Prairie Lotus a “Re-Write” of the “Little House” Books

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park. Clarion Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2020.

In her author’s note, Linda Sue Park, an avid Little House on the Prairie fan, writes, “I wrote Hanna’s story as an attempt at a painful reconciliation… As a child, I would lie in bed night after night, imagining that I, too, lived in De Smet in the 1880s, and that I was Laura’s best friend…Even at the height of my passion for those books, there were parts that I found puzzling and distressing…Ma hated Native Americans…Pa takes part in a blackface minstrel show.”

Park, of Korean American heritage, goes on to say that in 1880  there were no Koreans in America. They emigrated later, in the early 1900s and landed in Hawaii, not the mainland. There were, however, Chinese laborers here building the railroad. Many resided in California. So, when deciding to re-imagine the “Little House” books, she created a completely unique character, a girl of mixed Korean/Chinese/White ancestry. Her mother has died, and her white father has decided to move from California to the plains of South Dakota.

While her father is busy building a store in town, Hanna is trying to get along in a new school. Her mother wanted Hanna to finish school and Hanna insists on it, even when her father has doubts. Her real dream, though, is to become a dressmaker, like her mother. Soon after enrolling in school, most of the students are pulled out by parents suspicious of this new, “Chinese girl.” With only three children left in the school, Hanna manages to make friends with one girl, Bess. Bess eventually helps Hanna sew a dress to be displayed in the window for the grand opening of her father’s shop. But when Hanna is blamed for an incident with a drunken man, her friend’s mother forbids her to help Hanna any longer and people are determined to boycott the store.

“Little House” fans will appreciate Prairie Lotus. It is not only a lovely homage to the positive aspects of those books, but also a much-needed reality check on their troubling racism. Park traveled to South Dakota (LaForge is modeled on De Smet, with houses and businesses in the same locations) and Missouri to research her story, as well as the Pine Ridge Reservation. By respectfully portraying Native Americans and Hanna, a mixed-race character, as well as showing the obstacles those groups faced, Park has added an important work of fiction on the subject of the settlement of the American West.  

 

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Stunning Picture Book Tells Story of One Boy’s Committment to Save the Environment

The Boy Who Grew a Forest, the True Story of Jadav Payeng by Sophia Gholz, Illustrated by Kayla Harren. Sleeping Bear Press, Ann Arbor MI, 2019.

The Boy Who Grew A Forest is a gorgeous book with an important message: No matter how small or insignificant you may think you are, one person can accomplish great things. Even grow a forest.

The story begins simply with a boy who loved trees. “In India, on a large river island, among farms and families hard at work, there lived a boy who loved trees…But each rainy season, floodwaters swallowed more and more of the beautiful tree-covered land.”

When Jadav Payeng was a young teen, he witnessed the death of hundreds of snakes that had become stranded on a sandbar near the island where he lived, and he became determined to do something about it. He knew what the island needed was trees: trees would lead to other growing things and the animals would be able to thrive again. The elders of his village gave him twenty bamboo saplings. And from those humble beginnings, Jadav Payeng grew a forest, which in turn grew other plants and eventually welcomed a whole variety of animals.

The illustrations, in muted earth tones, perfectly depict the landscape of a flooded sandbar and its eventual transformation.  The boy transports cow dung, earthworms, termites, and even red ants to create a rich soil. As pages turn, the reader watches as each new addition slowly turns a barren sandbar into a vibrant forest.

Some additions, however, are not welcomed by the villagers. “Fear swept over the villages when tigers arrived. So, the man planted more grasses to attract small animals that would keep the tigers happy in the forest.” When elephants began to feast on farmers crops, he planted fruit trees to feed the elephants.

The Boy Who Grew a Forest is a testament to the perseverance and ingenuity of the human spirit. In 1979, a young boy saw a problem and through his persistence, and many years of toil, he solved the problem. The “Molai Forest” is now over 1300 acres.

This book was brought to my attention this past April when it won the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award  (SONWA) from Northland College. On Sigurd Olson’s birthday, April 4, Northland College announces its choices for the best in nature writing for the previous year. SONWA categories include adult nonfiction and children’s literature.  (See  https://www.northland.edu/sustain/soei/sonwa/ for a list of all past award winners.)

 

 

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March, by John Lewis: a Graphic Memoir for Our Time

March Books One, Two, and Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell.  Top Shelf Productions, Marietta, GA, 2013, 2015, 2016.

With the death of John Lewis and recent demonstrations in support of criminal justice reform, I thought I would review, once again, these graphic memoirs of John Lewis. These books begin and end with the inauguration of Barack Obama. Bookending the remarkable life of John Lewis and the civil rights movement in this way gives one the sense of watching history unfold in the most unlikely way. When George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, and when non-violent demonstrators were beaten and killed, could anyone imagine a day when there would be an African-American President?

The comic book style makes it easy to read all three books at once. Even though they are a fast read, I found myself lingering a bit over many of the entries. The picture of Fannie Lou Hammer being beaten—by Black prisoners forced to beat other Black prisoners—to within an inch of her life; the specter of children being fire-hosed and arrested; the incredible violence that was perpetrated on non-violent demonstrators who sometimes were doing no more than waiting in line outside the courthouse in an effort to register to vote. (A word of caution: the language used is the actual language used by many who fought against the civil rights movement.)

If you missed these books when they first came out, get ahold of them now. If you’ve read them before, they are worth reading again. Especially now. To quote President Obama, speaking at John Lewis’ funeral: “Bull Connor may be gone. But today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone. But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here, there are those in power doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting – by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots, so people don’t get sick.”

Once again, it is time to March.

 

 

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Unique Picture Book a Rare Find for Any Age

A Bobby-Dazzler of a Pouch! By Janet Halfmann, Illustrated by Abira Das. Pen It! Publications LLC United States 2020.

“In a forest clearing of eastern Australia, a little grey kangaroo practiced diving into his mum’s pouch. It seemed easy…until he had to find it in a mob.”

Who knew that kangaroo mothers actually give their joeys (babies) lessons in diving quickly into her pouch so they can be safe when danger is near? I certainly didn’t. And that’s the unique aspect of this story. Readers of all ages will learn about interesting animals many have never heard of.  And interesting facts about them. Such as, sometimes, the baby kangaroo doesn’t choose the right pouch and ends up surprising another “mum” and baby. When the baby is ten or eleven months old it is no longer welcome in the pouch because  it will soon be needed by a new baby.  But the mother still nurses them both—with different milk for each! These facts and many more are highlighted in a section called “Fun Kangaroo Facts” at the end of the book.

This delightful picture book tells the story of one mother kangaroo and her joey. Mom is teaching her baby how to dive into her pouch. This is a survival skill he will need. But little joey doesn’t know how he will be able to tell his mum’s pouch from all the other mums out there. When he sees a bird with a black tail he comes up with a creative idea:

‘“Could I please have some of your tail feathers?” Joey asked. “I want to put them on Mum’s pouch like little flags so it will be easier to find.” “Bloody good idea!” said Willy Wagtail, and right away offered four feathers.” Soon, all the animals Joey meets up with want to help too.

Halfmann’s book is filled with Australian expressions and exotic animals from Eastern Australia and Tasmania.  Children will be fascinated by Rainbow Lorikeets, Wombats and Sugar Gliders. The kangaroos are eastern grays.

“Australian Words,” another section at the end of the book, explains the unique slang  (such as “bobby-dazzler”) used in the story.

The illustrations, by Abira Das, are playful and will definitely engage the young child. Teachers of elementary students, however, should consider adding this title to their classroom library. With just the right amount of information about animals of eastern Australia, it is an excellent source for inspiring further research. A paper on Echidnas would surely impress fellow classmates!

 

 

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Young Adult Novel, Swing, Serves Up Both Laughter and Tears

Swing by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess. Published by Blink, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2018.

“While I’m waiting

by the flagpole

baking beneath sun

hot as the equator,

someone walks up

behind me,

covers my eyes,

and whispers

in a voice

smooth as silk:

Guess who?” 

It’s Sam, the girl Noah has known since third grade, and who he’s been in love with ever since. Now, Juniors in high school, life is a little more complicated. Sam has a steady boyfriend, but Noah’s best friend, Walt, tells Noah that doesn’t matter. She will soon be available. Walt is an incurable optimist. After both of them getting cut from baseball tryouts, Walt is determined to get on Varsity Senior year.

“I’ll tell you this Noah. I WILL make the Varsity baseball

team senior year. Bet on that. I’ll practice harder than

before…

From now on, just call me Swing.”

Walt has decided to become the ultimate cool, so besides taking on the moniker, Swing, and other dubious (according to Noah) persuits, tries to get Noah interested in jazz. But Noah thinks:

“…jazz sounds like

what biting into a lemon

would taste like

if you could bear it.”

When Noah buys his mother a purse at a resale shop, and discovers old love letters inside, he is inspired to write anonymous letters to Sam. But he doesn’t give them to her. When Walt takes charge and sneaks them into Sam’s bag, Noah is furious.

Baseball, and the strange appearance of American flags cropping up all over town, weave themselves through this novel, written in verse. Two best friends: Noah who is White, and Walt, who is Black, are just trying to navigate adolescence.

Like Aristotle and Dante, which I reviewed last time, this novel is filled with the clever banter of two young men who are smart and funny. The ease of reading this text carries the reader through the story in a hurry. This is a novel particularly appropriate for this moment in our history. Just be prepared to not only laugh, but to cry as well.

 

 

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YA Book treats an Important Subject With Sensitivity

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon and Shuster Children’s Publishing Division, New York, NY, 2012.

“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”

Aristotle Mendoza is fifteen. One steamy hot morning, he wakes up to a song on the radio he hates. “I was bored. I was miserable…The DJ was annoying. He’s yelling: ‘Wake up El Paso. It’s June fifteenth, 1987!’” But Ari doesn’t feel like waking up. It’s not until the DJ plays La Bamba, that he thinks he might be able to cope with this day.

Ari greets his mother in the kitchen and we immediately see the two of them have a warm relationship. Ari and his father – more problematic. Ari’s father fought in Vietnam and the war changed him. “So I was the son of a man who had Vietnam living inside him. Yeah, I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn’t help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.”

One of those tragedies is that he has a brother, eleven years older than he, in prison. His parents don’t talk about him. There are no photos of him in the house. It’s as if his brother doesn’t exist.

On this day, though, Ari’s life will take an unexpected turn when he goes to the local pool. He doesn’t know how to swim, so he sits on the edge of the pool, eventually floating in the shallow end. And then he hears a voice: “I can teach you how to swim.” When it turns out the boy’s name is Dante, “…we both kind of went a little crazy. Laughing…I wondered what it was we were laughing about. Was it just our names?”

These are smart, funny teens who know who their namesakes were. They ride the bus and make up stories about the riders. They argue about comics vs. literature. “I was darker than he was. And I’m not just talking about our skin coloring. He told me I had a tragic vision of life. ‘That’s why you like Spider-Man.’” Dante, on the other hand, likes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Ari reads it and tells Dante he hates it, when in fact, he loves it. Then Ari discovers it’s one of his father’s favorite books. “I wanted to ask him if he’d read it before or after he’d fought in Vietnam. It was no good to ask my father questions. He never answered them.”

And so, Ari, a loner, a kid who doesn’t seem to fit in, has found a friend. He has to admit to himself, “Dante. I really liked him. I really, really liked him.”

This is a novel that begins with two young teens finding each other. It ends with them finding themselves and learning what it means to be true to who you are. And they both, over the next two years, grow up.

This novel, of two boys coming to terms with their sexuality, is beautifully written as can be attested to by the four awards it received: The Michael L. Printz Award, the Stonewall Book Award, the Pura Belpre’ Award and the Lambda Literary Award. If you haven’t already read this one, I encourage you to read it now. You know you have the time.

 

 

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Biography A Welcome Addition to Teach a Difficult Subject

The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls by Janet Halfmann, illustrations by Duane Smith. Lee and Low Books Inc., New York, 2020. (Grades 3-7)

The story of Robert Smalls is most likely not known by many. Born to a house slave in 1839, he would go on to accomplish one of the most daring escapes of the Civil War.

 As a twelve-year-old, Robert was sent away from the plantation in Beaufort, where he was born, to work in Charleston waiting tables. There, he made five dollars a month—money he then had to hand over to Master McKee. But he spent his off time on the docks, watching the boats go in and out. Master McKee soon gave him permission to work at the docks, and, by age fifteen, he was foreman of a crew.

At the young age of 17, he met Hannah Jones, a Charleston hotel maid. They fell in love and received permission to marry. He later made a deal to buy his wife’s and daughter’s freedom for $800, but he didn’t know how he would ever save up that much.

Robert had, however, saved $700 by the time the Civil War broke out. He took a job as deckhand on the Planter, a boat that had hauled cotton but now delivered arms and soldiers for the Confederacy. His knowledge of navigation soon got him promoted to wheelman. In that capacity, he learned the secret steam whistle signals for passing the many Confederate forts. This knowledge would serve him well when he finally decided to escape.

When I first reviewed the picture book, Seven Miles to Freedom the Robert Smalls Story, I was impressed that a biography could be so suspenseful. This new edition, written in chapter book format, keeps to that winning formula, but adds informative sidebars that will stretch the reader’s knowledge and lead to further research. This edition has highlighted vocabulary words, a timeline, a glossary, a bibliography and a list of recommended reading. There is much here to capture the interest of young readers. As I said in my initial review, the story of Robert Smalls and his elaborate plan to gain his freedom is “edge of your seat” thrilling.

This edition elaborates on the type of ships that existed in Robert’s time, how they were designed and what type of cargo they carried. These details are sure to intrigue young people who have an interest in ships. Details on the slave ships of the time are included. What life was like for slaves, whether they be field hands or “house slaves” and the cruelty behind slave auctions is also new information.

Sidebars on the history of slavery, causes of the Civil War and an explanation of  how the Mason-Dixon line was drawn are clear and concise. Teachers looking for a biography that will interest their students and also be a door to further research, this story of a little known African American hero is the perfect choice. With a skilled teacher’s guidance, this extra information will enhance student’s understanding of an important chapter of American history.

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When You Are Brave Helps Kids Through Hard Times

When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller, Illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. Little Brown & Company, New York and Boston, 2019.

“Some days, when everything around you seems scary…you have to be brave.” When You are Brave is the story of a young girl who is moving to a different house in a different city. The illustrations, beautifully rendered by Wheeler, clearly depict the angst the child is feeling as she leaves her home. She sits in the back seat of her car, clutching a blanket and a stuffed toy. The text, however, never mentions moving or anything to do with it. The words do not specify what the girl is actually doing—only what she is feeling. And that is what is so wonderful about this book. A child can look at the pictures and figure out the girl’s story. That same child, when the text is read, can put their own scary feelings into the story—whatever they are afraid of.  The writer aptly points out that, “…some days are full of things you’d rather not do…At times like these, the world can seem…Too big. Too loud. Too hard. Too much.” Most of us have felt like this on a bad day when one more thing is asked of us which we’re sure we can’t handle. The text goes on to encourage the reader to find their courage—which is illustrated as a shiny light coming from the little girl’s heart. The child is encouraged to picture their courage in their mind and imagine it becoming bigger. The tiny light from the girl’s heart turns into beautiful wings and eventually spreads out into the world. “The next time life seems scary or you start something new, you can remember when you were brave.” Because we’ve all been brave at some time.

Miller, the author of Sophie’s Squash and many more, has created an important book that has the ability to help children through difficult times. With its encouraging message to remember when they were brave, they will know they can be brave again. A great choice for kids facing something new and scary.

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In All the Walls of Belfast two teens struggle with the past in order to change their futures.

All the Walls of Belfast by Sarah J. Carlson. Turner Publishing Co. Nashville, TN, 2018.

This young adult novel begins with seventeen-year-old Fiona on her way to Ireland to meet her father. Her mother fled Ireland for America when Fiona was two, and Fiona spent her childhood believing her father wanted nothing to do with her. Her mother only recently admitted that Fiona’s father has been wanting to be a part of Fiona’s life ever since. A million questions are going through Fiona’s mind,  as her plane begins its descent. She’s beginning to think her best friend, Nevaeh, was right: “…this was totally insane. And I hadn’t even told her the whole surprise-Dad-was-in-the Irish Republican Army thing.” Needless to say, this is a lot to digest for a seventeen-year-old. She’s miffed at her mother, that she kept her away from her father all these years, but she’s both eager and hesitant to meet him. Her mother has assured her that her father “…was not one of the real bad guys…it wasn’t like he’d killed anyone.”

Meanwhile, Danny, an Irish Protestant teen, is on his way to an interview that he hopes will take him out of the “sectarian rubbish,” as his teacher describes Danny’s life. Danny wants to join the British army as a nurse. His mother died in one of the bombings, but she left behind a note to him in his baby book: “…I dream that you’ll save lives instead of take them. Make the world a better place. Mummy loves you.” His father, though, hates the British government because they negotiate and make deals with the IRA. No son of his will be in the British army. Danny’s father drinks, abuses Danny and cherishes the July 12th parades that celebrate “his culture.” These parades sometimes wind their way through Catholic neighborhoods, causing tension, if not outright violence.

All the Walls of Belfast is a well written, poignant look at modern day Ireland long after the “Troubles” have passed. The undercurrent of tension between the Catholics and Protestants, however, still affects real people’s lives: in this story, the lives of two teenagers who just want to live in peace. How these two teens face their pre-conceived biases and learn to forgive is at the heart of this excellent young adult novel.

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“A Green Place To Be” is Perfect Non-fiction To Ignite Young Reader’s Curiosity

A Green Place To Be, The Creation of Central Park by Ashley Benham Yazdani. Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA, 2016, 2019.

“Central Park in Manhattan is green and growing and full of life. It’s a vibrant jewel at the heart of New York City, but it wasn’t always this way…”

So begins Ashley Benham Yazdani’s captivating picture book about the transformation of what was once swampland into what is now Central Park. The illustrations, done in pencil and watercolor, add to the fun of discovering each step along the way in the park’s evolution.

New York City was growing fast, “…but the people needed a green place to be. In 1858 in the city, only a few people had this luxury. If a park wasn’t made quickly, there might not be enough open space left for one.” Enter Calvert Vaux, an architect, who convinced city leaders to hold a design contest. Calvert intended to win the contest himself.

Calvert asked Frederick Law Olmstead, the man who had been appointed superintendent of the park, to help him come up with a design. A double page spread shows how the two men made a ten-foot-long drawing of their design. They even showed where rocks and plants should be and asked people who visited them to add grass. While the two men almost missed the deadline for the contest entry, they ultimately won the contest.

Another double-page spread shows the explosion of gun powder used to break up the boulders that riddled the area. One page is taken up with only three words: “Boom Bang Blam.” The background illustration is white clouds of smoke depicting the rocky explosion. These clever sorts of illustrations are sure to capture the eye and imagination of the young reader.

Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead went on to create many more parks all over America. The last few pages of the book have short biographies of the two men, a bibliography and fun suggestions of things to hunt for in the drawings—including a pair of ghostly sisters who supposedly continue to haunt the park today!

It’s encouraging to see so many wonderful non-fiction picture books being published. A Green Place To Be , like Out of School and Into Nature (reviewed here in April) tells the story of people who, long ago, had a vision and pursued those dreams. Historical non-fiction when done well, like both of these books, can excite children’s curiosity and lead them to pursue areas of research they may not have otherwise considered.

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