Green Almonds: Letters from Palestine

Two sisters show life in different countries and different cultures in this graphic novel by Anaele and Delphine Hermans – a memoir of Anaele’s 10-month stay in Bethlehem while volunteering for a youth organization/NGO.

Presented as postcards and letters shared between the two sisters, ‘Green Almonds’ highlights the living conditions of populations in war-torn zones of the world. At the same time, it humanises these conditions as they accept them as a ‘normal’ part of life.

Anaele’s initial arrival presented anxious times from the word go, as she negotiated customs at Tel Aviv airport in 2008. Her stories about the months that followed illustrate some of the precarious situations faced by everyday people in these occupied territories. At the same time, descriptions of simple joys in life shared amongst friends show things she enjoyed with her Palestinian friends. Cultural differences aside, there is still a place where: “we sing, we laugh, we talk until late into the night”.

As the correspondence journeys between Bethlehem and Liege, great contrasts are displayed in the lives of the two sisters. Interestingly, the postcards from Delphine mainly chat about shallow day-to-day life events at home in Liege; Anaele’s letters provide greater detail, empathy and passion about her experiences, as she negotiates a world apart from Belgium.

Of course, ‘Green Almonds’ is also a reflection of the harsh world experienced by those caught in this massive ongoing battle. As a graphic novel, it provides some introduction and insight into a dangerous conflict. Perhaps a more detailed follow-up would look deeper into the lives and relationships Anaele experienced in her time there and since her return to Belgium. (It would be an interesting continuation as she has worked to enable international volunteering projects since her return.)

Green Almonds received the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) award for the best travel diary highlighting the living conditions of populations in precarious situations when it was published in France in 2011.

Do you read non-fiction graphic novels?

Do they offer a worthwhile presentation of historic or real-world events? (e.g. the March trilogy which focuses on civil rights in the US)

Can such a memoir make you think about world events and conditions?

The Hate You Give – revisit

Strong, harsh and confronting. Tells it like it is. Written from an #ownvoice perspective in 2017.

This is a hard book to read at this time of disruption (though I read it several years ago – in 2018), but more people should. Think I need to re-read it now in 2020.

Starr moves between two worlds – and for some time takes on 2 personas – between school (in a privileged world) and her home (a black neighbourhood). To get ahead, education is important; for balance, friends are vital; to live, family is critical. But where can she be real?

And what can she do, as a witness to an obscene injustice in a black community? How can a black teenager seek justice for a fallen friend?

I loved the characters in THUG – Starr, Khalil (while he lasts), even her flaky white friends at school. The contrast between Starr’s school friends’ aspirations and attitudes, and her home environment is stark. The story itself is a challenging read.

It took a while for me to get into the language and culture of the main characters – but then that’s what the book is all about. [So, language warning…]

Life is not homogenous. People are not all the same. For some life is easy, for others the struggle is real.

There’s a great interview and comments from Angie Thomas here– the call for #ownvoice writers is strong. There’s also a video discussing her inspiration for the book some 6 0r 7 years earlier:

I do now wonder what Angie might say today – in this time of #blacklifematters.

 

Read ‘The Hate You Give’ and reassess what you think.

 

# Is it important for stories like this to be told by #ownvoice writers?

The immigrant experience

Mia’s family has immigrated from China to the US for a better life – which is fine, until the reality of finding work hits. With little more than $200, the family takes on a job running a motel for Mr Yao, the wealthy owner. They soon realise life isn’t going to be as rosy as they first thought, as Mr Yao takes advantage of their desperate situation.

‘Front Desk’ reflects a lot of the personal experiences of the author, Kelly Yang, as she too helped her parents manage several motels in California from a young age. Just as Mia finds school difficult (hiding her poverty and facing racist taunts), so too did Kelly.

The exploitation of immigrant workers and racist attitudes facing people of non-white appearances is strongly portrayed, as Mia’s family struggles to get ahead. They find some comfort and support from the ‘weeklies’ who live in the Calivista Motel – though initially puzzled by the warning one gives them about the nature of their employer:

[Hank] “Everyone hates Mr Yao… Trust me, he’s anything but all right.”

Mia strives to get off the hopeless roller coaster of her situation. She  has ambitions to become a writer, even though her mother constantly directs her to devote her studies to maths. Is this an unrealistic ambition for a Chinese daughter of immigrants? Why is her mother so insistent on maths?

While Front Desk is fairly easy to read, many of the events and issues it raises are not. The ways Mia has to employ to cope with her family’s impoverished situation – both at school and at home, could make you sad. However, the other disempowered people she meets who spur her on and support the family provide hope.

It is HOPE that has to be continually reignited in this story, as Mia’s roller coaster takes her and her family on a rough, and sometimes dangerous, ride.

Kelly Yang wrote this story with purpose:

Finally, I hope that through this book, more people will understand the importance of tolerance and diversity…

This book is about what happens when you include, when, despite all your suffering and heartache, you still wake up every morning and look out at the world with fresh, curious eyes.

In this video, Kelly introduces Front Desk:

A recommended read for middle schoolers, and those who would like to see the immigrant experience through authentic eyes.

# The copy previewed has a different (newer) cover – why do you think the publishers have done this?

## Which of the things which happens to Mia and her family do you find most surprising? or most shocking?

Launching ‘the Godwits’

godwitsWhile this blog is mainly dedicated to reviewing Young Adult fiction, after attending the book launch of ‘the Godwits’ recently, I knew I had to write about it.

This is a tale that connects two worlds – and shows how they impact on one another, in spite of great distances and differing perspectives.

In one place, Gao Wei, the young son of Gao Da and Gao Shu, celebrates his birthday on the shores of the Yellow Sea in China; his new binoculars in hand. Many thousands of kilometres away, Gowie, a migratory bird also celebrates a birthday, as he awaits a momentous occasion.

Wei is passionate about birds, in much the same way as author Bruce Pickworth describes his own long-term passion for writing. Wei’s passion moves him to oppose a development which his father, Da, is meant to support in his work, and the battle begins. (Bruce’s has finally produced a picture book!)

In the other ‘world’, Gowie personifies the life of a Bar-tailed Godwit – an amazing bird which annually migrates between Australia/New Zealand and Alaska, via mainland China. We learn about the instincts these birds need to call upon, and the behaviour of the flock and who controls it. We are reminded that the power of the individual is not determined by size, but by attitude and relationships, when it comes to achieving leadership.

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As the tale develops, page by page, events in Wei’s life sit alongside those of Gowie; as each becomes stronger, and better acknowledged by others.

Dr Meredith Burgmann, who launched ‘the Godwits’, reminisced her own battles against developments threatening the environment. She also identified with many other aspects the book touches on like freedom of speech, feminist issues and family relationships. And then she wondered if it was time again for her to protest – in front of a grader about to start a demolition like Wei does in the story!

Author, Bruce Pickworth has combined a life-long passion for writing with a family interest in bird-watching, adventuring and natural discoveries. The result is a delightful tale which both entertains and informs, as Wei and Gowie overcome struggles put before them. Illustrator, Lorraine Robertson, provides gloriously detailed scenes to contrast the two worlds (as well as informing the astonishing fact pages). Authentic support from Birdlife Australia and their own personal histories bring Bruce and Lorraine together in achieving a wonderful project.

Once the story itself is finished, it is complemented by pages of amazing facts about Godwits, and actions that have been taken to ensure their migration path remain accessible  as the industrial world encroaches on these sites.

Here is another book to join those like Jeannie Baker’s ‘Circle’ to both entertain and inform our younger readers – and stun and amaze older readers, by presenting great visuals, and an appealing story for important environmental issues we must all consider. (It may be interesting to use them as comparative texts?)

* Copies of the book and teachers notes are available from Bullawai Books. The trade and school distributor is INT BOOKS – intbooks.online

History meets fiction

I thought of Micky – there was nothing useless or dirty or stupid about him. He was funny and worked hard. He was smart too. Actually he was just, well, normal. And that man on the television, Charles Perkins, spoke better than half of Walgaree.

freedomThis quote comes from Sue Lawson’s book, Freedom Ride; a fictional tale tied into the real events of the 1965 Freedom Rides which occurred in NSW. (Their aim was to draw attention to the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing.)

In Lawson’s book, we are introduced to Robbie – a teenager in a fictional (but representative) country town in NSW. Through Robbie’s eyes, we quietly see the subtle segregation that was ‘accepted’ in Australian history. Naturally, Robbie’s youthful views are his family’s views, but these are slowly adjusted as he critically observes the practices and beliefs of different adults around him.

With little previous exposure to the plight of Aborigines in his community, Robbie only begins to question community values when a holiday job sees him working side-by-side with Micky.

Historic events litter the tale, setting it in a real time and place in Australia. For a brief history about the time in which it is based, see BTN Freedom Ride

Was this how things really were in country towns in the 60’s? Some would argue this was not the case. But Sue Lawson has taken a pocket of humanity to illustrate the racist attitudes which promoted the Freedom Ride movement. Many who lived in similar locations would agrue that these emotions were not rampant in their mind’s eye – but for those suffering racist taunts and restrictions, it would have felt this way.

An interesting tale to put young adults in another person’s place and time in history.

Twins – Are You Seeing Me?

GrothTwins think and act alike, right? Even fraternal twins do many things the same, right?

Yes, to some degree. I can speak from personal experience of fraternal twins who would often pick the same birthday cards for relatives, and scheme together against the other siblings in the family – often in their own personalised language.

However, as many twins (both identical and fraternal) scream – they are still individuals! The twins in ‘Are You Seeing Me?’ are certainly individuals – both of whom scream for different reasons…

Perry screams when his world gets out of hand. At times when he is faced by the unfamiliar, “Perry has trouble with people – mixing with them and communicating with them – and it sometimes results in inappropriate behaviours.” 

This is the spiel that Perry’s sister regularly rolls out to explain her twin brother’s unusual behaviour. As his twin, she is determined to protect him from the judgemental gaze of others. When Justine screams, however, Perry isn’t the cause – it’s the interfering concern of others, like her boyfriend, Marc.

In ‘Are You Seeing Me?’ much of the journey for Perry and Justine takes place as they travel to Canada, to seek out their estranged mother, Leonie. She left the twins in their father’s care when they were 4, unable to cope with twins – especially since Perry has a ‘special needs’ tag. Unfortunately, in their nineteenth year, Perry and Justine are left alone as their doting father dies of cancer.

There is also an emotional journey for them as they attempt to re-establish links with Leonie – and she has much to learn about Perry. A chance for her to re-connect.

I love the characters Darren Groth has created. They are authentic and believable. The communication between Justine and her father occurs through a diary he kept from birth, and it provides her strength, understanding and support as she strives to support her brother as he tenuously begins to negotiate the adult world. Perry’s comments and insights provide a ‘look inside’ as he struggles to find independence and ‘free’ his sister of her twin commitment.

Finding out that Groth’s own twins were the inspiration behind this book cements the authenticity and appeal of this book. While it has been aligned to Mark Haddon’s ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, it tells a completely different tale. The relationship of twins shows how the Autism Spectrum Disorder impacts the whole family – and how they adapt and deal with it.

Groth proudly speaks of this in ‘A Dad’s Gift to his Neurotypical Daughter’, which is a very interesting prelude to the novel.

Groth’s tale is funny, informative and optimistic. The bond between Pez and Just Jeans is so lovable, it is a great tale for teens to enjoy.

N.B. I am also looking forward to reading ‘Kindling’, an earlier book by Darren Groth – which also deals with autism.

Struggle to be free – the Invention of Wings

inventionofwingsxI hereby certify that on this day, 26 November 1803, in the city of Charleston, in the state of California, I set free from slavery, Hetty Grimke, and bestow this certificate of manumission upon her.

Sarah Moore Grimke.

So begins Sarah Grimke’s attempts to free her personal slave, Handful – a gift from her parents on her eleventh birthday. As the middle daughter of a wealthy and prominent family in Charleston in the American Deep South in the 1800’s, she struggles to act in the way society expects of her. Sarah is unable to turn a blind eye to the brutal treatment of slaves – both those in her household and in society at large.

From an early age, witnessing the harsh treatment/punishments meted out (to keep the slaves in line) has a massive impact on Sarah. A troublesome stutter, which she struggles with at times of angst, in fact has its roots in a vicious flogging she viewed. The reality and pain of this urged Sarah on to fight for the abolition of slavery, but also provided a stumbling block to her ambitions – that, and the fact that she was a girl in a male-dominated society. Though she is known as ‘the daughter her mother calls difficult and her father calls remarkable’, there is nothing remarkable planned for her future.

The Invention of Wings is also told from the perspective of Hetty, otherwise known as Handful. Through Handful, the daily struggles of a slave are told, along with the coping mechanisms they use to survive. Handful’s mother, Charlotte, tries to weave hope into their pitiful existence, as she tells her about her family and their traditions – aiming to foster pride and courage in her daughter. As a talented seamstress, Charlotte is also clever in  teaching Handful valuable life skills and worthy talents to make life a little easier.

The story is actually founded on actual historical figures, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, American abolitionists, and members of the women’s suffrage movement. Much of the detail about Sarah is based in fact, while Handful’s story comes from research into slave narratives and personal childhood experiences of Sue Monk Kidd with African American voice.

Both Sarah and Handful ache for wings to free them from the fetters of their lives – one captured by slavery, the other with the sentence of being female at a time when women had few rights. While Sarah’s key purpose  is to promote the abolition of slavery,  and fulfilling a promise to Charlotte to try to free Handful, her own ‘slavery’ as a female also gives rise to the fight for women’s rights (which was also the case in history).

The Invention of Wings follows the success of The Secret Life of Bees, and would also make a great movie.

To get an insight into the writing process, there are several interviews with Monk Kidd online – including one hosted on her own website. It is a really interesting read, as she talks about the characters coming alive on the page over the 3 1/2 year writing period!

# I ‘read’ this book as an audiobook, which provided a great cast of voices also – though as usual I still needed the actual book when I became impatient to see the words on the page.

 

After ‘Fault in our Stars’… Zac and Mia!

imageZac is condemned – to spend an insufferable number of days, confined to a room, in the cheerful company of his mother. Not that he hates his mother’s presence – he just hates that she feels she has to be here. Or that he has to be here. But that’s what the medical system recommends. For treatment of his disease. And Zac accepts this.

Mia, on the other hand, resists. In the room next to Zac’s, she shouts, argues with her mother, and plays Lady Gaga on repeat, repeat, repeat.

Confined to his room, Zac wonders about the girl next door. Why is she so angry? Why does she argue with her mother? Why doesn’t she realise that the odds of her survival are so much higher than others on the ward? He knows all this – he has spent plenty of time googling for that kind of statistic. And her stats are good…

A.J.Betts  spent quite some time with kids in hospital. That fact is obvious. Her story is woven with mundane but realistic facts about living and dying with cancer. Without being boring, she tells of the ‘day-to-day’ experienced by families impacted by serious childhood illness, and the different ways they might cope.

Some have compared ‘Zac and Mia’ to ‘the Fault in Our Stars’. Some reviewers have criticized it as a copy, but having been written around the same time in a different continent it simply relates a similar focus – of young people dealing with cancer.

Having read and enjoyed both, and investigated the timing etc. needed to publish a book, I would say to the reader just ENJOY BOTH stories, since they have unique qualities to share. Zac and Mia do not go through the same therapy programs (as Hazel and Augustus). Zac and Mia finally meet after talking on Facebook and through hospital walls! Under different circumstances, their paths may never have crossed.

Strangely, the differences in their lives is what draws them together. The support Zac has in his family and friends is sadly lacking, for much of the story, for Mia. Their sameness is the struggle they face with a potentially lethal disease.

Zac and Mia is a thoughtful story, filled with astute observations and discreet comments from an author who has spent time on a hospital ward, supporting young adults in dire times. There is lots to absorb and think about – especially for those trying to understand some of the struggles faced by teen cancer patients.

A little bit extra:

In weeks to come, there will be a list of other books for those who have enjoyed  both ‘the Fault on Our Stars’ and ‘Zac and Mia’.

For those who can’t wait, there is another book worth reading – This Star Won’t Go Out’ by Esther Earl. This is a real life journey, said to have inspired John Green’s story, ‘the Fault on Our Stars’ – this video introduces Esther’s book. (Comments here from John Green and Esther’s sisters.)

That there are a number of books with a focus on young adults with life threatening illnesses at the moment is probably more a reflection of the openness of the medical profession, and more education from the media, than duplication or copying of an idea. What do you think?

History lessons – Orphan Trains

orphanSometimes we learn things from books which we never knew about. For me, I had never heard of the concept of ‘orphan trains’ until I read the book ‘Orphan Train’ by Christina Baker Kline.

Here is some information about ‘orphan trains’, according to Wikipedia:

The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. which took young children into the countryside to be adopted by country families of the USA.

Baker Kline’s tale personalises this experience, and makes us consider what it might be like to be relocated and adopted as a young girl, at this time in history, in a foreign land…

A young Irish girl, Niamh (pronounced “Neeve”), who immigrated from Ireland during the Great Depression, loses her entire family when a fire rips through their apartment building in their new homeland. The authorities see fit to send her on an orphan train for fostering by a family in the countryside – this deemed to be her only choice.

Orph-Train.photo1_Niamh’s tale is told by Vivian – an elderly woman living alone in a large house full of untouched possessions. Her possessions in the attic begin to be sorted with the arrival of Molly – a wayward teen, on her last chances in the foster care system. A community service position helping the elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvenile detention.

Molly is reluctant to take part in the activity – since she is beyond expecting to get anything positive out of her life; but her boyfriend persists and encourages her to ‘do her time’ this way.

As Molly helps Vivian sort and revisit possessions, Vivian’s story plays out and they find they have more in common that might first be apparent.

In ‘Orphan Train’ Baker Kline provides characters and families to history, as well as presenting the emotions that could be felt by orphans and ofster children of the modern day. It is a story of both desperation and hope; of upheaval and settling; of desertion and friendship. Within it pages, both Molly and Vivian learn from one another, and the gap between generations dissolves. Past experiences shape us, but the present is how we learn and grow from these.

What things in the past have shaped how you are today?

Is there anything in ‘Orphan Train’ that surprises you? or anything you might question?

NB. Listening to this tale was a great experience as each character spoke in a different accent, as it jumped between differing locations and times!

Before and After – ‘After’ by Sue Lawson

afterCJ is sent to stay with his grandparents in the countryside. It is in the middle of the school year. He is not happy. Neither are they.

Life in the country is also quite different from the city life he is used to. There’s a lot of different jobs to do on the farm. Many different animals to get used to. And then, there’s a whole lot of new ‘animals’ and other stuff to adapt to at a new school.

The trouble for CJ (Callum) is that the town of Winter Creek knows more about him than he does. Nobody has told him anything about his background. What is worse is that Jack Frewen knows a whole lot more about him than he would like him to know. On top of this, Callum also has aspects about his recent past that he would like to forget – if only his nightmares and daytime flashbacks would allow him.

Sue Lawson has packaged some great characters into ‘After’. Why? Because they are realistic and believable. They could be your best mate, your worst (bullying) enemy, or your long lost grandparent. Look left or right, Jack or Ella or Tim may be one of your schoolmates. Nic or Benny may be much like your best friend. Or least, someone you know at school.

Since Callum strives to be a loner at his new school – private and solitary, it is interesting that along the way, he buddies up with Luke; a ‘special’ boy at school, victim of taunts and teasing. Someone who used to be someone great until….

Callum’s quiet acceptance of all that is dished out to him at school, bubbles under the surface through most of the story, at a time when he is struggling with why his mother has sent him away. He doesn’t dob on those who bully him. He doesn’t want to talk about his past. He doesn’t want to sort things out with his mother or his grandmother. How many of the people you know at school and work might be feeling much the same? [Quietly troubled.]

Events traipse along in ‘After’, loosely connected along a line of sporting and school activities. Favours and favouritism raise their heads, as old alliances are paid out with blind acceptance of the way things just play out in a country town. But Callum’s arrival begins to challenge the old order. And some, like Jack Frewen, aren’t happy about that.

Old hurts, anger, blocked memories and misinterpretations are some of the key things Callum has to deal with – which becomes clear to us as we move between the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ elements of this story.  Little by little, bits of Callum’s past are revealed – many of which are new to Callum himself. When some are revealed in an antagonistic manner, how will he react?

‘After’ is a story of hurt, rejection and reconciliation. A story of contrasts and differences.  A story of acceptance and friendship.

What do you think?

Young_adult

See: http://www.suelawson.com.au/books/young-adult/ for more.

* For more great books by Sue Lawson see: http://www.suelawson.com.au/books/young-adult/ – including ‘Finding Darcy’, ‘Allie McGregor’s True Colours’ and ‘Pan’s Whisper’.