Jun 28, 2010

African American Literature

Bibliography:
Pinkney, Andrea Davis. 2002. Ella Fitzgerald: the Tale of a Vocal Virtuoso. Hyperion Books. ISBN 0786805684

Summary:
A larger than life picture book biography of the late, great Ella Fitzgerald.

Critical Analysis:
Scat Cat Monroe (a cartoon cat in a suit!)narrates the life and times of Ella Fitzgerald with a little help of 4 songs. Told in “tracks”, this biography tells how Ella went from “Hoffin’ in Harlem” to “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” Ella had no intention of becoming a singer until she performed at the Apollo Theatre in 1934. She was supposed to dance, but her “feet failed her”. Ella sang instead, and that was the beginning of her legendary music career. We travel with Scat Cat Monroe and Ella as she performs around the country and earns her “The Queen of Scat” nickname.

Andrea Davis Pinkney tells Ella’s story in a rhythmical tone and with heavy musical lingo. Songs are listened “cut to cut” and Ella “milked the back beat”. These musical references go well with a book about a legendary singer. Using Scat Cat Monroe as a narrator was a seamless way to incorporate these musical elements, and also gave license to the nonsensical improvisation that is at the root of scat. Music and dance were two major culture markers. Ella performed on street corners in Harlem and when she made it big, she gave bebop a try. The book explains that some people had never heard a black singer perform at a club - “Ella’s popularity showed them that a true star has no color, it just shines.”

While I appreciate the attempt made by Brian Pinkney, the scratch technique illustrations distracted me. The neon swirls mixed with the black canvas were too harsh. These drawings heightened the fantasy aspects, which I also found too over the top. The high fantasy elements (Ella flying on a trumpet and wings on Chick Webb) did not make sense to me. In addition, all of the characters look remarkably similar. Ella’s backup singers look like they could be her sisters, and the members of the band all appear to be the same person, but holding different instruments. Characters, side or main, do not show a variety of skin tone or other personal features. A Note from the Author gives insight to additional biographical information on Ella Fitzgerald, but a more detailed timeline would have been welcome. While the picture book is intended for children, the language and rhythm of this book will be challenging for a young reader. It would be better as a read along where an adult could explain the “grits and gravy” relationship between Ella and Chick. Recommended for ages 10+.

Awards:
NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2003
ALA Notable Children's Book, 2003

Reviews:
“Bright colors, jazzy words, and energetic artwork bring the music of scat and Fitzgerald to life. A page of biographical information is included. This beautifully rendered tribute to the "Vocal Virtuosa" will be a welcome addition in all libraries.” School Library Journal

“Brian Pinkney turns out some of his best work yet. Rendered in a pleasingly high-contrast palette of pastels, the scratchboard illustrations are invested with magical realism, complete with dancers flying off the pages and topsy-turvy musicians. A "skippity-hop-doo-dee-bop" picture book.” Publisher’s Weekly

“A great story to share with young people about the joy of music and reaching for one’s dreams….” Children’s Book Watch


Connections:
Pinkney, Andrea Davis. 2006. Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra. Hyperion Books. ISBN 978-0786814206

Raschka, Christopher. 1997. Charlie Parker Played Be Bop. Scholastic. ISBN 978-0531070956
Myers, Walter Dean. 2008. Jazz. Holiday House. ISBN 9780823421732




Bibliography:
Johnson, Angela. 2010. Sweet, Hereafter. Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. ISBN 978-0689873850

Summary:
High school student Shoogy Maple moves out of her home and into the home of Curtis, a soldier who just returned from Iraq. Shoogy and Curtis live a quiet, simple life in the woods. After reading a letter from the Army Reserve, Shoogy knows Curtis has a tough decision to make that will affect everyone.

Critical Analysis:
Shoogy Maple lives in a cabin in the woods with no TV, no radio, and no computer. It is a quiet life that she has chosen after leaving her family home at 17. Shoogy and Curtis settle in to a routine of school, work and hushed meals. Life is going at a slow and steady pace until Shoogy reads a letter, addressed to Curtis from the Army Reserve. Shoogy learns Curtis has been ordered to return to active duty. Shoogy begins to understand why Curtis has been suffering from nightmares, yelling out in the middle of the night, and waking up drenched with sweat. Curtis must make a decision to return to war or possibly go to jail. Whatever his decision, Shoogy’s life will change forever.

Coretta Scott King Award winner Angela Johnson gives us the final installment of the Heaven trilogy. Told from Shoogy’s point of view (a supporting character we met in Heaven and The First Part Last), Sweet, Hereafter is a novel as quiet as the characters. There is sparse dialogue and there are no in-depth self reflections. Shoogy is a young African American female whose mother characterized her as “free” and “restless”. Shoogy moves out of her home at a young age, but we do not quite know what finally led her to leave, and we do not quite know why she turned to Curtis. We are only told, “I left home on a sunny day.” Curtis was a former neighbor, and the two had a few brief encounters in the last year or so. This adds to his mysterious quality. The reader is given no information of his background, military or family life, and we are left to assume he is an uncomplicated man haunted by war. When Shoogy mistakenly reads the Army Reserve letter intended for Curtis, they never discuss his choices. The reader is never positive whether Curtis knows that Shoogy read the letter. Although his decision is heartbreaking, it was really hard to connect with Curtis because the reader had no chance to get to know him.

This book is quite different from the others in the trilogy. Heaven and The First Last Part had a defining plotline of family. Young Heaven (Heaven) discovers her parents are not who she thought they were, and Bobby (First Last Part) is a single, teenage dad fumbling his way through fatherhood. Sweet, Hereafter is more subtle and nothing is told outright. Sure Shoogy chooses her family when she turns to Curtis, but we do not know why. Did she get kicked out? Did she leave in the middle of the night? There are no details and the story is very ambiguous. Sweet, Hereafter is more poetic and figurative than the companion novels. For instance, Shoogy refers to Alice and after a few minutes, you realize she is speaking of her truck, and not a person.

Even though the main character is African American, in my opinion, there are only subtle references to African American culture. We are told that Shoogy had a "curly ‘fro", but if the author did not come right out and say it, we might never guess that Shoogy is an African American girl. The cover art is the only evidence. Her boyfriend Curtis is only described as having “the darkest eyes”. In addition, there is no talk of religion, spirituality, celebrations, traditions or any other aspects that could be cultural markers. The language can be that of any teenager living in America today. Lingo used was something that any young person would say, and it wasn't on the heavy side. Sweet, Hereafter is a novel that blends in perfectly with other young adult fiction. Recommend for ages 13+.

Awards:
None - new publication

Reviews:
“Shoogy’s reluctance to spell everything out, though, feels deeply true to her character, and Johnson’s stripped-down, poetic prose is filled with shattering emotional truths about war’s incalculable devastation, love’s mysteries, and the bewildering, necessary search for happiness.” Booklist

“Johnson, award winning author of three Coretta Scott King Awards, as well as a Printz Award and a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, again uses spare, gorgeous, realistically raw language to bring to life a complex teen of great depth and heart.” VOYA

“Whether in a scene at a high-school career fair with military recruiters or in the conversations between Sweet and teens readers met in the book's award-winning companions, Heaven (1998) and The First Part Last (2003), the characters and circumstances are never anything less than rich and real.” Kirkus Reviews

Connections:
Johnson, Angela. 2003. The First Part Last. Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. ISBN 0689849230

Johnson, Angela. 2000. Heaven. Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. ISBN 0689822901




Bibliography:
Shange, Ntozake. 1997. Whitewash. Walker & Company. ISBN 9780802784902

Summary:
An African-American girl, Helene-Angel, and her brother Mauricio are victims of a racial hate crime on their way home from school.

Critical Analysis:
Helen-Angel’s day started like any other day. She missed a math question in school and was reprimanded by her teacher in front of the class. Not until after school does her day go from bad to worse. Helen-Angel and her older brother Mauricio are walking home when a neighborhood gang of Caucasian boys, The Hawks, jump them. The thugs spray paint Helen-Angel’s face white as they shout, “[this is] how to be white, American!” Helen-Angel does not immediately realize or understand what has happened to her. After looking over her brothers bloody and bruised face, she realizes that there is white paint dripping from her face and ears. Mauricio scoops her off and they race home to their grandmother, where Helen-Angel hides in her room for a week. When she finally comes out of her room, she is met with a surprise. All of her classmates are waiting for her and ready to stand by her side.

Whitewash is not a watered down book about prejudice, and Ntozake does not shy away from the violence in this picture book. Helen-Angle and her brother Mauricio are faced with any nightmare any adult would find horrifying. The Hawks, an all white neighborhood game of boys, are hateful, hurtful, and racially motivated. This picture book will have lasting effects. Personally, I am sickened to think that this story is based on similar events from 1992 where a young African-American girl had her face painted white in the Bronx. The book is adapted by an award winning video from illustrator by Michael Sporn. For the picture book version, he paints very animated and cartoonish figures of all different shapes, sizes and shades. Helen-Angel, Mauricio, and their grandmother are all different shades of black. Also, Helen-Angel’s classmates represent several ethnicities. These details coincide with the setting of the book. The reader is led to believe that the story takes place in New York. A school building set in the middle of a busy industrial neighborhood, apartment buildings with walk ups are all evidence.

Many may feel the story needed to have consequences for the young men who victimized young Helen-Angel and Mauricio. However, no such event takes place. Helen-Angel returns to school with her friends that missed her and vow to stick together. Although this book has a somewhat happy ending, it may be too violent for early readers. Despite a few issues (Helen-Angel is in preschool, but working on multiplication problems), Whitewash can be a valuable tool for older children discussing prejudice, hate crimes, and other cruel moments in life. Recommended for ages 8+

Awards:
None

Reviews:
“The book's a shocker, and it means to be.” Kirkus Reviews

“The full-length award-winning video is probably the better medium for this story, but the book will be available to a wider audience.” School Library Journal

Connections:
Coleman, Evelyn. 1996. White Socks Only. Albert Whitman & Company. ISBN 978-0807589564

Sporn, Michael. 1994. The Films of Michael Sporn Volume 1 (Whitewash/Champagne. First Run Features. ASIN B0000AZT68

Have children discuss racial hate crimes they have read about or seen on TV.

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