“They got only this one egg a year even though the children’s mother tended chickens and ducks that produced seven or eight eggs a day right there in the front courtyard. But the eggs weren’t for the family. They were a small business that Gao Xiuying ran to earn a little bit of extra money.” page 49
A Girl Named Faithful Plum: The True Story of a Dancer from China and How She Achieved Her Dream by Richard Bernstein. Originally Alfred A. Knopf, Random House, New York, 2011. My edition Yearling, Random House Children’s Books, New York, 2012. Middle grade (YA?) nonfiction, 272 pages. Lexile: 1080L . AR Level: 6.6 (worth 11.0 points) .
In 1978, an eleven year old girl traveled from her small town on the northern border of China to the Beijing Dance Academy for their open auditions, along with sixty thousand other applicants. Against all odds, she managed to be one of the twelve girls chosen – but that was just the start of her troubles.
Zhongmei spent years in training, and had a long career, but this story focuses mainly on preparing to audition and her first year at school. About half the book focuses on her journey to even make it to auditions and then her progress through the seven layers of audition. The second half covers her first year at the school, and finally an epilogue tells what happened to her after.
Bernstein employs a number of timeline skips to maintain the pacing, although he’s not always successful. His most frequent device is the letters sent back and forth between Zhongmei and her beloved da-jie Zhongqin. He also occasionally has Zhongmei think back on past events. At some points there are skips forward, when reasonable within the story.
“It was like every single fear I’d ever had had gotten tangled into one huge knot. I wanted to hide under my bed and explode at the same time.” page 21
Xander and the Dream Thief (Momotaro #2) by Margaret Dilloway, illustrated by Choong Yoon. Disney Hyperion, New York, 2017. MG fantasy, 330 pages. Lexile: not leveled AR Level: 4.1 (worth 10.0 points) . NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the previous book in the series.
After his surprising victory, Xander is now fully the Momotaro. Having magic powers is great and all, but also means oni attack constantly, his mother had to stay away from him, he’s got a new foster sibling, and has so many nightmares he can’t sleep. So Obachan gives him a baku charm, warning to only use it on the worst nightmares lest the creature take all his dreams.
I enjoy stories of antiheroes or deeply flawed heroes or heroes who don’t want the power. Xander is definitely that in this book, but it’s entirely reasonable that a 12 year old who just inherited unlimited magical power (and is much better at using it than his father) might have that go to his head. Of course, oni are constantly testing him and watching for these kinds of slip-ups.
Luckily, the reckless energy and exuberant imagination that got him into this might also help him get out – with assistance from friends old and new, and if he can manage to get his dreams back. I’m not sure the target audience will be as interested in reading about a not-so-heroic kid as I am, but it’s refreshing when the legendary chosen one is all too human (and a person of color besides).
Dilloway’s second novel again follows a Riordan-ish plot, but full of references to Japanese mythology and culture. Kintaro, Fudo-Myoo, Daruma, and Kaguya-hime are among the featured characters. He also learns/remembers a tiny but crucial bit about his Irish heritage.
“A culture defines its virtues and vices within its folktales.” page 69
The Rainbow People by Laurence Yep, illustrated by David Wiesner. HarperTrophy, HarperCollins, New York, 1989. (See review.) Short story/folklore collection, 194 pages. Lexile: 680L . AR Level: 4.8 (worth 6.0 points) .
Twenty stories drawn from the most common area of Chinese-American immigration, streamlined and retold for younger audiences.
So I’m pretty sure my copy is a knock-off. The cover is the 1992 version, although on close examination it’s subtly off, but the interior copyright page is taken from one of the early 1989 printings. The margins aren’t set correctly and vary too much, and while harder to quantify, the paper and bindings don’t feel right compared to other books from this time period from this publisher that I’ve handled.
I purchased this book online, ostensibly new. After investigation, I don’t believe that the seller of this was aware then that it might be a printing violating copyright, so I won’t mention them specifically. Normally I would get a copy from the library to check if this version is accurate, but in Covid times, that is easier said than done. Perhaps some kind person who has access to a proper version of this book will comment if my citations are correct. I decided to still write this review because I’ve been wanting to talk about Laurence Yep and this book is particularly interesting.
Turning now to this specific volume, it’s a unique work. While I’ve seen many volumes of, or including, Chinese folklore, this book by Yep is the first I’ve seen that suggests a uniquely Chinese-American variety of tall tales. He points out that since the majority of early Chinese immigrants to America came from a specific province, the stories of that region have greater significance than more general Chinese or Asian proverbs.
“Better to be brought up on charges for excessive force – or worse- than give someone the benefit of the doubt and be carried out in a coffin. I began waking up in the middle of the night, second-guessing everything I did on the job.” page 125
The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate by Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Singh Kaleka with Robin Gaby Fisher. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2018. Adult nonfiction, 222 pages. Not leveled. NOTE: This book, and therefore the discussion of it in this review, contain numerous triggers. Please be aware and skip this review if needed. 2nd NOTE: Also this review is longer than usual because my own mental and emotional health made it difficult to edit.
The story of a former white supremacist whose words inspired the Sikh temple shooter and a man whose father was murdered in that shooting spree.
The book begins with acknowledgements and a prologue, followed by a chapter detailing the co-authors’ first meeting. The second chapter onward follow a more linear progression, starting with their childhoods, their high school and early adult life. At one point these two men lived only a short drive from each other, yet it took national headline level violence for their lives to converge.
Michaelis is very clear that his life was not especially full of hardships, that he was a normal, if somewhat wild, suburban boy. The stories about his recruitment to white supremacy through the punk rock scene (after an unfortunate incident turning him off of his earlier love of breakdancing) are almost as upsetting as his descriptions of acts of violence.
Then he attends a white supremacy “leadership camp” and is literally indoctrinated into the beliefs and recruitment system. He sees himself as doing good in the world even when literally beating someone. It’s stomach turning – this is not a book that can be read during lunch breaks or before bed.
“I didn’t feel safe in crowds near my home because the person ringing up my groceries could be the person who shot my son.” page 140
A Better Place: A Memoir of Peace in the Face of Tragedy by Pati Navalta Poblete.
Nothing But the Truth, LLC, San Francisco, California.
Memoir, 255 pages.
NOTE: I received a free copy of this book. See review for more details.
The story of one mother’s life after her son was a victim of gun violence.
When I get interested in a topic, one of the things I like to do is to read a variety of books that talk about the same subject from different angles. This past winter I wanted to look at incarceration, gun violence, and forgiveness (as well as several other topics that aren’t related). Among the books I’d purchased or put on hold at the library there were several friends gave to me or recommended.
However, this was mailed to me and I originally thought my prison volunteer friend sent it, but it came with a mug and he knew nothing about it. Looking back through my emails I didn’t find any that mentioned this book either, so if I’ve accidentally deleted or missed one then my apologies!
I took some time before reading, since it seemed pretty intense emotionally. Indeed, this title walks you through Poblete’s experiences, starting at the joyous moment when she and her fiance of several years finally booked a venue for their wedding… only to receive the call her son was murdered.
“And I think, what must it be like to be raised by well-meaning strangers who may love you but who do not speak your language, or know who you are, or have anything but an outsider’s intellectualized and generalized understanding of your culture and people, and of your life for that matter.” page 76
In a Rocket Made of Ice: the Story of Wat Opot, a Visionary Community for Children Growing Up with AIDS by Gail Gutradt.
My edition Vintage Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015 (originally published 2013).
Nonfiction/memoir, 322 pages.
Traveling retiree Gail Gutradt made a chance connection that sent her to volunteer in this community with an initial five-month commitment. The experience was so moving that she returns again and again, finding a deep love for Cambodia and a personal passion for improving the lives of children affected by HIV/AIDs.
Notice I say “children affected by”, not “children with”, because that’s one of the interesting parts about Wat Opot – the community is open to any children and many adults whose lives have been affected, whether they themselves are positive, a sibling or parent is, or if one or both parents have died from AIDs. That’s an important aspect of this community surviving in Cambodia, where family connections are crucial – families can stay together, dying parents can know that their children are well cared for and gently transition them, and siblings are not separated based on HIV status.
“Today it is very hard for me to sit still. Chinese New Year starts tonight. And tomorrow morning, I will dance in the street.” page 7
Lion Dancer: Ernie Wan’s Chinese New Year by Kate Waters and Madeline Slovenz-Low, photographs by Martha Cooper.
Scholastic, New York, 1990.
Nonfiction picture book, 32 pages.
Lexile: 540L .
AR Level: 2.9 (worth 0.5 points) .
The is the story of six-year-old Ernie Wan’s first Lion Dance, which he’s been preparing for since he was three. For the Chinese New Year, he will perform on the streets of New York City.
Ernie is one-fifth of a loving family. His father is, according to the dust jacket text, “a kung fu master” so studying kung fu is very important to his family. (I put that portion in quotes not because I disbelieve his qualifications but because I wasn’t sure if that’s how he would describe himself. Often the jacket text isn’t written by the author so it’s difficult to tell just how accurate this might be.)
“Even here things are pretty divided. Except that the breakdown is different. The aunties hang out with the aunties and the uncles hand out with the uncles.” page 53
Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap, illustrated by Mari Araki.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2011.
Illuminated realistic fiction, 247 pages.
Lexile: not leveled
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 3.0 points) .
NOTE: This is a YA book, not intended for younger children.
Tina Malhotra is the youngest in a family of five and a sophomore at the mostly white Yarborough Academy. She’s taking an Honors English elective course in existential philosophy, and has taken on an assignment to write letters to Jean-Paul Satre about the process of discovering who she is and who she is becoming.
The format of this book was different to any I’ve read before. I hesitate to call it a graphic novel (although the dust jacket does so) because large portions of the story were carried through text only. Neither was it an illuminated work because whole pages at a time would be done in a comic style relying on both text and illustrations.
“How does a teenager come to hold such a view? The answer is simple: people taught him.” p. xii
Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo Patel.
Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2007.
Adult nonfiction/autobiography, 189 pages.
Part autobiography, part nonfiction, this is the story of Eboo Patel’s life, how it could easily have been so very different, and what he feels is most important for young people today.
This was a very unique read. Patel intersperses the story of his own life with a look at the way various Western minority youth were influenced by religious extremists and carried out various acts of violence.
“The rice was harvested, and the poor were allowed to glean the fields for fallen grain-heads. It was an arduous, backbreaking task: hours of work to gather mere handfuls of rice.” p. 53
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park.
Dell Yearling, Random House Books, New York, 2001.
MG historical fiction, 152 pages plus extra back matter.
2002 Newbery Award Winner.
Lexile: 920L .
AR Level: 6.6 (worth 6.0 points) .
This novel follows a 12th century Korean orphan who is happy at first just to scrounge enough food to survive, but gradually becomes immersed in the world of the master potters of Ch’ulp’o, known for their breathtaking celadon ceramics.
I was first given this book back when it was released and a friend told me I had to read it. For whatever reason I resisted. Perhaps because I didn’t care much for historical fiction at the time. Another reason could have been the nearly all-male cast. Tree-ear’s world is full of men and boys, with only one female character of any notice. While it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test, the characters do come from a wide economic spectrum.