Monday, January 14, 2019

Banned/Challenged Books Double Feature

**This post originally appeared on a Banned/Challenged Books discussion board for my Children's Literature class**

Title: Habibi
Author: Craig Thompson
Genre: graphic novel, magical realism, mythology, banned or challenged book

I just finished reading Habibi and, oh my goodness, I don’t even know where to begin my review. At 672 pages, there is a lot of material and themes to process. First off, I would like to mention the positive aspects of the book: the plot is interwoven with magical realism, Islamic mythology, beautiful Islamic artwork, and intricate calligraphy (this book contains the prettiest and most ornate title page I have ever seen). Some aspects of the book that will make some readers uncomfortable are violence, rape, abuse, full frontal female nudity (and lots of it), lack of female agency, and male characters that epitomize “Western culture’s sheik stereotype of Arab men as overly sexualized, brutal, and greedy rapists” (Miller, 2016).
Habibi is told from the alternating viewpoints of Dodola and Zam who have both experienced various forms of tragedy and trauma in their young lives. Dodola’s family sold her at age 9 into marriage to ward off starvation due to drought. Her husband was a scribe and taught her to read and write. Dodola and her husband were separated after thieves broke into their house, kidnapped Dodola, and killed her husband. Dodola and Zam met at the slave market after Dodola found him abandoned and saved him from the slavers’ swords. After a daring escape through the market and sewers, they stowaway on a carpet-laden camel that’s part of a desert caravan.
Although they find sanctuary in their ship of the desert, life is still not easy for Dodola and Zam. Dodola takes care of Zam in a motherly fashion but soon learns that survival for a woman in the desert includes treating her body as a commodity. Dodola tries to shield Zam from this harsh reality but after he discovers her secret, he takes on some “breadwinning duties” to protect her. Dodola and Zam lived in their desert dwelling for nine years until Dodola was kidnapped and taken to the sultan’s palace as a prize. Dodola enters into a bargain with the sultan for her freedom, which the sultan reneges on at the last minute. Soon Dodola becomes pregnant and grief, guilt, and worry over Zam consume her during the course of her pregnancy.
While Dodola is trapped in the palace walls, Zam’s also finds survival difficult alone on the abandoned desert boat. He heads to the nearest town, lives on the streets, and barely survives on menial labor. A woman from the local hijra community takes him under her wing and introduces him to their beliefs and lifestyle: “You called me a pervert? Why? Because I cut off my manhood? I did it to give myself wholly to God. I am not a pervert. I am an ASCETIC, and my community is my monastery” (Thompson, 2011, p. 328). At first Zam believes that Nahid and the others are perverts but Zam eventually becomes a eunuch to quench his carnal desires for women; since Dodola disappeared he can’t stop thinking about her in a sexual manner. The hijras earn their money and food by visiting weddings and new mothers and yelling. Since the hijras are looked upon as freaks, the locals give them food and money to make them go away. While Nahid became a hijra for spiritual enlightenment, others become a hijra for more sensual reasons. When Ghaniyah, the biggest wage earner of the hijras, is brutally attacked and raped, Zam is coerced by the others to prostitute himself so that the whole community can survive, thus mirroring Dodola’s survival-by-prostitution. Fortunately, Zam never fulfills the role of prostitute since his first customer is a human trafficker who kidnaps Zam and sends him straight to the sultan’s palace- where Dodola is!
Once again, they escape, mirroring their first journey through the sewers which makes Dodola gravely ill due to the pollution and disease in the city’s water supply. They are taken in by Noah who “fishes” the sewers for treasures he can give to his fellow citizens. This is where the book turned weird for me. Noah started out happy-go-lucky until his water converter contraption exploded in his home and then he takes a fatalistic tone, “Our species is destined to consume itself…We’ve poisoned the earth, and we’ve poisoned ourselves” (Thompson, 2011, p. 505). Eventually, Dodola and Zam rebuild a life for themselves and save a little girl from the slave market.
I enjoyed the artistry of the book overall but there were some parts I found confusing. When the story is told from Dodola’s viewpoint, her time in the sultan’s palace is intertwined with flashbacks from her childhood, meeting Zam, and living with Zam on the boat. I felt the non-linear storytelling to be very jarring at first. I was also confused when in time this story takes place- I assumed it was before the modern era because of the sultan’s harem, but once Dodola starts walking around Wanatolia, there are cars, Pepsi signs, and people wearing a mixture of traditional Arabic garments and modern Western fashion. Also, the environmental aspect seemed to come out of nowhere and felt out of place with the rest of the themes and content of the book.
I loved the imagery of the book and I wish there was an author’s note at the back explaining some of the imagery and suggestions for further reading. There were lots of references to rivers and water in the beginning of the book when Dodola and Zam are living in the middle of the desert:
·       “From the Divine Pen fell the first drop of ink. And from a drop, a river” (p. 9)
·       “an ocean of sand” (p. 24)
·       “Once there had been a river here…meandering…a muted voice” (p.30-31)
The number 9 was mentioned repeatedly in the book but when I tried to research the significance of the number 9 in Islam and Islamic mythology, I really couldn’t find anything, so I don’t know if this has cultural significance or if the number 9 has personal meaning for the author: “Zam was twelve when we were torn apart. He was three when we met. He is 9 years younger. We spent nine years together. For nine months, someone else has grown in my womb” (Thompson, 2011, p.109).
I would reserve my recommendation for this book for mature teenagers and adults and warn them that is triggering content that some readers might find disturbing and traumatic if they have suffered past trauma themselves.
This book has earned mixed reviews which you can read at the below links. While reading Habibi did any of the concerns listed in these articles come to your mind?
Recommended Readalikes:
The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones. This review compares this fantasy/action/adventure describes this novel as “Sherlock Holmes crossed with The Arabian Nights except Watson has a sword” and “a cross between Sinbad and Indiana Jones.”
The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson is an alternative historical fiction novel that looks at how history might have changed if the bubonic plague in 14th century Europe had killed 99% of the European population and Middle Eastern and Asian civilizations became the superpowers in the pre-modern and modern eras.

Charlton, B. (2011). Arabian culture myth as fantasy: an interview with debut historical fantasist Howard Jones. Retrieve from
Creswell. R. (2011). The graphic novel as orientalist mash-up. Retrieved from
Damluji, N. (2017). The spectre of orientalism in Craig Thompson’s Habibi. Retrieved from
Jones, H.A. (2011). The desert of souls. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
Miller, M. (2016). Let’s talk about banned books: Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi is powerful and problematic. Retrieved from
Robinson, K.S. (2003). The years of rice and salt. New York: Bantam Books.
Thompson, C. (2011). Habibi. New York: Pantheon.

Title: Thirteen Reasons Why
Author: Jay Asher
Genres and Themes: YA, realistic fiction, banned or challenged book, teen suicide

The second book I chose for this week was Thirteen Reasons Why; I remember this was a controversial book-to-TV adaptation when it was released on Netflix a year or two ago. I remember from various social media posts that teens seemed to love the show, but some adults thought it glorified suicide. I never watched the show since I always try to read the book first, but now that I have read the book, I don’t think suicide was glorified at all. The book was extremely well written, I could barely put it down, so now I will have to watch the show soon and find out for myself if all the fussing was justified.

There are two protagonists with intersecting, first person narratives in this book; it sounds confusing but it’s not. The reader views Clay’s emotional suffering and thoughts along with Hannah’s even though the events affecting both of them took place at different times. Hannah’s story arc unfolded over a few years, while the reader views the world through Clay’s eyes over a few days. Clay, along with his high school, is grieving the suicide of his major crush and classmate, Hannah Baker, when a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep: 13 cassette tapes narrated by Hannah:

“I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why….The rules are pretty simple. There are only two. Rule number one. You listen. Rule number two. You pass it on. Hopefully, neither one will be easy for you. When you’re done listening to all thirteen sides- because there are thirteen sides to every story-rewind the tapes, put them back in the box, and pass them on to whoever follows your little tale” (Asher, 2007, p. 8-10).

So, who contributed to Hannah’s death?
Justin Foley- Hannah’s first kiss although Justin started rumors that lied and exaggerated what really happened between them. (And that’s when Hannah’s reputation problem began. Once Clay heard the truth about the kiss and the aftermath, he realized, “Her reputation started in Justin Foley’s imagination” (Asher, 2007, p. 39).

Alex Standall- voted Hannah “Best Ass in Freshman Class.” Of course, this did not help Hannah’s reputation and certain male classmates felt the need to capitalize on this. “Every single event documented here may never have happened had you, Alex, not written my name on that list. It’s that simple. You needed someone to put down opposite Jessica’s. And once everyone at school already had a perverted image of me after Justin’s little number, I was the perfect choice, wasn’t I?” (Asher, 2007, p. 41).

Jessica Davis- Hannah started her freshman year hanging out with Jessica and the above-mentioned Alex. All three of them were freshmen and new to the town. But Alex ruined it with his “special” list and it drove a wedge between Hannah and Jessica because of the “Hot/Not” designation.

Tyler Down- peeping Tom. Hannah and Courtney Crimsen caught him hanging outside of Hannah’s bedroom window, taking photographs, and participating in certain other activities.

Courtney Crimsen- Hannah’s fairweather friend. She helped Hannah with the Peeping Tom issue and then ignored Hannah for weeks. Courtney has a reputation for being “perfect” but Hannah saw through Courtney’s façade pretty quickly.

Marcus Pooley- asks Hannah out on an ice cream date and then shows up 30 minutes late because he viewed it as a joke. Marcus then proceeds to try and feel up Hannah’s leg.

Zach Dempsey- awkwardly attempts to ask her out immediately after Hannah pushes away Marcus (Zach, seriously needs to work on his timing). He steals notes from Hannah’s paper bag in their Peer Communication class. “It’s there that I first started to consider…a word that I still cannot say” (Asher, 2007, p.161). “My world was collapsing. I needed those notes. I needed any hope those notes might have offered…You took that hope away. You decided I didn’t serve to have it” (Asher, 2007, p.165).
Ryan Shaver- editor of the school’s newspaper. He stole Hannah’s most personal poem and published it in the school paper. “School hadn’t been a safe haven of mine for a long time. And after your photo escapade, Tyler, my home was no longer secure. Now, suddenly, even my own thoughts were being offered up for ridicule” (Asher, 2007, p. 192).

Clay Jensen- Clay is the only person on this list that was kind to Hannah and treated her like a human being. Hannah’s quote about his reputation shows how his reputation amongst their peers was in complete opposition to her reputation: “Most of what I knew was secondhand information and that’s why I wanted to know him better. Because everything I heard- and I mean everything!- was good” (Asher, 2007, p. 198). Hannah and Clay talk for hours at a party, share a kiss, but the events mentioned above prevented Hannah from enjoying the moment with Clay.

Justin Foley (again): While Hannah was hiding in a bedroom at the party, she hides in a closet and is an auditory witness to a rape of an unconscious girl by one of Justin’s friends.

Jenny Kurtz- cheerleader who drives Hannah home from the party or attempts to before her drunken driving takes out a stop sign. Hannah tries to stop Jenny from driving but is unsuccessful. This unreported crash ends in tragedy later that night in a two-vehicle crash where a high school student is killed, and an elderly man injured. Hannah feels tons of guilt for not attempting to do more to stop the rape and not reporting the stop sign accident right away.

Bryce Walker- has a reputation as a player and abusive to his many girlfriends. He’s on Hannah’s list because of an incident involving a hot tube (this scene might be upsetting and triggering for some people).

Mr. Porter- school guidance counselor. Hannah goes to him for help about life and Mr. Porter totally screws it up. Encourages Hannah to “let go” of the fact she was a witness to a crime (this part exasperated me the most in the book).

All of these incidents had a snowball effect on Hannah’s mental and emotional health. Since her parents were busy with business drama and she had no real friends in this new town, she had no one to turn to for help. This book also showed how people, events, and actions are interconnected and that rumors and gossip regarding sexual issues and women is usually negative, while men benefit from rumors and gossip about their sexual escapades. There were a few times when Hannah accused someone of “taking hope away,” “taking my reputation away,” and “you decided I didn’t deserve it” which points to underlying themes of power and harassment.

Hannah tried asking for help through an anonymous note that served as a class discussion prompt, but that proved fruitless too. Suicide is still a taboo topic in our society and researchers still haven’t defined a single cause of suicide. Of course, it doesn’t help when someone’s suicidal signs or tendencies are dismissed as attention-seeking behavior. No, it’s a silent cry for help!

Some notable quotes from the text:
“When you hold people up for ridicule, you have to take responsibility when other people act on it” (p. 53). (This needs to be plastered all over social media!)
“For the longest time, from almost day one at this school, it seemed that I was the only one who cared about me” (p. 144). Clay tried to help her in his limited way, but Hannah pushed him away.
“No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people” (p.156).

Before I list my book recommendations, I want to list the two most important resources of this post: the phone numbers for the Georgia and national suicide prevention hotlines:

Georgia Crisis and Access Line: 1-800-715-4225
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

I found this interesting article while researching the hotline numbers:

Readalikes (descriptions provided by Epic Reads):

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand
The Last Time We Say Goodbye follows the story of those left behind when a loved one commits suicide. This is a gorgeous and heart-wrenching story  of love, loss, and letting go.
The last time Lex was happy, it was before. When she had a family that was whole. A boyfriend she loved. Friends who didn’t look at her like she might break down at any moment.
Now she’s just the girl whose brother killed himself. And it feels like that’s all she’ll ever be.
As Lex starts to put her life back together, she tries to block out what happened the night Tyler died. But there’s a secret she hasn’t told anyone-a text Tyler sent, that could have changed everything.Lex’s brother is gone. But Lex is about to discover that a ghost doesn’t have to be real to keep you from moving on.”

It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
“A remarkably moving tale about the unexpected road to happiness. Like 13 Reasons Why, this story explores suicide and the importance of mental health.
Ambitious New York City teenager Craig Gilner is determined to succeed at life – which means getting into the right high school to get into the right job. But once Craig aces his way into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School, the pressure becomes unbearable. He stops eating and sleeping until, one night, he nearly kills himself.
Craig’s suicidal episode gets him checked into a mental hospital, where his new neighbors include a transsexual sex addict, a girl who has scarred her own face with scissors, and the self-elected President Armelio. There, Craig is finally able to confront the sources of his anxiety.”

Asher, J. (2007). Thirteen reasons why. New York: Penguin.

Dastagir, Alia E. (2018). What actually happens when you call the suicide prevention lifeline. Retrieved from

Epic Reads (2017). 13 YA books to read if you loved Thirteen Reasons Why. Retrieved from

Hand, C. (2015). The last time we say goodbye. New York: HarperTeen.

Vizzini, N. (2007). It’s kind of a funny story. New York: Disney-Hyperion.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Juvenile Nonfiction Double Feature

**These reviews were originally posted on a Juvenile Nonfiction discussion board for my Children's Literature class**

Title: Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras
Author: Duncan Tonatiuh
Genres: juvenile nonfiction, holidays around the world, read for school, juvenile biography

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras is a combination picture book/informational book about the little known (at least in the US) Mexican artist, Posada. Funny Bones chronicles the life of Posada from budding artist days as a child, to print shop apprentice and political cartoonist as an adult. His experiences and talent eventually came together with his prolific creations of literary calaveras.

The illustrations are folk art in style, inspired by Posada’s playful skeletons and the book also contains an author’s note about the Day of the Dead holiday, a glossary and pronunciation guide of Spanish language terms, a bibliography, art credits, and a list of museums where visitors can view Posada’s works. Due to the amount of material in this book, I would recommend this as a readaloud book, if reading to younger children; older elementary-aged children with an advanced reading level could handle this on their own.

On pages 17-31, the author uses repetition and questions to keep a child’s interest. In this section Tonatiuh’s illustrations alternate with calavera drawings and questions about the deeper meaning behind the drawings. At first, I was annoyed that the questions appear to give away the symbolism and hidden meaning, but then I had to remind myself that this is a children’s book, and symbolism needs to be explained to children due to their age, stage of development, and limited life experience. Tonatiuh is “using a familiar, expected pattern to make children feel comfortable and ready to face the unfamiliar and unexpected” (Horning, 2010, p. 90). Both the holiday (Dia de los Muertos) and the concept of death are both unfamiliar to children. The use of questions in the text also serves multiple purposes:
·       add auditory variety to the text
·       keep little minds focused on the story
·       lets children try their growing critical thinking skills
·       gives the adult reader a quick assessment of the child’s understand of the text (Horning, p.91)

Dia de los Muertos is little known in much of the United States, but I have noticed in the past few years that sugar skulls (alfeñiques) are melding more and more with traditional American Halloween decorations. Dia de los Muertos occurs on November 1-2, right after Halloween, but it is not a scary holiday like Halloween can be. Although Halloween can be family-friendly, some people go over the top with the scary elements such as haunted houses, fantastical creatures, and various bits of gore. Dia de los Muertos is a holiday dedicated to respectful ancestor worship:

              “People often go to the cemetery to pray. They weed and repaint the gravestones of their loved ones. They bring their loved ones’ favorite food and tell stories about them. Sometimes they hire musicians to play their loved ones’ favorite songs. They have a picnic and spend the whole day at the cemetery. In some places they spend the entire night too” (Tonatiuh, 2015, p.36).

Now compare this to how most Americans view/treat cemeteries:
·       We only visit a cemetery when we have to (a funeral)
·       Cemeteries are run by funeral industry professionals (part of the reason why funerals are so expensive)
·       Local government-owned cemeteries are full and budgets are not which has led to a deterioration in upkeep
·       Old, private family cemeteries become overgrown and eventually forgotten
·       Genealogists wander around cemeteries taking photos of gravestones

If someone in the US stayed at a cemetery all day and night, other people would assume that person is mentally ill or homeless; that same person would be accused of loitering and escorted off the premises by the police. If someone painted a gravestone at a US cemetery, they would be arrested for vandalism; if musicians were hired to sing and play in a cemetery, everyone involved would be arrested for disturbing the peace.

A Gift for Abuelita by Nancy Luenn [picture book] Review from Colours of Us blog: “tells the story of a young girl’s bond with her deceased grandmother. Abuelita taught Rosita how to braid, make tortillas, and grow chiles. On the Day of the Dead, Rosita makes a beautiful braid as a gift to her beloved abuelita. With unique paper pulp illustrations, this is an affectionate picture about loss and the healing power of remembrance.”

Day of the Dead Crafts: More Than 21 Projects that Celebrate Dia de los Muertos by Kerry Arquette, Andrea Zocchi, and Jerry Virgil. Instead of learning by reading, kids can learn by doing! Crafts include calaveras, masks, sugar skulls, altar, and jewelry. A nice way to tie in a hands-on element to learning about other cultures.

Arquette, K., Zocchi, A., and Virgil, J. (2008). Day of the dead crafts: more than 21 projects that celebrate dia de los muertos. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Horning, K.T. (2010). From cover to cover: evaluation and reviewing children’s books. New York: HarperCollins.

Luenn, N. (2004). A gift for abuelita. New York: Cooper Square Press.

Tonatiuh, D. (2015). Funny bones: Posada and his day of the dead Calaveras. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Title: My Names is James Madison Hemmings
Author: Jonah Winter and Terry Widener
Genres: juvenile nonfiction, juvenile biography, read for school

In the article, “How Nonfiction Reveals the Nature of Science,” the authors caution against selecting science books that contain “idealized descriptions of scientists as heroic and larger than life” (Zarnowski and Turkel, 2013, p. 298). This same advice could also be used when selecting nonfiction materials related to the Founding Fathers of the United States, of which Thomas Jefferson was one. Jefferson has been memorialized as a president and author of our nation’s founding document, The Declaration of Independence. This memorialization in text and architecture (the Jefferson Memorial) glosses over the more disturbing details of Jefferson’s life. Like all of us, he was imperfect, but after reading this book, he could also be viewed as hypocritical too (or some will argue, a man of his time). In the Author’s Note, Jonah Winter states that “Jefferson’s life and legacy are full of contradictions” (Winter, 2016, p. 31), which is putting the contradictions in Jefferson’s personal life and public politics, quite mildly!

In My Name is James Madison Hemings, we read about Jefferson’s son was born into slavery due to the slave status of his mother, Sally Hemings. We read about James’ efforts to reconcile that his master was also his father, and that he would never receive the same amount of love or education that Jefferson’s white children and grandchildren received. Although James, his mother, and his siblings were slaves, they were spared some of the harsher parts of slave life due to their biological connection to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson spared the Hemings family from participating in backbreaking field labor, gave the Hemmings boys violins, and let the Hemings children learn to read and write, in a time when it was illegal to educate slaves in any manner.

There is debate nowadays on whether the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson was consensual or not. While this book doesn’t talk about that aspect of the Hemings/Jefferson relationship, the book tells us that Sally and her children were relocated from the slaves’ quarters to the dependencies- rooms near a smokehouse and the horse stables. Moving the Hemings family to the section of Monticello where animals lived and died was an act of kindness with a double meaning; this relocation could be interpreted that the Hemings were viewed in a liminal status by Jefferson: not animals, but not quite human either.  After Jefferson died, his children were freed from the bonds of slavery, but Sally, their mother, was not.

Although the author notes that he “presented this story in a first-person narrative as historical fiction” (Winter, 2016, p. 31), the spine label on my library copy says, “J B Hemings” for Juvenile Biography. If I were to recommend this book to someone, I would tell them not to be fooled by the slimness of the text. Although the book may be small in pages, the content within is intense for a children’s book. I would recommend this for an older elementary child due to the serious content of the book. The impressionistic art style of the illustrations mirrors James’ uncertainty about his father’s affections and his own place in the world.

You can read more about Sally Hemings and her legacy at the Monticello website.

Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer by Heather Henson. (Synopsis from Kirkus Reviews): “This story whispers of the life of a man most contemporary American readers should know but don’t. Stephen Bishop, born circa 1821, had intimate knowledge of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, where he served as guide for visitors who traveled far to tour the underground passageways. Despite the ban against teaching slaves to read, Stephen acquired literacy and wrote his name on the ceiling of Mammoth Cave by using smoke from a lighted candle. Henson weaves Bishop’s impressive scientific discoveries of cave life into the sparse narrative, demonstrating the magnitude of his contributions despite that little is known of his life or death…A story that recovers an important piece of African-American history inextricably tied to the history of Mammoth Cave, a national monument visited by 2 million people each year.”
Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford. (Synopsis from Kirkus Reviews): “An eccentric, smart, and quirky bibliophile, Arturo Schomburg fueled his life with books. This picture book of free verse poems, lavishly illustrated in oils, opens with stories from Schomburg’s childhood in Puerto Rico, where he constantly asked why the history of black people had been left out of all the history books. Answering him, framed, date-stamped panels, appearing primarily on the right sides of the double-page spreads throughout, capture the stories of important historical black figures such as Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, and Paul Cuffee. The poem “Whitewash” will surprise some readers; Schomburg objected to the common practice of omitting from biographies the African heritage of prominent individuals such as naturalist and ornithologist John James Audubon, French writer Alexandre Dumas, Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, and German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. Alongside these, Schomburg’s personal and professional life unfolds in unframed images. Schomburg worked as a mail clerk with Banker’s Trust; his book-collecting and library building resulted from his life’s passion, not his vocation. All of the book’s details paint Schomburg as an admirable, flawed, likable, passionate man whose lasting legacy, Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, opens its doors to all who would learn more about the people its founder knew had been left out of the written record. A must-read for a deeper understanding of a well-connected genius who enriched the cultural road map for African-Americans and books about them.”


Kirkus Reviews, (2016, June 28). Lift your light a little higher. Retrieved from

Kirkus Reviews, (2017, May 24). Schomburg: the man who built a library. Retrieved from

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. (2018). The Life of Sally Hemings. Retrieved from

Winter, J. and Widener, T. (2016). My name is James Madison Hemmings. New York: Schwartz & Wade Books.

Zarnowski, M. and Turkel, S. (2013). How nonfiction reveals the nature of science. Children’s Literature in Education 44(4), 295-310.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Stella by Starlight and Boxers & Saints

**These posts originally appeared on a Historical Fiction for Youth discussion board for my Children's Literature Class**

Title: Stella by Starlight
Author: Sharon M. Draper
Genres and themes: juvenile fiction, historical fiction, regional fiction, southern fiction, female African American protagonist, diverse reads, racism

Stella lives in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Unfortunately, the beauty of the surrounding landscape is marred by a burning cross one night when Stella and, her brother, Jojo stumble across a secret Klan meeting. It’s 1932 during the heart of the Jim Crow era and little Stella has not been immune to the racism of the era (she was slapped in the face when she was five years old for accidentally bumping into the town’s doctor). She and the rest of the children in the African American section of Bumblebee, NC, attend a separate school from the white children. Riverside School is a one-room schoolhouse that often receives “leftovers” such as raggedy books from the fancier, whites-only school, Mountain View. Healthcare services are also segregated, which Stella unfortunately found out during a medical emergency.

Despite the harsh social environment, Stella loves school even though she is not the best, straight-A student. Stella loves arithmetic but struggles with writing; she sneaks out of the house every night to practice her writing skills in private (I think this was Stella’s most impressive quality- the perseverance and discipline to improve a skill she was not naturally good at). Fortunately, for little Stella, she receives continual encouragement about her writing from her teacher, Mrs. Grayson, and her parents:

“You are an amazing thinker- a gemstone hiding inside a rock…What I’m reading here is thoughtful and beautiful, just like you are.”
“More like tangled, like my hair” (Draper, 2015, p.101).

At first Stella doesn’t know how to accept these compliments but after she is given a typewriter to practice her writing skills, and the bravery to type out her reactions, thoughts, and feelings to the events going on around her, we see her confidence bloom into the first steps of a budding journalist: “…words were starting to make sense. Bright, perfectly formed ideas smoldered in her mind” (Draper, 2015, p.102).

One of the most powerful scenes in the book occurs in Chapter 22, “Their Declaration of Independence,” when Stella’s father, Mr. Spencer, and Pastor Patton go into town to register to vote. The town registrar hurls insults at their faces and subjects them to a timed literacy test and a poll tax, while he lets white people register with just a signature and a smile. Mr. Pineville tries further voting suppression tactics (refusing to “grade” their literacy test immediately) until the men and Stella stage an impromptu sit-in, complete with singing of gospel spirituals. The men passed the test but the Klan retaliated with terror tactics at the Spencer home a few days later.

Throughout the novel we see Stella progress from a shy girl with a secret (writing at night) to a strong, confident journalist in-the-making that manages to save three lives (Hazel Spencer, Paulette Packard, and her mother). Stella is quite an amazing little girl and an excellent literary role model for the middle grade reading audience. My only beef with this book is that I wish the author had written a scene with Dr. Packard’s reaction to Stella saving Paulette from drowning. Maybe the author didn’t include this scene because some people never overcome their racist mindset? What do you guys think?

I was curious as to the tune of the traditional African American gospel songs/spirituals sprinkled throughout the text. Thanks to technology I found the titles, lyrics, and video performances online:
“Children, Go Where I Send Thee” (p. 51)
 “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” (p. 144)
“Get on Board” (p. 197)

Last week, I attended the Southeastern Library Association Conference and I visited a session titled, “Tragedy, Healing, and Understanding: Using Library of Congress Primary Sources with Children and Teens.” This session was geared mostly for school librarians, but as a parent whose goal is to teach my child respect inclusion of others, I will probably use this resource with my son. Since the Library of Congress site can be overwhelming, the Teaching Civil Rights History with Primary Resources website was created by various departments at the University of South Carolina to assist teachers and librarians in finding teaching aids:

The Other Half of My Heart by Sundee T. Frazier: (Goodreads review) “ When Minerva and Keira King were born, they made headlines: Keira is black like Mama, but Minni is white like Daddy. Together the family might look like part of a chessboard row, but they are first and foremost the close-knit Kings. Then Grandmother Johnson calls, to invite the twins down South to compete for the title of Miss Black Pearl Preteen of America. Minni dreads the spotlight, but Keira assures her that together they'll get through their stay with Grandmother Johnson. But when grandmother's bias against Keira reveals itself, Keira pulls away from her twin. Minni has always believed that no matter how different she and Keira are, they share a deep bond of the heart. Now she'll find out the truth.”

New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer: (Goodreads review) Set in the South during the time of segregation, this lushly illustrated picture book brings the civil rights era to life for contemporary readers as two young girls find an inventive way to foil Jim Crow laws. When her brother's hand-me-down shoes don't fit, it is time for Ella Mae to get new ones. She is ecstatic, but when she and her mother arrive at Mr. Johnson's shoe store, her happiness quickly turns to dejection. Ella Mae is unable to try on the shoes because of her skin color. Determined to fight back, Ella Mae and her friend Charlotte work tirelessly to collect and restore old shoes, wiping, washing, and polishing them to perfection. The girls then have their very own shoe sale, giving the other African American members of their community a place to buy shoes where they can be treated fairly and "try on all the shoes they want."

Ballad of America (2012). Get on board. Retrieved from

Desmond [Username] (2008, January 16) Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen [Video file]. Retrieved from

Draper, S.M. (2015). Stella by starlight. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Frazier, S.T. (2010). The other half of my heart. New York: Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Impasse0124 [Username] (2009, November 28) Children, go where I send thee [Video file]. Retrieved from

Meyer, S.L. (2015). New shoes. New York: Holiday House.

Title:  Boxers & Saints
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Genres and themes: graphic novels, juvenile literature, historical fiction, colonialism, war

The main theme between Boxers and Saints is parallelism. The first and obvious sign of parallelism is the simultaneous release of both volumes and their corresponding artwork:

Each cover features the protagonist accompanied by his or her supernatural mentor. Our protagonists are teenagers who have experienced various kinds of tragedy: Four-Girl/Vibiana is the victim of domestic violence by her grandfather, uncle, and cousin. Bao watched his father never fully recover mentally from a physical beating. Both Bao and Four-Girl are warned about the “foreign devils” by an elder:
“Daughter, we Chinese are not meant for the foreign devils’ religion. Their beliefs will poison your mind and destroy your spirit” (Saints, Yang, 2013, p. 74).
[Master Big Belly to Bao]: “Those devils have no respect for our ways. They blemish our skies with smoke and build metal railroads across our dragon lines. They incite the land’s anger” (Boxers, Yang, 2013, p. 85).

Four-Girl’s conversion to Christianity was a slow process; her visits to the local Catholic priest were a way for her to eat more snacks, avoid her chores, and escape her abusive family. When she announces her conversion, her family’s violent reaction forces her to leave the only home she’s ever known. Bao’s “conversion” to the mercenary lifestyle occurs after watching his fellow countrymen and women suffer from the greed of the foreigners and their Chinese converts (referred to as secondary devils). Four-Girl is assisted on her journey of self-discovery through visions of Joan of Arc; Bao’s warrior journey is encouraged through rituals and dreams of Chinese opera gods.

While these two volumes and plots shared many characteristics, an interwoven plot, and tragic endings, there a few slight differences between the two texts. Saints starts off on a negative tone and the panel colors are muted, almost sepia tone like vintage photographs. Boxers starts off on a positive note (springtime and spring festivals) and the all the panels are full color illustrations. (Any thoughts or theories on why the difference in coloring between the two books?). The sections in Saints are divided by Four-Girl’s age while the sections in Boxers are divided up geographical location and year. I believe that Yang created and released these two volumes simultaneously to show young readers that there are two sides to every story- even in war. The Christian missionaries and their disciples thought they were fulfilling God’s work converting the Chinese to Christianity and taking care of orphans. The non-Christian Chinese viewed their converted countrymen as traitors to the glory of China, and thought the missionaries were greedy, rude, and disgusting. It probably didn’t help that every time Bao met a foreigner, that foreigner was committing some kind of anthropological no-no (smashing idols, taking food without asking, practicing bodily harm on another human being, etc.).

While I was reading Boxers and Saints this week, my 10-yeard old son saw these books and took one while I was reading it and ended up reading both. He loves to read graphic novels but my husband and I got a chuckle that I had to wait for my turn to read a book for my class (Hubby turned to me and said, “I had a feeling this would happen at some point during this class). My son reads below grade level so we encourage him to practice reading as much as possible. Thankfully, these graphic novels aren’t too violent and the few sexual innuendos went over his head. When he was done, reading them, I asked him what he thought of them: “They were crazy. Just crazy.”

After my son’s remark I decided to look for children’s books on the Boxer Rebellion, to supplement the graphic novel. And I found very little children’s books on this subject. Publishers and historians- you need to get on to this! A search through the PINES catalog (the statewide online catalog for public libraries in Georgia) found these titles:

Fifty-five days of terror: the story of the Boxer Rebellion by Burt Hirschfield (published in 1964)
The Boxer Rebellion: anti-foreign terror seizes China, 1900 by Irving Werstein (published in 1971)

Recommended Readalikes:
Persepolis, Volumes 1 &2 by Marjane Satrapi
(From my review on Goodreads): “Chronicles the life of Marjane Satrapi as she grew up during the political unrest in Iran from the late 1970s through the late 1990s. It's her autobiography in graphic novel form and it gives Westerners a rare glimpse into a mysterious country and region. As a little girl, Marji parrots the political slogans and ideologies she hears from the grownups around her. As a preteen her eyes slowly open to injustice in the world as she and the other females in Iran are subject to harsher and harsher rules regarding dress, opposite-sex relationships, and public etiquette. Marji's parents send her to Europe for her safety and to continue her education; although Europe is not dangerous, Marji's ethnicity keeps her from truly fitting in. She returns to Iran but finds that her home country has changed dramatically under the leadership of religious fundamentalists.”

Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics – edited by Chris Duffy (Goodreads synopsis): “As the Great War dragged on and its catastrophic death toll mounted, a new artistic movement found its feet in the United Kingdom. The Trench Poets, as they came to be called, were soldier-poets dispatching their verse from the front lines. Known for its rejection of war as a romantic or noble enterprise, and its plainspoken condemnation of the senseless bloodshed of war, Trench Poetry soon became one of the most significant literary moments of its decade. The marriage of poetry and comics is a deeply fruitful combination, as evidenced by this collection. In stark black and white, the words of the Trench Poets find dramatic expression and reinterpretation through the minds and pens of some of the greatest cartoonists working today.”


Duffy. C. (editor) (2014). Above the dreamless dead: World War I in poetry and comics. NewYork: First Second.

Hirschfield, B. (1964). Fifty-five days of terror: the story of the Boxer Rebellion. New York: Julian Messner, Inc.

Satrapi, M. (2000). Persepolis. New York: Pantheon.

Werstein, I. (1971). The Boxer Rebellion: anti-foreign terror seizes China, 1900. London, UK: Franklin Watts.

Yang, G. L. (2013). Boxers. New York: First Second.

Yang, G. L. (2013). Saints. New York: First Second.