Saturday, September 26, 2015

Back at it! Letters to My Mother by Teresa Cardenas

It was not my intention to be on "vacation" for so long, but August and the beginning of the school year seemed to run altogether. We're back now with a quick, but captivating Responsive Read.

Genre: Epistolary Novel
Grade Level: 6 - 12
Interest Level: 6-12
Themes: family, loss, forgiveness, love, prejudice coming of age, Cuban culture, standards of beauty.
Sensitivity Issues - subtle sexual references, references to menstruation, and references to physical/sexual abuse.

Goodreads Summary - 
The narrator of Letters to My Mother is a young Afro-Cuban girl who, when her mother dies, must live with her aunt and cousins. Dependent on them and their goodwill, she’s deeply wounded by their taunts about how dark her skin is and their attacks on her behavior in general, including her choice not to straighten her hair. When not at home, she must endure constant, casual racial prejudice. To keep the memory of her mother alive, and to remind herself that she was once unconditionally loved, she writes letters telling “Mami” what she is suffering and feeling. Composed wholly of these letters, this powerful, moving novel tells how the heroine comes of age. Is her inner strength sufficient to overcome her pain and the bigotry of the people in her life?When it was originally published, Letters to My Mother was attacked for exposing the problem of racism in contemporary Cuban society. Nevertheless, this illuminating, thoughtful work went on to win major awards.

What I Thought - 
Cardenas captures the sorrow, confusion and loneliness of a 10 year old girl that has lost her mother. I love that the text is simple, yet full of imagery and emotion, making it both accessible and interesting  for many reading levels and ages. I love  the rich cultural references that are sometimes subtle and sometimes  explicit. The novel deliberately explores the issues of  colorism, in Cuba, as the unnamed protagonist, who is Afro-Cuban, tries not only to manage the grief of losing her mother, but also the mistreatment of the relatives she has been sent to stay with.  She struggles with her grandmothers ideas about race, "Grandma says it's good to improve our race and the way to do that is to marry a white person." She also must endure prejudice against her dark skin and African features, but she is self aware enough to appreciate who she is. "I don't like it when people say that blacks are bembones, thick lipped...What do you think I'd look like with blue eyes, a bony nose and a thin mouth? Ugly as can be-- don't you agree?... That's why I won't let anyone run a hot comb through my hair. I don't want to look like Sara. I would even prefer to have cornrows, like African women."  Cardenas has created an opportunity to discuss and explore the damaging effects of a European standard of beauty that excludes most people, in particular blacks. Also, I like that the protagonist is reflective, loving and able to see past others faults in order to  find their humanity.

Instructional Possibilities -
It is full of material for research and collaborative discussion, on such topics as colorism, sexism, family responsibility, overcoming grief and Afro-Cuban culture/history to name a few. It could be used as a  model text, as a whole or in parts for narrative writing, with particular emphasis  on details, and point of view. It is wonderful for read alouds, and would be great to use for Reader's Theater, or just getting different students to read aloud with their own flavor/interpretations. This would be especially effective combined with a character study, since the protagonist  evolves from the frightened and grief stricken 10 year old she is at the beginning of the novel to the more mature, forgiving young woman she is at the end of the novel.  For reading standards it is effective for  analysis of text structures, characterization, point of view, and word choice. So many possibilities!

It's a lovely book. Go get it. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

What Can You Do with a Paleta/Que Puedas con una Paleta? by Carmen Tafolla

Genre: Picture Book/Fiction
Grade Level: PreK - 2
Interest Level: 3-8
Themes: summertime fun, summer days in the barrio, neighborhood traditions, eating delicious paletas(ice cream/fruit bars), Mexican/Mexican American culture

What I Thought
Summertime is ice cream time and Carmen Tafolla's book takes me right back to summer days, outdoors with friends, and squeals of delight at the sound of the approaching ice cream truck.  The sounds and smells of summer in a Mexican/Mexican American barrio (neighborhood) bound off of the page with Tafollas descriptive text dotted with Spanish words and cultural images. The images come to life with vibrant illustrations by Magaly Morales (who happens to be Yuyi Morales' sister). There are beautiful brown people, working, playing, walking the streets,  brightly colored sarapes, and a wagon full of paletas that looks like a new box of crayons. The narrator begins to share things that can be done in her barrio, but once the "tinkly bell" of the paleta  wagon is heard, her imagination and narration begin to list the wonderful things that can be done "with a paleta". The book comes in an English/Spanish version and an English version, with the Spanish words italicized in the text.

Instructional Possibilities
This text provides instructional opportunities to meet many Common Core standards for reading literature, including (but not limited to) asking/answering questions about the text, retelling, describing setting and characters using key details, and identifying words that appeal to the senses. In addition, using the information from the illustrations to help demonstrate understanding of  the story works well with the vivid pictures, in particular in discussions where you might be identifying cultural elements in the story and/or doing a picture walk through the book.  There is opportunity for responsive vocabulary instruction using the Personal Thesaurus for synonym development. This strategy would work well for many grade levels, with a supply of tier 1, 2 words, and even a tier 3 word or two in the text. The story is also a great model text if you are working on student narratives or writing detailed descriptions. Think of ways to incorporate  several CLR strategies for movement, effective literacy strategies, and protocols for discussion/participation in order to effectively engage students in the text and meeting of the standards.

Cultural Authenticity
The thing that is great about this text is that you can trust that Tafolla is giving us a beautiful, clear snapshot of authentic Mexican American life. She is a Mexican American author and she is writing about what she knows, understands and who she is. Likewise for the illustrations that Magaly Morales presents us with. We don't have to question the intention or if there are stereotypes present. We can simply read, validate and affirm those students we have of Latino heritage and build and bridge towards an understanding of the cultural elements present in the text. The illustrations, word choice and of course that the book is about the icy, traditional Latino treat, paletas all work together to create this culturally authentic text.  The last page of the book is a page "About Paletas" that explains what a paleta is and lists the delicious flavor choices in English and Spanish. 

Skip, run, enjoy and icy summertime treat....and go get this book!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Genre: Memoir in Verse
Grade Level: 7-12
Interest Level: 8-12
Themes: identity, coming of age, family, love, friendship, 
Awards: Coretta Scott King Award, John Newbery Medal, National Book Award for Young People's Literature, NAACP Award for Outstanding Literary Work - Youth/Teens

What I Thought
Just the title made me want to read Jacqueline Woodson's latest work(and because I love everything Jacqueline Woodson). I, like Crystal Paul, of Bustle, learned many things growing up as a black girl reading books about white people. Mostly I learned that black girls, brown girls, black/brown people didn't belong in books.  Although I never consciously questioned this reality, subconsciously, I knew like many marginalized groups of people, it was because my life, my stories, were not important, they didn't matter. I too drew pictures of little blond haired, blue -eyed girls in my stories for school and dreamed of the day that I would grow up to be a princess like the ones in my books. I was a brown girl dreaming, unfortunately, the princess in my dreams didn't match the princess in my mirror.

Thank the book gods that Jacqueline Woodson's childhood in verse is filled with the kind of eloquent stories, images and word pictures that validate blackness, and little brown girls dreaming of stories where they belong. It is an accessible, eloquent glimpse into the reality of a little girl learning to grow and find her place in the world.

Instructional Possibilities
Woodson's works are wonderful for responsive instruction and this book is no different. Structured in five parts there are multiple ELA lessons on structure, theme, characterization, conflict, imagery, word choice and of course endless poetry lessons. Because it is in five parts  each section could be read independently. The poems can be read independently as well,  or grouped thematically without reading the entire book. It is  full of lessons for social studies,  on civil rights, protest, the northern migration of blacks, religious studies as Woodson was raised Jehovah's Witness, and comparing/contrasting life in the south vs. life in the north. The text can also be compared/contrasted with other texts, both fiction and non-fiction from various time periods historical and contemporary, as a way to explore themes, ideas and social realities. 

Cultural Authenticity
There are many wonderful opportunities for authentic discussion of culture in this text.  In how to listen #2, one of several haikus in the book, Woodson recalls "in the stores downtown, we're always followed around, just because we're brown"  This poem is simple enough to use with primary grades, and/or can be used along with other poems in the book, not only to discuss  prejudice and discrimination, in the 60's/70's, but to compare to current  events. In hair night, Woodson takes us to a familiar scene in many a  black kitchen on a Saturday night, and the smells of biscuits, burning hair and Dixie Peach hair grease seem to float up from the page. Though this remembrance will ring true for many little brown girls, it is a wonderful opportunity to discuss/compare/contrast, the significance of hair in various cultural groups. Hair is deeply rooted to identity in many cultures and should not be viewed as a superficial trait. Woodson even provides an opportunity to juxtapose the significance of hair within the black community. In the  selection afros, when her uncle comes over with his hair "blown out into an afro" a young Woodson begs her mother for the same hairstyle.  Even today the "state" of black hair is controversial in the black community. Straightened, natural, cornrows, locs, long or short, the ways in which blacks choose to represent their identity through their hair continues to cause discussion/controversy. This selection moves to further  paint a picture of the larger social context of the time, when black was becoming beautiful and black families all over the country were validated and affirmed by the black people and music of Soul Train on Saturdays. 

In miss bell and the marchers, Woodson opens the door to Miss Bell's house where civil rights marchers are having a meeting.  Woodson thinks maybe the people bringing foil covered dishes as they arrive, are gathering for a prayer meeting, until she sees them close the blinds. The turmoil of the south and the civil rights movement weaves its way through the book with the grace of Miss Bell, "And even though Miss Bell works for a white lady who said 'I will fire you in a minute if I ever see you on that line!' Miss Bell knows that marching isn't the only thing she can do, knows that people fighting need full bellies to think and safe places to gather." Not only is Woodson witness to the grace of Miss Bell but the power of Angela Davis, and in power to the people, young Jacqueline and her best friend Maria walk through the streets of Brooklyn with their fists raised in the air Angela Davis style.
Woodson's remembrances are many more than hair and protests. We walk with her along the streets of Brooklyn and sit on the front porch in South Carolina with her grandparents. We are with her at the Kingdom Hall meetings, and at her best friend Marias house eating arroz con habichuelas and tostones. We get to see, hear and touch the entirety of Woodson's world with delight, curiosity, sadness, joy and remembering.

Take a walk. Take a ride. Go get this book.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Genre: Realistic Fiction
Grade Level: 9-12
Interest Level: 8-12
Themes: identity, coming of age, family, love, friendship, loyalty, trust, persevering, LGBTQ, Latino identity
Awards: Lambda Literary Award, Stonewall Book Award, Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award , Pura Belpre Award, Michael L. Printz
Sensitivity Issues : Homosexuality

What I Thought
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of theUniverse is another favorite and responsive summer read.  It is lyrical, passionate and  quietly draws you into the memorable and emotional story of Aristotle(Ari) Mendoza and Dante Quintana, two Mexican American 15 year olds, who spend a year growing and learning about friendship, family, love and manhood.

Although I immediately loved Saenz’s spare, honest sentences, I had to consider how engaging a story it would be for some underserved and/or reluctant readers.  Admittedly, the pace is langorous, and struggling readers might  have trouble getting into it. While not exactly “action” packed, it is clear, vivid and compelling in it’s depictions of the two young men, struggling to grow into their identities and sexuality.  With teacher passion, front loading, engaging literacy activities and discussion it can work fine.

Instructional Possibilities
There are many instructional possibilities with this story. The novel is wonderful for studies of setting, and characterization. Dante and Ari present many possibilities for comparison and contrast both subtle and obvious. The minor characters  are also interesting, layered and add to the complexities of the story and it’s themes, including Ari’s parents  who each have had their challenges with types of mental illness.  For Ari’s dad, the trauma of  the Vietnam war haunt him years after he has returned home. For his mother, a nervous breakdown in her past remains a quiet tension in the home. In addition, studies of the Vietnam War, the Italian poet Dante and Greek philosopher Aristotle would be appropriate.

Cultural Authenticity

The novel dips  below the surface on the Iceberg of Culture on several issues.  In dealing with the homosexuality of both Dante and Ari, Saenz does so while simultaneously dealing with  the nature of friendships, adolescence and manhood. Saenz deals with subject of homosexuality subtly, which works in this novel. It flows into the story as one part of the multi layered coming of age that these young men are grappling with. As a heterosexual, I can’t speak to the authenticity of this representation, but as a black woman, I can speak to the reality that daily living within marginalized culture  is not singularly focused on one aspect of identity. The story of Ari and Dante’s emergent love for one another seems to unfold honestly.  Their coming of age is seen through multiple rings of culture, age, gender, socio-economic, ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation. It seems that even before grappling with their homosexuality, both young men are working through their understanding of what it means to Mexican/Mexican American. Saenz presents us with snapshots of diversity within ethnicity, that of course is also reality.  He does this honestly and it reminds us that left to the devices of the media, and/or our biases, ethnicity can  become monolithic and stereotyped.

We really try not to do  “Heritage Months”  at Responsive Reads, because the GOAL is  to be “responsive”, EVERYDAY, buuutttt…June is LGBTQ month and this is a GREAT Responsive Read, so GO GET IT!! Go get it right now!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Genre: Historical Fiction
Grade Level: 6-9
Interest Level: 6-10
Themes: family, estranged parents, new places, Black Panthers, coming of age, new perspectives
Awards: Newberry Honor Winner, National Book Award Finalist, Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Coretta Scott King Award Finalist

Summer is coming and this is one of my favorite summer reads! Delphine, and her sisters Vonetta and Fern, board a plane from New York to Oakland to spend the summer with their estranged mother, Cecile and it makes for an entertaining trip.

Delphine and her sisters Vonetta and Fern are funny, vulnerable and authentic, as young black girls reaching towards adolescence. I can see the exasperation, rolling eyes, hands on hips and sucking of  teeth in this poignant, historical fiction novel,  as sister’s work at “being sisters” and daughters and adolescents.  Please don’t see this as a stereotype, even though you easily could. It is not that. It is one snapshot of an urban, black girls rite of passage. It is not wrong, or “ratchet”, too grown, or flip. It is young, black girls finding their way, making sense of their circumstance, history and how they are perceived and treated in the world as well as, how they will make peace, and a difference in the world. 

Rita Williams-Garcia’s Newberry honor winner is culturally authentic and engaging! It  is the first book in a series that follows the lives and growing up of the adolescent Delphine and her younger sisters Vonetta and Fern.

In One Crazy Summer we meet Delphine, as she and her sisters are shuffled onto a plane from New York to Oakland to spend time with their absent, and estranged mother Cecile. Very rarely do we have an “absent mother” situation, so this novel presents an interesting twist in the black family dynamic. We are usually faced with an  absent father in the black community. That we get to question and reflect on “roles’ of motherhood and womanhood in the process is a bonus.

What awaits them in Oakland is a different way of life, new people, new experiences and a whole lot of growing up. This book dives below the surface of the Iceberg of Culture. In this story we see the subtle layers underneath the surface of the Iceberg concerning rules of conduct, concepts of food, notions of child rearing, concept of "self" , tone of voice, attitudes towards dependence, attitudes towards elders, problem solving in relation to age and more.   

Delphine, and her sisters,  however, keep it “100”(real, true to self), which means keeping it honest, sassy, curious and fun-loving.  Check your bias here folks, because these smart and vivacious little girls( and their momma) might have you going to your “first thought”, but do them the favor of letting it move to your “responsive” thought.

Instructional Possibilities are many.  An in depth study of the Black Panthers in their vision, work, and the  controversy surrounding them are obvious choices as well as , the relationship between the police and the black community. Less obvious instructional possibilities are the  study of the roles of women, the importance of extended family, the statistics/roles of single fathers, the below the surface cultural realities,  and of course, the historical study of race, class, &  gender during a tumultuous time in our country’s history.

Delphine, Vonetta and Fern are waiting. Don't leave them hanging!

See also:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

April is National Poetry Month - Hip Hop Speaks to Children edited by Nikki Giovanni

Genre – Poetry
Grade Level:  K – 8
Interest Level: K-10

Themes – 

This book has GOT to be in your collection. It is a must have for the poetry, history and the artwork. Published in 2008, it is already timeless.

Nikki Giovanni edited this collection of poems, lyrics, raps that range in topic from everyday activities like walking to the store to get candy, or getting sent to the principals office to more ideological topics of  love, equality and having a dream.

Just as diverse, are the author’s Giovanni has included.  In this collection you will find classic poetry titans like Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Pedro Pietri;urban legends Gil Scott Heron and Tupac; cultural icons like Maya Angelou, and Queen Latifah; and contemporary wordsmiths, Common,  Kanye West and Jacqueline Woodson.  This collection represents generations of African American and urban stories and experiences.

Nikki Giovanni’s scholarship, and creative genius, along with her knowledge, appreciation and understanding of  hip hop culture, make her the perfect conduit for this celebration of stories, rhythm, language and hip hop.  Her goal is not only to celebrate hip hop, but to evidence the essential elements of hip hop  throughout history.

In addition to the delight of simply reading and/or listening to the selections in the book(a cd is included), there are many instructional possibilities. These begin with Giovanni’s introduction which takes the reader on a historical journey of language and rhythm. She discusses oral tradition, music, vernacular,  and other forms of expression, laid against a timeline of African American History. The introduction is worthy of  a lesson(s)  that would be relevant in history, ELA and possibly music. It provides an opportunity for meeting common core requirements as an informational text. In addition, at the end of the book, there is biographical information about the editor/advisors, illustrators and all contributors. This could lend itself to more in depth biographical studies of the many diverse authors and illustrators represented in the collection.

The illustrations, with credit to several wonderful illustrators are beautiful and  worthy of picture walks, critical viewing and discussion on their own. The 51 poems provide many choices for lessons in ELA, music, social studies, as core or supplemental material.

This collection not only provides an excellent responsive, instructional opportunity to provide  your students, but also for the educator who needs to increase his/her cultural knowledge of hip hop culture, youth culture, urban culture and African American culture. Move to the beat of cultural responsiveness, in Hip Hop Speak to Children.

Don't walk, get yo' groove and go get this book!