I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Some people have a weakness for handbags or designer shoes.  Some people are coffee  connoisseurs.  Some people live for garage sale bargains.  My father collects old phonographs and my mom has acquired an assortment of small wooden and ceramic chickens from around the world.  My husband adores tacos, my eldest daughter is devoted to sitcoms from the 90s and my youngest daughter is a puzzle enthusiast.

I love books…I love books more than ripe mangos and dark chocolate and nearly as much as I love travel…travel with books is my idea of heaven:)

My love for books runs deep.  On the surface I adore the rush of entering a book shop with aisles upon aisles of written word.  I like to trail my fingers over book covers and to read the biographies of authors and illustrators.  I feel secure and snug in my home office where shelves of my favorite novels and children’s books surround me.

And on a more profound level, I love what books provide me with…imagination, escape, contemplation, reflection and above all, perspective.  I am a 41-year-old woman from the United States living in Guatemala and yet when I open a book, I am given a ticket to enter  a world that may belong to a character whose life looks very different from my own.  This ticket is what Rudine Simms Bishop would call a “window,”  an opportunity that offers a reader a  view into the lives of others.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez was my invitation to experience and relate to the life of fifteen-year-old Julia, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, who is growing up in a gritty Chicago Neighborhood.

Let’s imagine, even if just for a moment, what our world could be if we took the time to relate to others, gain new and different perspectives, learn of the struggles and accomplishments from people who have stories that are not our own.   I am not a social scientist, but I am a preschool teacher, and I spend most work days  living in a microcosm of a mini society.  I predict that if we collectively read more diverse books that provided us with “windows” into the lives of others, empathy, kindness and compassion would  replace judgement, assumption and discrimination. 

Title:  I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Regional/Cultural focus:  USA/Mexico

Author:  Erika Sánchez

Genre:  juvenile fiction

Themes:  cultural identity, family, coming of age, grief

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is brilliantly told through the voice of teenage Julia.  She is grieving the death of her sister Olga, who had always been “the perfect Mexican daughter.”  Olga was everything that Julia is not.  Olga was dedicated and obedient.  She had an ordinary job and spent time in the evenings watching telenovelas with her mom.  Julia is rebellious,strong-willed, sassy and  confrontational.

After her sister’s  death, Julia is surprised to discover a few provocative accessories in Olga’s bedroom.  She is determined to learn more about Olga’s not-so-pristine identity and in the process, she gains new insight into her family, her friends and ultimately herself.

We journey with Julia through her day to day…in her house where her family is falling apart in light of  tragedy, in high-school with the complexities of friendships, in cultural worlds of meeting family expectations while following her academic dreams.

What I love:

  • Julia’s voice is deeply present throughout the novel…painfully vulnerable at times and shamelessly hilarious at others.
  • Erika Sánchez doesn’t sugar coat difficult themes in her novel.  She explores topics such as death, immigration  and depression in a way that is both real and approachable.
  • While not the focus of the novel, there is a touch of romance.

Discussion:

  • In the first chapter of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter we learn that Julia is grieving the death of her sister.  Have you ever lost someone close to you?  What words come to mind when you remember that period of your life?
  • Julia feels that she is not meeting her family’s expectations of who she should be/who she should become.  What are the expectations that Julia’s family has for her?  How do they differ from her own hopes and dreams?  What are your hopes and dreams?  Are they the same as the expectations that your family has for you?
  • While Julia often feels alone, there are people throughout the book who play important roles in supporting her.  Who are they?  How do they help her?  Who are the role models/helpers in your life?

Activities:

  • In many ways I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a story about identity.  Make a list of words that come to mind when thinking about your identity.
  • Write a short diary of your day-to-day, from morning to night.  What do the details of your daily life reveal about your identity?
  • Learn more about mental health resources and how you can be a support system for friends who are struggling with depression.

 

 

 

 

 

The Night Diary

 

The term historical fiction may sound like an oxymoron.  We believe history to be true and fiction to be a concept or idea invented by the imagination.  The word history is complex in nature, his-story (insert eye roll and a deep sigh here), which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines first as:

1: tale, story

and follows with:

2: a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes

Our brains like to categorize…good and bad, young and old, fact and fiction, etc, hence the concept of historical fiction is difficult to grasp for many young readers.  However the content of historical fiction is often easier to contemplate and relate to than non-fiction.  Historical fiction gifts us the opportunity to meet and connect with characters from all over the world during a specific moment in history, learn about their lives (joys and struggles) and experience that very sweet spot in literature where fact and fiction mingle.

I have traveled to India consecutively over the past three years and I have learned a great deal about Indian culture and history from texts, conversation and films.  However, the history of India’s independence from Britain in 1947 and the complications that resulted in the division/creation of two countries (Pakistan and India) has remained a murky mess in my understanding of India’s past.

I recently read The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani and not only fell in love with the voice of 12 year old Nisha who narrates the story but also with Hiranandani’s talented writing skills.  She cleverly weaves fact and fiction together as she shares the complexity of Pakistan’s partition after India is newly freed from Britain.

Title:  The Night Diary

Regional/Cultural focus:  India and Pakistan (1947)

Author:  Veera Hiranandani

Genre:  juvenile historical fiction

Themes:  family, belonging, identity, social justice

Nisha receives a diary on her 12th birthday, a safe space for her to record her thoughts and feelings.  Nisha is shy and struggles to talk with others, hence she finds solace in “sharing” her words in her diary.  The year is 1947 and Nisha discovers that while some people are celebrating India’s independence from Britain, her family has little to rejoice in.  Nisha’s mother (who has passed away) was Muslim and her father is Hindu.  When the area of India that Nisha lives in becomes Pakistan, she and her family must flee.  Nisha and her family become refugees and embark on a dangerous journey to reach their new home on the other side of the border.

Told through a series of letters that Nisha writes to her mother in her diary, we learn of Nisha’s story and in turn, a dramatic moment in history.

What I love:

  • A diary!  Reading words in a diary format feels intimate and personal.
  • Nisha has a twin brother, Amil.  While siblings, they have different strengths and weaknesses  and provide the reader with varied points of view throughout the book.
  • Hiranandani’s words are heart-breaking and tragic at times.  She shares experiences that are alarming and real and yet, Nisha’s story is also one of hope, love and integrity.

Discussion:

  • The Night Diary is a refugee story.  What are some of the current refugee plights in the world today?
  • We see Nisha’s image of herself change throughout the book.  Often she doesn’t identify herself as being brave.  Do you think Nisha is brave?  Why or why not?
  • Hiranandani frequently writes about food and meals in The Night Diary.  Why do you think she has chosen to do this?  What is the importance of food and meals in your family?

Activities:

  • The Night Diary is a story of identity.  Make a list of words that you would use to describe  your own identity.  Take your writing a step further and create a zine about your identity.
  • Hiranandani uses abundant figurative language (similes and metaphors)  in her book.  Some examples include: “I  needed all the feelings to stop boiling like a pot of dal and be cool enough for me to taste them” (p.36) and  “She was like an old, soft blanket that I barely even noticed was there” (p. 141).  What are a few of your favorite similes and metaphors from the story?
  • Nisha occasionally alludes to Gandhi.  Investigate, who was Gandhi?  What did he believe in?
  • Learn about the religions in the story including Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.

Happy reading!

If  you love juvenile historical fiction as much as I do, you might also enjoy the following titles:

If you’d like to explore refugee stories, consider:

 

 

 

 

Teen Reading

Some people are natural born readers…it seems as if they passed through the birth canal with a book nestled in their hands.

Many of my mornings are spent in an early education center where I can quickly   identify the young preschool students who prefer to dedicate precious recess minutes to “reading” a book under a tree instead of playing hide-and-seek in the school garden.  When they are a bit older, those same children may refuse to come out of their rooms for dinner as a result of being engulfed in a story.  And often those children  grow into teens and adults who maintain a love for the written word.

I was that child and that teen.  I am that adult.

I wondered if my two daughters would inherit my book enthusiasm and, I confess,  I  tried to nudge their attraction to reading along from the very beginning.  Yes, I  read to my daughters in utero:)

My eldest daughter Emma who is now 13, had displayed mild interest, a euphemism at best, to books for the first decade of her life. There have been a few exceptions throughout her childhood.  She adored silly books like  Elephant Wellyphant by Nick Sharratt (a fabulous British author and illustrator), and most Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler books such as The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom.  When she began to read chapter books on her own, she’d choose  graphic novels…but only if she had to.

Over the past year, to my great delight and surprise, Emma has discovered that she likes to read…hallelujah!  She’s devouring what she loves…myths and legends from around the world, titles like The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani Dasgupta and  The Storm Runner by J.C. Cervantes.  Perhaps we are all natural born readers, yet some of us take longer to distinguish what genre of literature truly captivates us.

Emma’s enthusiasm for juvenile literature has encouraged me to reconnect with my own love for teen novels…I’ve always  appreciated good coming-of-age stories.  Over the past month, I’ve read 4 young adult/juvenile novels written by diverse authors that I would recommend for teen audiences.  Throughout the month of January I will explore the  titles below on Sail Away Story and share why I cherish them:

  1.  I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sánchez
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
  3. The Night Diary, Veera Hiranandani
  4. Kira Kira, Cynthia Kadohata

Happy reading!

Una lluviosa mañana de domingo

Regional focus: The Whole Wide World

Author: Sooni Kim

Illustrator: Mia Sim

Genre: Children’s literature

I purchased Una lluviosa mañana de domingo over two years ago at the Feria Internacional de Libros in Guatemala.  I read the story lovingly…the soft winter colors of the illustrations evoked nostalgia of the rainy days I know so well living in a country that has but two seasons, wet and dry.  The dreamy young girl in the story who looks out her bedroom window at 7:00 AM on a rainy Sunday morning and imagines  what other children might be doing at the same exact moment around the world reminded me of my eight- year-old self.

I placed the book on my office shelf in the section designated for personal favorites, where it remained sandwiched between other titles until recently when, on a rainy Sunday morning, I lounged in bed and marveled once again over the gentle illustrations and thoughtful words.  However, what struck me as most curious at second glance was the worldly compilation of the book.  The writer is Sooni Kim and the illustrator is  Mia Sim.  While a small biography exists on the web about Sim, (I learned that she was born in 1966, is Korean and was first an electrical engineer before dedicating her career to children’s books),  I can find no information about Kim.  The book was printed in China in 2010 by a Spanish publisher, Pipola.  How does a book written and illustrated in Korea, translated in Spanish, printed in China and distributed by a Spanish publisher end up in Guatemala?  While I may never know the full  journey of Una lluviosa mañana de domingo arriving to my book shelf, I rejoice in the serendipitous path that connected me with a gem of a children’s book.

I’ve only located Una lluviosa mañana de domingo in Spanish print, which limits the audience who may actually be inspired to read it.  However, if you are a Spanish reader, I whole-heartedly recommend that you loose yourself in the whimsical pages of Kim’s book.  And if you happen to be a beginner of the Spanish language, children’s books are an effective yet unthreatening way to approach a new language and you will equally appreciate this clever tale.

What I love:

  • Sim’s illustrations are universally “child,” by that I mean that you could be a child almost anywhere in the world and be able to connect with her  imagery.
  • Kim’s words inspire curiosity  and wonder.
  • Una Lluviosa mañana is a quiet book, a great example that not all children’s books need to use bright primary colors and bold words.

Themes:  childhood, imagination, contemplation

Discussion:

  • What do you see outside of your window at 7:00 AM?  I invite you paint us a picture of your view with words.
  • How do you like to spend rainy days?
  • What do you think 7:00 AM might look like in other parts of the world?  Other countries?  Towns?  Villages?

Connections:

  • Paint a picture of your 7:00 AM view from your window.  Use watercolors in the style of Mia Sim.
  • Make a picture book of “snap shots” of 7:00 AM around the world.  Use drawings or pictures from magazines.
  • Investigate time zones.  When it’s 7:00 AM in your home, what time might it be in other regions of the world?world-time-zones-map-max

If you appreciate learning about what other children are doing around the world at the same exact moment, you may also like Nine O’ Clock Lullaby and At the Same Moment Around the World.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Today’s Sail Away Story post is our fourth edition  of  “A little birdy told me…” in which guest writers are featured and share about their favorite children’s books and schools from around the world.  

Meet today’s “little bird,” Anne Marie Coyoca–mother, educator, volunteer and children’s literature enthusiast.  Originally from California, she currently lives in China with her husband and two daughters. I am delighted to highlight Anne’s contribution about Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain meets the Moon, a novel that three generations in my family (myself, my mom and my daughter) have read and cherished.

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Author and Illustrator: Grace Lin

Regional Focus: China

Genre: fantasy, fiction, folklore

In Anne’s words:

I was first introduced to Grace Lin’s books at my daughter’s school library in Beijing, China where we live. After reading, The Year of the Dog with my daughter the first thought I had was, “This is the kind of book I wish I had growing up!”

The Year of the Dog is Grace Lin’s own childhood story growing up as the only Chinese American in her elementary school and town. As a second generation Asian American myself I related to this book with both humor and nostalgia.   Growing up I loved reading books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, but also longed to find books where the main female character was not only strong, but Asian, like myself.

After scouring my daughter’s school library for all of Grace Lin’s books, both picture books and early readers, I finally found her 2010 Newberry Honor book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Often described as the Chinese Wizard of Oz it introduces readers to Minli, the daughter of hard- working parents who toil in the fields day in and day out. At night her father tells her stories about the Old Man and the Moon who has the answers to all of life’s questions. Inspired by her father’s stories, Minli sets out on a quest to find the Old Man of the Moon in hopes of changing her family’s fortune. On her journey she meets a doubtful dragon, a talking goldfish and an array of magical creatures who accompany her on her quest to find the answer to life’s ultimate question.

Themes: storytelling, family, friendship, faith

What I love:

  • Beautiful illustrations enhance the richness of Chinese culture throughout the book. Each chapter has a small traditional Chinese paper cutting illustration at the top which adds to the Chinese charm of the book. There are a small handful of pages that depict colorful scenes of Chinese nature, art and architecture all attractively illustrated with Grace Lin flair and style.
  • Grace Lin weaves both fantasy and Chinese folklore seamlessly throughout the story. In her author’s notes at the end of the book she writes how some characters are based off of the real myths, while others are embellished and derived from her own imagination. The book is like a fusion of both past and present, as well as traditional and modern versions of China.
  •  Living in China, I am familiar with some Chinese symbols and themes, but reading them as characters in the book gave these everyday symbols more importance to me. For example, I always knew dragons and tigers were very prominent symbols in Chinese culture, however, seeing these animals acted out as characters one mythical, the other real, gave me a better understanding of how Chinese see the importance of these symbols in their culture.
  • The book’s message is timeless and universal. By the end of the book, all the stories and characters are brought together and remind all readers, regardless of what culture or ethnicity, the true value of family and friendship.

Discussion:

  • Think about the books and stories that you have read or grown up with. How do these stories reflect who you are?   Which stories have given you a new understanding that you did not have before?
  • What stories are true or mythical in your own culture? What stories have been passed down from past generations to the present?
  • If you had a chance to meet the Old Man of the Moon and could change your fortune, what question would you ask him?
  • What was your favorite story in the book?

Connections:

  • There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. Find out what year of the Chinese zodiac you were born in. For example, my oldest daughter was born in the year of the tiger, while my youngest one was born in the year of the dragon. My husband and I are both sheep. My in-laws, both first generation Chinese tease my husband and me that we will both be eaten alive! Which is partially and figuratively true!
  • Tell your story.   What books do you love or did you love growing up with? How have those stories inspired you to tell your story?

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Drum Dream Girl and Summer Thoughts

Regional focus:  Cuba

Author:  Margarita Engle

Illustrator:  Rafael Lopez

Genre:  children’s literature, memoir, poetry

Summer and reading are two words that I hold dear to my heart.  As a child, summer meant lackadaisical days that melted together–ample time to swing from the oak tree in my backyard,  reunite with my neighborhood friends and spontaneously set up the slip n’ slide or create a pillow fort in solitude.

Summer also represented unstructured reading…opportunities to discover what I wanted to read and not what I was expected to read.  I loved The Baby-Sitters Club Book Series by Ann M Martin as well as Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren.  Other favorites included The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard Atwater and A Little Princess by Francis Hodgson Burnett.

As an adult, summer embodies family vacations (this year in Baja California),  piles of board games and puzzles (too many…for every good summer must eventually come to an end),  late mornings and later nights and ice-cream indulgence. And yet, like the 10 year old child I once was, few and far between are the material possessions  that can make me happier in the summer than a stack of good books to read under the sun or in the refuge of a pillow filled bed.

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I am lucky enough to be traveling this summer, making a triangle between Guatemala, California and Mexico.  One of the unexpected benefits of visiting the US is access to public libraries!  As Vincent Van Gogh said,  “Bookstores always remind me that there are good things in this world.”  I feel the same way about libraries.

My current summer children’s literature reading list, all found at the public library includes:

  1.  Drum Dream Girl, Margarita Engle
  2.  90 Miles to Havana, Enrique Flores-Galbis
  3. The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changes Science, Joyce Sidman
  4. Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message, Chief Jake Swamp

Other literary treasures I have collected over the summer include:

  1.  There, There, Tommy Orange
  2. The House of Broken Angels, Luis Alberto Urrea
  3. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry

While I have devoured all the books on my list, I am particularly  fond of Drum Dream Girl, written by the talented poet Margarita Engle and illustrated by one of my favorite illustrators, Rafael Lopez.  The book narrates the biography of  Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Cuban-African-Chinese girl who dreamed of becoming a musician.  She was born with rhythm in her blood and the pulse of jazz in her soul.  At an early age, Millo was called to tap on the congas and to  beat on the bongos.  However, in Cuba in the 1920s, like in many places in the world, women were not seen as equals to men, and, they were limited by societal norms that defined who and what they could could become.  Millo aspired to play the drums and to share music with her community, country and the world, but she was was continuously told that only boys could play drums.  She persisted, and formed the first female band in Cuba with her 11 sisters in the 1930s!

Drum Dream Girl is a story of hope, dreams, determination and equality.

What I love:

  • Lopez illustrates with  bright, bold colors that exude the essence of Cuba.  His use of poignant  metaphorical imagery such as a winged drum in a locked cage provokes meaningful imagery.
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  • Engle’s retelling of Millo’s story allows children to identify and challenge cultural norms.
  • What’s not to love about a story with a determined,  passionate, talented, courageous female main character!

Themes:  music, determination, social norms, equality

Discussion:

  • What do you dream of transforming into in the future?
  • What would you do if someone important to you prohibited you from following your dreams?
  • Have you ever been told that you couldn’t do something because you are a boy or a girl?  How did you feel?

Connections:

  • Use found objects at home to make your own drums (cans, pots, boxes) and experiment with different sounds and rhythms.
  • Listen to the music of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga and her band, Anacona here.
  • Make a Zine about your hopes and dreams.  Learn how to make a Zine with author Celia Perez here.

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Upbringings and Imaginings

Today’s Sail Away Story post is our third edition  of  “A Little Birdy Told Me…” in which we feature a guest writer who shares about her favorite cultural children’s books and ideas connected to them.  

Meet Erin Conway–friend, teacher, writer, educational coach and weaver of both textiles and words–as she delves into the importance of “upbringings and imaginings” in children’s literature.

In her own words:

In my previous post, I wrote generally about the opportunity to read stories across reading/age levels within a particular geographical category that Amanda uses to organize her blog in a post titled Family Engagement. The focus of this blog post, Upbringings and Imaginings, is literary biography. In content, this includes traditional tales told to us across our lives and identity assigned texts of which we may or may not be aware. In form, I focus on the strength of shared literary biography created when authors write their narrative into multiple works aimed at varying ages, preschool to adult readers.

Upbringings

In my previous post, I provided conversation starter questions two of which were: What were your favorite books as a child? How? Or, why are they still relevant today? To these I add several more. This time they are common questions to ask an author: Is this story biographical? Which characters are based on people in your own life?

It isn’t difficult to find award winning examples of “Yes”:

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson discusses the author’s childhood as an African American growing up in the 1960s in South Carolina and New York (National Book Award winner and Newbery Honor).

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Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle narrates her experiences growing up as a child of two cultures during the Cold War (Pura Belpré Author Award, YALSA Nonfiction Finalist, Walter Dean Myers Award Honoree).

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Dreamers by Yuyi Morales traces the journey that she and her small son took in 1994, when they immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Almost working as a bridge to the focus of this post, the “My Story” section included after the text, supplies the details of Morales’ experience (Pura Belpré Illustrator Award).

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While these are all books worth reading and discussion, my greater intent of Upbringings is to focus on examples of one author, one story, multiple expressions and decisions about details for all ages. I selected two authors previously recommended on Sailaway Story: Juno Diaz and Sherman Alexie.

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Sherman Alexie’s writing first inspired my exploration. I immediately fell in love with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but I never asked the question which of the events in the novel were his own. Instead, I loved his writing and his unapologetic tone. My knowledge of him might have stopped there except for the recommendation by a colleague of his memoir You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. Again, I appreciated his matter of fact expression of even the most difficult aspects of his life. I let the poetry sift through the net of my attention and smiled at his references to indigenous language, language so close to my heart after my experience learning Kaqchikel in Guatemala. Then, memories of events from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian returned on the pages to cut a little deeper when he mentioned them in the context of his real life, for example the death of his sister in a fire. Some weeks later, I passed by the new books display in the Children’s Room. I found an image of a little boy on his father’s shoulders accompanied by the title Thunder Boy Jr and the name Sherman Alexie. I smiled remembering the number of pages spent in Alexie’s memoir around the common practice of the name “Junior” and his own internal reflection on identity. I saw the book listed on a storytime event centered on Native American literature, and I wondered what that conversation would be like if the adults were exposed to You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me at the same time the children read Thunder Boy Jr. For me the depth of understanding of any of those texts would have been much less without the other, and the strength of the author writing across ages allows conversation within families around the same author’s stories and how different members of the same family tell their own to themselves and each other.

Islandborn_CV_HR-233x300My second encounter with this type of author crossover occurred through Juno Díaz’s picture book Islandborn. For a more detailed summary of this book, I refer you to a Sailaway Story post https://sailawaystory.com/category/central-america/. I was drawn to the main character, Lola, and the way she was able to construct her story through multiple stories in the community around her. When I realized Islandborn was Díaz’s first picture book, I wanted to read an adult novel with the hope of a similar kind of insight that Alexie’s memoir had provided into his children’s literature.

I selected The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and I was not disappointed. I will warn that this novel is not for the feint of ear. Díaz’s language is harsh and his description of discrimination in the Dominican Republic based on skin color and societal attitudes toward women are not easy to read. Teenage Oscar who lives in New Jersey with his mother and sister dreams of being the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkein. Oscar guided me from the first pages through the harsh realities of Trujillo’s dictatorship, also alluded to in Islandborn as simply “A monster fell upon our poor Island. . . It could destroy an entire town with a single word and made a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.” Set against the backdrop of the adult detailed narrative, the themes of history, memory and immigration explored by Lola are richer in opportunity for deeper conversation.

Imaginings

Individual groups name and have varying affinity for different types of traditional tales: fairy tales, faith based narratives, legends, myths, creation stories, to name a few. It makes me wonder, when authors are not telling about themselves in small or large ways, how often are they retelling their own favorite stories? My most recent example is Pride: A Pride and Prejudice Remix by Ibi Zoboi which I serendipitously read after Díaz’s works had provided me with context surrounding the Dominican Republic and Haiti and another young adult novel steeped in Yoruba religion, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.

Documented research on mirror neurons details how stories shape who people see themselves as and who they want to become. This is also true when looking at the way in which stories are retold, who is in charge of the retelling and how variations are labelled: multicultural, fractured, feminist, to name a few. Moreover, discussions about diverse literature address the fact that the success of the retelling is very much dependent upon the author and his or her previous connection with the story itself. Amanda has created a community of education and storytelling that is not only geographical but generational. So, in order to explore this dynamic a little more, I consider not individuals, but families. From my own interactions, or lack of, with my parents, I pose that the discussion of upbringings makes the imaginings even more meaningful.

My father is the constant rewriter. My earliest memory is how he had changed the lyrics to children’s stories and songs we listened to on old 45s. While the retellings remained purely fiction, he wrote his life and himself into them. He does it so frequently that I keep my notebook nearby for use in my own novels. He does it so easily that he forgets the ideas he gives me. While he thinks I am the reader in the family, the repetition of particular titles mark those stories that made the greatest impact on him. Our most recent conversation was about the controversial picture book, Little Black Sambo. He was the first to admit, “I didn’t remember the story. Just the pancakes. I loved pancakes too.”

The first published version of this story was a rewrite built upon colonialist views, identity confusions, poorly assigned/considered character names, and prejudiced caricature.   I shared Chrisopher Bing’s version with my father. This version illustrates Sambo as an African child in the country of India. This Handprint Books version with Christopher Franceschelli’s notes on the fluidity of setting as culture and geography is particularly interesting as well as articles like the one found at https://www.saada.org/tides/article/little-black-sambo.

I would encourage you both to seek out diverse and/or recently published retellings of the stories you remember affectionately as well as to read the back pages and author biography’s to understand more about the individual doing the telling. Sailaway Story recommends many selections to help you to begin.

My mother claimed not to be creative. Regardless of what she may or may not have come to imagine, she died before she could. This means that I rely on other author’s imaginings of womanhood and Judaism at the same time I seek to write characters with both of those identities. The novel in verse, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough is an interesting example of this kind of story. I knew that the narrative based upon the life of painter Artemisia Gentileschi would stress historically erased examples of strong women. Artemisia is more talented than her father but her life decisions are framed by the choice of either grinding his paint pigment’s for the rest of her life or becoming a nun. What I did not realize prior to reading was the embedded role that the Jewish heroine Judith would play. As fate would have it, I had also come upon Judith’s story when I was looking for a strong female heroine from the Jewish canon. Like McCullough, I had included her history in my novel. Still, the connection to Judith’s tale is relatively new for me, and McCullough’s imaginings made me feel a part of a community of storytellers that could validate my own.

There are a variety of questions to consider when selecting a story that you do not consider “your own”:

  •  Does the author share background or common experiences with the book’s content?
  • How or where did the author conduct his or her research?
  • Do the illustrations support diverse/multicultural book initiatives?
  • How could you verify or who do you know that might verify the veracity of a particular book about a field in which you have little experience?
  • Does the picture book authentically capture the nuances of a particular group or does it generalize or stereotype?
  • Are you selecting a balanced collection between books that celebrate a group, honor their past and/or struggles, and reflect an everyday experience?
  • How does the book positively frame identity development and self-esteem?
  • Is the author or group the usual subject for this particular content? If so, who else might be a less known figure with a similar message?

In closing, I admit to an inclination for reading nonfiction about histories of storytelling as a narrative all on its own, how creation stories form identities, how stories have identities and the importance of story as history and memory. If you share this interest, I recommend the books below:

Bernheimer, Kate, ed. (1998). Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their

Favorite Fairy Tales. Anchor Books: New York.

Burger, Ariel. (2018). Witness: Lessons from Eli Wiesel’s Classroom. Houghton Mifflin

Harcourt: Boston.

Conway, Jill Ker. (1998). When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography. Alfred A.

Knopf: New York.

Wall Kimmerer, Robin. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific

Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions: Canada.

For further information about my history collaborating with Amanda you can refer to my first post, On Family Engagement, in her “A Little Birdy Told Me” category. For more of my book critique or short essays/literary posts on diversity and identity, check out my blog at http://www.erinconway.com.