Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Harlem"


So here I am.  This is it, the last blog post I have to write for my children’s literature class.  I have a feeling there will be a short hiatus after this last blog, but I do hope I come back to reviewing books.  Sometimes, the books in this world are just too good not to share with other people.  This last book is a poetry book.  No, it is not a collection of poetry, but simply one poem that spans across an entire picture book.  I wish I could say that I saved my favorite for the last, but unfortunately, this book is one of the ones that has resonated with me least.

           
Harlem (Published 1997) by Walter Dean Myers and Illustrated by his son Christopher Myers, is, as the title indicates, a book about Harlem.  It is not really a narrative in the sense of it having a beginning, middle and end, nor is there any real problem presented in the book.  The poem starts with a page where “They” are traveling to Harlem because “Harlem was a promise of a better life, of a place where a man didn’t have to know his place Simply because he was Black.”  The poem then goes on to explain that they brought their sounds with them to this new place.  After this opening, however, I feel like the poem digresses into something a little more confusing, where there isn’t a connected storyline.  It goes from talking about the Abyssinian Baptist Church and the Apollo theater on one page, to talking about a train station on the next.  I think that Walter Dean Myers explains this confusion when he says towards the end, “Place, Sound, Celebration, Memories of feelings, of place.”  I feel that this accurately explains the poem.  The poem is not so much a story, but lines that celebrate those places, sounds, and feelings that the author remembers of his own childhood in Harlem.  For that end goal, I think the structure of the text works.  I should mentioned that this seems to be the Harlem from a few decades ago, the one in which Walter Dean Myers grew up.  The talk of jazz and hints of segregation and racism lead me to this belief.

            I think that this is a good poem.  I really like the way that Walter Dean Myers used backslashes between sets of nouns, like when he says “Yellow/tan/brown/black/red/Green/gray/bright colors loud enough to be heard.”  These backslashes serve to give the poem a sense of motion and of lots of things happening all at once.  I have never seen this technique before.  Aside from the backslashes, my next favorite thing he does is his use of nouns.  The poem is full of different nouns in the stanzas that paint the picture for the reader.  In one opening, it says,
            A carnival of children
            People the daytime streets
            Ring-a-levio warriors
            Stickball heroes
            Hide-and-seek knights and ladies
            Waiting to sing their own sweet songs.
I think this achieves the same thing that the backslashes achieves—a sense of a lot of motion and action going on in the story.  Harlem is a vibrant, thriving place and the poem conveys that.

             The illustrations in this story are also quiet nice.  This book was actually a Caldecott Honor in 1998.  They are collage with ink, and gauche.  Bryan Collier also does collages, but he uses watercolor.  Christopher Myers use of gauche makes the illustrations more opaque than Bryan Collier’s.  I had honestly never seen anyone else use this kind of illustrative style in a picture book.  Because I have read and loved so many of Bryan Collier’s work, I am sort of partial to his style.  Christopher Myers is not focused on detail as much as he is the use of bright hues to create the picture of a vibrant city that his father was able to do in the poem.   Christopher Myers’s illustrations are wonderful, but they feel almost clumsy when they are compared to the work of Bryan Collier.
Christopher Myer's illustrative work in Harlem.
            So far, I have given a lot of reasoning as to why this book is a good book.  In my opening, however, I mentioned how it didn’t really resonate with me.  Overall, this book just wasn’t a book I really enjoyed because it didn’t have any connection to me or my life.  When Walter Dean Myers talks about “Shango and Jesus, Asante and Mede,” or “The uptown A rattles past 110th Street,” it doesn’t strike a chord with me at all.  When he says “A weary blues that Langston knew and Countee sung a river of blues where Du Bois waded and Baldwin preached,” I really only know about Langston Hughes.  This simply isn’t a book that has any relevance to my life.  When I think of Harlem, the only thing I remember is hearing about the Harlem Renaissance in high school and knowing that it was an epicenter of African American culture.  I don’t feel like I learned any new information, and am just left with a bunch of questions that I have to go look up.  Of course, asking questions is a great thing in a book, but I just didn’t connect with it enough to even want to go look up questions.

            I am trying to think for whom I would recommend this book.  I think for children growing up in and around Harlem, this book is an obvious choice.  Also, for children with grandparents who grew up in that time period, like Walter Dean Myers, this would be a way for them to connect with their grandchildren and share their lives.  I can also see this book working in a class that teaches about the Harlem Renaissance.  Indeed, the Booklist Review of this book says, ‘It is Harlem as a visual experience that YAs will return to again and again, to admire and wonder at what is realized with truly extraordinary grace and power.”  Despite Amazon advertising it as a book for fourth grade and up, Booklist has said that it is recommended for children in 6-12 grade.  I have to agree.  I think that this book would provide a nice supplement to a teacher’s curriculum who is teaching about that culture and time period.


            Normally, my reviews are much longer than this, but I won’t try to force a review when I have nothing more to say.  Overall, I think that the book has strong literary merit and that it has very nice illustrations.  For me, however, it will not become a beloved text that I share with my students year after year.  From here on out, I will probably only be blogging about books I really love or really hate—after all, I’m a girl motivated by emotions!
Image Sources:
www.goodreads.com
www.best-childrens-books.com
 

"Stitches"


            I thought the penultimate book review for my children’s literature class would be easy.  (Please excuse my pretentious use of the world “penultimate.”  But I mean, when do you ever get to use it?  It’s just such an awesome word.)  Anyway, on blog 46 of 47, I convinced myself that it was nothing but smooth sailing.  The only two books I have left to review are a picture book about poetry and a memoir that is in graphic novel form.  I mean, I read Babymouse, so how hard can a graphic novel really be to read and blog about?  It’s not like they are serious or anything.  I was so wrong.  I would put my latest book review in the same category of The Book Thief due to its complex nature.

           
Stitches: A Memoir (Published 2009) by David Small is not a difficult book to read at the surface level—it is, however, a book that handles sensitive topics and a book that will leave the reader thinking about it for a long time.  Set mostly in the 1950s, David Small starts the reader with his life as a six year old.  His mother speaks only the language of silence and slamming cabinets.  His brother speaks the language of playing the drums.  His father speaks the language of a punching bag.  And David?  David speaks the language of sickness.  It is not the happy family dynamics that the 1950s wanted the world to believe was occurring—David’s family is a silent one filled with much resentment.  Not once in any of the pages of this book, does either parent tell David that they love him.

           
 
          David’s father is a doctor, and he works to make his son better by giving him X-Rays to help out with his sinus problems.  Like a lot of people at the time, David’s father thought the X-Rays would cure many illnesses.  David says, “They were soldiers of science, and their weapon was the X-Ray.  X-Rays could see through clothes, skin, even metal.  They were miraculous wonder rays that would cure anything”(p.27).  This is but one indicator of how different it was to grow up sixty years ago.  David’s mother takes him to visit his grandmother, and when he does something she disapproves of, his grandmother shoves his hands into burning hot water.  When he tells his mother that his grandmother is crazy, she tells him to never speak those words again.  He’s not a boy who gets much sympathy.

            The reader is then taken to when David is eleven.  When his mother is hosting a party, the wife of a surgeon notices a growth on David’s neck.  After taking David to a doctor, they learn that the growth on his neck is probably just a cebaceous cyst that needs to be surgically removed.  Instead of immediately getting the cyst removed, his parents wait three and a half years.  David Small takes us to when he is fourteen and is finally getting the cyst removed.  Instead of getting one cyst removed, the cyst is removed, as well as one of his vocal cords.  David is left with a stitched-up neck and is unable to talk like he used to before the surgery.  No one tells David why, but he eventually finds a letter that his mom wrote to his grandmother—David had cancer.  The child had cancer, and not a single person in the world— not the doctor, his father, his mother—took the time to tell him. 

            Next, David at fifteen.  David finds his mother in bed with another woman, the same woman who found the growth on David’s neck when he was eleven.  Then, David’s grandmother tries to kill her husband (the only family member who actually shows David any affection in this book, and he is actually his step-grandfather) by locking him in the basement and then setting the house on fire.  A neighbor sees his grandmother dancing around the front yard and calls the police.  His grandmother is taken to the insane asylum.  Later that year, his father wants to take him out to dinner.  After a meal full of their typical silence, his father takes him to the river and explains to him about the radiation treatments that he was given as a child, and tells him, “I gave you cancer.”  No apology or hugging session occurs.  David leaves home at sixteen, and he ends with his mother dying and a dream.  Since I’ve given you so much of the plot, I won’t spoil the end by explaining the dream.

           
This book is a dark book, both metaphorically and literally.  The graphics in the story are all shades of white, black, and gray.  David’s story is so incredibly sad, mainly because of the lack of love from his family.  One of the central issues in the book is David’s mother.  Throughout the entire story, David’s mother looks angry, except when she is at the party where other people are around.  When David catches her with another woman, he says, “After that awkward moment, while my own emotions ricocheted between extremes of betrayal and foolishness, anger and confusion, what stayed with me for the longest time was the look mother gave me, itself full of complex feelings, few of which, I’d guess, had much to do with me”(p.273).  It seems as though his mother was harboring this secret her whole life, one that was definitely not accepted in the 1950s.  Holding on to that secret made her bitter and angry.  When he catches her, there is no trying to explain or help him understand.  Instead it is more silence, more anger.  When David finally goes to a therapist, which of course his mother thinks is a waste of time, the therapist tells him that people have lied to him his whole life, and that he is going to tell him the truth.  That truth, as he tells David, is that, “Your mother doesn’t love you”(p.255).  A young boy has to confront the fact that his own mother doesn’t love him, and it is something that the reader and probably even David knew his entire life.

            The death of David’s mother does not offer much comfort.  David gets the call, when he is 30 years old, that his mother is dying.  He screams on his way up to see her.  He says, “I wasn’t screaming in anger or rage or at the thought of an impending loss.  I had learned that screaming thickens up the vocal cords.  Already this had given me back something of a voice.  So, I took every opportunity to be alone, to scream, or sing or tell myself stories as loudly as I could”(p.303).  His mother is dying, and he screams, but it is not out of any love for her.  When he finally does arrive, she has a tube down her throat and cannot speak, and he has made himself hoarse by screaming so much.  Their last interaction was like most of the interactions they had while David was growing up—soundless.

            The illustrations that are in this book add to the dark nature of the story.  The faces of the adults in David’s life are just down-right scary.  His mother and grandmother don’t own a happy face. 
 
          The doctors who go to take out the cyst (and as he finds out, the cancer) loom over him in their masks, sending him swirling into a dark hole reminiscent of Alice going into Wonderland.  David gives the readers a lot of close ups of faces and body parts, drawing the reader in and making them more a part of the story. 
 
 
          When David finally looks at his scar, David Small gives us a close-up of first his neck, and then to just the stitches going along his neck. 
          In a way, the illustrations in this book are graphic—with the close ups of the stitches, a fetus in a jar that repeats several times, not to mention the genitalia that his brother shows him in a book—but it makes it real.  When the reader is done reading the book, we finally get the notion of just how rough this man’s childhood was to overcome. 
 
         I’m sure that this dark nature can be achieved through words, but David Small’s ability to do this with both words and pictures is superior.  When David is afraid to go to sleep after his surgery, he begins to sleep underneath the kitchen table with the light on.  His parents find him.  His father says, “Isn’t that just g**d**n wonderful.” And his mother screams “Do you know what our utility bill is going to look like?  Do you even care?”(p225).  The words alone are powerful, but when the words are put with the illustration of his mother towering over him and his father simply walking away, the point really hits home for the reader.
 


Definitely David Small's style!
            With a tale this dark, one would think that the author/illustrator grew up to write novels full of dark, gritty, truths.  I did not read the synopsis of this book before I started my review.  About a third of the way through, I began to realize that these illustrations seemed familiar to me.  Namely, the wide outlines of things.  I finally read the book jacket and realized that this is not the author of gritty, adult realistic fiction.  This is David Small, the Caldecott Medal Winner of So, You Want to Be President?  He also wrote a beloved children’s book called Imogene’s Antlers.  This story is so far removed from those books that I don’t think I would have ever made the connection on my own.  Once you know that this is the same man, you begin to see the same wide lines like I spoke of before, in his work.  I really love the David Small wrote this book.  It is a great reminder that we can come from the most horrific circumstances and still become a wonderful person.

 
 
        Stitches: A Memoir is not meant for the children for whom his other books are written.  This is a book for teenagers all the way up to the elderly.  As I mentioned before, it was not an easy read or easy to write about.  Rarely do I read or recommend memoirs.  In this case, I am glad I was told to read it, because now I can recommend it to everyone I know.  If you are an elementary school teacher who is a fan of his other work, I strongly recommend you read this story and gain a deeper understanding of the man behind the pictures.
 
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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices"

                Paul Fleischman is a tricky, tricky man.  He knows us teachers.  He knows that a lot of us have been afraid of poetry our whole lives.  Sure, we will read poetry secretly, and maybe even write it in notebooks nobody will ever see.  But to read it out loud to people?  You’re joking, right?  We’re readers, for goodness sake.  We are not slam poets, or visitors of coffee house poetry nights.  My first year of teaching, I tried to make poetry meaningful, despite the fact that it never held much meaning to me.  I wanted to like poetry, but it always just seemed so scary.  So why is Paul Fleischman such a tricky writer?  Well, as you will see below, he has written an incredible book in Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices.  That’s not so tricky.  The tricky part, as you will discover, is that he forces us to read this book out loud.  There really is no other way to read this book.

            Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices (Published 1988) is written by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Eric Beddows.  This poetry collection comes laden with accolades and awards.  For starters, it won the Newbery Medal in 1989.  It was also named an ALA Notable Children’s Book, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book, a Horn Book Fanfare winner, and a Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts (given by the National Council for Teachers of English).  With all of those recognitions, you know that this book is something special, but why?  This is a poetry book about insects.  Simple enough, right?

            Ever since I started blogging, I’ve become really interested in the American Library Association Awards and the requirements for those awards.  Why do they choose one book over all the others?  We know that the Newbery Award is given for the best children’s book of the year, but what does that mean?  In my blog post on The One and Only Ivan, I listed some of the criteria and discussed the criteria that I think best suited that book.  I would like to do the same for Joyful Noise.  The Newbery Award is given each year, “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.”  We need more to understand what makes a book distinguished, so the ALA website continues with saying that committee members should consider the following: “interpretation of the theme or concept; presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization; development of plot; delineation of characters; delineation of setting; and appropriateness of style.”  So once again, out of all of these requirements, what makes this book so special?

            There is no real plot and there aren’t any characters who go through the whole book.  The presentation of information is, I assume, correct, but I don’t see it being especially accurate, clear, or organized.  That leaves two different considerations: interpretation of the theme or concept and appropriateness of style.  These two categories are where Joyful Noise succeeds.  The theme of this story is a poetry book about insects.  Paul Flesichman gives us poems about insects that do not always get attention in a heart-felt poem—whirligig beetles, the digger wasp, book lice, and many others.  What makes it so special is the way he presents these insects, and the way he interprets his concept is through the style of poetry for two voices.  But what does that even mean?

            I find myself writing questions because this book is a difficult one to explain.  It is hard to explain poetry for two voices—the easiest way is to actual read the poems.  Paul Fleischman does give the reader a note at the beginning of the book to explain the structure.  It reads:

The following poems were written to be read aloud by two readers at once, one taking the left hand part, the other taking the right hand part.  The poems should be read from top to bottom, the two parts meshing as in a musical duet.  When both readers have lines at the same horizontal level, these lines are to be spoken simultaneously.

Each poem is to be read out lout by two people.  This format of the story is what makes it so special.  Before this book, I do not believe there was anything quite like it.  Now, there are several other poetry books for multiple voices, including Pal Fleischman’s own Big Talk: Poems for Four Voices and I am Phoenix: Poems for Two Voices.  The unique style of this book makes it so special.  Two readers read the poem.  Sometimes one person is speaking, sometimes the other, and sometimes the readers speak in tandem.  When the readers are speaking at the same time, though, they are not always saying the same words.  If you would like to see what in the world this looks and sounds like, please watch this excellent presentation by two high-school seniors.  They took and recited many of the poems in Joyful Noise.

            Like Paul Fleishman’s note says, this book is not meant for silent reading.  Sure, you can read the book to yourself, but there are so many subtleties that you will miss when the sounds work together with two voices.  I read this book first by myself, and then enlisted help for a read-aloud.  There were things I discovered in the oral reading that I had completely missed in my own silent reading.  For example, in “Book Lice” there is a line on the left that reads “We’re book lice adoring despite her loud snoring.”  On the right side, the line reads “We’re book lice adoring despite his loud snoring.”  When I read it to myself, I didn’t notice the pronoun shift.  As I read it out loud, the difference is noticed and it is funny.  I asked my little sister to sit down and read one with me—we enjoyed it so much we ended up reading half the book.  One of our favorite poems to read together was “Firelies.”  In this poem, there is alliteration going on.  While one person reads “fireflies,” another is reading “flickering” and then it continues for a few lines.  It presents this great harmony, while at the same time having a disconnect between speakers.  It is so hard to explain in silent words that will be read in someone’s head, so I urge you to find someone that is special to you and read these poems with them.  My little sister insists that this would make a great game at parties or family game nights.  You can’t help but laugh as you stumble over words and work to get them right.

            One of the things I loved most about this book was just how wrong I got everything.  I kept getting my lines wrong or out of order, and it made me think of how children would perceive this.  It is definitely a challenge, but well worth it.  I’ve used this book before with my children.  I do not think that all of the poems would really be good for them to read—one’s like “The Digger’s Wasp,” that talks about never getting to see her own children, doesn’t really seem like something they can relate with.  There are definitely, some, however, that would be a great read for my fourth-graders.  The funniest one, without a doubt, is “Honeybees.”  In this poem, a worker bee and the queen bee are both talking about their lives.  It starts with the two readers saying,” Being a bee is a pain” and “Being a bee is a joy.”  Throughout the poem, the reader sees the plight of the worker bee, while the queen bee is sitting lazily.  The year I did this book with my students, they really loved reciting these poems.  In a way, they almost act as a play, because you have to pay attention to when the other person is talking and really focus on the way you are reading the words.  Of course, gestures and movement are an added bonus.

            In the end, this book deserves all of the recognition it received because of its uniqueness.  Paul Fleischman helped to popularize a very different kind of poetry book.  In its 26th year in print, Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices is a book of poems that is not going anywhere, anytime soon.  And it is even making us teachers recognize the value poetry out loud!
 
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Monday, April 14, 2014

"Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night"


            I will not let poetry just be in April.  I will not let poetry just be in April.  I will not let poetry just be in April.  This is the mantra I am going to repeat to myself over and over again, through April, into the summer, and until the school year starts again.  It is like every year I forget about poetry until National Poetry Month arrives.  I am aware that poetry needs to be across the curriculum all year long, and Georgia Heard is seriously disappointed in me, but there is always so much going on that poetry takes a back seat.  This summer, I am determined to cultivate a supply of fantastic poems that I can enjoy and use with my children.  Dark Emperor by Joyce Sidman, has reminded me of the power of poems and how important it is to not let poetry be simply a genre that is studied.

            Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night (Published 2010) is a hybrid book of poems and
nonfiction text written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Rick Allen.  At first glance, this book may not seem that special.  It is a typical 32-page picture book, like any other one a child might pick up off the library shelf.  This book gives us two parts on each opening: a poem on the left, and nonfiction information on the right.  The topic, the night and the animals that transverse it, is not anything terribly unique.  When you stop and look at the cover, though, you realize that there is a Newbery Honor sticker affixed to the front cover.  If you are like me, you stop and think about that for a second.  The Newbery Award is intended for children up to the age of 14, and most of the books that win, like The Graveyard Book and Walk Two Moons, are chapter books for children in upper-elementary and middle school.  So what makes this book so special that it was named one of the best books of the year?

           
I felt like a porcupette picture was completely necessary.
There are many things that make this text wonderful, but I think the first thing that a reader will probably notice is the structure.  I have never come across a book quiet like this, that has a beautifully crafted poem (don’t worry, we’ll get to the author’s craft of this text) on one side, and then research on the other.  There are poetry books and then there are research books.  These two genres do not often step on one another’s toes.  Research isn’t poetic, thoughtful, or interesting, right?  Poetry isn’t all that well-researched, because it is just about feelings, right?  Joyce Sidman shows us that we are so wrong.  The research that Joyce Sidman presents is fascinating, and I actually learned a few things from this book.  For example, on page 19 we learn that “A baby porcupine—called a porcupette—spends the day hidden under a stone or log while its mother sleeps on a branch above.”  I had never given much thought to a baby porcupine, and the knowledge presented in the research perfectly supplements the information that is given in the poem.  The poem, “I Am a Baby Porcupette,” begins with the following lines:

            I am a baby porcupette.
            My paws are small; my nose is wet.
            And as I nurse against my mom,
            We mew and coo a soft duet.

Joyce Sidman blends the research into the poems, but then gives the reader additional information on the right hand side of the page.  I love that the poems come first.  The poems, like all good poems, speak to the reader.  Like in the example above, these poems do not shirk from emotion.  Instead, the reader is first brought into the information through the lens of poetry, only to then have it supported by the research.  We first reach the information on an emotional level, before we go back to slightly more clinical.
            Another reason this book is such a wonderful children’s poetry book is because it doesn’t dumb down poetry for children.  These poems are sophisticated, interesting poems and elementary school children can certainly handle them.  Joyce Sidman does not shy away from powerful words and deep thoughts, like when she describes on page 8 a snail as:

            Shell-maker
            Moon-maker
            Gleaming silver-bright.
            Each night:
            Darkness
                        Into
                                    Light.
A child needs to really think about what this means.  What does is mean that a snail is a moon maker or goes from darkness into light each day?  Together, children and teacher, child and parent, can ponder over the choices she makes and the images that are placed in their heads as they read the text.  The very first poem, “Welcome to the Night” is probably my favorite one.  The language used paints such a great image in my mind of night approaching and all the animals who will be coming.  She says, “To you who make the forest sing, who dip and dodge on silent wing”(p.6) and later, “The night’s a sea of dappled dark, the night’s a feast of sound and spark, the night’s a wild, enchanted park”(p.6).  I love any author who can take something so seemingly simple, like night, and talk about it in a unique way.

            Kids tend to love poems that rhyme, but we must also expose them to other poetry forms.  A lot of times, poetry books tend to be one thing—haiku, rhyming, un-rhyming, concrete, or some other type of poetry.  In Dark Emperor, Joyce Sidman gives us a variety of poems.  The first poem, “Welcome to the Night,” contains rhymed couples, like “Come feel the cool and shadowed breeze, come smell your way among the trees.”  In “Night-Spider’s Advice,” the reader is given one unrhymed stanza, containing lines like, “Someone has to remake the world each night.  It might as well be you.”  There is even a concrete poem, “Dark Emperor,” that is in the shape of a great horned owl and the mouse that is running away from it.  Because this book has such great language, research, and many different forms, it makes it a great mentor text for poetry.


            Reading this book as a reader, I automatically had my teacher hat on.  Last fall, I went to the Joy of Children’s Literature Conference, where two speakers presented on this book.  I remember listening to them and thinking this sounded like a great book, but I stored it in the back of my head and didn’t really think about it again until this week.  I guess I am kind of cruel to poetry in that way.  Now, I am thinking about the cross-curricular ties that this book has, and how wonderful it could be to use and re-use and abuse it until you have to buy a new one.  I’d love to start out our animal unit in science next year by turning off the lights, and in the best voice I can muster, read this poem to the students.  I can see how excited they would be, with this great invitation to learn about the animals that live in our world.  We could read the entire book, stopping to pause and think about all of the new information that we learned.


            After this introduction in science, we could read the book again as writers, looking at things like author’s craft.  I can just imagine starting a chart where we notice powerful words like “gleaming,” “dappled,” and “raucous.”  We could talk about poetic form and the different kinds of poems that Joyce Sidman includes.  At the conference I attended, the authors talked about students beginning to notice powerful words in nonfiction texts.  If we help children to see the connection between this book and other nonfiction books, then we will help them to build the bridge in their own writing.  If we show them nonfiction that isn’t sterile, dry writing, it will help them to create the kind of writing we have always hoped for them.  I think that this book could quite possibly be the best mentor text ever for writing nonfiction.  This is the kind of thing our kids could have in their reach, if only we show them how.

            I cannot end this review without talking about the prints.  When you first look at them, you can tell that something just seems different.  They don’t quite look like watercolors, pastels, or any other very traditional kind of illustration.  I immediately thought that they were woodcuts, and it turns out that I was right.  If there is ever a medium that should be appreciated, it is woodcuts.  In the front matter, the illustrations are explained.  It says:

The prints in this book were made by the process of relief printing.  A drawing or sketch is transferred onto a block of wood, or in this instance, a sheet of linoleum mounted on wood, and the drawing is then cut and carved away using a variety of tools.  The areas left uncut are covered with ink and printed on paper by hand or on a press: a number of blocks can be cut and then successively printed in different colors, with the different blocks being “registered” or aligned to create a multicolored print.  The prints for Dark Emperor were each printed from at least three blocks (and in some instances as many as six) and then hand-colored with a strongly pigmented watercolor called gauche.  There are definitely faster methods of making a picture, but few more enjoyable in a backwards sort of way.

Example of the relief printmaking used in the book.
 
Wow.  It sounds so complicated, and I honestly had a hard time picturing the process.  MoMA has created a very short video that shows relief printmaking at work, and it may help you to get a better understanding of the process.  Have you ever heard of any work more laborious than that of a woodcut?  You think to yourself, why in the world would the illustrator do that?  When I look at these woodcuts though, they take me away from reality a little bit.  Joyce Sidman is giving us a world that seems distant from our own, a world that is full of darkness and a little bit scary.  These woodcuts are also full of darkness and a little bit scary, like the giant spider on p.17.  These laborious prints match the text.

            So, to conclude, I will keep Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night in my mind, in my heart, and in my curriculum.  If you are a teacher, whether one of science, reading, or writing, I urge you to get this book and share it with your children.  And remember, I will not let poetry just be in April.  I will not let poetry just be in April.  I will not let poetry just be in April.
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Sunday, April 13, 2014

"When I Was a Soldier"


            Some books I keep to myself.  Books like Just One Day and Code Name Verity, I will tell everyone I know to read, but then not really talk about it.  I love the book so much that I feel sharing it with someone will somehow take away the experience.  We all have our own thoughts and ideas about stories, and for some of these, I can’t bear the thought of having them changed for me somehow.  There are other books, though, that need to be read with somebody and then torn apart and dissected.  Books like The Book Thief, where no one person could possibly understand it all, have to be shared with someone.  With my latest book review, I really wish someone would read it.  I have so many thoughts that I want to share with people about the culture, and I want to know what they think back.  Maybe, someone who has read the book will see this and we can start a dialogue about my latest review.

           
Valerie Zenatti’s When I Was a Soldier (Published in French in 2002, first English translation in 2005) is a memoir about the author’s time in the Israeli army.  I will readily admit that this book is not what I was expecting.  Although it says in the summary that this book is about an Israeli girl, somehow in my mind I thought that this book was about a child soldier in Africa.  I only say this because I think it shows how unaware I am of this topic that despite what the summary says, my mind automatically went to something else.  Valerie Zenatti uses this memoir to tell us about her two years in the military.  In Israel, every citizen is conscripted into the military for two (for women) or three (for men) years to help protect the young country.   Although this story does not give us a date, the author biography in the back mentions that Valerie Zenatti was born in 1970.  That means that this story takes place from approximately 1988-1990.  This is important because it show that this story is not a story set far into the past.  This is a story about the experience that any youth may have in Israel today.

            Zenatti takes the reader through her initial anticipation before joining the army, through her beginning days of training, leave days, and finally her exit out of the army.  Zenatti’s case is especially interesting, because she was not born in Israel.  Born in France, when she was 13, she and her family moved to Israel.  In this text, her French heritage and accent are fascinating to others, and they are constantly asking her to “say something in French”(p.15).  Although this is a memoir about mandatory service in the military, Valerie Zenatti does not take too much of a political stance in the story.  Towards the end, she does take more of a revolutionary tone, saying to her friends, “’Well, we should stop dominating another people, we should withdraw from Judea, Samaria and Gaza.  Then we could really get down to tackling the problems in this country… Wasn’t this meant to be a socialist Jewish state?  Well, let it really be one!’”(p.190). Despite this very outspoken speech against what her government is doing, this is not indicative of the majority of her story.  Indeed, it seems to be the kind of grumbling that we hear against our own government from people all the time.  Throughout the memoir, there is not a revolutionary tone or any real bitterness towards the Israeli government.  Valerie Zenatti seems to have accepted her military service and completed it to the best of her ability.  This approach to the novel is important, because the story would have been very different if someone who was opposed to the government or military conscription had written the story.

            Translations are fascinating.  When I was an undergraduate student, I took two semesters of biblical Hebrew.  We discussed how no translation will have everything perfect, where every word and sentence will be able to convey meaning exactly the way the author intended.  With a text like the Old Testament, that can become a problem.  I remember being awed when I found out the way that some things were translated into English bore little resemblance to what they were in Hebrew.  So, reading this translated book made me automatically think of these issues.  This book was originally written in French, and I can’t help but wonder how good of a translation is it?  I know that it won a Batchelder Honor, an award given every year by the American Library Association for a translated children’s book.  My question, though, was whether or not the award was given based off of literary merit or translation quality.

            The American Library Association gives the Batchelder Award every year as “a citation awarded to an American publisher for a children's book considered to be the most outstanding of those books originally published in a foreign language in a foreign country, and subsequently translated into English and published in the United States.”  Based off of this requirement set by the American Library Association, the award is given off of literary merit, not the quality of the translation.  I am not saying that this is a poorly translated work—my lack of knowledge in French would prevent me from knowing for certain—but I do think that this is important to think about when reading translated works.  A work like When I Was a Soldier should be well translated to convey the author’s message of her life in Israel during her adolescence.  Other works, like religious works and political ones, need solid translations even more so than perhaps a memoir.  It is still important, however, to keep translation a consideration when reading a work that was originally written in a different language.  Different translators may disagree on different translations, and we have to trust that we are being given the correct message.  After searching the internet, I have seen nothing about the translation quality of When I Was a Soldier.  Hopefully, that means that no one has had any issues with the translation because it is a solid one.

            All of that being said, When I Was a Soldier is a fascinating read and I am certainly thankful that I read it.  The best thing about this story is its ability to open up the reader’s eyes to a culture that may be completely different from their own.  Many stories we read are written by Americans for Americans, or otherwise written by people like Shakespeare and Chaucer who have been dead for centuries.  This is a story that is set in modern times that is written by someone who does not seem to have any American connections and does not mention the United States really at all in the book.  Furthermore, the story was originally written in French, so it was not made for an American audience.  The lack of American awareness is great to read in a book.  I know how American works and how many Americans perceive the things that happen overseas.  What this book gives us is an insider’s look into life in Israel today, without any new implications or understandings for America.  Instead, the new understandings come as we take a journey with a girl that is just like young people in America today, witnessing as she goes from a young girl to a woman.  The new understandings are on a human level.

            This book is full of new understandings about Israeli culture.  This is the main reason why I want to talk with someone about it—there is just so much of the Israeli culture to discover in this book.  First, I had no idea that Israeli even had military conscription.  I can only imagine what life would be like in the United States if both men and women had to join the army at the age of 18.  Does Israeli have a high number of teenage pregnancies, like the United States?  What do young teenage mothers do when they have to go into the military?  Other cultural aspects, like how the country seems to close down on the Sabbath and how 18 year olds are able to go to bars, really helps the reader to get a feel for life for the average 18-year-old living in modern-day Israel.

 Another piece that interested me in this story was the mention of the Holocaust.  How does the nation deal with the Holocaust today?  We see glimpses of it, like when Zenatti runs across a Holocaust survivor on a bus, but there is only a few mentions of the Holocaust in the story.  One of them is when they take their “bac” exams, which seem to be somewhat of a finals test or an SAT.  For her history exam, Zenatti has two parts.  The first is history of the Holocaust, and the second is general history.  Zenatti says, “That’s how it is.  The Holocaust is separate.  It’s a history subject within and yet outside the history exam.  A compulsory section, almost a whole subject in itself.  It’s not a question which might just happen to show up…”(p.29).  It interested me to have Zenatti talk about the Holocaust like a student in the United States remembers September 11, 2001.  She wasn’t there, but she is aware of how devastating it was for her people, and her country has made the study of it mandatory.

Memory can be faulty, and I wish I could talk with someone about this story about that.  How much of what she has written actually happened?  Having just read several nonfiction books, where the authors has pages after pages of research and resources, I can’t help but wonder which parts were the author’s imagination. Of course, she couldn’t have remembered all of the conversations that were said, and that is not really a problem.  But were there other parts that she didn’t quite remember?  If this were a book that took a political stance, I think the amount of fabrication in it might be more important to know.  As it stands, I feel like this story is a good memoir about her own personal experiences during that time.  Different people remember things differently, and that is okay.

After reading Valerie Zanetti’s When I Was a Soldier, I feel like I have a much better picture of life in another part of the world.  So many books are solely centered on America and our own perceptions of things, that I sincerely appreciate the chance to read a book by someone who does not have that American perception in mind.  I urge other people to read it, and then find someone to talk to about it!
 
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