Tag Archives: Grandparents

Bird by Crystal Chan

BirdIn the small town of Caledonia, Iowa, Jewel stands out: she’s “‘half-Jamaican, a quarter white, and a quarter Mexican.’” As if to provide a physical embodiment of Jewel’s hapa background, the audible producers cast Amandla Stenberg, who played the heartbreaking role of young Rue in the film version of The Hunger Games. No doubt, Stenberg’s nuanced narration is a literary gift.

While Jewel’s appearance marks her as different in Caledonia, her family’s tragedy is what most circumscribes her young life. On the day she was born, her 5-year-old brother John – called Bird for “the way he kept jumping off things” – plummeted off a nearby cliff as he “tried to fly.” With his death, Grandpa stopped talking. Birthdays, understandably, were the most difficult of all: “I’ve always had to share my special day with the silence behind Grandpa’s closed door and the silence at the cemetery and the silence that hangs thick between Mom and Dad’s words.”

On the night of her 12th birthday, Jewel finds a stranger in “her” tree: a boy named John who is as “dark as the night sky,” who introduces himself as a neighbor’s visiting nephew from Virginia. He bluntly explains his lack of family resemblance: “‘I’m adopted. Raised by white people. It’s not as bad as it sounds.’” As the two become fast friends, Grandpa becomes agitated to the point of violence; he’s convinced that John is a “duppy” – an evil spirit from Caribbean folklore that Grandpa and Jewel’s father believe caused Bird’s death. Yet John’s possible resemblance to a brother she never knew makes him that much more intriguing to Jewel. For the rest of her family, John’s presence is both threatening and comforting, and eventually forces the too-many secrets to break through their silent surface.

Debut author Crystal Chan clearly shares a Midwest, small-town, mixed-race background with her protagonist: in addition to her bio, her author website offers a fun FAQ page with the question “What mix are you?” Her answer, complete with two photographs as a child with each parent, is: “My dad is from Hong Kong, and my mom is from Wisconsin and is of Polish descent. So I grew up eating pierogies, along with stir fry.”

Chan writes deftly not only about being different surrounded by homogeneity, but the conflict within those differences for both Jewel and transracially adopted John. Bird proves to be an empathetic, resonating read, full of wisdom, grace, hope, and – of course – the greatest love.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Carribbean American, Chinese American, Hapa, Latino/a

Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj

Abby Spencer Goes to BollywoodOkay, so what are the chances?! Varsha Bajaj‘s exuberant debut middle grade novel begins with a food allergy that sends her teen protagonist, the titular Abby Spencer, to the ER with an anaphylactic reaction. Talk about eerily prescient – less than 12 hours later, I’m repeating Abby’s opening number, Benadryl shot “meant for the baby hippo,” ambulance, and all. Before old age kills me, overcautious doctors will, egads!

“‘No one in my family is allergic to coconut,’” Abby’s mother tells the ER staff. “‘What about Abby’s father?’” is, naturally, the next question the doctor asks. At 13, Abby has spent her life explaining “‘Families come in all shapes and sizes’” when kids voiced curiosity about her absent paternal parent. Sure, she’s wondered, but Abby’s ever-caring mother and doting maternal grandparents have been all the family she’s needed … until now.

That coconut allergy is reason enough to want to know more at least about her medical inheritance. Although her mother is ready with a few answers, the internet ends up providing far more: Abby’s father, who has changed his name since he was a college student in Dallas with her mother, turns out to be Bollywood’s most famous mega-star. After a few fraught phone calls and Skype sessions, Abby’s flying first-class to Mumbai, to a family she never even knew she had … not to mention more glamor and surprises than she could ever have imagined.

Bajaj occasionally tries too hard to make her teen tale contemporary, even as she mixes in Taylor Lautner and Simon Cowell with the 1960s Jetsons and a so-called “PBS voice,” all in a few pages. If nothing else, such references are more likely to unnecessarily date her modern fairy tale. That said, Bajaj carefully presents Abby’s unexpected journey to the other side of the world as quite the eye-opening experience. Mingling with the over-the-top fabulous are important glimmers of reality: the grinding personal price of fame, the paralyzing consequences of tradition, parental neglect however unintended, the extreme poverty amidst vast luxuries that teems throughout Mumbai.

Young readers in search of an international adventure will surely enjoy accompanying Abby on the page. Bajaj’s vivid descriptions of paneer and pooris should inspire repeated visits to an Indian kitchen. Place an order for takeout, then queue up Dhoom 1, 2, or 3. Although no one compares to my Aamir, I’m guessing Abby’s Dad is not unlike Hrithik Roshan: “Dhoom again and run away with me on a roller coaster ride, dhoom again and see your wildest dreams slowly come alive.” Dancing yet …?

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Hapa, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai

Dust of EdenPlease correct me if I’m wrong here: The Japanese American imprisonment has been the focus of many, many titles for audiences of all ages, via fiction, non-fiction, poetry, short stories, plays, graphic titles, picture books, and more, but I believe Mariko Nagai‘s Dust of Eden is the first novel in verse on the subject. Again, please enlighten me otherwise …

Mina Masako Tagawa, 13, lives in Seattle with her journalist father, her homemaker mother, her rose breeder grandfather, and her track star older brother Nick. Her cat is named Basho, her best friend is Jamie. Until December 7, 1941, Mina is an ordinary American girl, and then suddenly she is reduced to a “Jap“: “We are not Americans, the eyes tell us. / We do not belong, the mouths curl up. / We are the enemy aliens, the Japs.”

Mina and her family are among the 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent taken from their homes and imprisoned during World War II. First Mina’s father is arrested without cause. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, the family is given a week to gather their belongings. They are initially “evacuated” to the horse stalls of Camp Harmony in Puyallup, 30 miles south of Seattle, until they are shuttled away by cattle train to the remote dust fields of Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. “We held our breath for three / years. We did not have anything to call / our own …”

Those three years bring separation, isolation, devastation. Jamie is Mina’s one constant on the outside. One teacher renames the students with “American names. / So we can be more American, / she says.  So we will be less / the enemy alien”; a more thoughtful teacher returns the children’s identities. Father is released, only to watch Nick demonstrate his loyalty to the government that imprisoned him by offering his very life.

Nagai captures a family in flux, caught in someone else’s blame, struggling to stay together, fighting to understand. Perhaps because Nagai herself is Japanese-born and currently Tokyo-domiciled, her final “Epilogue” – a letter sent by Nick from the other side of the world – is especially compelling. While nothing is particularly new here, Nagai’s crystalline phrases, stanzas, lines that barely cover 120 pages prove gorgeously resonating.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, Japanese American

Ripper by Isabel Allende, translated by Ollie Brock and Frank Wynne

RipperJust as her latest book was hitting shelves, the near-deified Isabel Allende opened mouth, inserted foot during an interview on NPR and set off a firestorm of negative reaction. On mysteries, she intoned, “I will take the genre, write a mystery that is faithful to the formula and to what the readers expect, but it is a joke.” Uh-oh. Two-and-a-half weeks later (after at least one bookstore returned all copies to her publisher), she was out apologizing, insisting her own comments were the joke. They say no press is bad press, but …

Having already loaded Ripper on my iPod before her ‘joke’ grabbed headlines, curiosity made me hit that ‘play’-button. I would have loved a studio sneak peek to see what sort of faces narrator Edoardo Ballerini must have made while recording what became the final 14.5 hours; to his credit, except for briefly stumbling over a Scottish accent, Ballerini admirably slogs through the almost-500 pages.

“My sleuth will not be this handsome detective or journalist or policeman or whatever. It will be a young, 16-year-old nerd,” Allende revealed in that infamous interview. [Call me wrong, but Amanda seems to be 17 here, referenced thusly on pages 30, 146, and 190.] “My female protagonist will not be this promiscuous, beautiful, dark-haired, thin lady. It will be a plump, blond, healer, and so forth.”

What Allende should have also warned was that she was throwing in just about every stereotype: the ex-vet Asiaphile who can’t satisfy his dragon-lady S&M girlfriend (because he couldn’t finish that “manual” with “something beige in the title – or maybe it was gray”), the arrogant old rich man who falls for someone of the wrong net worth, the innocent good girl corrupted by the popular big-boy-on-campus, the Asian houseboy (although he has the glorified title of ‘butler’ – so that at least one person can say, ‘the butler did it’; he didn’t), and on and on! Oh, she even adds ghosts (magic realism made Allende mega-famous, after all) – including one named Sharbat, “like the girl with green eyes on the famous National Geographic cover“!

So that ‘nerdy’ sleuth, Amanda, and her grandfather/”henchman,” Kabel (an acronym of his real name Blake), regularly play a computer-facilitated game called Ripper with a group of motley teens scattered around the world. They’re the first to discover that the gruesome murders plaguing San Francisco are the work of a serial killer, long before Amanda’s father – “deputy chief of homicide detail” – and his team catch on. Meanwhile, Amanda’s long-divorced mother Indiana – that “plump” protagonist – is caught between two men, leaving her rather oblivious to the rest of reality; after eight murders, she goes missing …

Mystery/thriller aficionado I’m not, but I had the whodunnit figured out as soon as the character appeared, with hours upon hours to go as yet. Because the murderer was so obvious, I convinced myself I couldn’t possibly be right, so I gritted it out to the bitter end; thank goodness at least I was multi-tasking because I’m never, ever going to get those hours back! Finally finished, I guess I can only claim temporary insanity.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, Latino/a, South American

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenWhenever I hear that a book is about to be transformed into celluloid, I get into a little panic to read the original, oftentimes titles I ironically wouldn’t have opened otherwise. Occasionally, I’m pleasantly rewarded, Miss Peregrine among those few that fill me with literary gratitude. And truth be told, I might actually go see the film as the surreal Tim Burton is set to direct; IMDB lists a July 31, 2015 release date.

As faultless as narrator Jesse Bernstein is in creating the memorable aural incarnation, you’ll need to keep the printed book nearby (libraries rule!): if a picture is worth a thousand words, then the full splendor of this debut novel by writer/filmmaker Ransom Riggs is only possible in conjunction with the ‘peculiar’ photographs interwoven throughout the text.

Take, for instance, this cover … look closely – no ordinary little girl, she! So young Jacob Portman, too, learns when his beloved grandfather dies in his arms, his final words a mystery for the 16-year-old to solve: “‘Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third, 1940.’”

As Jacob slowly emerges from the shock Grandpa Portman’s murder, he finally becomes aware that not all of Grandpa’s “unfathomably exotic” life adventures he told Jacob growing up were figments of the old man’s imagination. In search of truth, Jacob manages to convince his parents to allow him to spend the summer on a small island off Wales where Grandpa once lived many decades ago.

A Holocaust survivor, Grandpa grew up in the titular Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, from whence many of his fantastical stories originated. When Jacob arrives on the remote island, and begins to explore, he discovers the orphanage is mostly in ruins. Until, one day, it isn’t and Jacob finds himself facing the impossible.

In a feat of whimsical collage, Riggs essentially combined “authentic, vintage found photographs” with his own speculations about their subjects. Riggs explains in an interview at book’s end, “… among the photos I found, the strangest and most intriguing ones were always of children. I began to wonder who some of these strange-looking children had been – what their stories were – but the photos were old and anonymous and there was no way to know. So I thought: If I can’t know their real stories, I’ll make them up.” Working his own brand of ‘peculiar’ magic, Riggs’ visionary endeavor proves ingenious and extraordinary; so inspiring and plentiful are his found photos, that the peculiar adventures continue in just-released sequel, Hollow City. Riggs admits he has “tons” more great photographs, as yet unused … which begs the question, of course, how many peculiar books might we dare hope for?

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, European, Nonethnic-specific

The Little Hut of Leaping Fishes by Chiew-Siah Tei

Little Hut of Leaping FishesFor all the power and wealth of the Chai clan, discontent and tragedy haunts its three generations. With the challenges facing China at the turn of the 20th century as the last imperial dynasty crumbles and western colonialism looms, patriarch Master Chai’s once ironclad rule over his household begins to falter.

Born the first grandson, Mingzhi’s life is not necessarily his own to control as the family’s eventual heir. Obedient, hard-working, and honest, Mingzhi realizes early that his family’s extensive involvement in opium production is not an enterprise he supports nor wants to inherit. His path to redemption, as well as escape, is in education as he tenaciously works toward becoming a government official far from the family’s reach. Away from the Chai mansion, he finds reprieve and enlightenment in his eponymous “little hut of leaping fishes.”

In spite of an expansive cast of characters, author Chiew-Siah Tei tends toward simplified archetypes rather than multidimensional individuals. Mingzhi, for example, is the ‘good’ grandson with his laudable successes while his younger half-brother is the ‘bad’ counterpart – deceptive, lazy, and vengeful. Of Master Chai’s sons, one is a debauched opium addict with two wives, while the other is a filial, irreproachable, unmarried nurturer. Of the household’s two wives who belong to Mingzhi’s father, one remains a devoted mother and long-suffering silent wife; the other proves to be a scheming adulterous runaway.

Predictable as many of the characters might be, Tei manages plenty of unexpected plot twists and turns, from brutal rivalries to unexpected friendships to unrequited love. Her deft machinations earned her a 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize longlist nod – no small feat for the Malaysian Chinese, Scottish-domiciled author writing her first novel in English (she’s won multiple prizes for her earlier titles in Chinese). If, by chance, you choose to go audible, the elaborate family saga is engagingly read with breathless animation by Malaysian Australian actor Keith Brockett, whose androgynous voice works especially well here.

Mingzhi reaches manhood in spite of abandonment, repeated betrayals, and even unexpected death – who needs enemies when you have your own family too ready to watch you suffer and fail? Such survival merits Mingzhi another life, as his story continues a vast ocean away in last year’s sequel, The Mouse Deer Kingdom. Further adventures ho! Stay tuned.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, British Asian, Chinese, Malaysian, Southeast Asian

Under the Same Sun by Sharon Robinson, illustrated by AG Ford

Under the Same SonAn 85-year-old grandmother makes a special birthday trip from the U.S. to Tanzania where three generations celebrate with a surprise safari through Serengeti National Park. The story is special enough … but this one is far more layered …

Grandmother Bibi is Rachel Robinson, the widow of the legendary Jackie Robinson who broke the race barrier in 1947 to become the first African American to play Major League Baseball. The author (and co-traveler) is daughter Sharon Robinson and the family’s birthday adventure is hosted by her brother, David Robinson, who “… in 1984, gave up all that was familiar to him – and started a new life in East Africa.”

Artist AG Ford captures all the important moments with brilliant hues and rich vibrancy, from Bibi and Sharon’s arrival in Dar Es Salaam, to their few days in David’s home “exchanging gifts, telling stories, and filling in the gaps from their years apart,” to the unforgettable safari which ends on a historical beach on the Indian Ocean.

The final day of Bibi’s birthday trip takes the family to Bagamoyo, which “‘… was once home to a slave-trading post,’” David explains. “‘People were captured and brought here with their legs chained together to keep them from running away. ‘Bagamoyo’ comes from a Swahili phrase that means ‘to let go of one’s heart.””

The somber moment becomes both a historical lesson as well as a celebration of the deep bonds of family: “‘Your great-great-grandparents were captured on the west coast of Africa and shipped to America, to the state of Georgia,’” David tells his children. As an adult, David made the voyage back: “‘I wanted to return to my ancestral past. And I made my home here with you.’” In the detailed “Author’s Note,” at book’s end, Sharon further explicates: “As the founder of a coffeegrowers’ cooperative, David has committed his life to partnering with the people of this region to fight poverty and foster economic development.”

While continents and time zones might separate families all over the world, heroes like Jackie Robinson and his descendents who continue a legacy of social activism, ensure today’s”‘freedom to travel back and forth.’” And, as Bibi reminds us all, “‘We may be separated by land and sea, but we are always under the same sun.’”

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, African, African American

Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education by Elizabeth Suneby, illustrated by Suana Verelst

Razia's Ray of HopeThe newest title in Canada’s Kids Can Press‘ vital CitizenKid series – “books that inform children about the world and inspire them to be better global citizens” – is also quite possibly the best thus far.

“‘This is where my school once stood … It was destroyed by seventeen years of war,’” Razia’s grandfather gently explains about Afghanistan’s too-recent history. In an empty lot where a lone cornerstone now stands, change is coming: “‘They are building a new school … for girls,’” Baba gi reveals, causing Razia to beg her grandfather to convince the other men in their family to allow her to attend. Already, clever young Razia has taught herself to read just by listening to her younger brothers’ nightly studying – she only needs the chance to learn more.

“‘Some of you are too young to remember, and some of you were not even born,’” Baba gi opens a family meeting, “‘but before the occupation of our country, before the civil wars and before the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were educated. They were doctors, government workers and journalists. It is time to give your daughters and granddaughters … the chance to read and write. Our family will be stronger for it.’” Yet Baba gi’s eloquence is not enough to get Razia enrolled, as her oldest brother ends the discussion with “four simple words [that] made [her] heart sink”: “‘Razia is not going.’”

In spite of his decree, Razia refuses to give up: after finishing her chores the next morning, she walks to the newly-built school and knocks on its red door. A smiling woman who not only shares Razia’s name, but her commitment to education, invites Razia in … and changes her life forever.

Beyond the book’s title, Razia’s Ray of Hope is also the name of a real-life foundation, founded in 2007 by a Afghan-born American woman named Razia Jan, who returned to Afghanistan to run her Zabuli Education Center which thus far has provided “free education to more than 400 Afghan girls who were previously denied educational opportunities.” Meeting Razia Jan in livetime inspired author Elizabeth Suneby to write this uplifting story; artist Suana Verelst manages to capture just the right blend of past and future with her mixed media collages she describes as “‘a quilter combining recycled elements with modern technology.’”

With 69 million school-age children out of school, the numbers are clearly daunting. By providing education to hundreds of girls, one woman is creating better lives for the thousands more who will also benefit: “women who are literate tend to have better incomes, housing and health care. And in turn, they provide these things for their families and communities. Everyone benefits from educating women.” Join Razia and create hope: girl power will make the world a better place.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Afghan, Nonethnic-specific

If I Stay and Where She Went by Gayle Forman

If I Go.Where She Went

That the film version of If I Stay is currently in production is reason enough to read the book before Hollywood leaves its indelible imprint too soon. Trust me: 99.9% of the time, the book is better. The intensity and ferocity that author Gayle Forman offers with her careful, lucid words, that your imagination magically makes ‘real,’ couldn’t possibly be duplicated on the flat screen – not with this sort of intimacy and depth.

Like the young lovers within, these two books shouldn’t be separated. The duo comprises a ‘she said’/’he said’ love story from its innocent inception to its miraculous recovery. In If I Stay, Mia and Adam are both musicians – Mia with her classic cello, Adam with his rock ‘n roll guitar. They are wondrously young, utterly in love, and infinitely hopeful … until Mia is lying in a hospital bed, the only survivor of a tragic auto accident that rips her away from her entire family. Mia’s twisted, damaged body lies comatose, while her mind remembers everything she has to live for, and her heart must decide if she should stay …

Three years later, in Where She Went, Adam speaks. He’s moved to L.A., he’s making amazing music, and he’s famous beyond his wildest dreams. He’s also living with a caring woman he can’t love, popping pills just to survive each day, and on the verge of imploding his rock star band. During a New York stopover on his way to London, Adam buys a ticket on a whim for a cello concert at Carnegie Hall. He’s too famous to sneak out, and is summoned by the evening’s star … and so begins a not-quite 24-hour reunion that will restore two young lives … again.

Fresh. Soulful. Raw. Sighs, tears, joy, as well.

Go ahead … put aside any cynicism and just believe.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2009 and 2011

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

Line 135 by Germano Zullo, illustrated by Albertine

Line 135Clearly this image is not doing justice to the book’s spirited cover with its bright lime green train and fluorescent orange doors. To appreciate its vibrancy is reason enough to go find the real book! See that jauntily ponytailed, smiling little girl? She’s definitely inviting you to join her whimsical, thoughtful adventure …

“There are two places I belong in the world,” the girl explains – her house in the city and her grandmother’s home in the country. Her mother has helped her board the train to visit her grandmother who lives “practically on the other side of the world.” Savvy traveler that she already is, someday, the little girl is going to go “everywhere” and “know the entire world.” Her mother and grandmother warn that’s “impossible … it’s difficult enough to know yourself.” But the tenacious child rightfully insists, “when I am big, I will make sure that life moves with me.”

Contrary? Courageous? “I will go everywhere,” she asserts. She doesn’t need to wait to be “big” to know her future: “I will go here. I will go there. I will go this way and I will go that way. I will know the entire world.” With youthful exuberance, she affirms, “it is possible.” She’ll make you believe …

Beyond author Germano Zullo’s encouraging, inspiring prose, Line 135 is a visually enchanting delight. The titular ‘line’ travels directly across every page, each double spread enhanced with black-and-white, pen-drawn, exquisitely detailed views of changing landscapes as the technicolor train journeys from city to country. That the ’135′ is made up of three prime numbers in sequence – 1, 3, 5 – seems to be a nod to the indivisible connectedness of family (mother and grandmother literally ground both ends of the line from start to finish) in the midst of going here and there and everywhere.

“When you move between two places, it’s called traveling,” the wise young girl explains, as illustrator Albertine felicitously complies with beckoning scenes of stretched skyscrapers, mod shopping districts, stacked apartments, busy factories, overcrowded superhighways … that soon give way to gracious homes, wildflowered fields, uniquely rotund animals, and a few chimerical places that just might be out of this world. Echoing a child’s endless imagination, words and pictures work intricately together to remind us to never let limits keep us from going forth … onward ho, indeed!

Readers: Children

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, .Translation, European