“Asha paused to flick the sweat from the crook of her elbow. Suddenly she caught sight of a face staring at her through the coconut leaves.” p. 31
Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins.
Delacorte Press, Random House Children’s Books, New York, 2009.
Historical fiction, 225 pages.
Lexile: 800L .
AR Level: 5.3 (worth 7.0) .
Asha’s father has gone to America to look for a new job, leaving his family in the care of his older brother’s family. Already saddened by the move from Delhi to Calcutta, Asha, her beautiful older sister Reet, and their mother wait and try to fend off marriage proposals, rebukes from the other women, and a life of servitude and confinement.
Asha’s mother suffers from depression and fits that her daughters describe as visits from the Jailer, when her face and mind go blank. She attempts methods of coping such as knitting or cooking, but as their life circumstances deteriorate, she’s unable to function, leaving Asha in charge of their physical safety and everyday needs.
“Today there are at least an estimated 3.5 million Americans of Arabic-speaking descent, and they live in all fifty states. […] The purpose of this book isn’t to separate them out but to fold their experience into the mosaic of American history and deepen our understanding of who we Americans are.” p. xi
A Country Called Amreeka: U.S. History Retold Through Arab-American Lives by Alia Malek.
Free Press, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2009.
Nonfiction, 292 pages.
A walk through American history through the lives of a wide variety of Arab-Americans.
I picked this book up on a whim, but it turned out to be very interesting nonetheless. Mostly, I wanted to know why America was misspelled in the title (Amreeka is the Arabic word for America), and after looking at the blurb, I thought this could be an interesting perspective on American history which I personally had not very much considered before.
Much like Prisoners Without Trial, this book opened my eyes to another important part of American history. Similar to that book, this one also deals with a limited time period, since immigration laws prevented large numbers of Arab immigrants prior to the 1960s. However, Malek tells her story in a very different (although just as engaging) way.
After a brief forward explaining the background, format and scope of the book, she takes snapshots from various Arab-American lives and uses them to illustrate a wide variety of experiences and time periods. In between these vignettes are brief chapters that give immigration statistics, updates on legal and cultural developments, and information about world politics that had bearing on Arab-American lives.
“My dad was always curious about humans, how we react in different situations. He asked us hard questions at a young age, and even better, he listened carefully and respectfully when we answered.” p. 39
Yes, My Accent is Real: and Some Other Things I Haven’t Told You by Kunal Nayyar.
Atria Paperback, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, New York, 2015 (my edition 2016).
Personal essays, 245 pages.
At only 34, Nayyar is best known for playing the role of Rajesh, an Indian immigrant and astrophysicist with selective mutism, on the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory.
I have a soft spot for diverse celebrity memoirs, especially if I happen to actually know who the celebrity is. This was one of those guilty pleasure books that you know won’t be very filling but want to read anyway.
The format was unusual – more like short essays punctuated by “A Thought Recorded on an Aeroplane Cocktail Napkin” every so often. They are roughly chronological (although this isn’t an autobiography) and roughly written, so I believe Nayyar wrote this himself (or if not, his ghostwriter owes him a big refund).
” ‘We have to go to work, go to school. We cannot pay so much attention to our little boy.’ Her voice cracks. ‘We have to do what is best for Di Di,’ she whispers, ‘not what is best for us.’ ” p. 8
Only One Year by Andrea Cheng, illustrations by Nicole Wong.
Lee & Low Books, New York, 2010.
Elementary realistic fiction, 97 pages.
Lexile: 620L .
AR Level: 3.3 (worth 1.0 points) .
Di Di is leaving to spend a year in China with his grandparents and extended family, but Sharon and middle sister Mary aren’t so sure about that. A year is a long time, and they miss him at first, but then get busy with their own lives. When Di Di returns, it is a difficult adjustment for everyone.
I actually was familiar with this idea through friends of mine, who lived in their family’s country of origin from the time they were weaned until preschool and then flew back each year to live there over the summer. However, for many readers it will be new. This topic is also briefly explored from a different perspective in American Panda. In that book, the father decided to send the children to his family in China against their mother’s wishes, and it was challenging for the family.
“The curious thing is that the word ‘colorism’ doesn’t even exist. Not officially. […] So how does one begin to unpack a societal ill that doesn’t have a name?” p. 8
Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families by Lori L. Tharps.
Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2016.
Nonfiction, 203 pages including sources and index.
This is the study of something few non-academics want to talk about – colorism. While everyone can get behind fighting racism, colorism is more insidous, deeply rooted in American racism and refreshed as immigrants arrive with their own cultural ideas of colorism. Tharps combines information from experts with deeply personal stories from families that are biologically related, but have different physical appearances.
A short introduction first tells how Tharps became interested in colorism – she’s African-American, her husband is from the south of Spain and identifies with dark-skinned people, but her three children each appear very different. Tharps then gives some background information on colorism and an overview of the book.
Four chapters focus specifically on different groups. Tharps explains that she chose to work only with biologically related families because she wanted this book to be focused on colorism specifically and adoption adds other dimensions. However she also states adoptive families will find much to relate to here – I agree.
“All his life in Vietnam my father had been a farmer. Here our apartment house had no yard. But in that vacant lot he would see me.” page 3
Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Judy Pedersen.
Scholastic, New York, 1999 (first published HarperCollins 1997).
Adult realistic fiction, 69 pages.
Lexile: 710L .
AR Level: 4.3 (worth 2.0 points) .
NOTE: Despite the reading level, I would not recommend this to middle grade readers.
Seedfolks is a collection of 13 short stories by different first-person narrators, all revolving around the first year of a community garden in Cleveland, Ohio.
Normally with short story collections, I comment on each story and then give thoughts on the whole. Because these stories are so short, I’m going to write two or three sentences about each one and then give my general thoughts at the end.