Thanks to our poet photographer friend for hosting this week's round-up at Nix the Comfort Zone. Be sure to stop by for lots and lots of wonderful poetry offerings.
Come Monday, I will be back in middle school as a teacher-librarian. I enjoy work...and, I have LOVED summer. It's always an adjustment going back because this last week is the week to read all those books I was going to read over the summer. Ack!
I read Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots (Simon & Schuster 2018) by Young People's Poet Laureate, Margarita Engle.
Jazz Owls is a novel in verse and I love it!
As an educator and librarian for young people, I'm always looking for text that describes how situations other than those familiar feel. Jazz Owls does this wonderfully--and in exquisite verse.
First, there is a realistic cast of characters caught up in the Los Angeles riots (known as the Zoot Suit riots. But, I may never call them by that name again), the summer of 1943. As in other novels by Ms. Engle, each character holds an important piece of the whole story.
It's no surprise to today's readers that some voices in 1943 were listened to before others. First heard and protected were navy sailors training at the nearby base and about to be shipped off to the Pacific -- scared, nervous and looking for ways to vent it all. Also, police and newspaper writers looking for an angle to sell papers were important in the framing of this story.
Other voices were young Mexican-American women working in canning factories for little pay for long hours while being encouraged to also dance at USO Clubs in the evenings. After all, the troops should be kept happy, right? All of these people had families and neighbors that were a part of the fabric of their lives.
Meet Marisela, Lorena and their younger brother-chaperone Ray who work for the war effort by day and dance swing and jitterbug by night. Their older brother, Nico and their father are fighting World War II. Mama, Abuelita are with them on the Homefront.
I love feeling jazz-winged,
so this owl life is easy for me.
until early morning when my shift
at the cannery begins, right after a LONG journey
of clanging streetcar bells and SLEEPY smiles, all
those memories of dancing the jitterbug, Lindy Hop,
and jump blues, while adding my own swaying bit
of Latin-style swing rhythm!
DARK SIDE OF TOWN was the worst headline,
with words that made the rest of this city feel
like white people had received official
all of us
If you can't dance
with your neighbors,
you live in the wrong
Dance halls need musicians like Manolito, a drummer, who hails from Cuba. These guys are being kept busy by the high demand for big band and swing. Everyone wants to feel alive so close to the thought of war and death.
I'm just one of hundreds of musicians
who arrive from New York, Memphis, Chicago,
Kansas City, Saint Louis, and from the steamy islands
of musica too, Cuba and Puerto Rico, drummers,
wearing our loose suits, the zoot shape
that drapes us to keep dance leaps smooth
and COOL in this HOT summer river
These beautiful young people get caught up in hysteria, violence and racism when navy recruits, fueled by newspaper angling, rushed streets looking for zoot-suiters to beat up. Chaos, injury, arrests and division ensue.
Engle gets right to the truth of history with poetic images quickly and without mincing words. Our young people can grasp this. After all, they are witnessing life now.
There is no happy ending, however, life does go on. There is an admirable reference list and illustrations by Rudy Gutierrez who's work give layers of authenticity to the text. Artistic readers will be inspired immediately.
A few years ago, some seventh graders were looking for book information on Zoot Suits and the Zoot Suit (which should be more apply named Sailor) Riots. I wish I could have put this book in their hands. Now, I can. And, we can talk and the conversation about who we have been as Americans and who we need to be can continue. This book pairs perfectly with the movie (or snippets of the movie for classroom viewing), Swing Kids .
Thank you, Margarita Engle. You remain one of my writing and reading heroes.