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Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

This February, I challenged myself to read all of the Coretta Scott King Author Award winners and honorees in the Joplin Public Library’s Children’s Department. I ended up reading two out of three, but they were both excellent.

If you are unfamiliar with this award, let me quickly explain: The Coretta Scott King Award is bestowed by the Ethnic and Multicultural Information Exchange Round Table of the American Library Association. Each year, the group awards and honors authors, illustrators and titles “for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African-American culture and universal human values.”

The first award-winning book I read last month was LESA CLINE-RANSOME’s slim but powerful novel, “FINDING LANGSTON.” This middle-grade novel follows a young black boy named Langston who is looking for fulfillment in Great Migration-era Chicago. After his mother, to whom he was very close, dies, Langston and his dad move from Alabama to Chicago in search of more opportunity. Langston is lonely; he’s never been especially close to his father, he misses his extended family, and his classmates bully him and call him “country boy.” But when he walks into the large, foreboding library in his neighborhood for the first time, he finds solace in the words of great black writers, including Langston Hughes.

Although he doesn’t know for certain, he has a hunch that he was named after the Black Renaissance poet. Meeting Hughes this way feels like kismet; not only do his words act as a balm during a challenging time for the young boy, but they allow him to learn more about the things his mother loved while she was still living.

It can be difficult to accurately convey the power of reading, but Cline-Ransome transmits this message exceptionally well. “Finding Langston” also emphasizes the transformative effects of media representation. Langston struggles with his self-worth when he moves north. His classmates think he’s uneducated, he doesn’t have any friends, Chicago feels like a foreign country, and he has a very tenuous relationship with his loving but distant father.

When he steps foot in his local library — something he couldn’t do in the Jim Crow South — he can’t believe that everything is free and that black people aren’t just allowed but honored there. Through books by authors such as Langston Hughes, a man whose journey north somewhat resembles young Langston’s own experience, Langston makes friends, begins building a relationship with his father and discovers his self-worth.

It can be difficult to imagine how magical it feels to see yourself in a book for the first time when you have never had to look far. As a white person, I can find someone who looks like me on virtually any shelf in any library. Through Langston’s compelling story and authentic voice, Cline-Ransome provides all readers with the opportunity to experience some of the magic Langston feels when he first walks into the big, fancy building on Wabash Street and sits down with a book of Hughes poems.

The other two author honorees, which were announced in January, included Varian Johnson’s “The Parker Inheritance” and “The Season of Styx Malone” by Kekla Magloon.

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Diverse Picture Books

I started this week’s review with another novel in mind, but a recent comment from a storytime attendee directed my attention elsewhere. On their way out the door, a small child stopped to look at a display book; as they did so, they told their caregiver, “Look, its me!” The child holding the book and the child on the front cover of the book both had brown skin and curly brown hair. This child saw themselves in this book; more importantly, this child saw themselves in a book in their library.

A good library has something for everyone, and I think the Joplin Public Library is no exception. We plan storytimes, as well as select, read, and display books, with all children in mind. Social media has made it especially easy to find books that reflect experiences different than my own.

When I request or select books to use in storytime, I often search the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #ownvoices hashtags on Twitter and Google to find titles I might not see in mainstream review sources (I should mention that these aforementioned mainstream sources are taking steps to become more representative and inclusive).

In defense of my belief that the library does a great job representing various viewpoints, I would like to share a few recent picture books that depict underrepresented voices and perspectives.

THE DAY YOU BEGIN by Jacqueline Woodson, ill. By Rafael Lopez

Jacqueline Woodson’s newest picture book begins with a comforting statement that becomes a refrain of sorts: “There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you.” This line is juxtaposed with Rafael Lopez’s soft illustration of a trepidatious young girl with caramel skin and curly black hair peering through what is presumed to be a classroom door.

Woodson’s tender, poetic voice lifts up the experiences of several children, including Rigoberto, a boy from Venezuela who speaks differently from his classmates; a presumably Korean girl whose kimchi garners strange glances from her friends; and a young white boy with a book in his hands who prefers reading over sports.

Woodson is an exceptional poet, and The Day You Begin is a testament to her skill. Woodson, who is currently the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, lives up to her title by representing the emotions of several underrepresented children, offering the reader a glimpse into both the joy and terror inherent in being different from your peers.

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BOWWOW POWWOW by Brenda Child, Ill. by Jonathan Thunder, trans. By Gordon Jourdain

Bowwow Powwow, which is written in both the Ojibwa language and English, follows a young Native girl named Windy Girl and her silly dog Itchy Boy as they learn about the history of their people and pow wow traditions. Jourdain’s translations embody the pre-pow wow excitement that permeates the grounds as Windy Girl watches the preparations unfold, and Thunder’s colorful digital illustrations add a playful element to the powwow grounds, regalia, and anthropomorphic animals that appear in the young girl’s dream sequence.

Native people have been notoriously misrepresented in children’s literature, so a book about a modern Ojibwe girl that is written and illustrated by Red Lake Ojibwe artists is noteworthy in itself. However, Bowwow Powwow is also noteworthy because it is an enjoyable and interesting read for both children and adults.

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HEY WALL: A STORY OF ART AND COMMUNITY by Susan Verde, ill. By John Parra

Hey Wall: A Story of Art and Community follows community members as they band together to turn an ugly old wall into a symbol of love, beauty, and unity. Children of various skin tones pass the wall on a regular basis, but it exists as nothing more than a sore thumb amidst the dancing, singing, and cooking that takes place around it. One day, Angel, a young boy with brown skin, takes the wall and his neighbors to task. Slowly, with the neighborhood’s help, the formerly ugly wall unfolds into a reflection of its community: creative, diverse, beautiful, and colorful. Parra’s colorful illustrations are evocative of chalk art or a mural, supporting the wall’s role as a literal reflection of the community.

In the endnotes, Parra, who is Latino, discusses the influence of muralists like Diego Rivera on his work. Hey, Wall: A Story of Art and Community turns the politicized idea of the wall on its head, championing it as a pillar of diversity and a testament to the beauty that exists when people of different backgrounds, circumstances, and races work together rather than against one another. Although the text is essential to the story, it is Parra’s illustrations that turn this book into a work of art.

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Of course, these titles are not only helpful to children who yearn to see themselves in books on the shelf; on the contrary, we could all benefit tremendously from a peek into a slice of someone else’s life.

There, There by Tommy Orange

In “THERE, THERE,” by TOMMY ORANGE, 12 strangers make plans to attend the Big Oakland Powwow in Oakland, California.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, who has raised her sister’s three grandchildren, hopes to catch a glimpse of her oldest nephew in full regalia dancing for the first time. Her sister, Jacquie Red Feather, is newly sober and driving from New Mexico with the man who first got her pregnant as a teenager on Alcatraz Island. Tony, a young man with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which he calls “the Drome,” gets mixed in with Calvin, Charles, Carlos and Octavio, a group of men planning to rob the powwow to make up a drug deal debt. One character, Dene Oxendene, plans to attend the powwow as a voyeur, hoping to document people’s stories and how their stories fit into the story of the urban Native American. These are just a small handful of the characters in Orange’s debut novel.

The degrees of separation could be difficult to follow if crafted by a less-skilled writer, but Orange deftly threads the stories together with the skill of a spider weaving a web. The reader may find him or herself flipping back and forth among stories and marveling at the seemingly inconsequential role one person plays in several other stories before making an appearance in their own, often heartbreaking, accounts.

What does it mean to be an urban Native American? What does it mean to be half-Native but raised by your white mom? This fleeting identity is at the center of Orange’s novel; it begins with a searing look at the United States’ treatment of Native Americans that serves as an entry point to these answers, as told through each character’s story.

In the prologue, Orange writes, “We (Urban Indians) know the sound of the freeway better than we do the rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls” and that “being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.” Few of the characters know who they are as individuals, much less who they are in the context of the history of their culture. But maybe that is what Orange is positing with “There There;” there is not one way to be a good or authentic Native American. Maybe Native heritage is more dependent on this country’s treatment of Native tribes and nations, and the bearing of centuries of abuse and torture on the psyche. Orange’s use of epigraphs is extraordinary, but the following by James Baldwin feels especially representative of the entire novel: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

Overall, “There There” is an exceptional and well-developed novel. My chief complaint is that I wanted more of each character. The conclusion, however is spectacular. To avoid spoilers, I will only note that the conclusion is electrifying, spectacular and worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.

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Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

Writing about social justice issues can be difficult when the audience is composed of middle school students because of the complexity inherent in such discussions. RENEE WATSON’s “PIECING ME TOGETHER” addresses issues of race and social justice deftly and accurately while maintaining authenticity of character.

The main character, Jade, is a poor, black teenager who attends a predominately white private school. She is smart and driven, so she is given many opportunities. But she begins to realize that most of these opportunities are given out of pity rather than as rewards for her real scholastic successes. She knows she is supposed to feel grateful, and she does. However, she also feels frustrated that her teachers and mentors view her neighborhood, family, friends and status as hurdles to overcome rather than as integral to her being.

Jade initially transferred to the school because she was excited by the possibility of visiting a Spanish-speaking country on the study abroad trip her school sponsors every year. She’s certain she will be chosen to go; she is a star Spanish student who assists classmates with their assignments, and she has a nearly perfect GPA.

Instead, her counselors select her for Woman to Woman, a mentor program that pairs underprivileged students with successful women of color to attend culturally enriching workshops and events. The program sounds great, and it culminates in a college scholarship, but Jade wants to be chosen for programs because of who she is and not in spite of it. At the same time, she must navigate new and old friendships and family relationships as well as her passions. In addition to being an excellent student, Jade is a talented and passionate collage artist who is inspired by the recent officer-involved shooting of a black teenager in neighboring Vancouver, as well as by York, the slave who traveled with Lewis and Clark.

“Piecing Me Together” offers a nuanced discussion of the way black kids can be treated, both in school and society, even when intentions are good. Jade’s relationships with her friends, her family and her mentor provide excellent opportunities for discussions of race and social justice issues. For example, when Jade confronts her Spanish teacher regarding his decision not to select her for the study abroad program and he explains that it is because she is already given so many opportunities, readers can better appreciate what true support of underprivileged and minority youth can look like. When Jade’s new friend Sam argues that her experience with a racist store clerk was not, in fact, racist, readers learn what being an ally should look like. When Jade comes to Maxine with her concerns about the mentor program, readers can better appreciate the importance and value of speaking up. The novel, while targeted toward middle school readers, is an excellent choice for any reader interested in realistic fiction and/or social justice fiction.

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Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson

Before Betty Shabazz became an activist, educator, mother and wife to Malcolm X, she was Betty Dean, a young and ambitious girl growing up in Detroit.

For the first seven years of her life, Betty lived in Georgia, where she was raised by her aunt, Fannie Mae. “BETTY BEFORE X” follows a young Betty as she moves to Detroit to live with her mom and her mom’s new family. Although the novel is a fictionalized account of her childhood, LLYASAH SHABAZZ, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, and award-winning author RENEE WATSON based the story on real people, events and facts.

Betty loves her family and is an attentive older sister to her three half-sisters, but she struggles with feeling like an outsider in her own home. While her sisters play, her mother often expects her to clean and keep house.

Her activism begins because of her associations with certain friends and neighbors, particularly Helen Malloy, who steps in as a mother figure when Betty’s actual mother fully rejects her. However, events such as the lynching of a black couple in the South, the shooting of a black teen in Detroit and discriminatory hiring practices in her community fuel her work as a young activist.

Betty Before X highlights the different forms activism can take, as well as the polarizing effects it can have within an oppressed community. While the Housewives’ League encourages its members to only shop at stores that employ black workers, characters such as the mother of Betty’s friend Phyllis are angry about boycotts that exclude low-income families not able to shop at more expensive stores.

Like the story itself, Betty’s character is nuanced and realistic; she experiences anger, acceptance and happiness in equal measure when faced with friendship troubles, family problems or racism. Betty joins the Housewives’ League as a volunteer, handing out flyers and welcoming guests at luncheons; as she becomes more knowledgeable in the work, she takes on more responsibility, though she remains nervous when approaching strangers, particularly adult ones who view Betty and her organization as troublemakers.

She is also a pre-teen girl, with all of the joys and sorrows that come with that stage in life. She loves listening to records by popular acts such as Sarah Vaughn and Billy Eckstine, spending her allowance at the candy counter and talking about beauty products and boys with her best friends.

Overall, Shabazz and Watson’s story is both authentic and inspirational, and the story is compelling enough to classify as a page-turner. Don’t pass on the end papers. The author’s note, timeline and afterword provide important and interesting information that links the young Betty in the story with the important woman she became.

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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Aza Holmes is a little bit insufferable, but don’t we all have quirks that are frustrating to the people we love most?

JOHN GREEN’S newest protagonist, a 17-year-old self-proclaimed obsessive depressive, is just as complex as you or I. In his latest best-selling young adult novel, “TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN,” Green introduces the reader to Aza as she embarks upon her senior year.

She and her best friend, Daisy, discover a missing person ad for her childhood friend’s very wealthy father. In an attempt to raise funds for college and financial stability thanks to a $100,000 reward, Daisy — with the help of a reluctant Aza — launches a search.

As part of their search efforts, Aza stumbles into a new but familiar friendship with her childhood friend and missing father’s son, Davis. After years of suffering with spiraling and debilitating thoughts related to her OCD, depression and anxiety, Aza finally finds some comfort in the equally intrusive and depressive Davis. But will their relationship be loud enough to quiet the obsessive thoughts roaring in her brain?

Aza’s story is multilayered, and the novel cannot be written off as either a teenage romance novel or an unrealistic detective novel in the vein of “Paper Towns,” another John Green best-seller. The missing persons case threads the various pieces of the novel together, but this is a character-driven novel through and through.

Additionally, Green has been wrongly criticized as a creator of the manic-pixie-dream girl trope, but Aza is not that at all. Green’s story is one of a young woman learning to navigate relationships (both romantic and platonic), expectations and reality with a deafening mental illness roaring between her ears. Like any human being, particularly a malleable teenager, Aza often fails spectacularly. She pushes away people she loves and misses important pieces of other people’s stories.

Green excels in his craft here. The compelling and page-turning novel is based on Green’s own experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is likely why Aza feels so authentic. However, not everyone suffering from a mental illness is skilled enough to describe their thoughts and feelings with such precision and originality. When Aza falls into a self-described “thought spiral,” it feels as emotionally intense as the real thing.

Rest assured, this novel is not all doom and gloom; rather, Green’s latest might be described as realistically hopeful. Overall, I contend that “Turtles All the Way Down” is Green’s most perfect novel yet.

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