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



Amid sand and dust, a treasure awaits

The morning after a desert storm, the old guide Issa heads out with his donkey and discovers a startling sight: an infant, stashed in a narrow cave. Her eyes look like black pearls, and she wears a cord around her neck, where the shape of a half-star dangles. Issa cannot understand the letters hammered into the gold. Mysterious Traveler by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham
Even though he is old, Issa feels compelled to take care of the foundling he names Mariama. In time, he teaches her to decipher the “maps made by the stars, the shimmering paths through the hills, the weather foretold by dawns and sunsets, the messages on the wind, the stories told by stones.”
The girl Mariama accompanies her “grandfather,” as people call him, as he leads travelers and traders through the desert. Then Issa becomes blind, and he despairs, wondering who will pay for his services now that he can’t see. The girl offers to be his eyes and learns how to describe the details that will enable Issa to “see” the world. She is so adept at this that Issa continues to be revered as an unparalleled desert guide.
One day, though, three strangers arrive, one of whom will turn out to have a special connection with Mariama and who will transform their humble habits.
This gentle, hopeful story shines with polished language, a suspenseful plot, and light-infused, earth-colored paintings by the remarkable illustrator P.J. Lynch. While the authors specify no specific setting, an afterward notes they were inspired by reading about the ancient town of Timbuktu, in Mali, and of a famous blind guide. Middle-school students will uncover an entrancing world in Mysterious Traveler.

For upper-elementary school nonfiction set in Africa and elsewhere, see …
Elephant Quest by Ted and Betsy LewinTooth and Claw Animal Adventures in the Wild by Ted LewinHow Much Visiting Markets Around the World by Ted Lewin

Blessings Keep Flowing

Blessing Cup by Patricia PolaccoA quarter-century after the publication of The Keeping Quilt, readers can rejoice that prolific author/illustrator Patricia Polacco has delved again into her family history and graced us with a companion piece to her beloved picture book.

Using the same first-person narrative technique she used in her earlier book, Polacco takes us back to the humble shtetl in Russia where her ancestors lived before they immigrated to the U.S. To evoke that earlier time, she gives us a multitude of realistic drawings done in pencil and markers and tellingly reserves bright reds and blues for such significant details as the tea set, great-grandmother Anna’s scarf (which, in The Keeping Quilt, shows up in the quilt’s border), and the flames that destroy their temple.

Forced to flee their village, the family can bring only a few items: Papa’s sewing machine, his tallis and holy books, the menorah, and the shofar. Mama lovingly packs the brightly painted tea set that was a special wedding present. She recalls her generous aunt’s message inside: “This tea set is magic. Anyone who drinks from it has a blessing from God.”

As they continue their arduous journey from Russia, Mama reassures her children by reminding them: “We shall always know love, and as long as we are together we shall never be poor.” They sleep in cold barns, share bread, and pass the cup from one to another.

The bitter cold, however, ravages Papa’s lungs, and as they enter a new town, he can pull the family’s cart no longer. Mama runs to find a doctor, who, wondrously, offers to make him well and to welcome the family into his own home. In time, Papa heals, and Dr. Pushkin pays their passage to America. Mama wonders how they can somehow repay him for his kindness.

She settles on the perfect gift: the precious tea set — minus one cup so the family can still have its blessing.

The family reaches the U.S. at last, but the story does not end there. The symbolic journey Polacco explores is authentic and memorable: How does a family shares its true wealth–its treasures of love, culture, faith, and heritage? Children ages 8 to 12 can find much to ponder in this richly told story. As can we adults.

Also consider the titles below and my post on The Junkyard Wonders

Keeping Quilt by Patricia PolaccoBabushka Baba Yaga by Patricia PolaccoPink and Say by Patricia Polacco

Discovering Home

Some of the best historical fiction for upper-elementary and middle-school children invites readers to ponder such themes as how culture shapes identity … the significance of friends and family … and how all people have the same essential needs for home, food, shelter, love and acceptance. Students can hear news reports about immigration almost daily, but they might relate more easily to vibrant novels featuring spunky young protagonists who must make their way in a strange new land.

Lowji Discovers America by Candace Fleming

Candace Fleming’s Lowji Discovers America shows just how far it is from Bombay to Hamlet, Indiana. Nine-year-old Lowji is used to …

  • a home on the 47th floor of an apartment building
  • the sounds of honking cars, rattling trains and rumbling double-decker buses
  • animals, even cows, running free in the city
  • lots and lots of relatives – and a best friend

Lowji’s adventures in small-town America start right away with a fainting pig, a potty-mouthed parrot, and a man as big as a mountain. Leave room for a belly full of laughs with this lively, good-natured novel.

Year of the Dog by Grace Lin
In her author’s note, Grace Lin notes, “Growing up Asian in a mainly Caucasian community was not a miserable and gloomy existence. But it was different. I wrote [The Year of the Dog] because it was the book I wished I had had when I was growing up, a book that had someone like me in it.” Pacy
and her sisters are the only Taiwanese-American children at school until … Melody arrives. The girls become friends, enter a contest together, share a crush on the same boy, and enjoy the same food. Pacy even finds her true purpose in life. What will you find here? A charming story of friendship, self-discovery and a girl’s connection to her heritage, all told in a direct manner and dotted with amusing ink drawings. The charm continues in Lin’s sequel, Year of the Rat.

King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli

For a darker, more dramatic plot, try Donna Jo Napoli’s The King of Mulberry Street. Nine-year-old Beniamino’s mother leaves him on a ship in Naples, believing he will have a better life in America. Sailing into the New York harbor in 1892, the abandoned Jewish-Italian boy has his first and only new pair of shoes and acquires a new nickname, “Dom.” What he lacks, though, would alarm nearly anyone coming to the U.S.: he knows no English, has no one to greet him, and has no place to sleep. He spends his first night in a wooden barrel in an alleyway. Quick-witted Dom soon learns to avoid the cruel padroni, men who force homeless boys into slavery to work off their debts. As he struggles daily, Dom recalls the wise proverbs his Nonna taught him. He makes new friends and creates his own job by selling sandwiches. Based in part on her grandfather’s childhood, Napoli’s novel prickles with conflict, historical context, and unforgettable characters.

The World in Grandpa’s Hands

Margaret Mason’s gentle picture book These Hands features a loving grandfather who has much to teach his grandson. He uses his old and capable hands to show young Joseph how to tie his shoes, how to play the piano, to shuffle cards, and how to hit a line drive.

He also reveals a slice of history neither the boy nor many of us readers realized. “Look at these hands, Joseph. Did you know these hands were not allowed to mix the bread dough in the Wonder Bread factory?”

The tender sepia-toned oil-wash artwork by the renowned Floyd Cooper sheds a warm glow on the earth-toned images of the boy and his grandfather. The illustrations contribute to the reassuring tone and message of this simple, yet powerful picture book.

Grandpa tells Joseph how “these hands joined with other hands. And we wrote our petitions, and we carried our signs, and we raised our voices together. Now any hands can touch the bread dough, no matter their color. Yes, they can.”

The author’s note explains how, in the ’50s and early ’60s, African-American workers at the Wonder Bread, Awrey, and Tastee bakery factories were allowed to sweep and load trucks, but were not permitted to work as bread dough mixers. The author relates how she learned the history from Joe Barnett, a leader of the bakery labor union.

Don’t miss this fine inter-generational story, as it provides so many wonderful opportunities to discuss the role of families and the need to work together to battle injustice in its many forms.

And see …

Love’s Arduous Path

How can an author squeeze sweetness from such bitter facts: A mother must give up her son upon his birth. Forced to work in the cornfields 12 miles away, she gets to see her boy only a few times before she dies.

That motherless child would become the famous writer and activist Frederick Douglass, who wrote in his groundbreaking autobiography, “I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very little communication ever took place between us. Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering. She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial.”

In her moving debut, Love Twelve Miles Long, Glenda Armand takes us back to 1820s Talbot County, Maryland, to imagine how precious those few visits could have been for the two. Wrapped in her shawl, Mama arrives late at night, bringing Frederick her full heart and a slice of ginger cake. Mr. Bootman strews soft candlelight in his lush watercolor painting of the reunited mother and son sharing smiles no one can buy or sell.

Of course, the boy longs to spend more time with his mother, but she tells him it’s too far for him to walk. How, then, does she do it?

“The way I walk makes the journey shorter,” she says.

“Tell me how you walk, Mama. Tell me how you make it shorter.”

What follows is a beautiful evocation of the mother’s loving ritual, as she makes each mile special. The first is for forgetting: “I forget how tired I am. I forget that my back hurts and my hands and feet ache. I forget that I’ve worked all day and have to be in the fields again at sunup. And when the forgetting is done, I start remembering. That’s what the second mile is for.”

Other miles are spent observing the stars, praying, singing, remembering happy times, giving thanks, hoping, loving, and dreaming of a good life: “We’ll have our own land, and we’ll work for ourselves. There will be no slaves or masters. . . . You are going to do big and important things one day. But right now it’s time for you to go to bed.”

In a story brimming with hope and love, the real-life horrors of slavery lie elsewhere, where an older audience can grapple with them. The author’s note gives additional information about Frederick Douglass, who changed his surname in order to obscure his identity from the master he escaped. Douglass wrote that his mother, Harriet Bailey, taught him a powerful lesson: that he was not “only a child but somebody’s child.” How remarkable that she accomplished this under such despicable constraints.

But let us leave the mother with her miles to go before she sleeps. We can all use a comforting story of love, even—or especially—if it is ripped from a brutal past.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books

A Quiet, Lustrous Gift

Park, Linda Sue. The Third Gift. Illus. by Bagram Ibatoulline. Houghton Mifflin, 2011.

Quiet and lustrous, this spare story by the Newbery Award-winning author Linda Sue Park distinguishes itself from the jingly, jangly stuff that crowds most bookstores this time of year. Taking us back more than 2,000 years ago to a desert in the Arabian Peninsula, the author focuses on a son who accompanies his father as they go about their work, which will ultimately play a surprising role in a particular Biblical story.

Throughout The Third Gift, Mr. Ibatoulline (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane) provides finely detailed acrylic-gouache paintings that focus on the white-robed pair. He first shows them resting beside a tough, gnarled tree with spiky-looking tufts of dull green sprouting here and there. The backdrop of bright desert light reflects motley shades of tan, gray, bisque, and alabaster. This harsh region is where the two go about collecting “tears” of myrrh.

We follow the boy and father as they trudge through the heat and dust, looking for the right trees to cut for the precious sap that provides their livelihood. Touchingly, the father saves the best for his son. “Look,” he says, putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder and pointing to the biggest tear. The double spread shows how the boy carefully twists off the sap, just as he has watched his father do. Then he holds it in his palm and sniffs “its sharp, bitter sweetness.”

In time, the two walk to the market, where the father knows the spice merchant will pay him good money for his harvest of tears. The myrrh will be used for medicine, flavoring, or, in the case of superior ones, as incense at funerals. On this day, three men in splendid robes are eager to buy one more gift to add to their already-purchased gold and frankincense. The strangers select the very best tear, the one the boy collected. Strangely enough, it turns out the men are intent upon presenting such gifts to a baby.

We last see the boy in a state of silent wonder, as the three men ride on their camels through the desert toward Bethlehem.

The Third Gift
is an unusually thoughtful and bittersweet story that shines a light on ordinary people in a historic place and time. The author’s note provides details on myrrh, on her inspiration for this work, and on the Nativity story.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Journal of Books.

For other sensitive holiday picture books, see my post “A Time for Peace” and these fine new ones:

For laughs, try …


Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: