Thursday, August 2, 2007

Moses Goes to a Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews (via

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

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

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

The House You Pass on the Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The letter continues:

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

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

And then Staggerlee reacts to the letter:

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews (via

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews (via

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

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

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