Finding Magic in the Bayou

Maddy’s big sisters have warned her about going to Grandmère’s home deep in the Louisiana bayou. It’s boring, they say; there’s no TV, no mall, no microwave, and no indoor plumbing. Not only that, Grandmère’s a witch. Ten-year-old Maddy has a mind of her own, though, and anticipates adventures far from the glass and concrete world of New Orleans.  Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
The magic begins on the car ride to the bayou. When a firefly perches on the rim of the car door, Maddy’s imagination is fired; surely it’s some kind of sign.
Grandmère doesn’t look like much of a sage. She’s tiny, “bird-boned,” with “bright-white curly hair, luminous like the moon.”  Maddy and her grandmother settle into a cozy routine of humming together, collecting eggs from the hen, doing dishes, and sitting on the porch. As the days pass, Grandmère tells Maddy stories about her ancestors and teaches her important principles such as … respect yourself … pay attention … and leave space for imagination. Under Grandmère’s guidance, she will, over the course of the summer, discover her own power, her place in a long line of Lavaliers, and an enchanted land replete with helpful fireflies and mermaids.
Maddy gets to know the neighbors and makes herself at home in Bayou Bon Temps. “Folks, all colors, live in the bayou,” she muses. “Some are red-haired, some blond or brunette. A stew. They all feel like kin to me. Like a family I didn’t know I had.”
Perhaps best of all, she meets a wiry, energetic boy called Bear, and the two form a strong bond as they run around, get dirty, and explore the bayou together. Her adventure, or at least her imagination, takes off the day she sees a mermaid rise from the dark waters.
At first, Maddy reveals her secret to no one but Grandmère, who believes the girl has encountered the legendary Mami Wata, who followed imprisoned Africans forced to cross to North America in the dank holds of slave ships. Later, as an environmental disaster endangers the Bayou Bon Temps, Maddy calls upon her own powers, as well as help from fireflies and mermaids, to rescue the community she cherishes.
Middle-school girls with a fanciful flair will snap up this novel imbued with magical mystery and a young heroine’s hopeful imagination.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

Don’t miss Jewell Parker Rhodes’s thoughtful comments on diversity in children’s literature.
And see my previous post on Sugar, winner of the Jane Adams Peace Association book award, and check out the author’s Coretta Scott King honor book, Ninth Ward.Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Clearing a path to peace

Sometimes a quiet story can achieve feats that rousing tales can’t. The Olive Tree, a simple yet subtle story set in contemporary Lebanon, offers no details or explanation of the 1975 Lebanese Civil War, but invites us to consider the lingering distrust among people and possible paths to reconciliation.Olive Tree by Elsa Marston

We learn from young Sameer how the house next door was empty for years. “The family who lived there had gone away during the troubles, because they were different from most of the people in the village. But now, thank goodness, the long war was over, and they were coming back.”
Beneath the ample branches of the old olive tree that grows on the other side of the wall, Sameer observes the neighbors as they return home. He notices the family has a girl named Muna, who was about his age. Sadly, neither she nor her family members show any inclination to become friends.
In time, the olives begin to ripen, and Sameer, as he does every year, sets out to gather those that have fallen in his yard. After all, they’re “the best olives in Lebanon,” his mother says. But one morning Muna sees him with a basket full of olives and complains: “Those are our olives, you know. Ours!”
Taken aback, Sameer points out that all the years they were away, Sameer and his family took care of the tree. “We have a right to the olives,” he says.
Muna insists that now that they’re back, they’ll take care of the tree and have all the olives. In his anger, Sameer leans over the wall and dumps his basket of olives into her yard.
Then one night a mighty storm descends and lightning strikes the tree, leaving a shattered stump and a broken stone wall. The children, confronting the loss of the precious old tree, discover they can put aside their differences and begin to live in harmony with each other and the land.
Ms. Ewart’s atmospheric, two-page spreads of naturalistic watercolor paintings flesh out the poignant story with realistic details. The mothers of both families wear the hijab; a goat, a donkey, and chickens populate the yards; and chairs have seats of woven bulrush.
With Elsa Marston’s understated story of conflict resolution, The Olive Tree is a valuable resource for teaching children to respect everyone.

Reprinted with permission of The New York Journal of Books.

See also …Sitti's Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye

Sami and the Time of Troubles by Florence Parry Heide Day of Ahmed's Secret by Heide and Gilliland

An elephant lost and found

The endearing little elephant featured in the Pomelo the Garden Elephant series keeps right on growing and investigating life’s myriad mysteries in Pomelo’s Big Adventure. Pomelo's Big Adventure by Ramona Badescu
Pomelo has already learned about colors, opposites, and his own physical development. The cotton-candy pink pachyderm that started out being the size of a radish has now outlasted his favorite puffball (which first appeared in Pomelo Begins to Grow, 2011) and decides to travel afar.
With characteristic quirkiness, Ms. Bădescu reveals what Pomelo packs in his knapsack; he includes not only the practical (toothbrush, matches, a map) but also amusingly childish objects: a stone, crayons, and acorns. The elephant’s simple thinking process is demonstrated by his strategy of choosing his path by tossing a beribboned stone and then proceeding in that direction.
Throughout Pomelo’s Big Adventure, a gentle spirit of exploration leads the protagonist and the reader onward. Oversize pages filled with Mr. Chaud’s witty, bright drawings that pop amidst white pages reflect the elephant’s sense of curiosity and openness to possibilities.
Along the way, the author provides adults with fresh opportunities to discuss universal questions with children. For instance, consider the elephant’s approach to new experiences: “He takes the route such as it is: prickly, uphill, sticky, boring, surprising, lively, and … lost in the distance.” And later, when Pomelo encounters a shifty rat who dupes him into trading his valuable supplies for a wind-up car that promptly falls apart, the elephant feels the way anyone who’s been tricked might: rueful, uncertain, homesick. In the midst of a gray rain, though, he decides to march on, and the author points out, “We take many risks in life, of course, but Pomelo seems to have plunged into a world ruled by chance.”
Soon, Pomelo encounters a helpful old elephant who offers the determined explorer not only food but much-needed emotional guidance that will enable him to enjoy his journey. The mature mentor, called Papamelo, gathers wood and teaches the little one how to build a boat. And then, in his wisdom, he tells Pomelo, “It’s time to leave.”
When the pink elephant encounters danger, the memory of lessons learned from Papamelo, spur him on. A final double-page spread parades the unforeseen benefits of this hero’s courage and fortitude. In a glowing, cheerful scene, we see Pomelo on the beach at sunset with his new friend—a lively, freckled starfish eager to share joyous experiences. Young readers will no doubt anticipate further adventures celebrating this wildly unlikely pair.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Journal of Books

See also …

Cousins of Clouds Elephant Poems by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer Elephant Quest by Ted and Betsy LewinTarra and Bella The Elephant and Dog Who Became Best Friends

 

Time of the Season for Friends

With its understated title and its placid cover image of a rosy-cheeked lion with a small gray bird on his shoulder, The Lion and the Bird is clearly not where the wild things are. And that’s just finThe Lion and the Birde.
Instead, Canadian author/illustrator Marianne Dubuc uses simple language and a quiet palette of soft shades of tan, blue, and gray to evoke a calmer world where seasons and relationships evolve and where even the unlikeliest pair can become friends.
Dressed in denim overalls, Lion is hoeing one autumn day when a bird falls out of the sky and into his yard. Lion tenderly bandages the bird’s injured wing, and the other birds fly off without their fallen friend. No need to worry, Lion says, putting the bird atop his well-behaved mane. “You’re welcome to stay with me. There’s more than enough room for both of us.”
And so the two head to Lion’s mound-shaped home and begin their companionable life together. The author/illustrator gives readers both full-page and smaller, rough-shaped ovals of pencil drawings that show the friends falling into a sweet routine of sharing food, bedtime stories, and sleeping—Lion in a plain white bed and Bird nearby, tucked into a fuzzy pink bedroom slipper.
Winter brings snow, and the two have fun sledding and ice fishing together. “It snows and snows. But winter doesn’t feel all that cold with a friend.”
Change inevitably comes with spring, though, and Ms. Dubuc beautifully evokes the friends’ awareness that it’s time for Bird to rejoin the flock. Perched on a branch and pointing one wing toward the others, Bird looks at Lion. “Yes,” says Lion. “I know.” And just as Lion releases his friend, the author/illustrator lets white space nearly fill the next four pages.
Lion goes back to his daily routines while making adjustments; readers will note the single place setting at the table, the empty box by the fireplace, the uninhabited bedroom slipper. Soon it’s back to the garden for Lion, who takes pleasure in summer pastimes such as reading beneath a shade tree and fishing in a lake.
As fall returns, Lion can’t help but hope his friend will, too. The bird’s reappearance signifies the nature of friendship and the cycles of life, making for a satisfying ending that will nourish a sense of hope in young readers (especially ages 3 to 6).

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books

See also …

Lion and the Mouse by Jerry PinkneyMy Friend Rabbit by Eric RohmannOne Cool Friend by Toni Buzzeo and pictures by David Small

With its understated title and placid cover image of a rosy-cheeked lion with a small gray bird on his shoulder, The Lion and the Bird is clearly not where the wild things are. And that’s just fine.

Instead, Ms. Dubuc, using simple language and a quiet palette of soft shades of tan, blue, and gray, envisions a calmer world where seasons and relationships evolve and where even the unlikeliest pair can become friends.

Dressed in denim overalls, Lion is hoeing one autumn day when a bird falls out of the sky and into his yard. Lion tenderly bandages the bird’s injured wing, and the other birds fly off without their fallen friend. No need to worry, Lion says, putting the bird atop his well-behaved mane. “You’re welcome to stay with me. There’s more than enough room for both of us.”

And so the two head to Lion’s mound-shaped home and begin their companionable life together. The author/illustrator gives readers both full-page and smaller, rough-shaped ovals of pencil drawings that show the friends falling into a sweet routine of sharing food, bedtime stories, and sleeping—Lion in a plain white bed and Bird nearby, tucked into a fuzzy pink bedroom slipper.

Winter brings snow, and the two have fun sledding and ice fishing together. “It snows and snows. But winter doesn’t feel all that cold with a friend.”

Change inevitably comes with spring, though, and Ms. Dubuc beautifully evokes the friends’ awareness that it’s time for Bird to rejoin the flock. Perched on a branch and pointing one wing toward the others, Bird looks at Lion. “Yes,” says Lion. “I know.” And just as Lion releases his friend, the author/illustrator lets white space nearly fill the next four pages.

Lion goes back to his daily routines while making adjustments; readers will note the single place setting at the table, the empty box by the fireplace, the uninhabited pink bedroom slippers. Soon it’s back to the garden for Lion, who takes pleasure in summer pastimes such as reading beneath a shade tree and fishing in a lake.

Fall returns, and Lion can’t help but hope his friend will, too. The bird’s reappearance signifies the nature of friendship and the cycles of life, making for a satisfying ending that young readers will relish.

– See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/lion-and-bird#sthash.hqELM9t0.dpuf

Sugar Finds a Way

Slavery has technically ended, but 10-year-old Sugar is not free to be a child. Her mother, who worked in the fields, has died, and her father was sold away before slavery ended and has not been seen or heard of since. Sugar knows firsthand that the business of harvesting cane is far from sweet: “Cane is all I know. Cutting, cracking, carrying pieces of cane. … I hate, hate, hate sugar.”Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes
The endearing, intelligent child has no relatives left, but the Beales, a kind elderly couple, look after her. She loves listening to Mr. Beale tell humorous old African folktales featuring tricky Brer Rabbit, who survives by his wits and his speed. The Beales are two of the former slaves who have stayed at Mr. Wills’ sugar plantation on River Road, along the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Now they get paid, but, as Sugar observes, “Dollars won’t last long. After we buy cloth, seeds, lamp oil, and chicken feed, we’ll be just as poor as when we were slaves.” No wonder so many, including the Beales’ own grown children, have left in hopes of creating a better life in the North.

The changes keep coming, though, and the former slaves who work for Mr. Wills fear the Chinese men he brings in to work alongside them. With her usual curiosity and warm heart, Sugar befriends the Chinese workers and in time, helps the others see they have more in common with the immigrants than they ever would have imagined.

Not only that, Sugar and Billy, the owner’s sweet son, become dear friends, despite the rules society devised to keep them apart. While at first it appears the grownups will succeed in separating the two, illness intervenes. Sugar insists on remaining at his side, and his parents begin to treat Sugar and the others more humanely.

The threat of violence persists, though, even after Mr. Wills fires his cruel, racist overseer, a man who will wreak vengeance upon those who remain on the land from which he’s been banished.

Rhodes, the author of Ninth Ward, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and a Jane Addams Peace Association Honor Book, has created a touching portrait of a spirited child growing up during Reconstruction, trying to find her way to a more fulfilling life. With its natural-sounding dialogue, appealing protagonist, and lively plot, this novel is superbly suited for reading aloud or for using in literature circles. It’s a great choice for nurturing discussions on Reconstruction, the nature of friendship, and the inevitability of change. Recommended for grades 4 through 6.

See also …
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker RhodesZora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. SimonMighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

 

Holly Schindler on Imagination’s Power

Today’s post offers a double feature. First, let me tell you about Holly Schindler’s charming new middle-school novel, The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky. Then, check out the author’s insightful thoughts about class differences and the imagination.Junction of Sunshine and Lucky by Holly Schindler
Beauty comes in all shapes, shades and sizes, as Schindler (Playing Hurt, 2011, etc.) demonstrates in her debut middle-school novel The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky.
Ten
-year-old Auggie lives on the poor side of a town in Missouri with her grandpa Gus, a trash hauler who can “take something broken and worthless and turn it into a fold of green bills in his pocket.”  When the House Beautification Committee threatens the modest community with fines, Auggie and her grandpa get inspired to renovate their property at the corner of Sunshine and Lucky. Leftover cans of paint of many colors, bits of broken stained-glass from their storm-tossed church, and old car parts all play a part in the humorous transformation of their home and, ultimately, of the neighborhood. Auggie designs a growing crop of metal flowers and clever sculptures with moving parts, all welded by hardworking Gus. Will their creative sculptures win over the committee and save the neighborhood from being razed?
The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky offers a gentle, inspiring story of economically disadvantaged people uniting to assert their right to define beauty on their own terms. (Reprinted with permission of New York Journal of Books)

Holly Schindler has kindly offered to discuss class differences and the imagination as they relate to her work:

Holly Schindler photo“If necessity is the mother of invention, I often think that lack of fancy new doodads is the mother of imagination. 

When Auggie wants to renovate the exterior of her house, she doesn’t have the option of heading to the hardware store to buy gallons of paint or new plants for flower boxes.  She’s got to use what’s available to her: the junk that Grampa Gus hauls. 

Sometimes, though, I think that not having access to the fancy and new means you have no other option but to tap into your imagination.  It’s happened throughout our own lives, in a hundred different ways.  Ever been in the midst of a blackout?  How’d you entertain yourself without the TV—maybe by making up your own stories?  Ever been camping?  How’d you enjoy music in the middle of the woods—surely by singing songs yourself. 

I’ve long been going to auctions—first with my folks, and these days, with my brother, an antiques dealer.  (It was how I initially got the idea for reinventing junk, actually—farm auctions are always full of needlework on burlap sacks or stools made from old Coke crates, etc.)  One of the coolest things I ever saw at an auction was a little boy with a black plastic trash sack.  He was at the auction with his parents, and didn’t have the distraction of any kind of screen—no iPad, iPhone, etc.  He had a black bag.  And every time I looked at him, his bag was doing something new—it was a cape, a magic carpet, wings.  I’ve honestly never seen a little boy have more fun.  He spent the entire day imagining new things to do with that bag—he even got other kids at the auction in on his adventures. 

But with a tablet computer?  That little boy would have sat alone, staring, mostly likely not having nearly as much fun.

Maybe, if Auggie had grown up in a fancier neighborhood, if she had always had access to new things, perfect things, she would not have developed her imagination to the point where she could create sculptures out of junk. 

…And maybe that’s the key for the rest of us—maybe we become better brainstormers, better problem-solvers, better storytellers if we get away from our screens and force ourselves to rely on our own imaginations…”

Thank you, Holly, for generously sharing your thoughts on socioeconomic status and the power of the imagination to enrich life at both the personal and cultural level. And bravo for creating such an appealing novel featuring folks who might not have much money but who have considerable inner resources and generous spirits.Sunshine and Lucky
Upper-elementary kids, especially creative girls, should snap up The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky, now available in bookstores and libraries.
You can follow the author at Twitter: @holly_schindler, Facebook: facebook.com/HollySchindlerAuthor, or you can check out her web site at hollyschindler.com

A Squirrel With a Poet’s Heart

“There is just no predicting what kind of sentences you might say, thought Flora. For instance, who would ever think you would shout, ‘You’re going to vacuum up that squirrel!’?”  Flora & Ulysses

Despite Flora’s warning, the next door neighbor did indeed swallow a squirrel with her powerful new Ulysses 2000X vacuum cleaner. That bizarre accident serves to launch a unique novel—and to transform its characters’ lives.

The acclaimed author of beloved children’s books (The Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn-Dixie), Ms. DiCamillo once again serves readers a rich banquet dripping with choice words, seemingly random combinations of outsider characters, wise asides, and an irresistibly endearing animal.

In Flora & Ulysses we meet a ten-year-old self-proclaimed cynic who is on guard all the time; after all, the unexpected could happen any moment. In the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, Flora retreats to her bedroom, where she can revel in her beloved, predictably thrilling detective comic book series, The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!

As a result, Flora knows superheroes “were born of ridiculous and unlikely circumstances: spider bites, chemical spills, planetary dislocation, and, in the case of Alfred T. Slipper, from accidental submersion in an industrial-size vat of cleaning solution called Incandesto!” She is thus equipped to handle the case when the squirrel she saves (in a hilarious scene in which she administers CPR to the rodent) somehow transforms into a super squirrel.

She arrives at the perfect name for her new companion: Ulysses. The squirrel shows himself to be super strong—he lifts the vacuum cleaner to devour the crackers! He can fly! He can even understand what Flora says to him.

In charming short chapters, readers gain insight into the squirrel’s fantastic transformation. “His brain felt larger, roomier. It was as if several doors in the dark room of his self (doors he hadn’t even known even known existed) had suddenly been flung wide.”

Just how large is that rodent’s brain? Suspense builds as Flora and next door neighbor and fellow outcast William Spiver watch Ulysses in action at the typewriter where Flora’s self-absorbed mom writes her vapid romance novels.

“It was beautiful to the squirrel to see a letter appear out of nowhere.” One letter leads to another, and suddenly, the squirrel composes a funny little poem, confounding William Spiver’s expectations and confirming Flora’s assessment that Ulysses is a squirrel magnifique and a squirrel to keep, despite her mom’s disapproval.

At such key dramatic events, illustrator K. G. Campbell provides delightful, expressive pencil drawings that highlight the quirky circumstances of this high-flying fantasy. On top of those visual enticements, the novel sparkles with perfectly placed changes in fonts: comic-book–like fonts for the words of the Amazing Incandesto, an old-fashioned typewriter font for Ulysses’ poems, and numerous comic-book panels with bubbles containing dialogue in all caps.

Within the span of just a few days, Flora and the squirrel travel a great distance as the author treks those strange beating things we call hearts. Flora’s isolation and pessimism shift to a worldview where companionship and hope can enter. In the aftermath of proclaiming her mother an archenemy and announcing she wants to go live with her passive, comic-book loving father, she discovers her mother, despite her shortcomings, actually does love her.

Who would have predicted one superhero squirrel could lead a child to such crucial inner growth, to forgiveness, to hope? As Flora would say, Holy bagumba! Here’s a novel that should fly off the shelves and into the waiting hearts of young readers.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Journal of Books

See also …

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamilloTale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamilloMiraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

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