Big Red Lollipop

Regional focus:  South East Asia Diaspora

Author: Sophie Blackall

Illustrator:  Rukhsana Khan

Genre:  children’s literature

I’ve been away from academia for a long time…two decades to be exact.  While I love children’s literature and enjoy delving deep into the cultural themes depicted in stories for young audiences, I am rarely challenged to explore all angles of  my book choices.

Mohit, a friend for years, bilingual educator, teacher trainer, global citizen and a current graduate student at the University of Texas, Austen has been visiting La Puerta Abierta for the past two weeks leading teacher workshops, modeling multimodal language activities and living the day-to-day with our students and staff at our center.

In between his activities with our school community, I take advantage of ten minute time gaps to “talk” children’s literature with him and to catch the pulse on current trends and on-going controversies in the realm of education.  There are moments when I fear that I’ve been away from the academic circuit for too long, like when we plunged into the children’s classic Tikki Tkiki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, published in 1968.  I remember repetitively  listening to a recording of Tikki Tikki Tembo on my plastic record player as a child, marveling at the illustrations that transported me to far away and “exotic” places.  I memorized the tongue twister of sounds that accompanied the name of the main character.  In fact, Tikki Tikki Tembo has also become a favorite for teachers and students at La Puerta Abierta.  Hence, when  Mohit discussed the cultural misreprestentations so abundantly present in the story, I was bewildered.  I pulled my tattered childhood copy of Tikki Tikki Tembo off my  shelf and reread the text and examined the illustrations.  The lack of cultural authenticity was startling.

I  recently purchased Big Red Lolipop when a friend recommended it and I quickly fell in love with the bright, bold illustrations by Sophie Blackall and Rukhsana Khan’s tale of  sisterly dynamics.  Khan and Blackall  create scenes that are in many ways universal, and yet, provide the reader with a unique glimpse of life of a Pakastani family living North America that is distinctly authentic.

I was convinced that I had discovered my next title for Sail Away Story, and then…I talked with Mohit! I learned that yes, in the academic world, there is some criticism of Big Red Lolipop.  For example, why does Ami (the mother of the main character) not know what a birthday party is?  Many Pakastani’s do celebrate birthdays and a reader might make assumptions that Ami is simple or unengaged.

That said, Mohit did endorse Big Red Loliop.  In his words:

The book will resonate with South Asian children and allow  all readers a window into the domestic life of a Pakistani family in North America that is “just like other families” in some ways, and different in others.

Later in the day he sent me an essay by Rudine Sims-Bishop which he had studied in a previous graduate course.  Sims-Bishop states “books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.  These windows are also sliding doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.  When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.  Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience.  Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

Big Red Lollipop provides both windows and mirrors for our young readers as they begin to understand themselves and the world at large more profoundly.

While I have no plans of returning  to the world of academia in the near future, I remain grateful for friends and colleagues who connect me to current trends in education and cultural representation, and in turn, encourage me to delve deeper in my understanding of children’s literature.

About:

Big Red Lollipop is a story told from the perspective of Rabina, who is invited to her first birthday party.  When her mother (Ami) insists that she must bring her little sister Maryam along to the celebration, Rabina is mortified and worried not only about what the other children will think of her, but what disasters her sister will ignite.  Maryam does spark a whirlwind of chaos, and Rabina is furious.  However, as the story progresses, we learn that sisterly love often surpasses sibling squabbles and that  forgiveness is a powerful tool.

What I love:

  • Blackall’s artistic choices and attention to detail  with Ami’s salwar kameez (traditional dress of women in the Punjab region), the raja (quilt) on the children’s bed and the embroidered pillows on the sofa allow the reader to glimpse into the lives of a Pakistani family living in North America.
  • Khan’s message goes deeper than “fair is fair.”  She explores real solutions of compassion and forgiveness.
  • In a time when islamophobia is very much alive, I am hopeful to find children’s books that represent Muslim characters in dignified, every-day roles.

Themes:  South East Asia Diaspora, forgiveness, family

Discussion:

  • Why do you think that Ami might not be familiar with birthday parties?
  • What are a few clues that help you to understand that Rabina’s family has origins in a different country?
  • What is forgiveness?  When have you had to offer forgiveness to another person?  Have you ever had to ask for forgiveness?
  • Who do you identify most with in the story?  Why?

Connections:

  • What is your favorite sweet?  Draw an exaggeratedly big picture of it in the style of Blackall’s  lollipop.
  • Rabina’s family is originally from Pakistan.  Find Pakistan on a map.  Investigate interesting facts about the country and culture.
  • Make a list of ways you could welcome a new immigrant  like Rabina into your school, community or neighborhood.
  • Listen and watch  Rukhsana Kahn read Big Red Lollipop here.

Unknown

Islandborn

Regional focus:  The Dominican Republic

Author:  Junot Diaz

Illustrator: Leo Espinosa

Genre:  children’s literature

I have always been intrigued by stories of origin and fascinated by the power of memory.  My daughters were born in Guatemala, and I am from the United States.  My husband is Belgian, but he was born in Brazil and grew up in Britain.  Children are innately curious and I encourage my kids to ask questions about my childhood, their father’s childhood and the journeys of their grandparents.     

In Junot Diaz’s first children’s book Islandborn, we meet Lola, an inquisitive, young, and creative girl who attends a school with many students who have immigrated from different countries.  When Lola’s teacher, Ms. Obi, asks her students to draw a picture of their country of origin, Lola is perplexed.  She left “the island” as a young child and her memories of her birth country are fuzzy and difficult to recall.  Ms. Obi recommends that Lola talks with family and friends to recollect memories of “the island,” and that’s exactly what she does.  We meet neighbors, friends, and family who share insight to life, both the beauty and struggles, of the Dominican Republic and with the aid of illustrations by Leo Espinosa, we enter the collective memory of Lola and her community.

What I love:

  • The main character, Lola, is bright, curious, loving and represents cultural diveristy.
  • Island born  is a story that both children and adults will enjoy and find meaningful.
  • The artwork by Espinosa is wildly colorful and imaginative.
  • Juno Diaz simultaneously wrote Islandborn in Spanish.  The Spanish edition is Lola.

Themes: memory, origin, family history, immigration

Discussion:

  • Lola attends a school with many children from different countries.  Are there children from different countries at your school?  Where are they from?
  • What are some of the memories that Lola collects about the Dominican Republic?  Are all of the memories happy?  What does the monster represent?
  • Lola learns of foods that are celebrated in the Dominican Republic that her friends celebrate and remember like sweet mangos and crunchy empanadas.  Imagine that you are an adult.  What foods do you think that you will remember from your childhood?

Connections:

  • The Dominican Republic is celebrated for music and Caribbean beats.  Collect music from the DR and dance your heart out like the characters in Islandborn.
  • In the style of Lola, make a picture or collage  that represent your country of origin.
  • Interview a parent or grandparent about their childhood memories.  Prepare a few questions before you interview them that you would like to explore.

Caminar

Regional focus:  Guatemala

Author:  Skila Browne

Genre:  juvenile fiction/ prose

Travel to rural Guatemala in 1981 and meet young Carlos who asks the innocent questions about war and conflict as he strives to understand the underlying currents that are dividing his village and country.

What I love:

  • Browne creates an approachable novel for juvenile readers and uses flowing prose to share her story.
  • A coming of age story that teens can connect with.

Themes: responsibility, maturity, survival, loss, war

Discussion:

  • What do you know about war? What does war look like to you?
  • What animal represents Carlos’ nawhal (animal spirit)? What animal would you like to have as your nawhal?
  • Have you ever wished that you were “grown up”? Why?

Connections:

  • Investigate the country of Guatemala and the Maya culture.
  • Write a poem about your own home as Carlos did in his poem “My home.”
  • Santiago Luc is a storyteller in his village. Do you know someone in your life that has stories to tell? Interview the person and write down one of the stories you’re told.