Tag Archives: Historical

Not My Girl by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard

Not My GirlChristy Jordan-Fenton and her mother-in-law Margaret Pokiak-Fenton began publishing stories in 2010 about the older Pokiak-Fenton’s difficult childhood as a young Inuit child growing up in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Their four books in four years are comprised of two titles for middle grade readers, Fatty Legs and A Stranger at Home, which were then adapted into two complementary picture books, When I Was Eight and this, Not My Girl, which debuted earlier this year.

Now 10 years old, Margaret finally returns to her family from the faraway “outsiders’ school” where “I had grown tall and very thin from two years of hard chores and poor meals.” Virtually unrecognizable, her mother’s reaction is wrenching: “‘Not my girl!’ she called in what little English she knew … everything she remembered of me” had been ‘educated’ out of young Margaret, including her native Inuit language, culture, and even her name.

“Olemaun,” her father reaches out to her: “I had not heard my Inuit name in so long I thought it might shatter like an eggshell with the weight of my father’s voice.” Tight in his embrace, her mother, too, finally reaches out and “sheltered me in that safe place between them.” In spite of their love and attention, Olemaun’s return to her family proves to be a difficult challenge: her stomach is unable to digest the family’s traditional foods, the sled dogs no longer recognize her scent, she only understands her father’s translations, and she has “lost the skills [she] needed to be useful … [to] help feed the family.” She’s even rejected by her only friend whose parents forbid her to play with another “outsider.” Slowly, Olemaun must find her place with her family once more, comforted by her favorite book and a helpless puppy.

Artist Gabrielle Grimard again illustrates the duo-generational collaboration; again, her open, nothing-hidden expressions enhance Olemaun’s experiences – her father’s gentle gaze, her disappointed worry over tangling the family fish net, her dare-to-be-hopeful glance as her mother guides her hands in using the traditional knife, her single tear that matches the single drop of rice water as she nurses her puppy. The trio again transforms painful, unfortunate memories into another enduring story of resilience, tenderness, and unconditional love.

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Native 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

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman

Great White WayTheater producer/critic/playwright Warren Hoffman (The Passing Game) insists that audiences have been “duped” into believing that the Broadway musical “is the most innocent of art forms when, in fact, it is one of America’s most powerful, influential, and even at times polemical arts precisely because it often seems to be about nothing at all.”

Filtering many of Broadway’s beloved spectacles through a race-sensitive lens, the author eschews complicit complacency: sing, dance, and clap along, he says, but open your eyes and see that Show Boat, for instance, “validate[s] and rationalize[s] the ‘inferiority’ of blacks and the ‘superiority’ of whites”; Oklahoma! erases the Native American experience in their own Indian Territory; and Annie Get Your Gun puts Native Americans center stage only in “stereotypical if not downright racist” characterizations. The multicultural A Chorus Line, the author says, ironically ends with the bittersweet elision of individuality into “One,” and 42nd Street is little more than revisionist “pure white fantasy.” While Hoffman’s ideas are important, his execution is rife with repetition, inflammatory rhetoric, and surprising lapses (e.g., Miss Saigon‘s yellowface casting controversy).

Verdict: While all culture aficionados should read this book – indeed, a condensed version of it should be inserted into every musical’s playbill – few may reach the final page.

Review: “Arts and Humanities,” Library Journal, March 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Nonfiction, African American, Chinese American, Jewish, Native American

Author Profile: Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan“To transform suffering into art”: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan

While the Vietnam War ended for the United States with the April 1975 military withdrawal, death and destruction continued, moving into neighboring Cambodia and Laos. With the evacuation of U.S. troops, the Communist Khmer Rouge stormed into Cambodia’s capital (and largest city) Phnom Penh and dispersed its inhabitants to remote areas. In an attempt to create a more equitable society, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the majority of those who were perceived to have power, particularly the wealthy and educated. To destabilize any remaining social structures, they fractured family units. Those who managed to survive were sent to labor camps where many would die of starvation, disease, torture, and execution. Over the next four years, Pol Pot and his heinous regime claimed almost two million lives – a quarter of Cambodia’s then-population.

Vaddey Ratner and her mother survived. No one else in their immediately family lived. Ratner was just five in 1975. Six years later, in 1981, mother and daughter arrived in the U.S. as refugees. Just over three decades later, in August 2012, Vaddey would publish In the Shadow of the Banyan, her fictionalized account of her young life, her missing family, and how she miraculously stayed alive while too many others did not.

In the transcript of a speech that Ratner’s Simon & Schuster editor, Trish Todd, gave at BEA’s 2012 “Editors Buzz Panel” [to watch fast forward to 28:36 for Todd/Banyan], she confesses to initially believing that Banyan “was not a natural fit for me” when Ratner’s agent first pitched Todd the novel. Intending to “honor [the agent’s] submission with a nice rejection and begin my vacation,” Todd – a 30-year veteran of publishing – finished the manuscript without pause (barely moving!) and realized that she “had just read what could be the most important book [she] would ever publish.” She cancelled her vacation and planned how to win the “very big auction” to buy this first novel of a new, untested writer. The rest, as they say…

The laudatory responses quickly followed. Readers made Banyan a New York Times bestseller. Critics agreed. Banyan was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and appeared on eight 2012 best books lists, including Christian Science Monitor and Kirkus Reviews. The populist bibles O Magazine and People raved and recommended. The highbrows too applauded and nominated, naming it a 2013 PEN/Hemingway finalist, as well as a finalist for the 2013 Book of the Year Indies Choice Award. Ratner made the media rounds: NPR’s “Morning Edition,” USA Today, and The Washington Post, to name a few. She spoke around the world, at the PEN/Faulkner gala, the United Nations Association, the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, and more.

Unlike Todd, I took over two years to finally reach the last page of Banyan. Not even the prospect of meeting Ratner in livetime, thanks to a mutual writer friend who insisted I join them for dinner, could get me to finish reading Banyan! Thankfully, the mutual friend’s new book took precedence as dinner conservation. Not until this Bloom deadline loomed could I force myself to actually reach book’s end. Why the frozen hesitation? Because I simply couldn’t let the book go: holding on to the promise of unread chapters was more comforting than racing to the conclusion. I needed only a fraction of the 300 pages to realize that as wrenching and terrifying as the story is, Banyan would surely be one of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous titles I would read in years. I wasn’t wrong. [... click here for more]

Author profile: “‘To transform suffering into art’: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan,” Bloom, March 3, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese American

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 Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

Twelve Tribes of HattieWhen Oprah reinvented her book club in 2012, she elevated Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to near mythic status (I found Wild so tedious, I didn’t have the energy to write a post). Oprah’s 2013 choice was a first novel that hasn’t found quite that Wild level of ubiquitous success, but mega-bestselling annointment is definitely the next best way to launch a literary career. Besides, Ayana Mathis‘ Twelve Tribes resonates much more with Oprah’s usual-suspects: long-suffering protagonists (especially women) who must fight not only social oppression – usually with racial or classist overtones – but degradation caused by so-called loved ones, as well.

Hattie Shepherd, the novel’s matriarch, is still a teenager when she moves from Georgia to Philadelphia in the 1920s. By 17, she’s a married woman with twins. Her babies fall victim to pneumonia at seven months and die; Hattie never quite recovers in the more than half century she births, raises, and lets go of nine more children. Hattie is crippled by her bitterness towards her philandering husband, her impatience with trying to control her needy offspring, her disappointment over their lives as adults. Her difficulties render her incapable of ever openly showing love and affection to those she cares about most.

Over 10 chapters that read like interlinked short stories, Hattie’s maturity from teenaged mother to weathered grandmother is revealed via dovetailing glimpses of her children’s lives, mirroring the restrictive, challenging, not-changing-fast-enough African American experience of the 20th century. Floyd womanizes to cover his homosexuality, Six’s violent temper leads him to become a man of God, both Ruthie and Ella will always be someone else’s daughters, Alice pops pills convinced her life purpose is to take care of brother Billy whom she couldn’t protect as a child, Franklin gambles away his family, Bell gives up, Cassie succumbs to voices, and … in the final chapter, only Sala seems to look at her future with any hope.

No, this isn’t a feel-good story by any stretch of the imagination [Oprah chose it, ahem!]. That Hattie survives with her back straight and her head held high is perhaps the title’s greatest achievement. For those who want to go beyond the page, a cast of veteran narrators adeptly imbue the characters with urgent immediacy. Here’s to resilience – Hattie’s and committed readers both!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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

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

Images of America: Chinese in Hollywood by Jenny Cho and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California

Chinese in HollywoodIn spite of a history that spans centuries – especially in California – Hollywood has long remained an elusive destination for Asian Pacific Americans seeking not always celluloid glory, but at the very least, mere participation and fair representation. From immigration restrictions, limited casting opportunities, miscegenation laws, and blatant racism, even in the 21st century, APAs in Hollywood remain rare.

Part historical record, part neighborhood photo album, this slim volume provides an introductory, skeletal overview of Chinese Americans in front of as well as behind the camera. From the early 1900s through Ang Lee’s stupendous second Best Director Oscar in 2013, “[t]his book … examines how Hollywood functions not only as a geographical area but also as a conceptual idea as the entertainment capital of the world,” the two-page “Introduction” opens. Over 200 black-and-white photographs are divided into chronological chapters, beginning with the silent “Early Years” featuring Marion Wong, the first Chinese American woman who wrote, produced, and directed her own films, to the first Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong, to the opening of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (which has since morphed into TCL Chinese Theatres, complete with IMAX 3D).

“1930s and 1940s” introduces the one of Hollywood’s most respected cinematographers, 10-times nominated, twice Oscar-winning James Wong Howe, who also ran the Ching Howe Restaurant in North Hollywood. Benson Fong also did double duty as restaurateur and Hollywood icon as “Number Three Son” in the era of Charlie Chan yellowfacing: Walter Oland and Sydney Toland were not Asian. Neither were Paul Muni and Luise Rainer who starred in The Good Earth, based on the Nobel Prized Pearl S. Buck novel; in spite of the unconvincing makeup, the 1937 film was a multi-Oscar winner, including Best Actress for Rainer and Best Picture.

“Gotta Dance and Sing” opens with Nancy Kwan in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Flower Drum Song, stops briefly at her birthday on the set of The World of Suzie Wong, and ends with her practicing high kicks with then-stunt advisor Bruce Lee. “New Generations” features an iconic shot of Lee as the unparalleled martial arts legend, includes APA theater history with the founding of East West Players and the early success of David Henry Hwang, the seminal founding of Visual Communications. The chapter moves quickly through to contemporary Chinese American media achievements from Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club, to crossover stars Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat and directors John Woo and Wong Kar Wai, to (almost) household names Lucy Liu, B.D. Wong, and Justin Lin.

Ironically, although not surprisingly, the shortest chapter is the last – “Academy Awards” – but Ang Lee’s gratitude to the heavens filled with such joy is also a hope-filled final image surely promising more achievements to come.

TidbitChinese in Hollywood makes for a perfect companion title to Arthur Dong’s extensive documentary, Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Nonfiction, Chinese American

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loïc Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano, color by Greg Salsedo, translated by Alexis Siegel

HiddenPreorder this title now and you can stop reading here … you won’t, you can’t, you will not be disappointed.

Oh, fine. If you’re still with me, let me tell you about Elsa, a little girl who just can’t seem to fall asleep. She tiptoes out of her room and finds her grandmother wide awake. Noticing her sadness, Elsa reassures her grandmother, “You know, when I have a nightmare, I tell Mommy about it and that makes me feel better. You want to tell me?” Hesitant at first, her grandmother begins, “It was a long time ago. Grandma was still a little girl …”

Dounia Cohen, long before she was Elsa’s grandmother, “didn’t care who had won or lost” the war: In spite of France’s defeat by Germany in 1940, “My daddy had come home alive, and that was all the victory I needed.” Returning home unusually early one day, he suggests,”Some people suggested that we become a family of sheriffs.” Her mother sews the required yellow star onto Dounia’s coat: “Being a sheriff … is more of a boy’s job,” Dounia thinks. “But I don’t mind,” as she looks at her proud reflection in the mirror.

By the next morning, that Star of David has marked young Dounia not with privilege, but made her a target of abuse. “What had I done,” she asks in bewilderment. As a young Jewish child in occupied Paris, Dounia is shunned, isolated, hated without reason. When her parents are violently taken away from their own home, she is sheltered by Mrs. Péricard, the downstairs neighbor. Fearful of the returning police, Mr. Péricard devises a plan to help Dounia escape to safety; in the process, he gravely risks his own safety.

Dounia becomes Simone Pierret, a Catholic child who arrives on Germain’s farm with her “Mama” – Mrs. Péricard who has also given up her Paris life to care for the young girl. The war continues, but Dounia’s new identity – and the unlimited kindness of strangers – keeps her safe until reunion, at least in part, becomes possible …

Like Lola Rein‘s The Hidden Girl and Maryann Macdonald‘s more recent Odette’s SecretsHidden represents not only the 84% of Jewish children in France who escaped the Holocaust – the highest rate of survival for children in Europe – but also the 11,400 French children who were murdered during WWII. While Hidden bears witness to tragic history, the ultimate message is one of hope and redemption, that humanity can and will be effectively used against racism and hatred. Narratively and graphically, the French creative team proves spectacularly adept in balancing the nightmare with moments of innocent humor (“pink shoes”), unexpected laughter (“‘Does Grandpa know you were in love with another boy?’”), and joyful discovery (“‘I did it! I did it!’”). While some nightmares never quite fade, here’s hope that triumphant resolve will have longer staying power.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012, 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Translation, European, Jewish

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, illustrated by Susan L. Roth

Parrots Over Puerto RicoCo-authors Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, whose last project  à deux was the glorious The Mangrove Tree set in the tiny African country of Eritrea, travel south to the Caribbean to present another memorable story of preservation and conservation.

Welcome to Puerto Rico, home of the Puerto Rican parrot, also called iguacas in imitation of their cry: “They lived on this island for millions of years, and then they nearly vanished from the earth forever.” Roth and Trumbore tell their avian story, intermingled with the island’s past, from the first island settlers that included the Taínos who hunted the parrots as both nourishment and pets, to Christopher Columbus who claimed the island for Spain, to the Spanish settlers who followed, to the stolen Africans enslaved to tame the land. Spain ruled Puerto Rico for centuries until it was lost in war to the United States, which claimed the island a U.S. territory in 1917.

Through all those millenia, the parrots suffered – their tree homes were devastated, they were hunted, killed, trapped, and what was left of their nesting areas were invaded by other birds. “By 1954, there were only two hundred parrots left.” Fourteen years later – why did it take so long? – the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program was established to “save and protect the parrots.” And yet by 1975, a mere 13 parrots flew through the rain forest … how will the bright green flocks be saved?

Part history, part morality tale, part political treatise, part inspiring redemption, Roth and Trumbore’s collaboration is as much a lesson for us old folks as it is a story to share with our youngest. The “Afterword,” with its many photographs, is proof positive of a hopeful future. The timeline that follows of “Important Dates in the History of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican Parrots” demands we learn from the past as we work to ensure that future in the present.

Roth’s richly detailed paper-and-fabric collages dazzle eyeballs of all ages, showcased in Christy Hale‘s brilliantly clever book design. By just (just!) turning the book’s orientation 90° − so that you flip the pages up rather than turn them from right to left – Hale adds soaring height that underscores the parrots’ flight (and plight); she literally sends the story aloft.

Final note: This Roth/Trumbore/Hale accomplishment is a memorable example of why e-readers are just not enough (Luddites unite!); the magic will disappear on the screen. So to fly with the iguaca, you’ll definitely need to choose the page.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Nonfiction, Caribbean, Nonethnic-specific, Puerto Rican