What is most haunting in Kupersmith’s nine multi-layered pieces are not the specters, whose tales are revealed as stories within stories, but the lingering loss and disconnect endured by the still living. With an American father and a Vietnamese “former boat refugee” mother, the author channels her bicultural history to create contemporary, post-Vietnam War glimpses of reclamation and reinvention on both sides of East and West.
In “Skin and Bones,” two Houston sisters visit their Ho Chi Minh City grandmother “to rediscover their roots” but more realistically because “Vietnam Was Fat Camp.” In “Guests,” a pair of American expat lovers have diverging expectations. A dying youth tries to steal another’s body in “Little Brother,” and an insistent knock at the door demands retribution 40 years after the war in “One-Finger.” In “Reception,” set in the titular Frangipani Hotel, the clerk’s family’s past overlaps with the coming new brand of the ugly American.
Verdict: The wunderkind moniker will soon enough be attached to the 1989-born Kupersmith, who wrote most of these stories as a Mt. Holyoke undergraduate. Her mature-beyond-her-years debut deserves equal shelf space with other spare, provocative collections, such as Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds, and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge.
Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, January 1, 2014
Introduced to U.S. readers by award-winning Canadian author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch in last year’s Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War, Son Thi Ahn Tuyet’s story continues – literally one step at a time. Now that Tuyet has a real home with her own real family – Dad, Mom, sisters Beth and Lara, and baby brother Aaron – she’s learning to finally feel safe. Nighttime still remains a bit scary when memories of war and tragedy return to haunt her dreams; no matter how nice her own room is, for now, Tuyet prefers to sleep safely “burrowed into her nest of pillows and covers on the throw rug between Beth and Lara’s beds.”
In addition to adapting to her new family and struggling to understand a culture so different from the one she left in a language she hasn’t yet learned, Tuyet prepares for some of the greatest physical challenges of her young life. The beautiful new red shoe and soft red slipper Mom bought for her polio-damaged feet and legs have already filled Tuyet’s heart with joyful smiles. Now Tuyet faces the first of multiple operations that will someday allow her to walk. In the 1970s, hospital rules did not allow for constant parental interaction as is today’s accepted norm; remarkably, Tuyet endured her surgeries virtually alone.
Thankfully, recovery proved to a full family affair: the whole Morris family not only made Tuyet physically comfortable, but each ensured that she was emotionally buoyed as well. From learning to blow out birthday “fire” and realizing that the beautiful wrapping paper is meant to be torn, to not grabbing her baby brother and seeking shelter at the sound of an airplane, to being able to balance well enough on her own two legs to kick a soccer ball, Tuyet takes her new life – and her steadily recovering legs – one glorious, triumphant step at a time.
“Thank you, Tuyet,” Skrypuch writes in her ending “Author’s Note,” “for allowing me to share your story.” Readers, too – especially younger readers who might be facing any sort of adversity – will surely appreciate Tuyet’s inspiring experiences. Step by step, Skrypuch shows with forthright clarity how Tuyet becomes her own very best hero.
Tidbit: Here’s an update (with pictures!) from Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch herself!
Last year, Last Airlift won the Red Cedar award in British Columbia and was a  Red Maple Honour Book in Ontario. These awards are readers’ choice awards, where kids do the voting. For the Red Maple award, the Ontario Library Association hosts a huge event at Harbourfront in Toronto, with thousands of kids bussed in. I arranged for Tuyet to stand on the stage with me, and for her daughter to hold the sign and her son to introduce the book. We had long snaking line-ups for autographs, and many of the kids wanted Bria and Luke to sign their books in addition to me and Tuyet signing them. I’ve got some photos on my website. Check it out here:
♦ Last Airlift signing with Tuyet and her kids
♦ Red Maple Day at Harbourfront
♦ Tuyet and Red Maple Day
Readers: Middle Grade
Published: 2013 (United States)
DC-area local Chiêu Anh Urban‘s second chunky children’s book is perhaps even more clever than her first. While Raindrops: A Shower of Colors offered a thoroughly kiddie-friendly lesson in color-making, Away We Go! is an entertaining game in learning shapes. Invitingly packaged in vivid hues, Urban makes early reading a full adventure: rather than a one-way exchange from page to audience, she encourages active participation beyond the obvious. And how …!!
The set up seems simple … but definitely not toooooo simple. Go ahead, open up and join in. In the top corner of the left page, Urban poses a question: “Do you see a square?” followed by the corresponding shape. On the left, the truck’s cargo space is represented by a square cut-out; on the right, the train’s body gets the same cut-out square. Easy, right?
Now turn the page: “Do you see a triangle?” Urban queries. But wait! On the left is an ice cream truck with the same square cut-out from the train on the previous page. Hey, that’s not a triangle! But the front windshield is triangular, as is the bottom of the ice cream cone emblem on the toothsome truck’s side! You’ll have to look to the right for the expected cut-out; it makes up one of the sails of the festive boat. Now turn again: “Do you see a heart?” And so the adventures go on – via spaceship, hot-air balloons, police cars, submarines, blimps, and more!
Every double-page spread is an adventure in the obvious and not-so-obvious. For the kiddies, that’s all grand fun … for us old folks, I can’t help thinking Urban is giving us a gentle reminder to pay close attention to all the hidden, oh-so-little-but-really-important stuff. God is in the details and all that, right? Oh, so very clever indeed!
Tidbit: Be sure to continue the fun with activities and party printables, available on Urban’s website, by clicking here.
As part of appreciating the versatile art of LeUyen Pham – who with her hubby Alex Puvilland imbued Friday’s post, Templar, with such swashbuckling energy – I thought I should keep a good thing going by adding a few more Pham-tabulously illustrated titles this bright new Monday. [Truth be told, I wouldn't mind channeling some of that swashbuckling energy myself, ahem!]
Welcome back to Concord, Massachusetts, the literary birthplace for many – including darling Alvin Ho, introduced in Book 1: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things. In spite of … or because of … the many challenges this brave young man faces – most especially he seems unable to speak out loud in school, not to mention being afraid of just about everything – Alvin is one imaginative hero. Armed with his PDK (Personal Disaster Kit), and well supported (whether he wants back-up or not!) by his family (little sister Anibelly is beyond delightful) and friends (Flea with her self-described “‘irregular arms or legs’” is the ultimate example of total girl power!), Alvin is getting through second grade with courage he sometimes forgets he has!
In Book 2, Alvin and Anibelly discover the many joys of camping, even if their only weekend catch is their shocked (upside-down) father. In Book 3, Alvin realizes just in time that getting the ‘right’ birthday invitation doesn’t always mean that’s the ‘right’ party to attend. In Book 4, Alvin’s inability to speak in school causes a life-and-death misunderstanding as he worries about how he will bring himself to attend his grandfather’s friend’s funeral. And, in the latest Book 5 (out this spring), Alvin needs to transform his usual PDK into a Pregnancy Disaster Kit as he just might be in the family way along with his baby-full mother!
Author Lenore Look manages to balance the neverending humor with well-woven moments of reality. As we giggle and laugh with Alvin, Look gently reminds us that children can have serious issues; Alvin sees a counselor regularly to face his fears (and hopefully find his voice). She carefully adds glimpses of the world beyond Alvin’s limited comfort zone by including a bit of history in each installment – from the American Revolution to Native Americans to even the tragic 2010 Haiti earthquake. And, of course, in every volume, LeUyen Pham whimsically gives Alvin his joy, his shock, his worry, his frustrations, his adoration, his appreciation … his reactions are perpetually wondrous under Pham’s pen. Here’s selfishly hoping that this unique fear factor continues for many seasons to come …!!
Readers: Middle Grade
Ready for some swashbuckling adventure … with quite a history lesson thrown in? ” [I]t’s all absolutely true,” author Jordan Mechner promises in his entertaining “Preface,” before he adds, “Well, some of it.”
The history portion goes back to late 13th-into-14th-century France to the “shocking downfall of the Knights of the Temple – a scandal that shook the fourteenth century and reverberates to this day,” Mechner explains. “Bizarrely, although it’s well documented for something that happened 700 years ago, it was a piece of history I’d never seen dramatized – not in a movie, not in a novel, not in a video game.” Until now. And how! The powerful Templars, originally formed during the Crusades, were “the Jedi of their time,” but in 1307, in a deft political move, the King of France ordered the mass arrest (and subsequent torture and murder) of 15,000 Templars. International machinations ensued: “The Order of the Temple was shattered, never to rise again.”
Within those facts, Mechner inserts a wildly sensational thriller of love, loyalty, and loss. Templar Knight Martin is one of the few survivors of the King’s massacre. He manages to rally a motley crew of fellow survivors and supporters, and devises an impossible plan to ferret out the Templar’s missing grand treasure. Never mind that he’s forced to begrudgingly accept the help of his long-lost first (and only) love, while somehow maneuvering around the King’s henchmen who never seem to die … come hell or high water (literally), Martin’s got plans …
Six years in the making, culminating from research Mechner began back in 2002, this could-have-been-true graphic tale comes to vivid life thanks to the husband-and-wife artist team of Alex Puvilland and LeUyen Pham (one of my favorite kiddie book illustrators ever!), who also energetically made Mechner’s Prince of Persia fly off their panels. Make sure to set aside the afternoon (and more), because once you open the book you won’t stop until you run out of pages, after which you’ll most likely turn to the screen to find out more, more, more (even a Luddite like me has to be thankful for the instant gratification of the internet!). Mechner even obligingly provides you a detailed “Afterword” to keep your adventures going … !
Readers: Adult, Young Adult
Both the inside and outside covers here are exactly the same: a mostly well-ordered, three-generation family tree … except for the bottom right corner in which the youngest member – the book’s author/creator GB Tran – is desperately attempting to complete the thus-far neatly organized tree. Under one arm, Tran holds his matching portrait with his initial-ized American name slightly askew, while desperately reaching out to grab the placard that bears his full Vietnamese moniker “Gia-Bao” which is falling just out of his reach. Scattered below him are unnamed portraits that don’t seem to have a designated destination in the familial constellation.
Tran’s pictures throughout this extraordinary graphic memoir speak proverbial volumes. As the only U.S.-born member of his scattered Vietnamese family, he is clearly the ‘odd man out,’ attempting to bridge his American ‘GB’ self with his inherited ‘Gia-Bao’ heritage. Thirty years after his family fled their war-torn country, Tran joins his parents on his first journey to his ancestral home. Packed into his luggage is a high school graduation gift his father gave him – a book about the Vietnam War that got tossed in unread with his comics and PlayStation controls – inscribed with a dedication quote from Confucius: “A man without history is a tree without roots.” Now in his late 20s, death convinces Tran to meet his surviving extended family after both his grandmothers die within months of each other, each on either side of the world. “There’s a lot about your parents you don’t know,” his paternal grandmother had warned shortly before her passing. “And they won’t be alive forever to answer your questions.”
Page by page, Tran pieces together his extended family’s violent, brutal past on both sides of a moving border that divided a war-torn Vietnam and what they had to do to survive, how his parents, three older siblings, and grandmother were able to narrowly escape the devastating Fall of Saigon in April 1975, all the while interweaving his own challenging youth as the youngest son of refugee immigrants who began uncertain new lives in South Carolina and his eventual adulthood as a culturally disconnected young artist. His return ‘home’ to a country and family he’s never met is a revelatory experience, eloquently expressed through vivid, spirited panels filled with memories, dreams, regrets, hopes, and a few answers. Halfway through, Tran’s drawings are interrupted by a single page of collaged photographs that offers a momentary glimpse of his parents’ lives before they were his parents: still-young lovers who have endured so much but seem contentedly unaware of the difficulties and challenges yet to come …
So remember the identical inside and back covers mentioned above? That sameness won’t be an option by the time you reach the final page. As you read from one cover to the other, the portraits at book’s beginning will stop being of strangers from whom you can turn away … after sharing Tran’s illuminating journey, they’ll be just like family, too.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult