The Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich is often compared to the Little House series, held up as a kind of non-racist version of 19th-century life from a Native American point of view (in this case, an Ojibwe family). There are plenty of obvious parallels–the time period, the focus on slice-of-life family dynamics, the semi-regular threat of starvation/disease/winter–but such a comparison belittles Erdrich’s work, which is so much more fun and nuanced than Little House ever was.
One of the things that always bothered me about Little House (in addition to the racism and Pa’s insistence on dragging the family into ever-more-perilous situations to suit his wanderlust) was its inflexibility. The adults were always right. The kids were only good as long as they stayed quiet and obedient. And can we talk about how annoying Mary was, with her holier-than-thou selflessness? (more…)
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Posted in MG books (ages 8-12), tagged inklings on August 10, 2016|
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Making the drive from the Dakotas to Missouri, I passed the exit for De Smet, South Dakota, aka the town where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake through The First Four Years are set. This awoke a deep nostalgia in me, and the urge to revisit the series starting with Little House on the Prairie. (Sorry, Big Woods. I wasn’t in Wisconsin.)
Rereading Little House was a strange visit. On one hand, some parts were as charming as my childhood memories of Laura’s pioneering life. Then again, I’m astounded the Ingalls managed to stay alive for the entire book, much less the series. As protective as Pa is of his family, he has no qualms about putting them in dangerous situations to begin with.
I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to point this out, but I kept a running tally of all the ways they could have died on the prairie:
- The ice cracks the day after the Ingalls crossed over the frozen Mississippi River in their covered wagon from the big woods of Wisconsin to the Indian Territories aka Kansas.
- Then they ford a rising creek where their horses almost drown.
- While building the walls of their log cabin, Ma narrowly avoids getting crushed to death by a rolling log.
- Their cabin is encircled by a pack of wolves at night and they don’t have a real door — only a quilt nailed across the door frame.
- Pa and their nearest neighbor Mr. Scott dig a well and narrowly avoid being overcome by fumes underground.
- Pa, Ma, Mary and Laura contract “fever ‘n’ ague” aka malaria and it’s unclear who is taking care of baby Carrie while the rest of the family is delirious and bedridden. (Baby Carrie gets ignored during this chapter.)
- The chimney attached to their wooden house catches fire.
- The prairie surrounding their wooden house catches fire.
- A panther visits them.
- The U.S. government is in the process of “resettling” the Indians from their land, and meanwhile the Ingalls are homesteading illegally on Osage land, though they don’t realize this until the end of the book. It’s amazing every encounter the family has with an Indian doesn’t end badly…
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Up close and personal with a 24 day old peregrine falcon chick. This is what it must feel like to be a NatGeo photographer.
Confession: I became obsessed with peregrine falcons for a time after reading Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain as a child. During recess, I would scan the skies for the definitive peregrine silhouette, widespread wings and long tail feathers, and wonder if I could track the bird to a cliff side nest where I could snatch a chick to raise as my own, as Sam did with Frightful. (Granted, that was probably illegal, even back in my day, and I could never tell kites, hawks, and sometimes, low flying crows apart.)
Nevertheless, I had the chance to live my childhood dream when I got to pet four fluffy chicks that were temporarily removed from their lofty water tower nest for banding. At 24 days old, the chicks were too young to do much except flap their wings and squawk indignantly at being handled in such an undignified manner.
This is exactly what it looks like. The chick is temporarily placed into a purple plastic pumpkin so it can be weighed on the scale. Females are larger and heavier than males.
Give them another two weeks to grow, and they’ll be soaring and swooping with the best of them.
In two weeks, these primary feathers will be light, long and strong enough to help this guy or gal reach speeds of up to 220 mph during dives.
I later found out there’s a whole color-coded system for banding peregrines. The chicks I touched were banded with black over red ankle rings, signifying that they were from the eastern U.S., even though they were technically Midwest/Great Plains birds. I should find out what that’s about.
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I was lucky enough to catch the musical Allegiance on Broadway last month, in one of its last performances (it closes Feb. 14). Loosely based on George Takei’s childhood memories of his family’s time at a Japanese-American internment camp, it’s a stunning story, and a crash course on a part of American history that’s often skated over (spoilers below).
As the title suggests, the musical explores allegiance in all its forms. What makes it so wonderful is how every character responds differently to how, or if, they should be loyal to the U.S. government after it’s labeled all Japanese-Americans as enemies and locked them behind barbed-wire fences.
The main character, Sam Kimura, joins the army because he thinks it will restore the public’s trust in Japanese-Americans. Sam’s father can’t understand how his son could fight for a country that’s treated them so badly, and when the government sends out a “loyalty questionnaire” to sniff out traitors, Mr. Kimura answers honestly (no, he isn’t willing to serve in the armed forces, and he can’t swear absolute allegiance to the United States), even though he knows it will land him in a labor camp away from his family.
Meanwhile, Sam’s sister Kei falls in love with a young man at the camp named Frankie, who burns his draft papers and refuses to serve in the army. Kei just wants to keep her family safe, so she finds herself torn between her brother and her boyfriend–who are at odds with each other–and doesn’t find her own brand of allegiance until the end. Hannah, a white nurse at the camp, has a different kind of struggle, as she tries to reconcile her love for Sam with societal expectations.
The boldest statement about allegiance comes from Sam and Kei’s grandfather Ojii-chan (the Japanese word for “grandpa”). In a lovely moment of resistance, he takes the hated questionnaire and folds it into an origami flower, which Kei wears in her hair. (more…)
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I’ve updated my ALA Youth Media Awards spreadsheet with the results from 2016 (scroll over to column BI). It’s an encouraging trend: 6 of the 11 books that got Newbery, Caldecott or Printz recognition have diverse protagonists (Last Stop on Market Street; The War that Saved My Life; Echo; Out of Darkness; Trombone Shorty; Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement).* That’s a better percentage than last year, which had 5 books out of 13. Other noteworthy facts:
- The National Book Awards this year only had one book starring a diverse character (Challenger Deep). In previous years, it wasn’t unusual to see two or three among the five finalists.
- Three books this year got overlapping recognition from what I call category I awards (Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, National Book Awards) and category II awards (Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré, Stonewall and Schneider). The books were Last Stop on Market Street, The War that Saved My Life and Trombone Shorty. There were four such books last year.
- Since 2005, 12 books with Coretta Scott King award recognition have also earned some kind of category 1 award. But only 3 books have done so with the Pura Belpré. (The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and Viva Frida). I’m not sure what’s responsible for the discrepancy, but it’s significant. Since both the CSK and Belpré give out author and illustrator awards, there should be, theoretically, equal opportunity with both to get overlapping category I awards. Thoughts?
*The word “diverse,” in this case, means a character from an under-represented group, ie non-white, LGBT, disability experience, etc.
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Last year I wrote about various authors’ favorite motifs, and what you can tell about their real-world obsessions based on their books. I’ve thought of a few more, including:
E.L. Konigsburg: when I read The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, I couldn’t stop thinking about the similarities to The Mixed-Up Files. Now I’ve picked up The Second Mrs. Gioconda, and it’s clear that Konigsburg had a real appreciation for art, and a fascination with the creators and caretakers of that art. We’d all be more art-savvy if teachers taught art history the way Konigsburg wrote her books.
Maggie Stiefvater: any reader of the Raven Cycle will recognize Stiefvater’s obsession with cars…and as her blog confirms, she owns a racecar with a license plate that makes law enforcement nervous.
Rick Riordan: This one’s so obvious it’s almost cheating, but when you consider all three of his kids’ book series are based on ancient world mythologies (Greek/Roman, Egyptian and Norse), it’s a pretty good bet that mythology is more of a hobby or obsession than a convenient plot device.
On a related note, Kathi Appelt probably has a similar interest in myth, though she’s more about folktales and legends, which she transforms to fit her stories. The mermaids in Keeper are self-explanatory, and the Sugar Man is based on the Sasquatch, but the ancient snake in The Underneath is harder to pin down. Perhaps she’s based on a local legend or Native American myth?
Jeanne Birdsall: music, of course, with a preference for classical and Broadway tunes. Now that Jeffrey and Batty are both accomplished musicians, I can’t wait to see the music referenced in the next and final Penderwicks book.
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The 2015 ALA Youth Media Awards were remarkably diverse. We’ve got the obvious standouts, like The Crossover winning the Newbery medal, and the outpouring of love for graphic novels. In the wake of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and other recent efforts, it’s a welcome change. And that got me thinking about the larger trend of diversity in children’s book awards, which led to an insane exercise where I cataloged the winners of eight kidlit book awards over eleven years.
One thing that became immediately obvious is that this year’s ALA awards bucks the trend. Consider, for instance:
- 2015 is the first year since 2005 (Kira-Kira) that the Newbery Medal-winning book stars a character of color. Think about that. Two winners in 11 years.
- Now compare that with the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, where 6 of the past 11 winners have starred a protagonist of color (The Thing About Luck; Inside Out and Back Again; Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party; Brown Girl Dreaming)
- If you consider protagonists from other under-represented groups (disability, LGBT, etc), then the NBA gets one more (Mockingbird), and the Printz Medal has four winners (In Darkness, Ship Breaker, American Born Chinese, I’ll Give You the Sun), but the stats for the Newbery remain unchanged. These “diverse” books (for lack of a better catch-all term) are even rarer as Caldecott Medal winners. There’s just one: Chris Raschka’s The Hello, Goodbye Window from 2006.
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