Lent Read #8: BLACK AND WHITE by Larry Dane Brimner

Ever wondered why Birmingham airport was renamed the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth airport in 2008? BLACK AND WHITE (Calkins Creek) by Larry Dane Brimner will have you cheering each time you hear the name. As Brimner notes: "Reverend Fred. L. Shuttlesworth never once thought about giving up the fight for human and civil rights. He was, after all, following the path God intended for him, and he'd answered that calling early in his life."

The best children's non-fiction history books chronicle events by combining arresting visuals with lucid prose. Thanks to Brimner's gifts of storytelling and research, a meticulous collection of photographs and letters, and a design that brilliantly pleads the case for the traditional codex, BLACK AND WHITE transports readers into the heart of the civil rights movement. The book brings two characters to life--Shuttlesworth and his nemesis, Eugene "Bull" Connor--as well as the town of Birmingham in the middle of the twentieth century, helping us remember the sacrifice and determination that secured changes we might start taking for granted.

A rousing portrayal of what faithful Christians can and have endured to bring about justice, BLACK AND WHITE singlehandedly makes me proud of our vocation to nourish the imaginations and intellect of the next generation.

Lent Read #7: BUSING BREWSTER by Richard Michelson

How do you present the complexity of busing in the 1970s to young children? With an even-handed, character-centered picture book, of course. Richard Michelson's BUSING BREWSTER (Knopf) jumpstarts the conversation, introducing children to spunky first-grader Brewster, drawn with chin held high on the cover by R.G. Roth.

At his new school, an Irish-American teacher named Miss O'Grady inspires Brewster by not laughing at his dream of becoming President. I couldn't help wondering, though, if Miss Evelyn, the first-grade teacher in his own neighborhood, couldn't have encouraged the same dream in Brewster. That's the question Michelson seems to be hinting at when he writes through Brewster's eyes: "Miss O'Grady's the librarian. She looks just like Miss Evelyn."

A window into a time in history when children participated in one of the United States' most controversial social experiments, this picture book is also a mirror for a sweet relationship between a protective big brother and a happy-go-lucky little one.

Richard Michelson was born in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn that became mostly black by the time he was 12. His family stayed, and his father was shot and killed in the family's hardware store by a black man. Michelson has dedicated much of his writing for children to reconciliation between the two communities, and informs each books with extensive research as well as his own lifelong relationships.

Lent Read #6: A LONG WALK TO WATER by Linda Sue Park

Newbery-Award winning author Linda Sue Park puts her formidable craftsmanship to beautiful use in A LONG WALK TO WATER (Clarion), the true story of Salva Dut,  a "lost boy" from Sudan dedicated to providing clean water in South Sudan.

This book won the 2011 Jane Addams Children's Book Award, and is a great example of why there can't be any kind of apartheid in storytelling. If we required Park to write only about Korean or Korean-American characters in the name of "authenticity," we wouldn't have the gift of this book. She crossed borders of race, culture, and power to write it, no doubt about that, but she did so with her trademark empathy, imagination, and research.

Park's spare writing suits the barren landscape and honors the intense suffering endured by the main character. Dut's life is a mirror of perseverance for young people facing any kind of challenge, and a window into the tragic journeys of young Sudanese forced to flee to Ethiopia and Kenya.

In small scenes scattered throughout the book, set apart by a different font, Park skillfully introduces us to Nya, a girl in a Nuer village waiting for the gift of clean water. Dut is a member of the "enemy" Dinka tribe, and when the two meet around a new well, the story soars with the hope of redemption--and all the more so because it's true.

Although Dut is eventually able to settle in America, essentially he isn't "saved" by a powerful outsider. His determination to survive and to honor his heritage ring throughout Park's story. By the end of A LONG WALK TO WATER, we celebrate the capacity in each one of us to "save," no matter how powerless we might be at the start of a hero's journey.

Lent Read #5: JESUS STORYBOOK BIBLE by Sally Lloyd-Jones

Years ago, I started college without knowing any Bible stories at all. It was a challenge understanding themes and references in many novels and classics.  Many children today find themselves in my situation. Since they might not learn or read the Bible before encountering it in a college class, we can offer them the JESUS STORYBOOK BIBLE, an accessible compilation of biblical stories by Sally Lloyd-Jones. As a bonus, Jago's illustrations actually feature people who look Middle Eastern. I'd also recommend this book if the Bible seems confusing or boring to you, as Lloyd-Jones gives a brilliant overview of the narrative arc in a Book that has shaped so many other great stories.

Lent Read #4: GOYANGI MEANS CAT by Christine McDonnell

Many picture books portray the gains of adoption, but few celebrate it while admitting the reality of all that a child loses. GOYANGI MEANS CAT by Christine McDonnell (Viking) gently and lovingly allows a child to grieve the experiences that came before. Parents who read this book aloud tacitly permit their child to express the grief that is an inevitable part of adoption.

The author is an adoptive parent and a school librarian, and her understanding of and respect for children shines throughout this lovely book. Child-centered illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher echo the theme of a safe space to explore loss.

Lent Read #3: THE TROUBLE WITH HALF A MOON by Danette Vigilante

Looking for a girl hero in a middle-grade novel with a heart to protect the abused? You'll find her in THE TROUBLE WITH HALF A MOON's Dellie (Putnam | 2011). The author, Danette Vigilante, grew up in Brooklyn's Red Hook housing project, and her "insider's" mastery of the setting magically transports us there. We feel the blue flakes on the playground benches, hear the sound of approaching sirens, basketballs dribbling, and neighbors' fights, and smell the antiseptic used by Dellie's mother to clean the elevators.

Vigilante's first person tween voice effortlessly weaves in details about Puerto Rican culture in this debut novel. Dellie honors her hard-working, loving, strict parents, staying true to the culture's norms, even as she decides to break a few rules for the sake of someone in need. Perfect read to illuminate for tween girls that so-called "small" choices can make a difference in their own lives and in their communities.

A Kid/YA Book a Day for Lent

During this season, I strive to impose a new discipline that slows me to see and hear more clearly. What better practice than enjoying a book from cover to cover, especially in an age when I'm mostly reading in the "shallows" instead of deeply?

I'll be aiming to read a children's or YA book every day until Easter (picture books, chapter books, and graphic novels count--whew), and will be posting brief reviews here, on my Facebook page, and in my Twitter stream. I'll start by scouring my shelves for unread ARCs and review copies, and then head to the bookstore or library.

It's day two, and here's what I've read so far.

LOST AND FOUND: THREE by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine Books). Wistful, hopeful, a feast for the eyes.
ZORA AND ME by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon (Candlewick Press). Rich sense of time and place, spunky, lovable child characters, gripping mystery. Explores questions about community, race, and identity still being asked today. Warning: will make you want to read Zora Neale Hurston's novels.

Why Our Kids Must Read Far and Wide

Primary Source, an organization that "promotes history and humanities education by connecting educators to people and cultures throughout the world," recently launched an Asian American author series. In this video for parents and educators, I talk about why it's so vital for all children to read across cultures.

Sap's Running! Five Classic Early Spring Reads

It's maple sugaring season in New England, and it looks as if we're in for a marvelous early spring.  For avid tween readers, here are five classic books with a strong sense of place and seasonal change. I recommend and re-read them every year:
  • Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen (helps me believe again in the transformative power of place)
  • Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (always makes me want to skip rope while singing the doxology, even though I'd likely be related to one of the "natives" who die of cholera in chapter one)
  • Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder (no troubling comments about American Indians in Almanzo's lovely family, thank goodness)
  • The Four-Story Mistake by Elizabeth Enright (an artist and a writer, the author knew how to engage all five senses--how I wished she'd lived a bit longer to pen more books)
  • Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace (my favorite example of changes in a place mirroring change in a character, a perfect read if you're in the "slough of despond")

A recent study found a decline in portrayals of nature in award-winning picture books. I hope the same isn't true among novels for children. Know of any contemporary MG or YA books that evoke spring so well I'd want to re-read them every year in late February?

Also, for your browsing pleasure, here are indie booksellers' Spring 2012 recommendations for young readers, featured by The Voracious Reader, one of my favorite bookstores on the planet.

Why I Don't Write About Gossip, Zombies, or Gossiping Zombies

Primary Source recently featured me as part of their Asian American author series, asking how young people can relate to my books (perhaps because mine aren't necessarily "commercial" at first glance) and the experience of growing up "between cultures." Maybe I can write about immigrant zombies?

"A story can change the direction of how you view something for the rest of your life," I said, along with a bunch of other stuff which they edited nicely:

February's Flood of Author Visits

Since I spent January teaching in California, I'm traveling here and there during an intense few weeks of author appearances which are usually spread out over January and February. I've been visiting the Max Warburg Courage Curriculum, Needham Free Library, Meadowbrook School in Weston, North Andover Middle School, a children's literature class at Boston College, Underwood School in Newton, and am heading to NYC at the end of this week for a meeting of the United States Board on Books for Young People.

I meet many wonderful educators, parents, writers, and students during winter author visit season, but one of my favorite encounters was last week's appearance at Boston International High School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. This small high school for students not yet proficient in English language hosts newcomers to the United States from more than 25 different countries, some with an interrupted or nonexistent education before arriving due to war or poverty.

You need company when you're growing up between cultures.

When I talked about my own experience of immigrating here and becoming a writer, faces lit up with empathy and understanding. I was a survivor of the life they were experiencing, my very existence sending the message that they, too, might endure a stressful coming of age between two worlds. Thanks, 826 Boston and the Foundation of Children's Books, for enabling this encouraging conversation about balancing the best of both worlds through the power of storytelling.

Bell Rings, Class Over, Memories Remain

You'll have to use your imagination to grasp how much I enjoyed this past month of teaching at Saint Mary's College of California. This wonderful article might shed some light on the privilege of discussing "Race, Culture, and Power in Children's Books" with 25 undergraduates on this beautiful campus nestled in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Or maybe this picture of my cute students will help:

Think of me walking into my parents' house at the end of a long day of preparation and teaching, calling out, "I'm hungry! What's to eat?" And every day, there was a delicious meal, cooked from scratch by Mom, and good conversation with both of my parents.

I stayed in this cozy cottage nearby, perfect for quiet study and reflection, stocked with unlimited firewood and fresh flowers:

Picture me hiking these hills every day (in January, friends -- I live in Boston, remember?):

Oh, and did I tell you MY VERY OWN SON took my class? Talk about Mommy finagling: (1) nest empties, (2) miss him and reading aloud to him, (3) son takes my class, (4) get to read picture books to him again. I'm good, aren't I? Or maybe it's that Someone is very good to me.

Take the Pledge: Join Me for a Net-Free Month This Summer

I'm feeling sucked dry by the internet again, my creative wells drained and shallow. Anyone want to join me for an experiment this summer?

This June, we'll stay away from the internet and go old school: reading real books, writing longhand in journals, and napping in the sunshine.

Take the pledge to join me by commenting below.  You don't have to go cold turkey like me, but set a goal for some serious withdrawal (weekends are internet-free, evenings after 5, etc.).