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.

IMG_20190719_151101 (1)

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?

a537b088499025ade514af70da15b3d1

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).

BrownGirlDreaming-4medals-3001-200x300

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).

enchantedair

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).

unknown

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.

Unknown

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.

On Family Engagement

Today’s Sail Away Story post is our second edition  of  “A Little Birdy Told Me…” in which I feature a guest writer who shares about her favorite cultural children’s books or global schools.

Meet Erin Conway–friend, teacher, writer, educational coach and weaver of both textiles and words–as she delves into the importance of a book concept in education  called Family Engagement.

481379_3257049584635_1615926624_n

In her own words:

I am not old, but I have lived many teacher lives.  I began my professional career as a bilingual teacher in the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, but my desire to seek a deeper understanding of my students and foster intercultural connections in the field of education lead me to accept a Peace Corps assignment in Guatemala.  It was during my Peace Corps years in Guatemala that I first met Amanda, and I have been fortunate to benefit from both personal and professional exchanges since then. For ten years (2005-2015), I worked both teaching and training teachers in Guatemala. These experiences were instrumental in crafting my instructional practices with expanded definitions of teacher and continue to impact my current work in outreach, coaching educators and consulting on multicultural/diverse literacy programs and resources in Wisconsin today.

“Who is your blog’s primary audience?” I asked Amanda shortly after I began writing.

“My best guess,” she responded. “Would be educators and parents and people who like me.”

I read those final words multiple times incorrectly as “People like me.”

And who are those people?

Like Amanda, I was an avid childhood reader, and books remain a means to both expand my world as I look forward, as well as make sense of my life as I look back. But, it was during a writing class my first few months in Wisconsin after returning from Guatemala that I voiced how integral books had been to my profession as much as my person. For the workshop, I had written a modern fairy tale about teaching and blank books, travelling and (re)writing your own story. The day my story was critiqued, I had stayed behind after class, sitting side by side with my writing instructor.

“What do you like about teaching?” she had asked while I bit back tears of embarrassment. My classmates’ comments had not been exactly what I expected. “The purpose for this story, you have to narrow it down.” The instructor was very matter of fact. “Why are you a teacher?”

Once upon a time, I had started professional development with questions like that with classroom teachers and parents, with children and adults. My mind shot to the books my mother had written with me. Recycled paper with stick figures and a few words. “The storytelling,” had slipped out with tears I’m not sure I hid.

If you are an adult and enjoy reading books suggested on this blog, you are not alone. My own analysis of diverse book lists for adults are too often crowded with VERY academic/thick texts. This research also tends to be EXTREMELY depressing which I do not believe is the most effective way to inspire human relationships or agency. If you are a classroom teacher and/or parent reading Sailaway Story, you may be familiar with the concept of Family Engagement. Family Engagement in education is best described as commitment and intention developed through communication between all parties, child, caregiver, school/community. This ideal influences how I select resources.

At its foundation, themes addressed by the books described are similar to those integral to other selected books on Sailaway Story’s blog: adolescent leaders, bravery, courage, hardship, friendship, kindness, ancestors, traditions, war, loss, memory, immigration, family, journey, community, responsibility, survival, optimism, empathy, hope. My focus on book groupings made up of diverse stories is the variety of formats (adult/juvenile non fiction, picture books, graphic novels, illustrated fiction, juvenile/adult fiction) in order to facilitate conversations across ages. I create these book clusters because it provides links into diverse literature that allows for all experience and reading levels to read on the topics and to encourage discussions beyond school walls.

Parents and classroom teachers, young and old, readers and listeners are all storytellers. No matter who you are, as you read I would encourage you to talk about:

  • What were your favorite books as a child?
  • How? Or, why are they still relevant today?
  • Do you see any of your favorites reflected in children’s selections?
  • How might a children’s book engage adults in conversation? And, vice versa, how might you encourage complex themes to be discussed with children?
  • What is your story? How would you tell it? In paragraphs, pictures, poetry?

In honor of the region of the world where Amanda and I first met, the first selections are all related to Latin America. I arranged them from general to specific to general in scope and somewhat chronologically.

Since the Peace Corps welcome packet had arrived at my door complete with a recommended reading list, I was familiar with U.S. intervention in Latin America. Amanda referenced this type of story in her previous selection of Caminar by Skila Brown. What I learned while reading Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II by Mary Jo McConahay was the fight for the allegiance of Latin America beginning during World War II and the impact still felt today. One example of the implications of World War II politics is detailed in the young adult book in verse Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. Margarita Engle is a masterful voice of little known stories and her young adult novel in verse illustrates in the story of a young Jewish boy’s attempted escape from Europe the complex themes in McConahay’s large scope.

An Uninterrupted View of the Sky by Melanie Crowder speaks through present day voices about the same struggle for hearts, minds and riches of Latin America. In order to appease U.S. efforts to win the “war on drugs” Bolivia responded to pressure to make increased numbers of drug related arrests. Crowder’s novel follows the arrest of a father on false charges and sent to prison by a corrupt system that targets the uneducated, the poor, and the indigenous majority. The final books, a picture book and an adult novel, illustrate the narrative of immigration, its hope and its obstacles. In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende is narrated by three different people, a Chilean lecturer who completed her education in Canada after securing escape from Chile in the 1970s, a human rights professor, son of Jewish immigrants and an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant. Each one of them, if not in the political definition of the term, are dreamers. And, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales is the illustrated autobiography of her immigration story.

Recommended Websites:

http://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/documents/tt_abc_respect_for_families.pdf

https://www.edutopia.org/blog/kitchen-table-connections-re-envision-homework-clare-roach

socialjusticebooks.org

weneeddiversebooks.org

“What do you like about teaching?” This question that I return to for purpose is the question I pose to you, Sailaway Story reader, because my heart will always be in the answer I gave to my writing teacher on that October evening with my own narrative swirling in red ink. It will be the same as my classroom days when I impressed upon my students that everything was a story and that the same story could be told in an unnamed number of ways. I am an educator. I am not a parent. I do like Amanda. And, the books we choose to read make us storytellers.

When I have the opportunity to post as a guest storyteller on Sailaway Story, my contribution will be to connect books that connect individuals to more ways, formats, languages, to tell and hear stories. I also manage a website and blog that can be found at www.erinconway.com where I often write about diverse books as both a reader and author. Previous publishing credits include the Midwest ReviewThe Sonder ReviewVine Leaves Press and Adelaide Literary Magazine.

Blueberries for Sal

Today’s Sail Away Story post is our first edition  of  “A little birdy told me…” in which we will feature guest writers sharing about their favorite children’s books and schools from around the world.  

Meet today’s “little bird,” Christine Banas.  The words that come to mind when I think of Christine are writer, mother and grandmother, early childhood education specialist for children with different capacities, photographer, and world traveler.

19679120_1508056902578863_2098794943748947120_o

As we hug the last days of summer (the first day of Autumn is September 22), Christine  highlights a childhood classic of summer in the USA.

Summer! Such a rich word conjuring up images ranging from wild splashing in a rolling surf, lying on a worn dock as the sun bakes you dry, to ice cream dripping down your arms as you try to catch its deliciousness before it all melts. Long days and short nights signal that special time of freedom especially in the northern part of the United States. Wintry days eke into fall and spring making it a longer season than the calendar would have you believe. As a result, I found summers in Maine to be exceptionally precious. The warm sun when it finally brightened the countryside christened the blueberry bushes with sweetness beyond words. My children and I would spend early mornings picking the dewy blue orbs that my mother-in-law would turn into muffins, pies, and jam.

When the memory of summer was buried under a foot of snow, my children loved reading the book, Blueberries for Sal written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. It reminded us of an activity we shared and opened us up to a story about the love of mothers and their child.

Regional Focus: Maine, a state in the United States

Author: Robert McCloskey

Illustrator: Robert McCloskey

Genre: children’s literature

This timeless story, though probably set in the late 1940’s in Maine, takes us on a blueberry picking trip with Little Sal and her mother. They set off for Blueberry Hill with their metal pails to pick berries for mother to can for the winter. Little Sal picks a few berries and puts them in her pail. Then she picks three more berries but she eats them before they make their kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk noise in the pail. Mother works her way up the hill but Sal’s little legs are getting tired. She eats all of her berries and then reaches her hand into mother’s pail and helps herself. Mother suggests Sal go collect her own berries so she plops down in a clump of bushes and proceeds to eat the berries.

At the same time, a mother bear and Little Bear are working their way up the opposite side of the hill. They are preparing for winter by eating as many berries as they can so they get big and strong to make it through the winter. Little Bear would lag behind his mother and then have to hustle to catch up to her. Finally, he tires and sits down in a clump of bushes and, proceeds to eat berries.

Meanwhile, Little Sal has finished eating and looks for her mother. Instead, she finds Little Bear’s mother and begins walking behind her. Simultaneously Little Bear has lost his mother as well and begins walking behind Little Sal’s mother. Eventually, both mothers turn around and realize they have the wrong little ones following them! All ends well with the mothers and their little ones reunited and everyone has gathered more than enough blueberries.

images-1

What I love:

  • There is an innocence and simplicity to this story that speaks of a child’s fearless independence and ability to be in the world yet is secure in the unspoken knowledge that her/his mother is always there to protect them.
  • The illustrations are broad stroked in black and white and look almost like woodcuts that capture the detailed expressions of each of the characters and their surroundings.
  • The story shows an activity that touches on what many readers have probably never had the chance to enjoy. I love that we see how both animals and humans have similarities—they need to provide nourishment for winter and sometimes they even eat the same type of food.

Themes: mothers and their children, nature, respect

Discussion:

  • How are human mothers the same or different from animal mothers and their offspring?
  • How do you think Little Sal felt when she couldn’t find her mother? How would you feel if you got separated from the adult you were with?
  • Little Sal and her mother are picking blueberries together. What activities do you do with your families?

Connections:

  • What are some ways animals prepare for the winter? Why do they have to make these preparations?
  • Little Sal’s mother talks about wanting to “can” the blueberries so they can eat them over the winter. What is she talking about? Learn about how food can be preserved so it lasts a long time.
  • Make a batch of blueberry muffins or a blueberry pie so you can experience baking and eating this blue fruit.  Find a simple recipe here.  images-2