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Showing posts with label Abrams Books for Young Readers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Abrams Books for Young Readers. Show all posts


Separate is Never Equal (2014)

Written and Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh

"My hope is that this book will help children and young people learn about this important yet little known event in American history," writes Duncan in the afterword. "I also hope that they will see themselves reflected in Sylvia's story and realise that their voices are valuable and that they too can make meaningful contributions to this country."

This true story – subtitled "Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation" – takes place in the town of Westminster, California in the 1940's, though it's significance is lasting and growing – from a recent commemorative stamp celebrating the civil rights victory, to Sylvia Mendez being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011. And, most pertinently, that great barometer of social consciousness – a picture book.

I've read one other book by Duncan, which I haven't yet reviewed here, and he has a very distinctive style. There's no mistaking one of his books. The characters are flat and appear only at full profile, lips identically pursed, fingers extended, figure-eights for ears. He is nonetheless able to eke quite a bit of expression from those faces. I think my favorite were the children eating their sandwiches in the grounds of Hoover Elementary – "the Mexican school" – each with a halo of five flies above their heads.  Behind them is the school building, the electric fence ("…if you touched it, you received a shock!") and two cows with full udders.

The story concerns the efforts of Sylvia's father – Gonzalo Mendez – to ensure his children receive the best possible education for his children. When enrolling in the public school system, he is told that Sylvia's cousins – who have light skin and long auburn hair and a Mexican father of French descent – are to attend the white school. Sylvia, though she was born in America, is told she must attend the Mexican school, based only on the color of her skin.

The trial sequence is especially well wrought, though maddening when I discovered that the absurd banter between the superintendent and the lawyer was based on actual transcripts of the case.

"How many of the two hundred ninety-two children at the Mexican school are inferior to whites in personal hygiene?

"At least seventy-five percent."

"In what other aspects are they inferior?"

The book does not treat the desegregation as a final victory. Indeed, the story begins with Sylvia – now attending the desegregated school – having a hard time adjusting to the children telling her she should go back to the Mexican school.

"I don't want to go to that school anymore. The kids are mean."

"No sabes que por eso luchamos? Don't you know that is why we fought?"

"According to a 2012 study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angles, across the United States segregation has increased significantly in  recent years," Duncan continues in his afterword. "It reported that 43 percent of Latino students and 38 percent of black students attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white."

Sylvia Mendez, then and now.


Coyote Christmas: A Lakota Story (2007)

Written and Illustrated by S.D. Nelson

Acrylic Paint on 140-lb. cotton paper

Abrams Books for Young Readers

Oh, this is a fun one. It's an original story, and does a great job of bringing Trickster Coyote of many an age-old tale into a contemporary Lakota reservation. Despite the fact that it is appears to be a heart-warming Christmas story, the mere presence of such a trickster figure means it will have an unpredictable way about it.

Nelson describes it very well with a note at the end of the book:

When it comes to good and evil, Coyote is not the same as the Devil found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Instead, Coyote reveals the paradoxical nature of life, capable of both good and evil. He reminds us that all of life is in a state of constant creation and destruction.

"On a more fundamental level, Coyote's antics offer insights into an underlying dynamic of life itself - order and chaos," he writes. "Coyote, of course, is the one who delivers chaos."

So then, in this particular incarnation, it is a snowy Christmas Eve, and Coyote is - as usual - cold and hungry. However - also as usual - he has a plan, a plan which involves passing himself off as Santa Claus and inveigling his way into the warm home of the two-legged creatures with the good food. In so doing, Coyote seems to unwittingly tap into a deeper magic than he bargained for.

The sack full of straw which he had brought is transformed into a sack of wrapped packages, containing the very presents the children had wanted.

"Oh Santa, thank you!"

And there is even more magic to come. Curiously, instead of embracing this turn of events, Coyote is rightfully freaked, and dashes off, back into the coldness. At least he got his fill of meatballs.


The Trojan Horse (2006)

The Trojan Horse
Written and illustrated by Albert Lorenz and Joy Schleh

Abrams Books for Young Readers

I have to think that for a writer, it must be difficult to translate Greek mytholgy into children's books. Even though they involve tremendous acts of heroism and bravery, they are all nonetheless predicated on jealousy, lust and anger. Also, Greek myths don't really begin and resolve as other stories. Rather, one story seamlessly leads to another, which leads to something else, which ends on a note far removed from whatever initially set things rolling.

Case in point, the marvelous tale of the Trojan Horse first begins with a wedding atop Mount Olympus and an incredibly bitchy contingent of immortal beings.

Interesting that it is a piece of fruit which sets things off, as I seem to recall a piece of fruit also being the catalyst of another religious mythology... Nonetheless, there are no smooth-talking serpents present in Mount Olympus, however, but rather the goddess Eris, who has cast an apple at the divine wedding with the words, "For the Fairest," written upon it. That seems innocent enough, but by the time we turn the page, thousands of blood-thirsty Greek warriors are sailing in Triremes across the ocean to make war with the horse-loving city of Troy.

The authors do a fine job in capturing this story as a single narrative experience. It doesn't seem nearly as disjointed as it could have been. There is a sharp distinction between the comical immaturity of the gods and the very real and bloody conflict on the ground below. They play off each other surprisingly well.

"That devious Odysseus!" says Zeus. "Why, he reminds me of me."

This is contrasted on the next page with the Spartan soldiers yelling, "WAR!" as they slide down from out of the Trojan Horse's belly into the sleeping city. What to us seems to be a life and death struggle, to the gods is only merely an entertainment. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

Part of the Greek Mythology series.

Links: Albert Lorenz, Joy SchlehAbrams Books for Young Readers

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