Books for African-American History Month: Part II

Books for African-American History Month: Part II

Some novels focusing on African-American history and present-day life:

Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis.

Elijah is the first free child born in the Canadian settlement of Buxton, Ontario, populated entirely by refugees from American slavery and their families. When he crosses the border to help a friend, he sees for himself what his parents didn't want to tell him. What I love about this book is that it plunges you into Elijah's world, in which he and his family and neighbors are just regular people, some mischievous, some irritating, before showing you how they escaped from a system in which they were nothing but chattel. This book just won a Newbery Honor Award and a Coretta Scott King book award, and with good reason.

Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, by Mildred Taylor.

Cassie Logan and her family don't have much, but the own their own land, and this alone gives them some protection from the racist inequities of the Deep South in the 1930's. Cassie is a strong and distinctive character, and some of the scenes in this book- like the first day of school, in which Cassie's little brother rebels when he realizes the black kids' school is using the castoff books from white students- have stuck with me for decades.

Maizon at Blue Hill, by Jacqueline Woodson

Maizon, a smart and thoughtful kid from a working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn, wins a scholarship to an exclusive boarding school, where she feels isolated from both the black and white students. This is the middle book in a trilogy about Maizon and her friends, but it can be read on its own, and Jacqueline Woodson is one of those writers who can craft prose that just sings on the page, and keep kids interested at the same time.

Darnell Rock Reporting, by Walter Dean Myers

When Darnell starts reporting for the school newspaper, his sister isn't the only one who has doubts—Darnell's never been a great student. But his interview with a homeless veteran sets events in motion that surprise even Darnell with how much of a difference he can make.

Gloria Rising, by Ann Cameron.

Gloria's dreams of being an astronaut help her keep her head when she faces her teacher's unfairness. A matter-of-fact portrait of a present-day African-American kid. Cameron's books about Gloria's friend Julian, starting with The Stories Julian Tells, are terrific and funny easy chapter books, too.

February 27, 2008

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Pirates and other moral dilemmas

Pirates and other moral dilemmas

Yesterday I had a call from my oldest grandson, a 13 year old who like most of his peers is very very busy with school, sports, religious school, friends, and lots of homework.

I don’t get many of these spontaneous calls from him anymore. I miss the good old days -- watching his eyes light up as he entered Home Depot for the first time, for example. That Sunday afternoon, when he was 3, he was instantly awestruck, asking me, in a hushed tone usually reserved for spiritual awakenings, “Grandma, why do people love tools?” I struggled with some answer or other, not equal to the passion behind the question.

His questions have always seemed remarkable (remember, he is the first grandchild — a walking miracle). The most memorable one he asked at 4, while playing with toy soldiers on my office floor, then suddenly pointing to the “patients’ chair”: “Is that where the people who come to talk to you sit?” “Yes,” I said, asking if he would like to try it. Legs dangling, he asked, truly puzzled, “What do they talk about?” I said they talk about their worries.

“What do they worry about?” he struggled to make sense of this strange occupation of mine; when all at once, he had the answer. “I know. They worry about pirates.” Of course: pirates; there was something to worry about.

Now that he is a young teen, fantastic fears have given way to wondering about the real world, especially what’s right and what’s not and why not. He began yesterday’s phone call by describing the fun he had at a hockey game he had attended with his brother and their dad. His team won, and then the icing on the cake: the next day’s TV sports report showed the three of them in the audience at an exciting moment. That was a reason worthy of calling me. And it led to his talking about some of the current ethical dilemmas in professional sports.

"Grandma, did you see Andy Pettite talking about using steroids? What do you think about Andy? Do you still like him? What about Roger Clemens?” (We are both avid Yankee fans). He really cared about my answers, probing with more follow-up questions. “Why do you forgive Andy, but not Roger?”

“It just seems to me that Andy has paid for his mistake by acknowledging it to the whole world; and you know he hates being put in the media spotlight.”

“Yeah, I know that about Andy. But what about Roger?”

“It seems as if Roger tried to cover up his mistake with lies and got caught, but never could say he was wrong.”

“Yeah, that’s true.” I could hear the energy consumed by a young man, thinking, concentrating as fully as he had when he figured out that pirates were the source of burdening worries. These days, though, it’s more difficult for me to know how I am doing. I walk away wondering if I met the challenge of his eagerness to make sense of it all.

February 26, 2008

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Something must be done

Something must be done

Another, and another, and yet another tragic shooting spree; something must be done, but what? Murder before our eyes in churches, in universities, in malls, in town meetings, the proud locii of our free society. Each unthinkable event has been an assault on our assumed freedom; a blow to the communal solar plexus, leaving us stunned, puzzled, reeling. We ask each other: why? Single explanations don’t satisfy. Something must be done. But, what?

We can’t agree about guns; those convinced that easy access to automatic weapons plays a huge role can’t persuade the second amendment defenders who argue that guns don’t commit murder, people do. Echoing that line of argument are countless examples of fatal stabbings, beatings, poisonings…a psychologist whose life work required compassion and an eagerness to relieve psychic pain hacked to death in her office. But guns are villains again when a 3 year old riding with her parents is brought down in her car seat by a stray bullet, the fallout of warring gangs. It’s all happening in an America so far free of suicide bombings by political dissidents. But our senseless murders involve victims who are equally innocent and unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Something should be done, but what? I’ll tell you what I think: everything. Everything, bar none, should be done, including taking a serious look at entertainment that glorifies and trivializes uncontrolled violence. In my view, we must have stricter gun controls, and notably for citizens with a history of severe mental illness, not just those with criminal records. And the rules should be followed. That does not mean pointing a finger at anyone who has appropriately sought insight and/or relief from psychic distress, but it does mean protecting anyone who has had a break with reality noted by a licensed mental health professional, anyone who has a history of dangerously poor impulse control, anyone who has been deeply alienated and chosen to remain isolated in a college community.

I know these suggestions will evoke the protests of lobbyists for the rights of the mentally ill; but I think acting is essential for the safety of all, the innocent citizens as well as the troubled loner. In our defense of the right to privacy, we have put both the mentally ill and innocent victims in harm's way. By turning away, we protect no one’s rights and instead promote the troubled person’s anomie and psychic disintegration.

To maintain social order and mental integrity, social withdrawal within a university or college community can no longer be ignored. It is time for faculty and other school authorities to be trained in recognizing warning signs of serious mental illness. They can and must intervene, compassionately, when a member of the college community is clearly decompensating before their eyes. Troubled individuals should not be abandoned to their private demons in the name of freedom. The stakes are too high.

February 20, 2008

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Beyond Harriet Tubman: Picture Books for African-American History Month

Beyond Harriet Tubman: Picture Books for African-American History Month

When I was a kid in the 1970's, there weren't a ton of kids' books around on African-American history. I remember reading about only two events: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and Rosa Parks's refusal to move off the bus. I can still see the chalky blue illustrations of the book about Harriet Tubman, and the feel chill that ran through me when I realized how brave she must have been to continue helping people to freedom even with a price on her head and a visible, identifiable scar on her face. (Though I was interested to read, in this list of myths and truths about the Underground Railroad, that most slaves who escaped did so on their own and without "conductors" like Tubman.)

These days, there are so many titles about the African American experience that a comprehensive list would be close to impossible, though this website on African-American Heritage resources and this list of Coretta Scott King Award Winners would be a good start for anyone who wants to share this aspect of American history and heritage with the kids in their lives—or just to read some amazing kids' books for themselves.

The picture books listed below are some of my own favorites; my daughter and the kids at my library have enjoyed them as well:

A fascinating tale, based on the true story of Henry Box Brown, who mailed himself to freedom. The illustrations won a Caldecott Honor award just this year. One 5th grader I knew found this book so compelling that he decided to do his author study project on its author.

In a California Gold Rush settlement, two spirited heroines—one the daughter of an escaped slave, and one a member of the area's only Jewish family—who come up with an ingenious way to foil a slave catcher. 

Life under segregation, as seen through the eyes of one young girl making her first solo trip to the town library. I especially like the way the heroine keeps her grandmother's supportive words in mind to bolster her sense of self in the face of the Jim Crow laws that restrict her at every turn. Based on the author's childhood experiences.

  • Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni; illustrated by Bryan Collier.

My favorite book ever about Rosa Parks, and the only one I've seen that gives real weight to her background as a Civil Rights activist and to the community that supported her. Plus, the illustrations are stunning.

Reginald's dad, a coach in the Negro Baseball League, wants him to be a bat boy, but Reginald would rather play the violin.

Two girls and a fence set the stage for one of the most powerful books I've ever seen about overcoming fear of difference. Woodson's understated text leaves lots of room for readers and listeners to draw their own conclusions.

No history lesson here: just a little girl whose big brother doesn't want her following him around. It might seem obvious, but it's worth keeping in mind that all kids—whatever their own ethnicity—can benefit from books about African-Americans as regular people, not subjects of prejudice or Big Historical Themes. Plus, Jamaica is just a great character who kids can relate to. First in a series of books about Jamaica and her friends.

Coming up in the next post:
Chapter books and nonfiction for African-American History Month

February 18, 2008

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A Grandmom's Movie Review

A Grandmom's Movie Review

No, it’s not a kid movie, in fact it is rated R, no child under 17 permitted without a parent, and for good reason. I strongly advise against bringing any child to it under any circumstances. This film, which has been nominated for many awards and may indeed win a number of them, truly troubled and angered me. I found “There Will Be Blood” very difficult to endure, especially after all the extraordinary rave reviews (off the charts, not merely the typical “Best Movie of the Year,” but best of all time! I couldn’t wait to see it).

Neither my husband nor I had spoken up, but we discovered when the lights went on that we had each wanted to walk out. He didn’t want to intrude, expecting me to find something worthwhile about any film since I do enjoy movies. Not all movie viewing is equally pleasurable, but I usually find something redeeming and have rarely wanted to walk out.

That is why my strong revulsion for “There Will Be Blood” was startling even to me. But I think I know why it evoked anger in me. The acting was good, too good, since the film told a story of greed and what Hannah Arendt (alluding to the Holocaust) called “the banality of evil.” Evil was uncontested and relentless.

Remember, I grew up before the present era of war-like video games that have no heroes, only violence. I was comfortable with Aristotle’s definition of tragedy in drama: There would be a good guy who succumbed because of a tragic flaw in his otherwise fine character. Sometimes bad things happened to good people; and the guy didn’t always get the gal — usually because of some higher moral message, as in “Casablanca.”

I guess I hate to think of a world where nothing is worth fighting for but the fun of fighting, hurting, or annihilating others. I have never read Oil!, the novel by Upton Sinclair on which “There Will Be Blood” is reputedly based, and maybe I should; but knowing a little about Sinclair’s work, my bet is it was a satire (i.e., had a moral message). The film was not. It was simply a display of monstrous character. I found no message and incidentally, hated the direction that the critics also honor. Without the soaring music (including a lot of Beethoven, which provides its own drama), most of the film would be just plain dull. Men dug for silver, then oil; fussed with gadgets; looked grimy and expressionless; the classic composers provided the only passion or affect.

Enough of my lament; but here are the issues: Is it a generational difference that I am describing -- a dissonance between me and my current cultural world? Or do I have a point about the loss of principles, morals, messages, reasons to hope? Is there anything to my deep concern for my grandchildren growing up in a world without an authentic cultural struggle between good and evil; evil apparently having won, hands down?

Have you seen the film? What did you think?

February 13, 2008

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Firecrackers and Red Envelopes: Books for Lunar New Year

Firecrackers and Red Envelopes: Books for Lunar New Year

The Lunar New Year is coming up tomorrow! More and more children's books about this traditional Asian holiday are being published in North America, and I couldn't let the Year of the Rat start without mentioning a few of them:

Year of the Dog, by Grace Lin, was one of my favorite books of 2006. On the one hand, it's nothing dramatic: just a year in the life of a Taiwanese-American girl. She celebrates New Year's with her family, buys school lunch (the lunch lady always gets her mixed up with the one other Asian kid), makes a new best friend, and discovers her talent. But the book is totally charming and perfect for kids who are just starting meatier chapter books. My favorite parts: the family stories that Pacy's parents tell, and the little line drawings sprinkled throughout.

Another Grace Lin book, this one for a younger audience, is Bringing In the New Year! Simple text and vibrant, cheerful illustrations show a family getting ready to celebrate the Lunar New Year: sweeping out the old year, making dumplings, getting a haircut, watching firecrackers, and finally, joining in a parade where a newly-awakened dragon heralds a lucky New Year.

Similarly, the young Chinese-Korean protagonist of Janet Wong's This Next New Year brings in the New Year by cleaning the house, eating a special New Year's soup, and celebrating with fireworks and a parade, and hoping for luck. It's nice to see a book that includes traditions from Korea as well as China, and where the hero's friends of different heritages enjoy sharing the celebrations, and though the text is spare—it would be a great read-aloud—you really get a sense of the hero's yearning for better things in the year to come.

Finally, a slightly older title: Sam and the Lucky Money, by Karen Chinn. I'm especially fond of this one because it has an actual plot, which can be a scarce commodity in books about holidays that are historically less well-known to the general American public (look for my rant on Purim books, coming up next month). As Sam faces the dilemma of how to spend his New Year's money, the reader gets a taste of one family's celebrations, along with some food for thought about the meaning of luck and about generosity.

A few more Lunar New Year titles:

  • Dragon Dance, by Joan Holub
  • Dragon Dancing, Carole Lexa Schaefer
  • Happy New Year, by Demi
  • My First Chinese New Year, by Karen Katz
  • New Clothes for New Year's Day, by Hyun-joo Bae

Enjoy, and may this next New Year be a lucky one for us all!

February 6, 2008

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Beware of "Simple Scales"

Beware of "Simple Scales"

After years of submitting to the rules and regulations of federally funded research fellowships and faculty appointments, it is wonderfully liberating to say what I think in this open venue. Blogging allows the freedom to express opinions; and as you may have noticed, I have a few. I sure have one about a recent report of the creation of a “simple mental health screening process” for pre-kindergartners. (Note: I have read only a summarizing report of the author’s enthusiastic endorsement of this “simple scale,” but, as I will explain, that’s enough to scare me.)

The author himself cautions that this new screening system “is not a diagnostic tool”; it merely identifies “problems that could be a precursor to a more serious disorder” (meaning, it also “could not” be): a very important proviso that undoubtedly will be generally overlooked. We busy human beings are so hungry for simple solutions that we are inclined to skip over the fine print and endow even the most limited tools with unwarranted authority. The best measurement tools we have in psychology (meaning the most valid and reliable) are certain IQ tests, but even an IQ score is predictive of very little besides academic performance. These are tests that have been fine-tuned for at least 100 years, and yet they continue to be controversial. We are inclined to put even less predictive faith in any tests when the “subjects” are those unpredictable creatures: preschoolers.

So along comes this cheerful announcement that there is a new system for screening preK kids by questioning their parents and teachers. It is described as screening for emotional, social, and language difficulties which are likely to impede future learning and could even be precursors to a “more serious disorder.”

There are a very few pronouncements made in my graduate training that have stayed with me to this day. One of them is that tests and screening instruments are not as accurate predictors of a child’s future academic performance as is his previous (or current) school performance. Certainly, this new screening instrument has in its favor the fact that teachers and parents provide the information sought. I was taught to listen closer to what teachers say about a child’s performance than to test scores in deciding things like school placement. And we know that parents know their kids better than anyone else or any test does. That is all reassuring.

My concern is that this or any instrument will be endowed with a predictive power it does not inherently deserve. We are told that all the tests of the test were reassuring; so far it has proven to have impressive predictive value. But it is still an arbitrary set of questions which may not be relevant in any number of individual situations.

We can’t turn over the responsibility for offering helpful intervention to the kids who seem to need it based solely or even primarily on any mental health screening device without a package warning: “Caution: This is only one possible indicator that a child may need unspecified psychological help to do reasonably well in school. No child should be defined by these or any other formal screening results alone.”

February 5, 2008

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