Thursday, August 5, 2010

Review: Rules by Cynthia Lord

Author: Cynthia Lord
Title: Rules
Illustrator: None noted
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: 2006
ISBN: 0-439-44382-2

Catherine is a twelve-year old girl who longs for a normal life, to have friends come over and to do things as a family without the potential embarrassment that comes with having an autistic younger brother. She even keeps a rule book to help her brother David learn how to behave, but he is constantly forgetting the rules. This summer, Catherine has a chance with a new friend as a girl her age is moving in next door. Catherine also makes a new friend named Jason who is confined to a wheel chair and talks with a communication board. Her love of drawing assists her as she adds new, more expressive vocabulary cards to his book, such as ‘whatever’. Catherine’s embarrassment over both her brother’s disability and Jason’s shocks her into questioning her own definition of normal.

Rules by Cynthia Lord is a study in character development as 12-year-old Catherine learns that being different is okay. Catherine longs for a normal life. Her brother, David, has autism. Having a brother like David definitely affects Catherine’s life in more ways than just competing for her parent’s attention. David makes it difficult to have friends. He can be ‘embarrassing.” Catherine’s best friend is in California with her father for the summer, so when a new girl moves in across the street, Catherine is excited yet nervous, too. What if David does something to embarrass her?

Catherine keeps a rule book for David to teach him the simple ‘rules’ of life such as, “A boy can take off his shirt to swim but not his shorts,” or “Flush!” Each chapter is centered on one of her rules, and others are interspersed within the chapter itself. David often forgets the rules such as “Late doesn’t mean not coming.” As David and Catherine are waiting outside for their father to get home by 5:00, they are counting cars to pass the time. None of the cars belong to his father. In his anxiety, David flaps his hands and screams a quote from Frog and Toad Together by Lobel, “The whole world is covered with buttons and not one of them is mine!” “I jump up to stop his hands, flapping now like two fierce and angry birds.” This is bad timing. From her porch, the new neighbor girl asks, “Is he okay?” and offers to help look for his button. How do you explain the rule, “If you need to borrow words, Arnold Lobel wrote some good ones.”? The girl goes back in without a ‘Hi’ or an exchange of names.

One afternoon as Catherine was fishing a Barbie doll out of the fish tank (“No toys in the fish tank!”), the new girl waves at her through the window. David does not like to get wet. When Catherine looks back at David, his pants are down around his feet. She quickly closes the curtains. “Pantless brothers are not my problem.” Sometimes Catherine has her own rules.

When her mother wants to invite the new neighbors over for a barbecue, Catherine doesn’t want David to be there. “...It’s hard enough to make new friends without worrying he’ll do something embarrassing.” Later, Catherine lies to her mom saying the neighbors were busy and couldn’t come. “How can his outside look so normal and his inside be so broken? Like an apple, red perfect on the outside, but mushy brown at the first bite.”

Even with all the embarrassment that David brings into her life, Catherine still defends him against people who tease him and helps him cope by teaching him life rules. “I feel like I’m ripping in half. One half wanting to run away and be a regular person with my friends, but my other half is scared to leave David because he can’t make it on his own.”

Not only is Catherine learning to deal with her conflicting emotions about her brother, she also has to learn to accept the differences her new friend Jason brings with him. One of the children in the therapy clinic is a 14 or 15 year old boy named Jason. He is wheelchair bound and can only ‘talk’ using a communication board, a book with picture/word vocabulary cards. Catherine never knows where to look at him. “Maybe by drawing Jason, I could look at him easier,” but Jason doesn’t want to be drawn. “Girl don’t,” he points at his board.

When the therapist very loudly asks and signs how he is doing, his mother tells her he is upset because he couldn’t get a guitar he wants. The therapist points at his board and says, “Sad.” Catherine thinks he needs better cards like “Get out of my face!” and “Go away!” and “This stinks a big one!” She tells Jason she is sorry about the guitar and gives him a picture she drew. Over the summer Catherine’s friendship with Jason grows as she makes more expressive vocabulary cards for him to use.

Despite their friendship, Catherine is still embarrassed about Jason’s disability. One time at the therapist’s office, Jason tells her about wanting to know what it feels like to run. Catherine jokingly offers to push him around the parking lot really fast. Jason accepts. “My smile freezes.” She tries to come up with excuses, but takes him outside anyway. “People are looking, but I try not to see them as real, just statues to run past.” When she stops, she notices a number of people watching with their mouths open. Some of them cheer. “One more time?” she asks Jason.

After Jason gets a motorized wheelchair, they walk to the beach. “...My ears are full of the sound of Jason’s wheelchair and the silence of people who suddenly stop talking as we pass.” When Catherine hears the new girl Kristi’s voice up ahead, she ducks down pretending to tie her shoe until Kristi is gone. She hasn’t told Kristi about Jason’s disability.

At Jason’s birthday party, Jason asks her to go with him to the dance. She says she can’t. Jason asks her if she is embarrassed about him. “I’m just a horrible dancer. Terrible. In fact, I’m so bad I even have a rule against it. No dancing unless I’m alone in my room or it’s pitch-black dark.” “RULE. Stupid. Excuse,” Jason points. Catherine tells her mother later, “...people stare. Or they hurry away, and I know what they’re thinking.... I get so sick of it.” “Just because other people think something, that doesn’t make it true,” her mother answers.

The turning point is on the night of the dance. Catherine decides to go, just in case Jason goes, too. She even treats her brother to some grape soda rather than pushing him out the door with her father. When Jason arrives, she asks to talk to him in private. Catherine gives Jason a card, “COMPLICATED.” The way people look around David, like he’s invisible, “makes me mad, because it’s mean and it makes me invisible, too.” Another card says, “Hidden,” and Catherine confesses about not telling Kristi about Jason because, “I was scared what she might think of me, not you. You’re a good friend, and I’ve been—.” Card number three says, “Weak.”

When Kristi and her friend Ryan appear, Catherine introduces them and apologizes to Kristi for not telling her more about Jason. After Kristi leaves, not looking at Catherine on the way out, Catherine offers one more card to Jason, “Guilty.” He doesn’t want it. Instead, he asks her to dance. She accepts his offer, just as she accepts his differences.

That night, Catherine has to rescue another toy from the fish tank. “...Other things matter, too. Like sharing something small and special, just my brother and me. Kneeling beside David, our arms touching, our faces reflect side by side, in the glass. I let that be enough.” Catherine is learning that being different is not something to be embarrassed about. Different is just ... different.

Review excerpts:
Booklist (February 15, 2006) “The details of autistic behavior are handled well, as are depictions of relationships.... A heartwarming first novel.” (Gr. 4-7)

Kirkus Review (March 1, 2006) “Catherine is an appealing and believable character, acutely self-conscious and torn between her love for her brother and her resentment of his special needs. Middle-grade readers will recognize her longing for acceptance and be intrigued by this exploration of dealing with differences.” (9-12)

Library Media Connection (October 2006) “This is a great book to help students gain some understanding about autism, while also providing a good read.”

Publishers Weekly (April 17, 2006) “The appealing, credible narrator at the heart of Lord’s debut novel will draw in readers, as she struggles to find order and balance in her life.... A rewarding story that may well inspire readers to think about others’ points of view.” (Ages 9-12)

School Library Journal (April 1, 2006) “Lord has candidly captured the delicate dynamics in a family that revolves around a child’s disability. Set in coastal Maine, this sensitive story is about being different, feeling different, and finding acceptance.” (Gr. 4-7)

KidPost Book of the Week, Washington Post (4/16/06)
Read On Wisconsin, Middle-School Pick 2006
Newbery Honor Medal 2007
Schneider Family Book Award 2007
ALA Notable Children’s Book 2007
Maine Student Book Award 2007-2008
Great Stone Face Award (NH) 2007-2008
Mitten Award (Michigan Library Association) 2008
Kentucky Bluegrass Award 2008
Buckeye Children’s Book Award (OH) 2008
Children’s Book Award (RI) 2008
Young Hoosier Book Award Nominee 2008-2009
Great Lakes Great Books Award (Michigan) 2008-2009
Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award 2009
New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing (Spring 2009)
Nutmeg Children’s Book Award 2010
Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts (NCTE)
Book of the Week, CCBC
Editors’ Pick, HW Wilson Standard Catalog

This is a great opportunity to learn more about autism and other disabilities. A is for Autism, F is for Friend: a Kid’s Book on Making Friends with a Child Who has Autism by Joanna L. Keating-Velasco (2007) is for students in grades 3-8 and is published by Autism Asperger Publications. All About My Brother: an Eight-Year-Old Sister’s Introduction of her Brother Who has Autism by Sarah Peralta (2002) is for kindergarten through 3rd graders and shows a loving relationship between a sister and her non-verbal, autistic younger brother. Other nonfiction books and series for students from grades 3-8 that deal with autism and other disabilities include: Autism by Toney Allman (2010) from the Diseases and Disorders series by Lucent Books, Autism by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen (2005), Autism by Marlene Targ Brill (2008) from the Health Alert series by Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, The Autism Acceptance Book: Being a Friend to Someone with Autism by Ellen Sabin (2006), Autism and Me: Sibling Stories by Ouisie Shapiro (2009), and How to Deal with Autism by Lynette Robbins (2010) from the Kids’ Health series by PowerKids Press.

Two picture books you may want to read are Ian’s Walk: a Story about Autism by Laurie Lears (1998) and Nathan’s Wish: a Story about Cerebral Palsy by Laurie Lears (2005). Both are from the point of view of the disabled child and are part of the Concept Books published by Whitman.

Some helpful websites are: Autism Society of America with its article on sibling issues (, Autism Resources ( which also has a list of children’s autism books (, and KidsHealth Organization has information on autism ( and other disabilities (use the search feature). A Google videos search for “autism” and for “autism siblings” provides many opportunities to view information on autism in a video format from people who deal with the disability on a daily basis and from medical professional for more in-depth explanations.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Review: Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye

Author: Naomi Shihab Nye
Title: Habibi
Illustrator: none noted
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: 1997
ISBN: 0-689-80149-1

Liyana Abboud is a fourteen-year-old Arab American girl. She is looking forward to high school, dating, and more kissing, having just received her first kiss. But her world is being turned upside down. Her father has decided that now would be a good time to move...back to his homeland of Jerusalem, a place where Liyana cannot wear shorts, kiss in public, or even speak the language. There she meets more family than she can count, including a grandmother she calls Sitti, stone streets, history, anger and prejudice, and Omer, a Jewish boy whose kisses come to mean more to her than her first kiss back home. Liyana and her family discover that you can have more than one home in your heart.

Through imagery, poetry, character development, and a strong story line contrasting conflict and peace, anger and friendship, Naomi Shihab Nye’s character Liyana Abboud welcomes you into her life and her Arab American family in Habibi. Each chapter starts with a line written by Liyana, setting up the theme of the chapter.

The secret kiss grew larger and larger.” In the first chapter, Liyana has just had her first kiss, one she keeps secret from her family, but that night, she is told that the family is moving from her home in St. Louis to Jerusalem, her father’s homeland. Her father, Poppy, believes that things have settled down there. How can she leave when she is just beginning to explore a friendship transforming into something new? “Who would they be if they had to start all over again? ...Now she would be the immigrant” just as her Poppy had been when he came to the United States. Liyana reacts in anger at the changes that are expected of her. When Poppy tells her that she cannot wear her shorts in Jerusalem because it wouldn’t be appropriate, after all “Arab women don’t wear shorts,” Liyana yells, “I’m not a woman or a full Arab, either one!” She thinks of herself as a “half-half...a mixed breed.... The half-breeds are always villains or rescuers, never anybody normal in between.”

Through her move to Jerusalem, Liyana finds herself, her place in the world. First, Liyana meets her extended family. “She opened her mouth and a siren came out.” Poppy warns them that his mother, Sitti, “comes from a different world.” She is old-fashioned in dress and in her mannerisms, a traditional Palestinian, who does not understand English. A huge crowd of relatives pour into the hotel room, “hugging, pinching cheeks, and jabbering loudly.” They are very different from the relatives in the states who rarely hug each other. Liyana stands close to Poppy, for protection and for translation, especially when Sitti “threw her head back, rolled her tongue high up in her mouth, and began trilling wildly.” Poppy explains that the cry is used as an announcement at weddings and – funerals.” There are so many kisses on the cheek and introductions, Liyana can’t keep track of who is who.

“How long does a friend take?” Liyana wonders, yet friendships are made in unlikely places. While chasing a hen, Liyana and Rafik meet Khaled and his sister Nadine who live in the refugee camp. Even with the little Arabic that Liyana and Rafik have and the little English Khaled and Nadine speak, they are able to develop a close friendship very quickly. “Khaled and Nadine. They’re nice. Now you tell me. Are they acquaintances or friends?” she asks Rafik.

“She turned a corner and everything changed.” Liyana meets a boy who smells like cinnamon in the Sandrouni family’s ceramics shop. Every other day, she visits the shop, hoping to see him again. When they finally meet again, she thinks he says his name is Omar. They make plans to meet the next day, but she does not tell Poppy about him right away. “Sometimes to hold a good secret inside you made the rest of a day feel glittery.” When she finds out his name is Omer, not Omar, and that he is Jewish, she is confused as to why he is with her, an Arab. She begins to talk a mile a minute, ending with “don’t you think it should have made them (the Jewish people) more sensitive to the sufferings of others, too?” “I do,” Omer replies. “It’s a bad history without a doubt. Nothing to be proud of. So what are we going to do about it?” Their friendship is sealed.

Liyana enjoys exploring Jerusalem. “The city was a cake made of layers of time.” Yet Liyana notices that anger pours from the cracks between the stones. “With so much holiness bumping up against other holiness, doesn’t it seem strange Jerusalem would have had so much fighting?” In a spice store, Liyana is told by a Jewish man not to talk to “this animal,” referring to the store owner. She is so angry, she can’t say a word. “What good is a mouth if it won’t open when you need it to?”

The Abboud family hears more and more stories of aggression, one side against another until it touches them. The Israeli police, searching for a relative of theirs, destroy Sitti’s bathroom. After a bombing by Palestinians, the Israeli police believe that their friend Khaled has something to do with it. Khaled detests violence. Knowing this, Poppy tries to intervene and gets arrested, and Khaled is shot in the leg. Liyana tells the police at the jail, “You do not have to be so mean! You could be nicer! YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY!” Liyana begins to wonder, “Maybe peace was the size of a teacup.”

Yet there is hope for peace through individuals. Liyana asks her father if Omer, her Jewish friend, could go to her grandmother’s village with the family. Poppy grows angry at the mother’s suggestion that Liyana has a Jewish boyfriend even though Mrs. Abboud reminds him of her parents’ reaction to their relationship. Liyana tells him, “We want to write a new story.” “What good is a belief in peace if it doesn’t change the ways we live?” her mother asks him. Liyana finally has to quote Poppy’s own words, “Didn’t you say before you went in jail that it would be great if people never described each other as ‘the Jew’ or ‘the Arab’ or ‘the black guy’ or ‘the white guy’ – didn’t you just SAY?”

Poppy’s fears about his mother’s acceptance of Omer go unanswered. Sitti accepts him with all of her heart. Omer reminds her of someone she liked a lot, a long time ago, who was killed by a bomb. She thinks Omer carries her friend’s spirit within him. Omer seals the bond of their friendship when he tells her, “I’m happy to carry him.” Even with all the deaths and violence Sitti has seen, when Liyana asks Sitti about the recent peace talks, Sitti answers, “I never lost my peace inside.” Sitti tells Omer, “There are hard words waiting in people’s mouths to be spoken. There are walls. You can’t break them. Just find doors in them. See? You already have. Here we are together.” Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye leaves the reader with hope for peace in Jerusalem through the actions of individuals and families reaching out their hands in friendship and acceptance.

Liyana finds peace within herself. In the end, Liyana realizes she has everything she needs. “She didn’t need everyone to know her—just a few people. That was enough. She needed her family, two countries, her senses, her notebooks and pencils, and her new devotion to – trade. When you liked somebody, you wanted to trade the best things you knew about. You liked them not only for themselves, but for the parts of you that they brought out.”

Review excerpts:
Book Links
(January 2006) “In this heartwarming novel Nye paints an uplifting and optimistic portrait of friendship between Palestinians and Jews, and readers will relate to Liyana’s efforts to make new friends and adapt to her new environment.” (Gr. 6-up)

School Library Journal (1997) “Though the story begins at a leisurely pace, readers will be engaged by the characters, the romance, and the foreshadowed danger. Poetically imaged and leavened with humor, the story renders layered and complex history understandable through character and incident. Habibi succeeds in making the hope for peace compellingly personal and long as individual citizens like Liyana’s grandmother Sitti can say, “I never lost my peace inside.”” (Gr. 5-9)

Book Report (1998) “This book is an outstanding look at what it is like to be a young person in Palestine today. It is rich in detail, personalizes the complex tensions of the Middle East, and leaves the reader with a sense of hope for peaceful resolutions.” (Grades 6-12)

Horn Book Magazine (1997) “The leisurely progression of the narrative matches the slow and stately pace of daily life in this ancient land, and the text’s poetic turns of phrase accurately reflect Liyana’s passion for words and language.”

Publishers Weekly (September 8, 1997) “This soul-stirring novel about the Abbouds, an Arab American family, puts faces and names to the victims of violence and persecution in Jerusalem today.... Nye’s climactic ending will leave readers pondering, long after the last page is turned, why Arabs, Jews, Greeks and Armenians can no longer live in harmony the way they once did.” (Ages 10-up)

Texas Institute of Letters Best Book for Young Readers 1997
American Library Association Notable Books for Children 1998
Jane Addams Children’s Book Award 1998
Judy Lopez Memorial Award 1998
ALA Best Book for Young Adults 1998
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award 1998-1999
MEOC’s Middle East Book Award 2000
Georgia Children’s Book Award 2000
New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
American Bookseller “Pick of the Lists”

Further your students’ knowledge of Arab Americans, Israel, Palestine, and Jerusalem through books, video recordings, and websites. Arab American Biography by Loretta Hall is a multi-volume set published in 1999 by UXL. It contains 75 profiles on noteworthy Arab Americans in over twenty fields. Grandma Hekmatt Remembers: an Arab-American Family Story by Ann Morris (2003) is the story of a grandmother’s life and journey from Egypt to New Jersey as it is told to her three granddaughters. The Arab American Institute provides current information of importance to Arab Americans, support programs and services, and special events (

The book Israel and Palestine by Paul Mason (2009) and Israel and Palestine: a Divided Land published by Knowledge Unlimited (2004), a video recording (VHS) designed for grades 5 and up, both provide an overview of the history of Israel and Palestine and discuss the origins of the current conflict and its impact on the people of this region. Explore Israel, Palestine, and the city of Jerusalem online at and

Jerusalem Sky: Stars, Crosses, and Crescents by Mark H. Podwal (2005) is a book of religious poetry centered around Jerusalem including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam stories. Tali’s Jerusalem Scrapbook by Sylvia A. Rouss (2003) is a story of a Jewish child remembering when she lived in peace with her Arab neighbors. Jerusalem: between Heaven and Earth published by Kultur (2008) is a DVD for audiences Grades 5 and up. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim families share their perspectives on the city of Jerusalem.

Using the knowledge gained through the studies, discuss the connections each side has to the city of Jerusalem and the country of Israel. Why are there conflicts? Why are they having problems living side by side peacefully? How do you think the problems can be resolved?


Monday, August 2, 2010

Review: In Our Mothers' House by Patricia Polacco

Author: Patricia Polacco
Title: In Our Mother’s House
Illustrator: Patricia Polacco
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: 2009
ISBN: 978-0-399-25076-7

Our Mothers’ house is just like any other household you may see. We laugh, work, play, and grow together. But one of the neighborhood families doesn’t accept us. You see, we have two mothers instead of a mom and a dad. This doesn’t matter to us. We are loved just the same.

In Our Mother's House by Patricia Polacco is told from the point of view of Meema’s and Marmee’s oldest child, an African-American girl. The reader sees bits and pieces of their lives as the narrator, Will (an Asian-American boy), and Millie (a red-headed Caucasian girl) grow up feeling happy and loved. A confrontation with the prejudice neighbor leads to a joining of forces by all of their other neighbors, showing their acceptance of this unusual family. The three children grow up, get married to heterosexual spouses, and have children of their own as their mothers grow older together. After their death, Will and his family live in the same house where “The walls still whisper our mothers’ name.” It is a place of love.

In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco opens by introducing each character, when each child joins the family and the jobs, hobbies, and personalities of the two mothers. From that point on, the book is a walk down memory lane, using small events from the children’s lives as they grow up to demonstrate the love that their mothers give to them. They dance, paint on the walls, slide down the banisters, go trick or treating in homemade costumes, get sick together, and more. The extended family is just as close and visits often. “What I loved the most about our family was that we could all speak our hearts. We never measured words.” The closeness of the neighbors to this family is demonstrated when a tree house is built and when a block party is held; they all pitch in to make each endeavor a success.

As each event changed with a turn of the page, I wondered if there was going to be a plot. The book seemed to be like a photo album, a collection of memories. I could see hints of a confrontation to come as the children meet with the rudeness displayed by Mrs. Lockner. She slams the door on them at Halloween, and her children don’t come to the tree house sleepover, even though they had been invited. “They just plain didn’t like us, I guessed. I couldn’t quite understand why.” Mrs. Lockner’s children are excited about the invitation to the block party, but Mrs. Lockner “glared at us, the way she always did.”

Finally, the expected confrontation takes place at the block party. ““I don’t appreciate what you two are!” she snarled at Meema and Marmee...and stalked off. “What’s the matter with her, Momma, what’s the matter with her?” Millie kept saying.... “She is full of fear, sweetie. She’s afraid of what she cannot understand: she doesn’t understand us,” Meema quietly said.”” The neighbors all hug the mothers and stay to talk until late that night. Although not openly calling the mothers lesbians, the implication is there. Will younger children understand the message of the story? Probably only those who come from families with same-sex parents will understand.

Just as I thought we were finished, one more random memory had to be included to demonstrate the love the mothers felt toward their children. They were to host the mother-daughter tea and had to wear dresses. Although the mothers never wear dresses, they do for this one occasion to support their children. This memory interrupts the closing. It is interesting, but not necessary. We already know by then how much the mothers love their children.

Finally, the story wraps up by showing each child’s wedding picture (heterosexual marriages) and what each child becomes when they grow up. The purpose of this appears to be to relay the message that being raised by same-sex parents did not affect the children’s’ future in a ‘negative’ manner. I wonder why Polacco did not have one of the children grow up to be gay. Her message was suppose to be that this type of family is normal, too, but none of the children grow up to display this definition of normality. The reader then sees the mothers growing older and playing with their grandchildren before they pass away. The house stays in the family as Will raises his family there, too.

Yes, the message is clear. Same-sex families who show love toward their children are just like all others. Multi-racial, adopted children, too, are just like all others. It doesn’t matter who is in the family so much as how you are raised. Yet the photo album method of portraying that message drags on and on, leaving me to wonder if it could hold the attention of the children it is written for. The bright colors and expressive faces and bodies of the characters throughout the story are what keeps the reader’s attention. Each character’s personality comes through, not through the words so much as through the illustrations.

One other thing concerns me. This book is an attempt to stop some of the fears and concerns regarding the effects on children who are being raised by same sex parents; however, there is still some stereotyping involved in Polacco’s rendering of the mothers. They are drawn with very short hair similar to a man’s hairstyle, and they always wear pants. The only time they don’t wear pants is for their daughters’ tea party because they are asked to wear dresses. “We had never seen either of them in a dress...ever!” This image is that of the stereotypical lesbian. Doesn’t this image need to be challenged, too?

Although there are shortcomings to In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco, there are so few books available to meet the needs of children being raised by same-sex parents that this book should be included in a library collection.

Review excerpts:
(May 1, 2009) “The energetic illustrations in pencil and marker, though perhaps not as well rendered as in some previous works, teem with family activities and neighborhood festivity.... This portrait of a loving family celebrates differences....” (Grades 1-4)

Horn Book (Fall 2009) “The nostalgic adult tone and dearth of actual plot severely limit the child appeal of this well-intentioned story played out in Polacco’s recognizable illustrations.”

Kirkus Review (March 15, 2009) “Unfortunately, while this ambitious picture book seeks to offer an inclusive vision of family, it ultimately comes up short.” (6-8)

Library Media Connection (October 2009) “The writing style is truly Polacco and the colorful illustrations are warm and loving. This is a strong and memorable story of a peaceful, devoted family unit.”

School Library Journal (May 1, 2009) “Is this an idealized vision of how a gay couple can be accepted by their family and community? Absolutely. But the story serves as a model of inclusiveness for children who have same-sex parents, as well as for children who may have questions about a “different” family in their neighborhood. A lovely book that can help youngsters better understand their world.” (Gr. 1-4)

ALA Rainbow Book List 2010
What’s New in Children’s Literature 2010 (Dr. Peggy Sharp)

Include In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco in your collection as an example of the diversity of families. The addition of several other books can support the message the story conveys. For middle school on up, Gay and Lesbian Parents by Julianna Fields (2010) is a nonjudgmental presentation of homosexuality and parenting, including a discussion on controversies, laws, when a parent comes out, and various religious and social issues that these families encounter. This book is a part of the series Changing Face of Modern Families published by Mason Crest Publishers (2010). Other books in this series are: Adoptive Parents, Blended Families, Celebrity Families, Families Living with Mental and Physical Challenges, First-generation Immigrant Families, Foster Families, Grandparents Raising Kids, Growing up in Religious Communities, Kids Growing Up without a House, Multiracial Families, Single Parent Families, Teen Parents, and What is a Family?. A website publication written by highschoolers is “The Viking Views.” In their May 28, 2008 edition they explore different families (

For the elementary level, include books on other family units that are different. Single-Parent Families by Sarah L. Schuette (2010) is a part of the My Family series published by Capstone. This series is written for K-3 students and also includes Adoptive Families, Blended Families, and Foster Families. Picture book stories on different families for younger students should be included in your collection. Murphy’s Three Homes: a Story for Children in Foster Care by Jan Levinson Gilman (2009) is written from a dog’s point of view as he is moved around to various foster homes. Some stories about adoptions from China include Star of the Week: a Story of Love, Adoption, and Brownies with Sprinkles by Darlene Friedman (2009), Made in China: a Story of Adoption by Vanita Oelschlager (2008), A China Adoption Story: Mommy, Why do We Look Different? by Frances M. Koh (2000), and Mommy Far, Mommy Near: an Adoption Story by Carol Antoinette Peacock (2000). Megan’s Birthday Tree: a Story About Open Adoption by Laurie Lears explores the wider family that open adoption creates. For teachers or homeschoolers, Teacherlink includes a unit “What Are Different Kinds of Families” at


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Review: The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

Author: Grace Lin
Title: The Year of the Dog
Illustrator: Grace Lin
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Publication Date: 2006
ISBN: 0-316-06000-3

Pacy’s mother tells her that the Chinese Year of the Dog is a good year for friends, family, and discovering yourself and your talent. Pacy quickly finds a new friend in Melody Ling, another Taiwanese-American. Now she has two good friends, Melody and Becky. But finding out about herself and her talent takes more time. Through stories from her mother and her friendship with Melody, Pacy, also known as Grace Lin, explores her Taiwanese culture and the way other Taiwanese-Americans view their heritage. As the year passes, each of her friends finds their talents, but it wasn’t until the end of the year that Pacy discovers her own, the ability to write and illustrate stories.

Raised in upstate New York, Grace Lin is Taiwanese-American and uses her childhood experiences to create the story The Year of the Dog. Told in first person using the voice of a child, Grace, also known as Pacy by her family, shares her experiences throughout the Year of the Dog as she searches for friends and for her hidden talent; after all, the Year of the Dog is for finding your best friend, “because,” as her mother explains, “dogs are faithful.... The Year of the Dog is also for thinking. Since dogs are also honest and sincere, it’s a good year to find yourself...what you want to do--that kind of thing.”

Pacy shares her everyday experiences from school and from home. The personality of each friend and family member is presented in such as way that the reader feels as if they, too, know the family personally. Some of the stories are funny, bringing to mind episodes of our own childhood. During the Chinese New Year dinner, the fried fish stares at Pacy, “I didn’t like it, so I turned that plate around so it would look at Lissy instead.” They kept turning the plate back and forth until they finally had the fish stare at their younger sister who didn’t notice. Another dinner at her new friend Melody’s house introduced ‘healthy’ Chinese food to Pacy. “Yuck!...How could they eat this?...I just kept pushing the rice from one side of my plate to the other.” How many of us did this when we were younger or even now?

Other stories confront Pacy with her ethnicity in such a way that she is shocked and hurt, like the time her friend Becky tells her that she can’t be Dorothy from Wizard of Oz in the school play. “Dorothy’s not Chinese,” she said. Pacy thinks, “Suddenly, the world went silent. Like a melting icicle, my dream of being Dorothy fell and shattered on the ground. I felt like a dirty puddle after the rain.” She refuses to try out for the part and begins to think that Chinese people aren’t important. “You never see a Chinese person in the movies or in a play or in a book. No one Chinese is important.” The only book Melody and Pacy find in the school library is “The Seven Chinese Brothers” although the illustration shows another title, Five Chinese Brothers. “Those aren’t real Chinese people.... Your brother doesn’t have a ponytail.” From this discovery comes the seed of an idea. Melody challenges her to write her own book; Pacy remembers the book contest and accepts the challenge.

It isn’t only the White American viewpoint that Pacy has to overcome. Pacy also has to face prejudice within her own Taiwanese-American culture. Pacy and her family go to a Taiwanese-American Convention with Melody’s family. After Melody leaves, her mother encourages her to make new friends; however, when some girls discover that she can’t speak Chinese or Taiwanese, the girls treat her rudely. “My mother says she would never let me become Americanized. She said that when you’re Americanized you don’t have any culture.” “You’re a Twinkie!” another girl says. “My brother said Chinese people who are Americanized are Twinkies. Yellow on the outside but white on the inside!” Later Pacy talks to her mother. “It’s not fair. To Americans, I’m too Chinese, and to Chinese people, I’m too American. So which one am I supposed to be?” The mother’s answer, “You don’t have to be more one than the other, you’re Chinese-American.” “Or Taiwanese-American,” Pacy adds. “It’s so confusing.”

Pacy shares stories told to her by her family, relating them to the action of the story so that they become part of Pacy’s story, too. Pacy’s mother tells many stories like “How Grandpa Got Rich” since so many of their New Year foods symbolize wealth and “Mom Sleeps in School” because Pacy is so tired and doesn’t want to go to school. “The Paper Piano” is told by her mother to encourage Pacy “to work on your book a little bit every day, if you want it to be good, just like practicing an instrument.” Pacy enjoys telling her own stories, too. “How My Name Changed from Pacy to Grace” is one of Pacy’s own stories that she shares with her new Taiwanese-American friend, Melody when Melody is confused about why Pacy has two names.

The reader gets to share in some of the celebrations, rituals, and customs experienced by Pacy and her family. For the Chinese New Year, a candy tray is filled. “If it’s full of sweet things, it means your year will be full of sweet things.” However, Ki-Ki eats so much of the special Chinese New Year candy... (“I don’t know why. It isn’t real candy like chocolate or lollipops,” writes Pacy.)... that Pacy fills the rest of the tray with M&M’s. (“That’s real candy.”) Her older sister doesn’t believe this to be right, so they take it to their dad. He replies, “We should have both Chinese and American candy for the new year. It’s just like us—Chinese-American.” They start their own variation of a Chinese tradition.

One time Pacy has a crick in her neck and her grandma uses black stones and water to create black ink. She then paints the Chinese symbol for the tiger on one side of Pacy’s neck and a pig on the other. “The tiger should chase the pig and the running will massage your neck and you’re your neck feel better,” Grandma tells her. Pacy is worried that the paint won’t come off. Surprisingly, her neck feels better.

Then there was the Red Egg party for their new cousin, Albert. Not all Chinese babies get Red Egg parties, but when they do, you have to bring red eggs for good luck. When Pacy saw baby Albert, “He looked like a red egg. But it could have been because he was sleeping on all those red envelopes. Relatives kept coming by and slipping those envelopes stuffed with money into the crib..... Lucky Albert! He was already rich.” About the Chinese, Taiwanese, and American mixture in her life, Grace Lin admits in the author’s note, “At the time, I felt these different threads twisted my life into knots. Now I know that the fabric of my life is richer for them.”

Grace Lin adds little drawings in each chapter to illustrate some of the events, much as a child would do in a journal: “How to draw a dog,” “the fish” from the New Year’s dinner, “Mom sleeps in school,” “Lissy with red dye on her nose,” and “Albert’s Banner.” The simple drawings along with the emotions and stories shared in the text allow the reader to believe that a child is telling the story.

The unveiling of Pacy’s talent at the end of the year is a satisfying conclusion to her search; after all, she has shared herself through her stories and pictures throughout the Year of the Dog. After Halloween, Pacy finally receives the wealth and self-discovery that she sought all year. Grace’s book, The Ugly Vegetables, won fourth place in the National Written and Illustrated Awards Contest for Students. She receives $400! “I found myself!” I told everyone. “I’m going to make books when I grow up.” This was a real contest that existed until around 2005 when the company folded. Grace Lin did write the book, The Ugly Vegetables, but, she admits in the author’s note, Melody’s book, Flower Land, is really her book, Dandelion Story. She really won the prize that year for her science fair project. By weaving the threads of her life stories, and variations of these stories, with her simple pictures, Grace Lin has created a beautiful fabric of her childhood, one that leaves the reader wanting more.

Review excerpts:
Booklist starred
(January 1, 2006) “Lin, who is known for her picture books, dots the text with charming ink drawings.... Most of the chapters are bolstered by anecdotes from Grace’s parents, which connect Grace (and the reader) to her Taiwanese heritage. Lin does a remarkable job capturing the soul and the spirit of books like those of Hayward or Maud Hart Lovelace, reimaging them through the lens of her own story, and transforming their special qualities into something new for today’s young readers.” (Gr. 3-5)

Horn Book (March/April 2006) “With a light touch, Lin offers both authentic Taiwanese-American and universal childhood experiences, told from a genuine child perspective. The story, interwoven with several family anecdotes, is entertaining and often illuminating. Appealing, childlike decorative line drawings add a delightful flavor to a gentle tale full of humor.”

Kirkus Review (December 15, 2005) “Occasional black-and-white drawings by the author enliven the text. This comfortable first-person story will be a great for Asian-American girls looking to see themselves in their reading, but also for any reader who enjoys stories of friendship and family life.” (8-12)

Publishers Weekly (January 2, 2006) “Lin creates an endearing protagonist, realistically dealing with universal emotions and situations.... Girls everywhere, but especially those in the Asian-American community, will find much to embrace here.” (Ages 8-12)

School Library Journal (March 1, 2006) “At the end of the year, the protagonist has grown substantially. Small, captioned, childlike black-and-white drawings are dotted throughout. This is an enjoyable chapter book with easily identifiable characters.” (Gr. 3-5)

2006 Fall Publisher’s Pick
2006 ALA Children’s Notable
2006 National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) Gold Winner
2007-2008 Texas Bluebonnet Award Nominee
2007 Nene Awards Recommended List (Hawaii)
2007 Cochecho Readers’ Award List (NH)
2006 NYPL 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
2006 Kirkus Best Early Chapter Books
2006 Booklist Editors’ Choice for Middle Readers
2007 Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choice
Boston Authors Club Recommended Book
2007-2008 Great Lakes Great Books Award Nominee
2007-2008 North Carolina Children’s Book Award Nominee
2007-2008 West Virginia Children’s Book Award Nominee
2009 Beverly Cleary Children’s Choice Award (OR) Nominee
2009 Pacific Northwest Young Readers Choice Award (WA, OR, ID) Nominee

If you want to read more about Pacy, read The Year of the Rat: a Novel by Grace Lin (2007). In this story, her best friend moves to California, a new boy comes to her school, and she finds the courage to continue writing and illustrating books.

Explore the Chinese New Year and the Chinese zodiac by reading other fiction and nonfiction books. Bringing in the New Year by Grace Lin (2008) is a picture book in which a Chinese American family prepares for and celebrates the Lunar New Year. Story for the Chinese Zodiac by Moniz Chang (1994) is a Chinese/English bilingual story that retells the tale of how the gods named the Chinese zodiac by holding a race for the animals. Cat and Rat: the Legend of the Chinese Zodiac by Ed Young (1995) introduces the Chinese zodiac and the traits for each sign, and it includes a table showing the signs from 1900 through 2007. Celebrate Chinese New Year by Carolyn Otto (2009) provides colorful photos along with information on the history and current practices during the Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year’s Crafts by Karen E. Bledsoe (2005) provide step-by-step instructions for creating ten craft projects for celebrating Chinese New Year. Western and Chinese New Year’s Celebration by Elizabeth A. Dice (2009) provides information on both the Western and Chinese New Year’s celebrations, allowing for discussion comparing the two.

The following websites also provide information on the Chinese New Year and the Chinese zodiac:

Have your students or your own child create and publish their own book as Pacy did in The Year of the Dog. Several websites provide information on student publishing. Some of them are free; some charge a small fee. Several of these companies also offer writing contests once a year.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Review: Kamishibai Man by Allen Say

Author: Allen Say
Title: Kamishibai Man
Illustrator: Allen Say
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Publication Date: 2005
ISBN: 978-0-618-47954-2

Not so long ago, there lived in Japan an old man and his wife. They called themselves Jiichan (Grandpa) and Baachan (Grandma) even though they had no children. It had been many years since the man had worked, but Jiichan decides to put his paper theater box on his bicycle and ride it into town. His wife makes the same candies for him to sell as she had so many years ago. When Jiichan arrives in the city, he is surprised at the changes, so many cars, tall buildings, and shops and restaurants where a park used to be. He sets up his stage, checks the story cards and candies inside, claps two wooden blocks together, and calls for the children to come. “Come gather around me, little ones, your kamishibai man is here again!” Jiichan recalls aloud the children who visited, the stories he told, the advent of television, and the last child who came to hear his stories. Suddenly, he hears voices asking for his stories. It was the same children, all grown up, ready to hear the kamishibai man once again.

Allen Say was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1937. He grew up during a time when kamishibai (paper theater) was popular. Many people took to the streets using this art form and selling candy in order to make a living during times of economic depression. Eventually, the economy improved and television was invented, making kamishibai unpopular as a reminder of harder times. Allen Say recalls the kamishibai man of his youth with fondness in the foreward. Since the kamishibai man’s stories always left the hero and heroine hanging from a cliff or getting pushed off it, “when I came to America, that (cliffhanger) was one expression that nobody had to explain to me.... Let me be your “paper theater man” for a day.”

Kamishibai Man focuses on the themes of aging and the effects of technological advancements in this heartwarming story of an elderly man’s attempt to recapture the joy he felt when he told stories using his paper theater. Many elderly people recall portions of their life with fondness and want to relive it. Jiichan tries to do just that as he loads up his theater and candy and pedals into the city to tell his stories once again. His legs are still good, he notes, and he almost seems to compare himself to a nearby bridge. “Well, good morning to you, rickety old bridge, still going strong after all these years, um, mmm.” He began humming a tune that his mother had sung to him long ago. When he arrives in the city, he is confused. It does not match his memories. “This isn’t right.... I must have taken a wrong turn.” Even though he recognizes bits and pieces, there were more cars, tall buildings, rude drivers, shops, and restaurants. “You’d think I was in another country!... Don’t remember such rude drivers.” He even notes the missing park and trees, all in the name of progress. After he parks his bicycle, opens his theater, and checks the story cards and candy, he starts to hum again. He is back in his memories of his past. Clapping two wooden blocks together, Jiichan calls the children of his memories to him, for there are none around to hear.

Up until this point, the watercolor illustrations have been realistically rendered using shadows and texture to add depth to the background of the hills, trees, and city and to provide texture to Jiichan’s clothing and expression and emotions to his face. Suddenly, the paintings change. As Jiichan greets the children of his past, the storytelling frame shows them running up to him; however, they are painted in a flatter, cartoon-like manner, in the same style that was used on many of the story cards in kamishibai storytelling. Jiichan’s face is younger, but the expression is similar and just as expressive as in the more realistic style. “Long, long ago, there once lived an old man and his wife who had no children...” he begins just as his own story began before he rode to town.

Then one night he recalls seeing a crowd of people watching a television. “It showed moving pictures; they were all jerky and blurry and had no colors at all,” yet antennas began to “sprout from the rooftops like weeds in the springtime.” It wasn’t long before the children stopped coming to hear his stories. They began to act like they didn’t know him and rudely shushed him for making too much noise with his clappers. Technology had changed the children’s expectations of entertainment, their attitudes toward elders, and their beliefs in what was important in life. Jiichan recalled one boy, a poor boy, who claimed not to like television. He wanted to hear Jiichan’s stories, so Jiichan told one last story, “Little One Inch.” “That was the last time I saw that boy. That was the last day I was a kamishibai man.” The illustration shows Jiichan’s back as the boy runs away, leaving Jiichan alone, never to tell stories again.

Suddenly, the illustrations change back to the original style with an older Jiichan still standing in the same position as his younger self from his memories. Voices are calling out, “I was that boy!” and “We grew up with your stories!” From all around him, people dressed in a variety of clothing began to clap and beg for their favorites. He gave a young man with a camera candy, “Just like the old days!” When he got home, Baachan was waiting amidst traditional Japanese furniture, dressed in a kimono, and watching the evening news on a story about the kamishibai man. “Will you be going out tomorrow?” she asks. “Umm, yes. And the day after.” “Then you’ll need more sweets.” She shuts off the television as we should shut off ours. We are left hanging on a cliff, wondering if Jiichan will be able to continue successfully as the kamishibai man in today’s world.

Japanese folklore scholar Tara McGowan includes an afterword that adds more historical background to the art of kamishibai for the reader. “Eventually kamishibai as a street-performance art all but disappeared. The artists...turned to more lucrative pursuits,...but they never forgot their roots in kamishibai,” just as Allen Say never forgot his roots, successfully blending a modern art style with the kamishibai style to create an unforgettable tale from his past in Kamishibai Man.

Review excerpts:
Booklist starred (September 15, 2005) “The quietly dramatic, beautifully evocative tale contains a cliffhanger of its own, and it exquisite art, in the style of Kamishibai picture cards, will attract even the most jaded kid away from the TV to enjoy a good, good book.” (Gr 1-3)

Horn Book (November/December 2005) “Say’s paintings are lovely: eloquent characterization, evocative landscapes, and, for the memory sequence, a more freely drawn style that recalls the vanished art form he celebrates.”

Kirkus Review (October 15, 2005) “Say effectively incorporates two illustration styles here-lovely soft watercolors and a more cartoonish style for flashbacks to the heyday of kamishibai. A fascinating window on a bygone art form.” (6-10)

Library Media Connection (March 2006) “Sparse text, eloquent in its simplicity, poignantly leads readers deeper into the story line.... Lustrous watercolors provide cultural insights into Japan’s households and cities. Readers will pause to carefully examine the detailed illustrations, which extend the text.”

Publishers Weekly (August 22, 2005) “Say’s gift is to multiply themes without struggling under their weight. Aging, cultural change, the way humans seem to lose warmth with technological advances-he gestures toward all of these while keeping the lens tightly focused on the kamishibai man.” (Ages 4-8)

School Library Journal (October 1, 2005) “Say’s distinctive style and facial expressions are especially touching.... The power of the story and the importance of the storyteller are felt in this nostalgic piece that makes readers think about “progress.”” (Gr 1-5)

2006 ALA Notable Children’s Book
2006 Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award
2006 Eloise Jarvis McGraw Award for Children’s Literature Nominee
2005 Parent’s Choice Gold Award
2005 Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year

Use kamishibai with your students or your own children. There are a number of resources available to purchase, or you can create your own. The Kamishibi Classroom: Engaging Multiple Literacies Through the Art of “Paper Theater” by Tara McGowan, a noted Japanese folklore scholar, includes step by step instructions to develop this interactive teaching tool to use across the curriculum (2010). Kamishibai Story Theater: The Art of Picture Telling by storyteller Dianne De las Casas (2006) presents adaptations of twenty-five folktales from Asia with tips and suggestions for classroom use. Manga Kamishibai: the Art of Japanese Paper Theater by Eric Peter Nash (2009) offers interested adults a historical background of kamishibai through current use with manga plus several full-length stories.

Several websites provide information and supplies to get started in kamishibai. Kamishibai for Kids at provides a history, how to use, teacher’s guide, literacy information, resources, and more. An interesting article “Raising literate kids the kamishibai way” can be found in the Education in Japan Community Blog at Storycard Theater at which received Dr. Toy’s 10 Best Creative Products Winner offers kamishibai products for purchase.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review: When My Name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park

Author: Linda Sue Park
Title: When My Name was Keoko
Illustrator: none noted
Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication Date: 2002
ISBN: 0-618-13335-6

The year is 1940. Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul, having grown up in occupied Korea, tell their story in alternating chapters. They are taught Japanese in school, have never seen the Korean flag, and are only allowed to speak Korean in their home. Now, things are changing. The Japanese have decreed that everybody must take a Japanese name. They will be punished if they call anybody by their Korean name. Suddenly, Sun-hee and Tae-yul become Keoko and Nobuo. When the Japanese empire spreads its wings too far by bombing Pearl Harbor, World War II begins in the Pacific. Although Korea never sees any direct fighting, they, too, feel the effects of war. Food, clothing, metal, and young men and women are confiscated in the name of supporting the Emperor. The underground Korean resistence grows stronger, supported by protecting Uncle and providing food and clothing for his family. Sun-hee, the guardian of her uncle’s and brother’s secrets, is left behind with her father and mother. After rigorous training, Tae-yul is chosen to be a Kamikaze pilot. Less than two months after the news of her brother’s death, the war ends. The joy felt by Sun-hee and her parents when Korea is set free from Japanese rule is bittersweet.

Linda Sue Park is the daughter of Korean immigrants. She grew up outside Chicago and has been writing stories and poems since she was four years old. In an author's note, Park writes about some of the facts she discovered during her research and about her family. By including stories told to her by her parents about their experiences as children in occupied Korea, Linda Sue Park wrote When My Name was Keoko, the same Japanese name her mother had to use as a child. A bibliography lists the items used by Parks to research the historical details included in the story. A note on Korean terms of address assists the reader in understanding the importance of family relationships and respect. The research combined with the family stories and Park’s writing style brings the tale of Keoko Kaneyama and her brother to life.

Most history books cover the battles and the experiences of military commanders. Yet war can affect people on the home front, those who never face an actual battle. So it is with Sun-hee, Tae-yul, and the rest of the Kim family in Korea from 1940 through 1945. Through the use of vivid imagery, Sun-hee and Tae-yul alternate telling their story using a first person point of view. Details of their lives, customs, and language are included to authenticate the story, making it more real than a simple textbook rendition would provide. Through these years, Sun-hee and Tae-yul mature, showing their bravery and family loyalty in ways that reflect their personalities.

“I wasn’t supposed to listen to men’s business, but I couldn’t help it.... Ears don’t close the way eyes do.” Despite this, Sun-hee is curious and slowly clears the table hoping to hear more. Girls and women are protected from the ‘outside’ world. The male head of the household tells them what he feels they should know. Yet, Sun-hee is an observer, who likes to discover the deeper meaning behind things and a scholar who likes to learn languages.

Her ability to understand unspoken words was not always accurate. When her Japanese friend Tomo tries to give her a warning about an upcoming Japanese request for all household metals like that used by her uncle, she misunderstands and warns Uncle that the Japanese are coming to get him. He disappears into the underground resistance never to be seen again. From this misunderstanding, Sun-hee learned to act slowly and to seek the advice of others before acting on her interpretations. When her family receives a letter from Tae-yul, Sun-hee reads for the deeper meaning. A reference to a special assignment and to the Youth Air Corps leads her to believe that Tae-yul was going to be a kamikaze pilot. “Remember Tomo—remember Uncle.... Don’t make a mistake this time.” She wants to tell the Japanese that her brother supports her uncle in the underground resistance in order to stop Tae-yul’s flight, but she seeks her father’s advice before acting. Abuji helps her to see that this would lead to either the imprisonment or the death of Tae-yul. Sun-lee knows that she has to leave any actions in her father’s hands.

Sometimes a decision to not act takes more courage than a decision to take action. Sun-hee’s courage is also seen in other ways as she supports friends and family. She helps Omani (her mother) and Tae-yul pot a rose of Sharon tree and hide it from the Japanese who had ordered that all of these symbols of Korea be destroyed. She warns her uncle when she thinks he is in danger. She helps her neighbor, Mrs. Ahn, learn to count to five in Japanese and get her into line in one of the first five spots during neighborhood accounting so that she wouldn’t get beaten again. She defies the Japanese order not to write poetry and stories in a diary by starting a new one after the other is burned. She asks to learn to read Korean from her father even though this is forbidden. And, the hardest of all, she stays friends with Tomo who is Japanese and Jung-shin whose father was chin-il-pa (friend to the Japanese) even though both of these things could have her labeled chin-il-pa.

Unlike his sister, Tae-yul much prefers to work with his hands. Over time, he is allowed to work more often in Uncle’s printing shop where he discovers that Uncle is secretly printing a resistance newspaper. To Tae-yul, his uncle is brave. He begins to question his father’s bravery. Uncle gets mad when their radio is confiscated by the Japanese, but not his father. “Abuji says it’s no use getting angry. But how can he not get angry?” Then Tae-yul’s bike is taken as his father does nothing. Tae-yul says, “You just let them take it. You didn’t even try to stop them. Couldn’t you have thought of something—anything--” Questioning a father’s decision is the rudest thing a son can do. Yet there are moments of understanding, like when his sister’s diary is burned by the Japanese and the family can only watch. Tae-yul is angry, but realizes that, like Abuji when his father’s topknot was cut off by the Japanese, “What could he have done? What could any of us do?”

One day, Tae-yul is picked up by the police and questioned about his uncle. The Japanese want to use Tae-yul as bait to capture Uncle. In order to prevent this, Tae-yul shows his courage by enlisting in the Japanese military, deliberately disobeying a command from his father. “I believe in Uncle and in the things he believes in. I’d do anything not to betray him. Anything. Even join the army of his sworn enemy.” After Tae-yul volunteers to be a pilot for a special mission in order to show that Koreans, too, are courageous, he and other Koreans in his unit are treated with more respect. Yet, Tae-yul knows he can not destroy American ships or planes, so he bravely plans to miss his target and die as he destroys his plane.

When the war ends and Tae-yul is home once more, he does not speak of his time in prison. Then Abuji admires the courage it took somebody to write an article in Uncle’s paper which openly criticized the Japanese economic policy. Tae-yul yells, “What right do you have to speak of courage?” He runs out the door, thinking, “My father is a coward.” “Why should I respect a coward?” he asks Sun-hee. She shows him Uncle’s paper. Abuji wrote many of the articles in the paper, but kept it secret from his family. Tae-yul understands the courage it took for his father to risk writing for a resistance newspaper. “My eyes start to feel hot, and the print slowly goes all blurry.” Tae-yul realizes that courage comes in many forms.

Review excerpts:
Booklist (March 1, 2002) “Park does a fine job of showing how the politics of the occupation and resistance affect ordinary people.” (Gr. 5-9)

Horn Book (May/June 2002) “The boy/girl narrative widens the audience,...but the structure also allows readers to see events from two sometimes-opposing points of view and to witness two different but equally honorable paths of resistance.... The novel provides an accessible introduction to this painful history.”

Kirkus Review starred (February 1, 2002) “This powerful and riveting tale of one close-knit, proud Korean family movingly addresses life-and-death issues of courage and collaboration, injustice, and death-defying determination in the face of totalitarian oppression.” (10-15)

Publishers Weekly (March 4, 2002) “...telling details provide a clear picture of Sun-hee and Tae-yul and their world. Readers will come away with an appreciation of this period of history and likely a greater interest in learning more about it.” (Ages 10-14)

School Library Journal (April 1, 2002) “What is outstanding is the insight Park gives into the complex minds of these young people.... Like the Rose of Sharon tree, symbol of Korea, which the family pots and hides in their shed until their country is free, Sun-hee and Tae-yul endure and grow. This beautifully crafted and moving novel joins a small but growing body of literature...that expands readers’ understanding of this period.” (Gr 6-9)

2006 Sunshine State Young Readers’ Master List
2005 Garden State (NJ) Teen Book Award Nominee
2005 Sequoyah Book Awards (OK) Nominee
2005 Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Book Award
2005 Mark Twain Award Master List (MO)
2004 Skipping Stones Honor Award
2004 Maine Student Book Award Master List
2003 Jane Addams Book Award Honor Book
2003 ALA Notable Children’s Book
2003 Notable Children’s Trade Book in Social Studies
2003 ALA Best Book for Young Adults
2003 Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year
2003 NYPL Book for the Teen Age List
2003 CCBC Choices
2002 Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
2002 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
2002 NY Public Library, 100 Titles for Reading

Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood by Richard E. Kim (1998) is an autobiography which provides seven stories about the life of a boy living in Korea during the Japanese occupation. This book adds a difference perspective to When My Name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park. Further explore the importance of names by reading The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi (2001) in which Unhei moves to the United States from Korea and asks her classmates to help her choose a new name. Have everybody pick a name from a jar. That will be their name for the day. How did they feel?

Read other historical fiction books about things that happened in Korea during, and after, the 1940s. In Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi (1991), a young Korean girl survives the Japanese and Russian occupation of North Korea, later escaping to freedom in South Korea. Echoes of the White Giraffe (1993) is the sequel in which Sookan adjusts to life in the refugee village in Pusan, hoping to be reunited with her family in Seoul. What happened to the Japanese who lived in Korea after WWII? So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins (1986) is a fictionalized autobiography in which Yoko escapes from Korea to Japan with her mother and sister at the end of WWII.

For more information on Korea during the time of the Japanese occupation, visit or


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: A Boy Called Slow by Joseph Bruchac

Author: Joseph Bruchac
Title: A Boy Called Slow
Illustrator: Rocco Baviera
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: 1994
ISBN: 0-399-22692-3

In the winter of 1831, the family of Returns Again to Strike the Enemy of the Lakota Sioux tribe was blessed with the birth of a boy. Unknown to the family, this boy was destined for greatness, but first he needed to be given a childhood name. He ate slowly even when hungry; he moved slowly even though he was not sleepy. So they named him “Slon-he” or Slow. Slow did not like his name. He dreamed of earning a powerful new name by having a vision of bravery or by doing a special deed. One day, Returns Again met with an ancient bull buffalo who passed on four more names for Returns Again. Slow was proud of his father and knew that one day, he, too, would have a different name. He was careful and deliberate in everything he did, but once he decided on a course of action, Slow would go forward and not turn back. His name came to mean determination and courage. Still, Slow dreamed of having a braver name.

When he was fourteen, Slow decided to join his father and some other men as they raided the Crow. The war party took their places and waited for the Crow to come nearer. Slow decided it was time. He charged ahead so quickly that the other warriors could not catch up. Slow struck an enemy’s arm with his coup stick deflecting the aim of his arrow. The Crow saw the band of warriors riding toward them and fled. The fight was over. Not one Lakota life had been lost. Slow was a hero. His father gave him a new name, one of the names the old buffalo had given him...Tatan’ka Iyota’ke...Sitting Bull.

Joseph Bruchac is a writer and storyteller of Abenaki, English, and Slovak ethnicity who focuses on northeastern Native American and Anglo-American lives and folklore. The illustrator, Rocco Baviera, has won numerous awards for his artwork. For A Boy Called Slow, Baviera visited the Dakotas, the land of the Sioux, where he met Sitting Bull’s great-great-grandson, Isaac Dog Eagle. Together, Bruchac and Baviera captured the essence of Sitting Bull’s land, life, and people through carefully chosen words and images.

The setting is established on the first page as a child is born in a teepee late at night during the year 1831 to the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota Sioux. Lakota terms printed in italics are used throughout the book, adding a feeling of authenticity to the culture represented. These terms are often defined for the English reader soon after they are used. “U we!...Come here quickly!” “Nihwa hwo?... Are you sleepy?”

The importance of women to the culture is demonstrated. The father, Returns Again to Strike the Enemy, thanks Wakan-Tanka for giving him a son even though he knew “that women are the heart of the nation.” Slow’s mother is shown to be wise, teaching him, “You must always help and protect your people…. A true Lakota shares everything with the people.”

The custom and importance of bestowing a childhood name is described. “Such names came from the way a child acted. So it had been with Returns Again and his father before him.” His tiyospaye, his extended family, all watched the boy closely until a name was chosen. If he had tried to eat everything, he might have been named “Hungry Mouth.” If he had been quick and watchful, he might have been named “Mouse.” Instead, he was slow and deliberate in his actions. “Slon-he,” his father said. “That is the name for our son.”

Storytelling is important to the Lakota Sioux, and so the story of how horses came to the people is told to Slow by his uncle Four Horns. History says the white man or wasicun brought the horses, but Slow’s uncle tells the story of how Wakan-Tanka sent “a new animal as faithful as our dogs but able to pull our loads and carry us as quick as the whirlwind into the hunt, the Shoong-Ton’kah, the ‘Spirit Dog.’”

The respect for nature is seen when Returns Again, who is known for his ability to understand the speech of the animals and the birds, earns him four more names from an ancient bull buffalo after he prevents the buffalo from being harmed. Slow, too, “knew that his gray pony understood him…, it was as if the two of them were one.”

For the Lakota Sioux, adult names have to be earned. New names are given to children after they have proven themselves through a vision or a deed. “Slow wished for this vision of bravery to come to him.” After he had seen fourteen winters, Slow followed his father on a raid. Wearing only his moccasins and his breech cloth with a coup stick in his hand, Slow kicks his horse’s sides shouting, “Hiyu’wo!” as he leads the attack on the Crow. For his bravery, Returns Again gives him one of the names granted him by the buffalo, Tatan’ka Iyota’ke or Sitting Bull. He had earned the respect of his tribe and his new name.

The oil paintings used as illustrations are dark, mysterious, barely defining the faces of the people, yet they add an almost spiritual sense of the land and of the people’s lives to the actions in the story. Touches of color against the darker palette accentuate the action by adding splashes of warmth and light in the morning sky, the glow of the fire, the paintings of the teepees, and the brown hide of the horse and the skin of Slow as they race into battle. Finally, the individual features of Sitting Bull are revealed in a portrait through which the land and the sun can been seen as if they are one.

Although not a true biography given the undocumented words spoken by the characters, A Boy Called Slow is a wonderful historical fiction picture book that will inspire young readers to seek out more information on Sitting Bull and other Native Americans.

Review excerpts:
School Library Journal
(Oct95) “This book works beautifully as historical fiction; it is less successful as biography as none of the dialogue is documented. An inspiring story.” (Gr 1-6)

Horn Book Magazine (Sep/Oct 95) “The pictures evoke a sense of timelessness and distance, possessing an almost mythic quality that befits this glimpse into history.”

Publishers Weekly (January 9, 1995) “Bruchac's meaty yet cohesive narrative is richly complemented by Baviera's large, atmospheric paintings.... Satisfying for its attention to historical and multicultural issues; stirring in its consummate storytelling.” (Ages 5 & up)

Booklist (March 15, 1995) “In brilliant counterpoint to the story's emotional timelessness is Baviera's vision of the Lakotas as spiritually and culturally distant from us.” (Ages 6-9)

Native Peoples Magazine (Spring 95) “Joseph Bruchac, a writer of Abenaki descent, invests Slow’s search for a worthy name with spiritual significance through the tribal wisdom he learns from his elders.” (Ages 5 and up)

Kid’s Choice Award (Buffalo Alliance for Education) 2006
ALA Notable Children’s Book 1995
National Education Association’s Native American Booklist 2010
Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association Regional Book Award 1996

Study the Lakota people by reading nonfiction books such as The Lakota by Michael Burgan, part of the First American series (2009) or Lakota Sioux Children and Elders Talk Together by E. Barrie Kavasch (1999). Visit websites such as where you can learn some of the Lakhota language. Facts for Kids at provides background information to compare to other sites and books read while searching for authentic information. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe website at will offer current information from an official Sioux site. For fun, read a traditional Lakota story like The Star People: A Lakota Story (2003) or Gift Horse: A Lakota Story (2000) both by S. D. Nelson, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Dakotas.

You may also want to study Sitting Bull’s life in further detail. Sitting Bull Remembers by Ann Warren Turner (2007) has mixed reviews, but it presents an interesting viewpoint whereby Sitting Bull reflects back on the details of his own life. Seeing the Future: the Final Vision of Sitting Bull by Jennifer Silate (2007) looks at Sitting Bull’s life after he and his people were sent to the reservation at Standing Rock, North Dakota in 1883.

Explore other famous Lakota Sioux. Crazy Horse’s Vision (2000) by Joseph Bruchac centers around Crazy Horse’s vision quest as a child after he sees U.S. Army Soldiers attack his people. Black Elk’s Vision: a Lakota Story (2010) by S. D. Nelson describes how a childhood vision influenced the life of Black Elk, a Lakota-Oglala medicine man.