kitten to me, Pumito” and tamed him with a few scratches behind the ear. She introduced the mountain lion to the villagers—finally soothing their fears—before fluffing up some clouds to sleep on and letting the animals snooze on her… Including one little mountain lion “stretched out over her big toes.”

The story of Dona Flor itself is a captivating one—if somewhat rambling and lengthy, but that’s common among folkloric tales. Other than the corn tortillas (implying a Mexican origin—since tortillas in other Hispanic cultures are different), the mention of adobe and the use of interlanguage, I didn’t recognize many specific cultural markers in the text. The words of this story could arguably be used for nearly any Hispanic culture (again, with the exclusion of the specifically Mexican/Southwestern references) to tell a tale of a giant woman.

The Spanish in the text is sometimes not as naturally incorporated as many other books—perhaps because it is an English-language picture book geared at younger ages who may not have much experience with Spanish. For example, several times when there is Spanish, the English translation immediately appears:
Mira! Look! Big Foot!” they called when she walked by.

Another instance:
Que pasa? What’s the matter?” she asked, bending down to peer into their small doors to see where they were hiding.

Then again, there are other instances were the words pueblo, escuela, estrellas, amigos, un rio, etc. are peppered throughout the text as natural evidence of code-switching. So, while there are a few instances of less-than-natural insertion of Spanish, the overall impression is not awkward.

The illustrations, with their soft lines and grainy pastels, do tell a story that seems to be more Mexican or Southwestern than other Hispanic cultures. First of all, there is the appearance of Dona Flor herself. The way she wears her hair—either in long twin braids down her back or wound in a crown on the back of her head, or long and flowing covered by a shawl—her somewhat Native American features and her simple, modest dress, are in keeping with the images many modern-day-Americans have of traditional Mexican/Southwestern appearance.

The lack of any distinctly island influences would justify the assumption that the story is not set in Puerto Rico or other tropical, Hispanic cultures and the use of typically North American animals such as the deer, the snake, the rabbits—and especially the mountain lion (as opposed to typical Spanish animals like the bull or the stork)—would lead readers to rule out the story being set in continental Spain.

But perhaps the most visually revealing part of the illustrations is in the background. The wide flat plains, the high mountains, the simply dressed campesino-esque villagers (one of whom wears a sombrero), the Southwestern adobe structures, the earthy colors typical of Southwestern art—these are all indicative of what Americans typically see as Mexican/Southwestern.

Whether the text and/or especially the illustrations can be seen to be accurate/authentic or not is debatable. Both the author and the illustrator are Hispanic. According to the note at the back of the book, the author is a native of El Paso, Texas and at the time of publication lived in Santa Fe, so her perceptions of Tex-Mex/Southwestern themes would seem to be accurate. However, there is no mention of Mr. Colón’s background other than the allusion to their first collaboration having won the Tomas Rivera Mexican-American Children’s Book Award—implying that his illustrations have been in the past credible images of Mexican-American life.

As I have mentioned in past analyses, the cultural-historical accuracy, in both text and illustration, are important for the future of not only the culture represented but also the perception of said culture in the minds of its readers. However, the most immediately important thing about a book—especially a picture book—is that its story be captivating and engaging. While this story’s plotline tends to meander and “stop to smell the roses” the ultimate outcome—the taming of the mountain lion and the reconciling of the villagers—does happen and is satisfactory. Also, the illustrations are lively and compelling, imaginative and engaging.


PreS-Gr.2 The creators of Tomas and the Library Lady (1997) offer another glowing picture book set in the American Southwest, but this time, the story is a magical tall tale… Mora strengthens her economical, poetic text with vivid, fanciful touches: the villagers use Flor’s colossal homemade tortillas as roofs, for example. Colon’s signature scratchboard art extends the whimsy and gentle humor in lovely scenes of the serene heroine sweet-talking the animals or plucking a star from the sky. A winning read-aloud, particularly for children who can recognize the intermittent Spanish phrases.

School Library Journal:
PreS-Gr 3-- Although large enough to wrestle the wind, kindhearted Doña Flor dwells in harmony with all living things, so when a puma's roar terrifies her neighbors, she seeks out the "monster gato" and happily discovers that its bark is bigger than its bite. Set in the American Southwest, this lyrical story features lithesome artwork with swirling textures and serene colors. Winner of the 2006 Pura Belpré Illustrator Medal.


PreS-Gr 3-- A charming tall tale set in the American Southwest. Doña Flor, a giant, is a benevolent presence in her pueblo. While at first kids teased the young and large Flor, she quickly became an asset to them, whisking them off to school when they were running late or making tortillas big enough to be used as rafts on the river. The action starts when a puma is heard howling in the vicinity; the villagers are terrified and even Doña Flor can't find it. The animals know where the gato is so she follows their advice and the situation is delightfully resolved. Colón uses his signature mix of watercolor washes, etching, and litho pencils for the art. There is great texture and movement on each page in the sun-baked tones of the landscape. With Spanish words peppered throughout, this is a welcome entry to the canon that includes other heroines like Sally Ann Thunder and Thunder Rose

...Colón's gorgeous illustrations (with his round, swirling scratchboard style in warm, buttery colors) steal the show here, as the pleasantly rhythmic but overly meandering tall tale isn't arresting enough plot-wise to avoid bogging down in its heaps of hyperbole. (Picture book. 6-8)