Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mao and Me by Chen Jiang Hong

I cannot think of a time in the lives of American children when they will be expected to learn about modern day China. Yes, high school students are required to study world history and geography….but to understand the complexities of China during Mao's Cultural Revolution is not expected of American youths. Possibly, young people in college will learn about Mao if they take courses that specialize in modern Chinese history.

I know many Chinese American young people adopted into American families. Many of these young people have a natural curiosity about China's culture and history. Many do not. Many have parents that have a curiosity and interest in Chinese culture and history. Many do not. Many will travel to China on heritage tours….and many will not. However, in all of these cases, these young people will "meet" Mao in some way during their lives and be challenged to understand why he is important to China. As a parent, that does have an interest in Chinese culture and history; I find it difficult to explain Mao Tse Tung in simple terms. Hong's picture book, Mao and Me, is as good an explanation as I can give to young people from ages 8 to adult. I found this book in the Juvenile Biography section of my local library.

This book is two autobiographical stories in one. The first story is of how the author, born in 1963, enjoyed growing up as a typical kid in Shanghai…lots of illustrations show depictions of everyday life that I have seen in China from the architecture, style of clothing, living in an extended family, writing tablets in school, crowded buses and city streets, holiday traditions. However, the author is three years old when Mao's Cultural Revolution begins and it shapes his entire world from what he eats, or doesn't, how he is educated and programmed to become a part of Mao's revolution.

Throughout the weaving of both these stories, lines of the illustrations, colors and text all bear witness to a trying time of Chinese history. After my nine year old Chinese born daughter read the book her comment was: "This is so very sad". I'm ok with her reaction. I want her to know that there was a leader in China named Mao who was very famous when he was alive and still is after his death. Mao's leadership both inspired the people of China to strive toward greatness and was very difficult for his people to survive. In some important ways it was a sad time for China.

If a child is mature enough for Young Adult books (those written for an 8th grade audience and up), I would pair this picture book with the outstanding YA novel: Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Yin Chang Compestine. Also autobiographical, this story is a gripping account of life as a teen during the days of the Cultural Revolution in Whuan, (Hubei Province) China. Revolution is Not a Dinner Party has won numerous awards including an ALA Best YA Book in 2008 as well as a 2008 Best Social Studies Trade Book Award. The combination of Compestine's in depth description of 1970's China as well as Hong's picture book would be an excellent launch into a true study of the time period for young and adult students of this period of Chinese history.

Hong, C. (2008). Mao and Me. New York: Enchanted Lion Books

Compestine, Y. (2007). Dinner is Not a Revolution. New York: Square Fish Books

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees

I told my facebook friends that I was reading this book and a response from a friend was that her son was encouraged to read this book as a ninth or tenth grader for summer reading. Her observation that it was not a book designed for young teen boys. I have to agree with her on that. This book is heavily laden with woman's thought, woman's love, loss, grief, gain and power. I would never expect a young teen boy to connect with this book in a meaningful way….I wouldn't expect my forty-something husband who's been trying to figure out "girl stuff" for fifteen years of marriage now to really connect with this book. The Secret Life of Bees, in my opinion, is also the secret life of women. If a young man reads it and enjoys it, more power to him…..but I'd never force it. That being said, I would definitely include The Secret Life of Bees in a high school collection. My favorite line from the book is one that would do all the world good to understand: "And when you get down to it, Lily, that's the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love—but to persist in love."(p. 289).

Add Secret Life of Bees to your summer reading, girls. It's a book to be enjoyed in hot weather with a teaspoon of honey mixed into your tea.

Kidd, S. (2002). The Secret Life of Bees. New York: Penguin.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Reasons to Read Elijah of Buxton

Ten Reasons to Read Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

1. The story is based on the real history of the Elgin Settlement and Buxton Mission of Ontario Canada. This is a place established by a white minister for escaped and freed slaves in the 1850s. Much of the novel is based on the true facts of this place. The history itself is rich and interesting. The book is dedicated to the first twenty inhabitants of the town. Elijah, a fictional character, was the first child born free in Buxton.

2. Even though Elijah, the narrator, is only eleven, he deals with very complex and adult related situations. Some of the situations are "bust-a-gut" funny and some are deadly serious. Throughout it all, Elijah has to think smart and as grown up as he can to keep himself and others safe in his world. Kids today of any age can relate….especially kids in grades 4-8.

3. The chapter 'Familiarity Breeds Contempt' is the best lesson I've ever encountered on why no one in their right mind should ever use the "n" word. It starts out funny, ends up serious and satisfying.

4. The end of the story has fantastic suspense. Read this…"When you first walk into a room in a house, or into a stable, they have a way of telling you they know you're there. It ain't nothing particular noticeable, but the air inside of 'em changes like it's saying, "I'm watching you." But I got into this stable so quiet and sneakish that nothing knowed I'd cracked open the door, held my breath and took a step inside." (p. 289-290).

5. There are descriptions of slave life re-told by characters that escaped from slavery or who are attempting to escape are appropriate for juvenile readers but carry horrors in a way that the reader feels like they understand slavery in new way.

6. Even though the narration and dialog are written in the dialect of the times and group, it doesn't make the story harder to read.

7. The characters of the book are believable, loveable and funny. Even though living in Buxton isn't easy, it's full of people anyone would want for family, friends and neighbors.

8. Elijah has one of the coolest talents described in a story—chunking.

9. The author, Christopher Paul Curtis has written many other GREAT books. His writing is so rich and descriptive that it makes the reader want to read all his books. Books by Curtis can be found at his official website:

10. As with several of Curtis' books, Elijah of Buxton is an award winner. It was a Newberry Honor Book in 2008 as well as winner of the 2008 Coretta Scott King Prize.

Curtis, C. Elijah of Buxton 2007. New York: Scholastic Press

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil

Years ago, when I taught high school, there was a teen girl from Pakistan in my US History class. She wasn't a great student. She and I didn't seem to click. Today I don't even remember her name. But, one day she mentioned that soon she would return to Pakistan to marry. Her Muslim girlfriends assured me that she wasn't kidding and they were worried for her as there was no way she was getting out of the marriage. "Her parents are strict," they would tell me. I only half believed or understood this talk at the time. After all, she was a very social and American acting teen with a boyfriend. She dressed western and in a way I would call provocative and what other students would term "slutty". How could parents of a girl like this be strict?

I've thought of that student many times as I've read books such as Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools by Greg Mortensen. However, the memory of this former student haunted me as I read Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez (2007 Random House).

Rodriguez, a beautician from Michigan with a textured past as a twice divorced single mother finds herself in Afghanistan in 2005 working to establish a beauty school for Afghan women as a means to empower that nation's women as independent, thinking contributors to their society. None of the story is easy from Rodriguez's personal journey to the lives of the women she wishes to make a positive impact on. However, Rodriguez's experiences living in Afghanistan as an American woman are fascinating. She really does get "behind the veil" to learn what life is like for women in Afghan culture…what is difficult, what is impossible but better yet what is possible given the right attitude, the right friends and connections and a compassionate heart.

I have just a tiny bit of experience as a volunteer for a humanitarian organization that seeks to improve lives of vulnerable and cast off members of an Asian nation. Working with an in another culture and society is difficult to say the least. I appreciate that the author shared how difficult it is to learn a culture, successfully live in the culture and work to improve the lives within that culture all at the same time. It seems impossible the whole time until one looks back and sees the work that has been accomplished. It reminds me of a term that I learned working to improve the lives of orphans in China:"baby steps". Progress can be accomplished but at a much slower pace than what we westerners understand. Furthermore, we westerners can learn a thing or two by slowing down and understanding what does work in another culture. It can often be enlightening to us if we give it a chance!

School Library Journal has given a solid positive review of this book at for high school students and adults:

I think that older teens able to handle the descriptions of cultural differences related to marriage and sexual relations between western and Afghan culture could learn a lot from this book. Additionally, I found myself considering the advantages and power that have been afforded beauticians in my own culture that I had never give thought to before. Beauticians for generations have been independent business women that make decisions, bring home the bacon and often raise children in the midst of it all. Virginia's own Maggie Walker earned a kind of fame as an early beautician for the African American community in a similar way that Rodriguez seeks to do for Afghan women.

My Pakistani student from a decade ago was not Afghan….so I cannot know her experience from reading this book. I do have a broader understanding for what life as a woman in a Muslim culture entails thanks to Rodriguez's generous sharing of her experience in Kabul Beauty School.

Additional photos of Rodriguez's life in the Kabul Beauty School and Afghanistan can be found at her non-profit Oasis Rescue website:

The Kabul Beauty School is not without controversy….certainly controversial in Afghanistan where beauty shops are suspected of being "fronts" for brothels but also in the west where there are grumblings between the school's founders and the author of the book about who did what and when for the school. Despite the grumblings which can easily be found in Google searches, I felt that I learned a great deal from this book. It's a great read!

Rodriguez, D. (2007). Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil. New York: Random House.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Hooray for Flickr and CC

Today is July 4th. I'm a pretty patriotic gal so I changed my facebook profile pic to the American flag. One small problem for me is that I don't have a photo of an American flag to use. To solve my problem I visited Flickr. Flickr is a website that hosts images and video for members. Flickr offers services for free up to a certain amount of digital storage space. Customers willing to pay a fee for more space can store many more photos and videos at the site.

What's fun about Flickr is that the site contains endless images that anyone can use. I've gone to Flickr for images to complete lesson plans, documents such as invitations, letters and creative writing pieces. Images on Flickr are protected by copyright and Creative Commons licensing. If you've not heard of Creative Commons, CC is a non-profit organization that provides licensing alternatives to creators so that works can be shared and built upon easily without infringing on the rights of the creator. For example, if I take a photo of daffodils in my front yard and upload the image to Flickr. I can choose to keep the image private or share it. If I share the image I can decide how someone else may use the image. The choices are

Attribution: Others can use, copy and change the work as long as they cite me as the creator
Share Alike: Others can use and change my work so long as it's under the same license my work is under
Non-Commercial: Others can use and change my work so long as it's not for profit (this is a great one for teachers)
No-Derivative Work: Others can use my work on in its original form only

Considering the above license options and my quest for a flag photo, I navigated to Flickr and signed in (with my yahoo account password as Flickr is associated with I searched for American Flag with an advanced search so that my results were ONLY for images licensed under Creative Commons. On the second page of results, I found a flag photo that I liked taken by crazyemt in 2006. The license link on the bottom right side of the page leads me to a page that states that I am "free to share, copy and distribute" the image so long as that I do not change the image or make money from using it. Ta da! A free photo of a flag for my facebook profile on the Fourth of July that is legal for me to use. Thanks crazyemt – whoever you are!

Flickr and CC are great sources of images for young people to use for school projects and mash-ups. However, adults and educators must understand that Flickr is wide open in the type of content stored there. Because anything and everything can be found on Flickr, I recommend working with a young person to find images either with one on one attention or creating a gallery of photos that a young person can choose from to use in their project.