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Thursday, May 23, 2019

Beyond a Single Story

Chimamanda Adichie warns against limiting our understanding of the world and its people by allowing a single story to frame our view of other peoples, places, and cultures.  Her Ted talk on this is recommended by AO for all parents, and for AO students in year 12 (although they could certainly benefit from hearing it sooner).  This resonated with me.

As a child I was born in the south, and later started school in Canada, and then moved to a city 12 miles from the Mexican border (my highschool was just over 20% white), and then further west, and then went to school on the west coast.  As an adult, my husband joined the military and we traveled a lot.  I began homeschooling in Japan and then continued in Alaska, the Midwest, and graduated my seventh and last student in the Philippines.  My older girls slept on Japanese sleeping mats and consider udon soup their comfort food rather than chicken noodle soup. My son fondly remembers pick up neighbourhood basketball games with barefoot players in the Philippines (he was often the only white player). My godsons are black. We have hosted summer visitors from Japan, and orphan-hosted boys from Ukraine.  When people ask me where I am from, I do not know what state to claim.

My passport country is America, but I have never lost some residual Canadian spellings and pronunciations. I am not fluent in any language but English, yet I have been known to forget the English word I want and use a Visaya or Korean word instead.  I am not truly a third culture kid, but I have honestly never felt more at home anywhere we've lived than we did in the Philippines. I feel like a visitor in Indiana and we've been here 12 years or so (the longest I ever lived in one place, and that was true when we'd been here six years- and I was nearly 50).  I love to visit other countries and places, to learn about cultural differences, to meet with people from other cultures, and, barring that, to read about them - or watch their movies and television.  I am an unrepentant K-drama addict.=)

I'll share some of those reads about other cultures and countries than my own here from time to time.  Below are the most recent:

High school and up, autobiography of Black American sports figure:
I Never Had it Made, by Jackie Robinson
This is partly an autobiography of a man,and largely a biography of the Civil Rights progress (or lack) during his lifetime, along with his political views. Not an easy read at times, as he is unflinchingly honest and hard hitting in his opinions on the shortcomings of White America when it comes to treatment of Black America. 

Alfred Duckett, his ghost writer also helped write Martin Luther King Jr's Why We Can't Wait and the I Have a Dream Speech (according to Jackie, and, I suppose, the ghostwriter, since the claim is in the book.=)  That made the book even more interesting to me, because I've read Why We Can't Wait, and of course, everybody has heard I Have a Dream, the most iconic speech of the 20th century.  It was interesting even though it was at times hard to read about the things he had to endure. 

Grade School,
COFA biography of Jackie Robinson

These are both decently written, but not breath-takingly so, nothing like the level of Twelves Years a Slave, Frederick Douglas, or Patricia McKissack.  But they are good reads and shed some first person light on civil rights in America in the 20th century.

Incidentally, there's a Canadian connection there- Jackie played for a Montreal team first and he talks at length in his autobiography about how much he loved the Montreal fans and how welcoming they were.

Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in American baseball professional sports. His brother won the silver medal in track at the same Olympics where Jesse Owens showed up Hitler's race theories.  
 The COFA biographer wrote a good story, but he also made some odd calls on what to include and what to leave out.  I also  feel like the story has a big potential to engender bitterness in young readers, but the story is what it is, and it's not fair.  Even after breaking the colour barrier in professional baseball, Jackie had to endure racism and push his way through multiple other barriers in his life.  He did this for himself and his people, and it was not pleasant or just, so bitterness is not a unreasonable response. 

 I sensed the same thing in his own autobiography, although to be honest, it did not require much insight on my part, as he's quite outspoken (this is not a criticism, it's just information for parents choosing books).   

About the COFA bio: 

I don't think it's as well written as the older COFA books, but I think it's a lot more careful about accuracy and conveying a clear sense of the time than the older books, and the writing is still good.

There is a sense of bitterness and resentment in parts of the book, for absolutely understandable, even obvious reasons. That frustration is also a legitimate part of Jackie Robinson's story. It's a story we all should know. Jackie was an amazing, remarkable person, the right man in the right place at the right time, but he had to fight hard for that. That fight probably shortened his life, and America is a better place because of his work.

In comparing the COFA volume to  I Never Had It Made I am a bit disappointed in three things in the COFA book.

1. - there's a rock throwing incident between Jackie and the father of a neighbourhood girl who called Jackie a name and ran in to tattle when Jackie calls her another name right back (both are racist). When Jackie tells the story, he says he does not remember who threw the first rock. The COFA author says it was the white adult. It's odd to make an authoritative claim about who threw first when Jackie says he doesn't remember. It would not have stood out so starkly if the author had qualified his statement, perhaps saying something like, "Jackie later said he didn't remember who threw the first stone, but it seems to make more sense that the neighbour started it, since he didn't call the police as he threatened." But this author just makes a claim contradictory to Robinson's own, and he states it as a fact.

2. There's a strange incident in the COFA book where Jackie is running down the street and a white neighbour sitting on the porch comments to his wife that Jackie sure can run fast, and his white wife says something about how he's probably running so fast because he's fleeing from committing a crime. There is plenty of real, factual material available about the prejudices that Jackie and other black Americans faced at the time. There is absolutely no lack for that kind of material that is also true. It makes no sense to me to just make up an incident in a biography for young children, and it kind of sticks out like a sore thumb since it's unlikely a third party would know what a couple of private citizens said to each other on their front porch 70 years ago.

3. In his autobiography, Jackie talks often and at length about how much church- and one pastor in particular -really helped him during his youth, and he credits that pastor with being a strong influence for good in his life, for getting him interested in Bible stories, for his all around excellent counsel and support. The COFA book mentions his church connections once, in a list of reasons why Jackie was really busy during a period in his life when he was playing two sports, working, and teaching a Sunday School class. That's it, and that changes the real story for something less than it was.  That was disappointing.

There are a couple other areas where the COFA book says something different than Jackie's own version, but those are the three I thought most significant.

I would still have the COFA  book in my home library (and I do), and assign it for reading or at least make it available for young readers, but I'd also read Jackie's autobiography to flesh out some of the details and correct a couple of the areas where Jackie's account is different. Both are good reads.

Inland China.  grades 3-7
Desert Pilgrim (in the UK) by Phyllis Thompson- about Mildred Cable, Eva and Francesca French, British missionaries with China Inland Mission who served in central Asia for 36 years. 

There are many books by and about Cable and the French sisters.  I have been reading through parts of another book by Cable and I am impressed by her writing. Thompson has also written a lot of other missionary bios, and I would keep my eyes open for those.

  This one deals with the traveling part of their mission.  For many years they had a base and ran a school.  Then they handed the work over to the Chinese converts and traveled the Gobi Desert areas, reaching out to people who had not been visited by Christians since the sixth century. 

This one is slightly dated, but the three women are bold and intrepid travellers who love the people around them and their Lord, and that alone makes it a worthwhile read.  There are geographical and cultural references that are deeply interesting, well told, and just what I want to find in a book to add some cultural diversity to the books kids are reading.  Muslim families probably won't like it (it is, after all, a Christian missionary book)  And even though somewhat dated at times, it's still pertinent today.  

Here's one sample event: They adopt a little deaf/mute child they have been trying to care for.  Initially they thought she lived with her mother, and even though the mother is abusive, they cannot do much for the child beyond feeding her and cleaning her wounds and loving her whenever she runs away from the beatings and she comes to visit them.  There is no social services to protect her, nobody interested in helping this throw away child.

Then they discover that she is not the woman's child.  The woman bought her from somebody else when she was a baby and began abusing her when she realized the child was deaf. They want to buy the girl's freedom but are advised not to do this directly or the price will be astronomical.  So they make arrangements to have a third part purchase the child, and then they adopt her. This part was so interesting, and I was curious about what happened to the child.   This additional information is not in the book, but in looking up her life I found that she had been purchased for ten cents, they kept her with them always, even when they returned to England, and when the three women died, they left her forty thousand dollars to support her (which was enough for a lifetime when they died). 
If you can find it, you want to read this book.

 Black American dad, Brazilian mom, Football, Autism:
The Warner Boys: Our Family's Story of Love and Hope:  

Not easily pigeon-holed.  Mrs. Warner is from Brazil and came to America as an adult.  Mr. Warner is black, from a coal-mining family in West Virginia. The story is about raising boys with autism, though, and not really about race or cultural issues, though it was really quite something to read about how Curtis Warner grew up in a coal-mining town.

As a book, I give 3 stars, which for me is a solid read. It is a stellar story but not 5 star literature. I would love to hear the Warner's tell their story; I imagine that would be an incredibly encouraging experience. I see this is on audible for 1.99, and that format might be better than a Kindle read.

I appreciate that they do not sugar coat the challenges and setbacks, the dreams deferred, the hard, hard work of raising kids on the ivery autistic side of the spectrum. I would recommend this book to anybody with kids on the spectrum or who knows somebody with kids on the spectrum or who deals in any way with some other disability making for difficult communication or behaviours.

This family have such a story to tell, and they just tell it, without self-pity, without undue pathos, without sugar-coating or phony cheery chirpy-bird stuff. But with lots of love and hope. 

I don't follow football, so I didn't know who they were.  Maybe you are already aware that Mr. Warner was a highly successful, professional football player who grew up in a W.Virginia coal town.  His grandparents adopted him and raised him, Grandpa/Dad was a coal-miner. Curt was a football player, went to college on a scholarship and played professionally for  the Seattle Seahawks. He married a girl from Brazil, who was not a big fan of football or football players. They have endured a stillbirth, miscarriages, and then their second pregnancy to full term was the twins who are on the spectrum and will always need to be cared for. When the boys were 12 they adopted an 18 month old girl.

This is not a book about miracle cures, or about sugar coating the hard stuff and the sacrifices made.  They did not get a diagnosis until the boys were 5, so they lost precious time and wonder what might have been (but not for long). They essentially went into lockdown mode for something like 20 years because they really could not take the twins many places or have people over much (one of them escaped once as friends were walking in the door and they found him happily playing in a pond). But they don't wallow in misery, either. They are believers, and their faith is part of their lives, but they don't hit readers over the head with it.
I am not sure most kids would enjoy reading this, unless they have a sibling on the spectrum.  If you ever have the chance to hear them tell their story, jump on it.

Soviet Russian prison camp to Soviet Russian single parent home- life under Stalin.  Grade school.  Talk about getting another point of view, another experience, life in different culture!  This is fantastic:
Arkady's Goal by Eugene Yelchin (UK Amazon/ Canada Amazon)
Five stars out of five.  Ten out five, even.  Loved this.
This is a great boy's book. It's a great read aloud story for any family looking for stories of other times and cultures.
Arcady is a kid in a Soviet prison camp because his parents allegedly were enemies of the state. He has no future outside of prison camp. Except...
No spoilers.
Really well done, gently addressing trauma kids, life in a communist regime, and soccer.  Yelchim includes a short chapter talking about growing up in Soviet Russia and the long term effects of Stalin's regime, and it's so moving.  He tells the story of finding himself in a New York cab driven by another Russian expat, who tells him that his own grandfather was taken away by Stalin's red guard, and nobody knew why or what happened.  Chillingly, even though it's something like 70 years later, in another country where it is perfectly safe, the cab-driver starts whispering when he tells the story, and Yelchim didn't even notice at first, because that's so natural to him, too.   When you talk about Stalin and theRed Guard, you whisper.  It's dangerous.   That's how deep the fear went.  Three generations and a totally different culture have not been enough to erase the fear. People still keep secrets and whisper when they say Stalin's name.  Actually, in many former Soviet countries, people still keep secrets and whisper about many things that aren't really that important, but that's how deep the conditioning is.
I will be looking for other books by this author.  You should, too.

Singapore, the 1930s or so, a mystery for teens and adults.
The Frangipani Tree Mystery (Crown Colony #1) by Ovidia Yu

I read the Kindle version.  Set in 1936 in the Crown Colony of Singapore  The main character is a Chinese girl, just 16 years old (although in one glitch in the story she seems to say she is older than a 17 year old character) who comes from a well to do and influential Chinese family.  However, her parents are dead, and she is slightly crippled because of polio as a young child.  Orphans and handicaps are bad luck so her grandmother sends her to a British girls' school for an education. She has just graduated and wants to find work as a secretary. Her British school's headmistress thinks she should  work as a nanny, her teachers think she could become a teacher, and her family want her to get married. She finds herself temporarily working as a nanny/governess for the 17 y.o. daughter of an important British family (relatives of her Headmistress). The girl is developmentally about 7, due to an illness when she was young. The previous nanny died in mysterious circumstances and an investigation by Chief Inspector Thomas LeFroy follows, in which the main character, Su Lin, gets involved because of her own incessant curiosity.

This was a fun read, somewhat the feel of an English cozy mystery. The author includes a lot of information on Chinese culture in Singapore at the time, as well the English treatment of Chinese There are some additional adult themes (beyond murder), but they are not spelled out in florid detail. A single woman is pregnant and there is speculation about the father and possible adultery. There are rumours the dead nanny took nude pictures of herself. There's a gay character.  I'd let an older, mature teen read this.  Su Lin is awfully clever and independent for a 16 y.o. Chinese girl before the war, but the anachronism is an area I was willing to suspend disbelief, largely because I enjoyed Su Lin so much.  I don't think I'd recommend this to that mature teen unless they had a special interest in British colonial Singapore and murder mysteries.

India, environmentalism, poverty, the importance of studying:
  Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins- (AmazonUK/ AmazonCanada)  very good read.

Grades 4 and up might enjoy this story of life on the Sunderban islands in West Bengal, India. The main character, Neel, must decide if he wants to study hard enough to win a scholarship that will take him away from his beloved island home for a few years. In the meantime, there is a tiger cub to save from poachers who want to kill it, and money worries in his family. A graceful, respectful depiction of every day life, customs and culture, along with larger issues of conservation and stewardship.  I will also be looking for others by this author.

Black American, biography, how the west was won... middle school and up:
The Legend of Bass Reeves, by Gary Paulsen (UK Amazon/ Canada Amazon)
Bass Reeves grew up on a small cattle holding on the edge of Indian Territory before the Civil war. He was a slave, and his life was hard. However, he did have advantages other slaves did not- because of the isolation where they lived and the danger from possible Indian attacks (Commanches had killed several white families in the area), he was allowed to carry a gun and ride a horse out into the wilderness looking for cattle.  The only people living on the ranch were himself, his mother, one other slave, and the white owner.  At 17, Bass had to flee because of an unavoidable fight with the drunken owner.  He lived alone in Indian territory for a couple years. He lived with Creek Indians for many years. He learned several of the Indian languages.  He married and brought up a family.  After the Civil war he was made a U.S. Marshall, and he brought in thousands of felons and was widely respected for his sense of justice and his courage.  He brought in his own son when the son caught his wife with another man and shot her.  He started writing his memoirs but died in his 1880s before he'd finished. They were not published until the 1970s.
I mostly loved this.  HOwever, in the introduction, the author begins by debunking all the other western heroes you might have heard of.  I question that choice, since the effect it had on me was to make me cynical and suspicious of the Bass Reeves story, too. You don't need to know or care about them to appreciate Reeves.  Beyond that, there are a couple of expletives, and there is a reference to the Comanches brutally torturing women and girls before they are killed. kIt isn't graphic, but it's still hard to read.   Recommended for maybe grade 7 and up.  Well told, fascinating character, and Paulsen's books are nearly always popular with boys.

Bass Reeves, Tales of the Talented Tenth, volume 1, Joel Christian Gill (UK Amazon, Canada)
This is a graphic novel, which is not my personal favourite format, but it is the favoured format of several young men I know.  This is a bit grittier and darker in places than the Paulsen bio.  There's a caricature of a black person used in the speech bubbles every time somebody might be assumed to be using the N word, which is kind of a lot.  It's well done, and there are some details about Reeves not in the Paulsen book (and vice versa).  Probably high school, in my opinion.

Native American boys, Omaha tribe- The Middle Five, free online at Google books.  First person narrative, true story of five boys in the Omaha tribe and their lives at an American boarding school.  They didn't want to be there, but their parents thought they could help their people by learning here. Written around 1900, the boys were at a mission school probably in the 1870s.   Amazon description: "The Middle Five, first published in 1900, is an account of Francis La Flesche's life as a student in a Presbyterian mission school in northeastern Nebraska about the time of the Civil War. It is a simple, affecting tale of young Indian boys midway between two cultures, reluctant to abandon the ways of their fathers, and puzzled and uncomfortable in their new roles of "make-believe white men." The ambition of the Indian parents for their children, the struggle of the teachers to acquaint their charges with a new world of learning, and especially the problems met by both parents and teachers in controlling and directing schoolboy exuberance contribute to the authenticity of this portrait of the "Universal Boy," to whom La Flesche dedicated his book. Regarded by anthropologists as a classic of Native American literature, it is one of those rare books that are valued by the specialist as authentic sources of information about Indian culture and yet can be recommended wholeheartedly to the general reader, especially to young people in high school and the upper grades, as a useful corrective to the often distorted picture of Indian life seen in movies, comics, and television."  This would be an enjoyable family read aloud, or a free read for students about fifth grade and up.  Recommended.

Black America, Slavery, upper elementary to middle school:

 Stealing Freedom by Elisa Carbone  (Amazon UK, Amazon Canada)
Publishers' Weekly Review: "This dramatic, often poignant historical novel on the life of Ann Maria Weems, a Maryland slave who, disguised as a boy, escaped to Canada at the age of 13. When the story opens in 1853, the 11-year-old, her mother and siblings are the property of Charles Price; her father is legally free, yet he, too, works "from first light to last light." Though Papa assures Ann Maria that Price would never break up a family, "Master Charles" hits on hard times and sells off the three Weems sons and later insists that Ann Maria remain his slave when Mr. Bigelow, an abolitionist, buys her mother and sister. In one of the tale's most wrenching scenes, the girl watches her parents and sister ride off to their new life and realizes that "the fabric of her family had been ripped again, and she was the piece that was being torn off." Ann Maria's harrowing escape, masterminded by Bigelow, gives youngsters an immediate, at times thrilling account of the workings of the Underground Railroad; the view of the Weemses' family life provides some idea of the incredible determination and ingenuity of slaves aspiring to freedom. Imaginatively and sensitively adapted from historical records, this portrait will evoke admiration for the courage of both those who resisted slavery and those who endured it. Ages 10-up. "

Very enjoyable read.  For very conservative parents, you probably want to know that there is one scene where Ann Maria's mother uses her daughter's rags (used for monthly menstrual cycles) to hide her pregnancy from Mrs. Price, and another scene where Ann Maria is indignant that she is valued at less than her mother or sister, and her sister explains it is because Ann Maria isn't yet of childbearing age, and they are worth more because they can have babies who will also be enslaved.   This would be a good book for free reading.

Sierre Leone, child soldiers, amputees.  Probably high school.

The Bite of the Mango, Mariatu Kamara, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada

This is Mariatu's firsthand account of growing up in a small village in Sierre Leone, coming under attack by rebel soldiers (child soldiers, many of them), and having her hands brutally amputated.  She was 12.  She struggles to find her way to safety, and eventually finds her way, with some help, to a makeshift hospital.  She spends a few more years in a refugee camp, and then is sponsored for schooling in Canada. She is still in college when she narrates this story, which is both harrowing and uplifting. She has an incredibly positive attitude and she loves her people and has hope for the future.  There is a child rape and subsequent pregnancy in the story, and also a brief discussion of AIDS (she finds healing in working with a drama troupe, and one of their performances is to educate people about AIDS prevention and treatment),  so probably not for young readers.

Black America, fiction, upper grades to middle school.
The Young Landlords by Walter Dean Myers  Amazon UK  Amazon Canada
I really enjoyed this story.  It was written and set in 1989.  Kids who protest a local slum-lord and demand he clean up his building (which only has about 8 rooms for rent) end up saddled with the building themselves.  They find that it is not as easy as they thought it would be to improve the building, keep the city codes, and deal with all of the tenants.  There is some teenage romance and kissing. 

 I think it would be terrific to pair this reading with The Year Money Grew On Trees, which has a similar, but rural story- kids get an adult property and have to take on some adult responsibilities to make it work. Along the way they learn some things about the adult world they hadn't realized, respect some of the adults they know more than they did before- or at least, understand them.  Both stories are really well written, fun to read, and would be interesting to compare and contrast.  Mary Emma and Company, by Ralph Moody has a similar theme but set in an older time.

South Africa
Nelson Mandela's Favourite African Folk Tales  My second daughter tells me she read this with her five kids and it was a big hit, and very well done.   UK Amazon  Canadian Amazon

Japan, picture book

The Smiling Dragon by Helen Peck- set in an older Japan, the story of a Kite-day celebration, two friends, a little sister, the making of the kite, kite fighting.  Illustrations and text subtly reveal Japanese culture and traditions.  One of the friends is sick, too sick to fly a kite himself, so his friend flies his own dragon kite on behalf of the sick boy.  The little sister helps by flying another kite for her brother.
Amazon UK, Canada UK

I hope you enjoy these as much as I did, and please share any other books you have that expand our view into other stories.  Unfortunately, I am told that somebody tried to leave a comment but couldn't.  I don't know what the problem there is, so if you have other books to tell me about, feel free to email, to follow me at goodreads (WendiWanders) or instagram (WEndiWanders) and tell me there.

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