Tag Archives: Civil rights

Flight by Sherman Alexie

FlightI spent my last birthday with Sherman Alexie … and a few hundred others, too. He happened to be in residence for a week at our son’s new school (!), and son came home announcing that Alexie thought son’s name made him sound like a superhero!

That night, Alexie made a community-wide appearance following a screening of his and Chris Eyre‘s iconic film, Smoke Signals. As Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian had just hit the #2 spot of the latest “Top Ten Challenged Books” and Banned Books Week 2013 was about to commence, Alexie had a few choice words to share about freedom of speech and more. His enlightening hysterics made quite the memorable birthday gift.

So all this is related! Because Smoke Signals star Adam Beach pitch-perfectly narrates Flight, 10 years after his celluloid performance. “Call me Zits,” Alexie’s genre-defying slim novel opens. Beach’s delivery is as deadpan as Alexie’s’ storytelling as his 15-year-old protagonist time travels from his troubled young life through multiple decades and bodies.

Zits lost his Indian father – “more in love with beer and vodka than with my mother and me” – almost at birth. At 6, his Irish mother passed away: “I sometimes wish she’d died when I was younger so I wouldn’t remember her at all.” He moved in with an aunt whose boyfriend abused him, and then through 20 foster homes and 22 schools. Angry, alone, and lost, Zits is a pixellated hapa adolescent who’s “been partially raised by too many people.”

He meets a boy named Justice who convinces Zits to take part in a bank shoot-out. Zits should have died, but instead, he wakes to find himself in the 1970s, in the body of a white FBI agent who witnesses the murder of “two famous Indian guys.” His adventure is just beginning, as he lands in Little Bighorn as a young Indian boy without a voice, as the “best Indian tracker in the entire U.S. Army,” as a pilot and flight instructor who still misses his favorite student, and then, shockingly, as his own missing father.

Zits’ impossible journey is filled with lessons in broad perspective … and, because Alexie is writing the nuanced story, mixed in with the racism, violence, and tragedy, humor is also never far. Alexie deftly balances between surreal fantasy and brutal reality, as he guides young Zits toward an identity – and a “real name”! – with possibility and promise.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2007

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Native American

The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis, Seattle, Washington, 1941 by Kirby Larson

Fences Between UsHow’s this for new math: the first 286 pages hold about the same weight as the final 25 pages. The fictional diary expounds and entertains, revealing a 13-year-old’s West Coast experiences during World War II; the ending “Life in America in 1941” section illuminates and educates, providing readers resonating historical and personal context to one of America’s most shameful wartime decisions.

On November 8, 1941, Piper Davis’ recently enlisted older brother Hank sets off for Hawai’i to serve in the U.S. Navy. That Saturday, for the first time in her life, Piper begins writing in her diary, a gift from Mrs. Harada who has cared for her since she was a baby after her mother passed away. “DeeDee” – as in “Dear Diary” – becomes the repository for a tumultuous year-and-a-half of young Piper’s life.

One month later, Hank thankfully survives the Pearl Harbor bombing, but back on the mainland, the battles are just beginning. As the pastor to the Seattle Japanese Baptist Church, Piper’s father witnesses the ugliness of wartime racism. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signs Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, Pastor Davis loses his entire congregation when church members are first relocated to the horse stalls of “Camp Harmony,” then imprisoned at Camp Minidoka in Idaho. With unprecedented courage, the pastor follows his flock.

Piper tries to maintain a ‘normal’ life, going to school, spending time with her friends, and navigating her first romance. But she also watches as her Japanese American friends she has known all her life are targeted and punished for crimes they never committed. Although she gravely protests when her father uproots her to Idaho, her own experiences at Minidoka provide invaluable life lessons: “Mrs. Harada taught me that a good broom and good faith are essential tools when facing the dust of life. Mr. Matsui taught me that there is beauty to be found even in the middle of a desert. But it was Pop who helped me to learn the most important thing of all … even if we can’t do much about the fences that get built around people, when fences get built between people, it’s our job to tear them down.”

Author Kirby Larson doesn’t end her story there. In addition to a thorough, detailed “Historical Note,” haunting photographs of actual events that add at least a thousand words each, a cookie recipe that adds a sweet interlude, the transcript of FDR’s “Infamy speech” (the audible version, read adroitly by Elaina Erika Davis, offers the actual recording of FDR’s fateful address!), the final “From the Author” addition is perhaps the most powerful two pages of all.

A Washington State resident for most of her life, Larson didn’t know about the WWII fate of some 120,000 Japanese Americans until she went to college in the 1970s: “How could I have grown up in an area where thousands of residents had been forced from their homes without being aware of it?” Decades later, while conducting World War I research for her 2007 Newbery Honor BookHattie Big Sky, Larson came across an interview with a German American woman who delivered groceries to her Japanese American neighbors the day after Pearl Harbor. “’I remember during the other war when my mother couldn’t buy any food anywhere. I am afraid that might happen to you,’” she told her neighbors.

When Larson learned about Emery “Andy” Andrews, the real-life pastor who followed his congregation from Seattle to Twin Falls, Idaho, and Minidoka, Larson knew she had her story. And on this 72nd anniversary of “a date which will live in infamy,” we definitely have ours.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Japanese American, Nonethnic-specific

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

Teaspoon of Earth and SeaBefore she is even a teenager, Saba Hafezi reveals herself to be quite the unreliable narrator. Telling stories, however, is what will save her youthful soul … and many of those around her. “This is the sum of all that Saba Hafezi remembers from the day her mother and twin sister flew away forever, maybe to America, maybe to somewhere even farther out of reach,” Dina Nayeri‘s ambitious, sprawling debut novel opens.

At 11, Saba and her father are irrevocably separated from beloved mother and twin. Father and daughter quietly settle in a remote northern Iranian village on the Caspian Sea, where a coven of local women raise Saba, feeding her, chiding her, nurturing her, loving her. She is one of an inseparable threesome – the beautiful Ponneh and the desirable Reza whose mother regularly interrupts Saba’s tales with her own. Being only half a family, growing up deprived of her other half, Saba seems to live only half her own life. To compensate, she imagines what Mahtab and their maman might be experiencing on the other side of the world as she carefully constructs their faraway lives based on her obsessions with pirated copies of American television shows and films, and illicit copies of English-language books.

But in spite of her daydreams of (im)possibility, Saba’s must accept some semblance of immediate normalcy. She matures into young womanhood, agrees to an arranged marriage to a much older man who welcomes her with kind gentleness … until she asks for what he deems as too much. She witnesses the controlling, violent, murderous injustices happening all around her, always encroaching closer to home. Safety can no longer be ensured, and both father and daughter realize they must invent a new narrative to guarantee Saba’s future.

“I am an Iranian exile,” Nayeri writes in her ending “Author’s Note.” “This story is my dream of Iran … Saba longs to visit the America on television as I long to visit an Iran that has now disappeared.” Just as Saba feeds her assumptions and dreams, Nayeri had an international team of willing friends, family, colleagues who “helped [her] research this book from the United Sates, France, and Holland.” Takes the world to create a village these days, especially one that no longer exists.

Twenty years after Saba’s last memory of her departing mother and sister (recounted over 420 pages or 15.5 hours if you choose to have Sneha Mathan lull you into imaginary worlds), nothing – and absolutely everything – will have changed: “I must stop telling myself stories, but it is too much in my nature,” Saba ponders on the final page. Even at book’s end with so much revealed, we remain too mesmerized not to continue to believe.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

If You Could Be MineLet me know if you’ve heard this one before … because I’m convinced this is one of the most unusual narratives I’ve come across in years! Here’s first love with quite the surprising contemporary socio-political twist!

As the daughters of two best friends, Sahar and Nasrin were destined to spend their young lives together. At 8, Sahar announced that she intended to marry Nasrin. Now at 17, Sahar’s mother has been dead for five years, her father never quite recovered – sometimes, he seems to be as much a missing parent as his beloved late wife. Always a serious student, Sahar dreams she will go to Tehran University and become a surgeon. She never imagined that her regular “study sessions” with Nasrin – filled more with stolen kisses than books – would come to such an abrupt end: beautiful, spoiled, pampered Nasrin is fulfilling her parent’s wishes and getting married in just a few months.

Shocked and desperate, Sahar is willing to do anything to claim Nasrin. When she meets Parveen, a friend of her older (wilder) cousin Ali, she’s inspired to change her entire being for the chance to stop Nasrin’s wedding. Parveen is a transsexual; in a country where homosexuality is punishable by death, gender reassignment is not only legal, but the financial costs of changing sex are even covered by the government. After Thailand, Iran has the second highest number of sex change operations in the world! Now Sahar must quickly decide whether first love is worth giving up her identity … 

In an essay on her publisher’s websiteSara Farizan talks about writing the book her “inner teenager … wished for years earlier.” Farizan is the daughter of Iranian immigrants who was “deeply closeted until college”; as she thought of her own struggles with her sexuality, she considered “what it would mean for someone like me to grow up in Iran, having the same feelings I had but being unable to express them as openly as I can in the United States.” And so begins Farizan’s intriguing, engrossing, unique debut novel.

Tidbit: DC-area folks! Take note – Sara Farizan is coming to Politics and Prose tonight at 7:00. Click here for more information.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American

The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden

Wedding GiftTwo sisters, born three months apart on the same Alabama plantation, could not have more different lives. As the daughter of a slave, Sarah is Master Allen’s property; as the legitimate Mrs. Allen’s youngest child, Clarissa is a pampered young lady of means. Playmates as children, Sarah is eventually given to Clarissa’s new household as her personal servant when Clarissa marries an older widower. What is clearly a financial arrangement of convenience threatens the future of the entire Allen estate.

Told in chapters narrated by Sarah and Mrs. Theodora Allen, both women reveal a pre-Civil War society that allowed few freedoms for women, regardless of their skin tones. Being a slave is surely the most heinous existence: when Sarah’s mother Emmeline refuses Master Allen after years of nightly service, he sells Sarah’s older sister to a faraway plantation where she is inhumanely tortured. Theodora arrives on the plantation as a hopeful young wife, and while her privileged status provides lavish creature comforts, she remains a victim of the Master’s violent whims and debaucheries, just as their daughter Clarissa is, in effect, ‘sold’ to the highest bidder.

According to the press release accompanying the galley, first-time author Marlen Suyapa Bodden – who works as an attorney with The Legal Aid Society in NYC – based her novel “on a true court case in Alabama in the 1800′s.” Although the novel’s official publication date is scheduled for later this month, Gift is already a national bestseller, thanks to a 2011 self-published debut that put 150,000 copies into circulation. I might also add that with an African American author, Gift seems rare among recent bestsellers featuring African American narratives: Tara Conklin’s The House Girl, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks were all written by non-African Americans.

As Gift returns to shelves now backed by a major publisher (St. Martin’s Press, part of the vast Macmillan network), it’s also available to stick in your ears, narrated by January LaVoy, who embodies Sarah’s character with determination and authority, and Jenna Lamia, whose flighty youthful voice is surely an example of unfortunate casting. Lamia might have been an ideal choice to personify Clarissa had the chapters been thus written, but her narration lacks any solemnity as the long-suffering Theodora.

That said, even at 10.5 hours, the audible narrative moves more swiftly than on the page; Lamia aside (Sarah’s chapters, thankfully, outnumber Theodora’s), Gift just sounds better than it reads. In silent print, the dialogue, especially, is predictable and stilted, but add a bit of breathily modulated southern accent and such judgment is easily eclipsed. [Could Oprah or Tyler Perry be thinking celluloid?]

With the weather cooling, grab your headset and let the miles fly by with this historic saga of two ill-fated sisters – who needs enemies when you’ve got your own family to wreak such ruinous destruction?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011, 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American

The Slave Poet of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sean Qualls

Poet Slave of CubaAwarded the 2008 Pura Belpré Medal, “presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth,” Margarita Engle‘s biography-in-verse introduces Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano to younger readers.

Born into slavery in 1797 to a titled family, Juan is quickly adopted – in the way pets are claimed – by the wife of a wealthy plantation owner he refers to as La Marquesa: “The boy is much cleaner than poodles and parrots / or the Persian cats … / I treat him like my own / I tell him he’s the child of my old age.” He must call her Mamá, even though he has a loving mother and father of his own; La Marquesa pampers him, while he performs her every request.

By the time La Marquesa passes away when Juan is 11, she has allowed his parents to buy their freedom and promised Juan’s upon her death, but instead, he is sent to his so-called godparents where his new owner, La Marquesa de Prado Ameno, treats him as a prized possession she both abhors and cherishes. His near-death experiences of violent abuse are countless, and often he is saved just in time by his cruel owner’s son, who both admires and cares for Juan like a sibling. In spite of all that horror, Juan manages to find inspiring solace in the power of words.

Engle enriches Juan’s own story with the rotating voices of his parents, his owners, his defender Don Nicolás, and even “The Overseer” who comes to feel shame for the abhorrent beatings he is forced to inflict on Juan. The result proves to be a celebration of a remarkable life of tenacity and imagination that miraculously rises out of tortuous conditions. If you choose the audible option, you’ll be rewarded with a full-cast performance, although it’s slightly marred by a strangely affected narration of La Marquesa de Prado Amano; oddly, narrator Yesenia Cabrero has no such issues when she voices Juan’s mother’s passages. If stuck-in-the-ears is how you read, make sure to still check out the page as Sean Qualls‘ gentle drawings are certainly worth a special visit to your library or local bookstore.

That Juan Francisco Manzano’s literary legacy survives more than two centuries after his birth, is inspiring testimony to both his difficult life and his creative accomplishments. And, that Engle – herself a Cuban American poet, as well as novelist and journalist – received over a dozen awards and honors for Slave seems surely to be poetic justice indeed.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Biography, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, Caribbean, Latino/a

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry and Joe Henry

Furious CoolThe latest biography of “the world’s most brilliant stand-up comedian” is the culmination of a project that took more than a decade (originally intended as a three-act screenplay) by screenwriter David Henry and his brother, musician Joe Henry. Born in 1940 in Peoria, IL, Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III was raised by his grandmother, who ran a brothel in which his mother “also turned tricks.” Raped at five by a teenage bully (who, decades later, appeared with his son seeking Pryor’s autograph), Pryor found respite from his oppressive childhood by acting in local theater.

Leaving the first of six wives and his first two (of seven) children, Pryor arrived in New York City in 1963, embarking on a career that spanned clubs, television, and film, finding unparalleled success as a black performer in a racially stratified industry. Universally lauded as a genius, Pryor never overcame his drug addictions, spectacularly exemplified by his 1980 freebasing-induced self-immolation.

Verdict: More a compilation of assiduous research than a narrative – with irreverent profanity that echoes Pryor’s performances – this book should succeed in introducing a legend to new generations. Readers raised on dystopia will find Pryor’s life tragically epic.

Review: “Arts and Humanities,” Library Journal, September 1, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, African American

I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. by Arthur Flowers, illustrated by Manu Chitrakar, designed by Guglielmo Rossi

I See the Promised LandArthur Flowers, a “blues-based” performance poet, musician, and professor, introduces himself as “Rickydoc Trickmaster,” to render the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. into a biography for younger readers, as traditional Patua Indian scroll painter Manu Chitrakar brings Flowers’ recitation to vibrant life. Their combined efforts create an outstanding cultural hybrid of unexpected storytelling and graphic traditions. Unlike the majority of children’s titles which celebrate and sustain only MLK’s iconic leadership, this collaboration clearly distinguishes itself by bearing witness (surprise, surprise!) to his stumbles and failures, as well.

Flowers realizes that to understand MLK’s legend is to have awareness of the context in which he rose to prominence: the legacy of slavery, the decimation of a people’s psyche, the continued injustices almost a century after laws were changed. “This is the world into which Martin Luther King is born,” he explains. “This is the world that provide the call he come to answer.”

I See balances the legacy of the epic leader who hit his pinnacle with his defining “I Have a Dream”-speech ["King is at the top of his game"], with his difficult, lesser known personal struggles. Flowers is frank and direct about King’s philandering (his confessions caught on wire-tap by J. Edgar Hoover were sent to King’s family on the day he was chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize!), his ego (his tendency to “rather lovingly list” his awards in public), his misjudgments (being accused of “being an Uncle Tom” – although Flowers also argues Uncle Tom “has gotten a bad rap”), and his desperate attempts to revive his declining leadership (“run out of Chicago … and his nonviolence strategy has been immolated in the fires of Watts”).

Yes, MLK was human, after all, Flowers contends. But he also reminds, “The Civil War may have delivered the blacks from slavery, but it was Martin Luther King delivered us from bondage.” With Flowers story told, Chitrakar’s panels finished, “… this spell is done. God’s blessings on us all.” A resounding amen to that.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2010 (India), 2013 (revised edition, Canada and United States)


Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Biography, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Nonfiction, African American, Indian, South Asian

As Fast As Words Could Fly by Pamela M. Tuck, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

As Fast As Words Could FlyIn segregated Greenville, North Carolina, 14-year-old Mason Steele has the rare talent to transcribe his father’s impassioned descriptions of civil rights incidents into effective business letters determined to educate and change people’s minds. His father’s civil rights group rewards young Mason’s efforts with a typewriter. With patience and dedication, Mason learns every letter and symbol of the shiny machine.

That fall, local school segregation ends – at least by law. But when Mason and his brothers begin at Belvoir High, the bus will not stop to pick them up. Even their summer friends warn, “‘You Steele boys are asking for trouble.’” Mason proves to be a good student, regardless of the rude principal, the unfriendly teachers who call him ‘boy,’ the unwelcoming students. He is especially adept at typing, so much so that he is grudgingly allowed to represent Belvoir at a county typing competition. Under Mason’s fingers, the keys move as fast as words could fly …

Pamela M. Tuck‘s ending “Author’s Note” reveals her book is “based on the real-life experiences of my father, Moses Teel Jr., during the 1960s.” As her father provided the words for his own father, Tuck does the same for her father, transcribing his memories into this inspiring book, richly enhanced by Eric Velasquez‘s evocative, detailed illustrations. Father and daughter’s multi-generational accomplishment is an effective reminder that “ordinary people … played an integral part in moving our country in this direction [toward tolerance and the acceptance of diversity]. Their hard work, determination, and courage set an example for all who face challenges to their rights and freedoms.”

Although Tuck won favorite multi-culti children’s publisher Lee & Low’s New Voices Award in 2007, that her Words hit shelves earlier this year couldn’t be more timely. The reactions during this first week following the July 13, 2013 George Zimmerman verdict in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, including President Obama’s highly personal speech on Friday, July 19 ["Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago"], clearly show our society – a half-century after the events in Tuck’s title – still faces daily challenges to protecting rights and freedoms for all. Books like this remain as necessary as ever to teach our children, teach them early, teach them well. President Obama encourages: ” … we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long and difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union, not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.” That, indeed, is the audacity of hope for us all.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Biography, .Fiction, African American

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

House GirlGive me a story with two narratives interwoven through nonlinear timelines and, usually, I’ll be one committed reader. The House Girl opens in 1852 rural Virginia with a teenage slave girl named Josephine, then fast forwards in the next chapter to Lina, an ambitious attorney in 2004 New York City. Josephine, the primary caretaker to her dying mistress, plots her escape. Lina, 150 years later, searches for a perfect plaintiff to represent a would-be landmark case seeking substantial reparations for descendants of American slaves. To decipher the (non-familial – nope, not that easy!) relationship between the two disparate characters requires almost 400 pages (or, if you go audible, nearly 15 hours) through a labyrinth of well-guarded secrets, lost identities, and unjust history.

Sounds promising, right? Alas, the dual stories often felt like dueling narratives, wavering between high-brow social treatise and soap opera-like antics (including even a dead mother who comes back to life!). Curiosity kept me reading, yes … but finishing got me thinking …

Split narratives aside, here’s my pressing dilemma: Because I chose to listen to Bahni Turpin whose narration is distinctly African American, I (wrongfully) assumed Lina was African American. In Google-ing author Tara Conklin‘s website to link here, I found an NPR interview that questions Conklin about “… whether she worried about writing a novel about slavery with mostly white characters,” which caused substantial surprise. That Conklin herself is seemingly white (based on her author photo), that “‘You’re not black enough’” is a pivotal line in the novel, that realizing only after reading a book about slavery that it has a single African American main character … well, I confess that context cannot be ignored.

The act of claiming someone else’s story – represented here by canvases of haunting portraits, both historical (Josephine’s) and contemporary (Lina’s father’s paintings of her absent mother) – looms large throughout these pages. How disturbingly ironic that the novel itself seems to echo that sense of appropriation: The House Girl is essentially a white author’s story of an African American slave girl told mostly through white characters. The novel’s details quickly pale as I find I myself challenged (again) to ponder – in our supposedly post-racial 21st-century society, just how much do historic ‘black’ and ‘white’ labels matter … literally?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Nonethnic-specific