Thursday, December 30, 2010

Recommendations from NPR forTeen Reads

YA author Gayle Forman (who wrote If I Stay, which I loved) reveals her five favorite teen reads of the year in an article for NPR titled, Oh, To Be Young: This Year's Best Teen Reads. She starts the article by stating:
I read a lot of young-adult novels. I also read a lot of adult-adult novels, and I'm always after the same experience, whether I'm reading Philip Roth or Philip Pullman: a book that sucks me in from chapter one, makes me think and, above all, makes me feel. I want to finish the book a slightly different person than I was when I started it.

 I feel exactly the same way, as I think most of us do. I have read some, but not all of the books on her list. So, I will be adding to my "to read" list for the new year. How about you?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ole! Flamenco by George Ancona

Dancing with the Stars has brought much attention to dancing in the US in the five years it has been on the air (even my local YMCA has started ballroom dancing classes). The same year Dancing with the Stars premiered (2005), the film Mad Hot Ballroom was released documenting the New York City public school system's ballroom dance program for fifth graders. I loved this movie and if you haven't watched it yet, it's a great movie to watch with the family over the holiday break. You can see the children in the film literally transformed over the 10-week period of the documentary, culminating in a city-wide competition.

Each of the dances highlighted in these shows,  such as the tango, foxtrot, swing, rumba and merengue, have a deep cultural history and when adults and children alike perform these dances, they join in the origins, history, movements, music, and performance of the generations who have gone before them to bring the dance to where it is today. I believe that is why watching the children transform in Mad Hot Ballroom was so moving for me.

I think children's books can bring to the forefront the cultural background and history of many types of dance. I believe that reading and deep discussion of culturally specific literature increases students' ability to examine the values, beliefs and events in their personal and collective lives and the ability to view literacy as an empowering force in the classroom. So, of course, I was thrilled when I received a copy of Ole! Flamenco written and photographed by George Ancona and published by Lee and Low.

Ole! Flamenco explores the history and practice of Flamenco, an art form that incorporates dance and music. Flamenco is "the dramatic Spanish art of song, dance, and music." George Ancona became interested in flamenco many years ago when he visited a small village in the south of France and watched an annual gathering of Gypsies in honor of their patron saint, Sara-la-Kali, Sara the Black. At this gathering, he discovered flamenco and, along with his childhood study of flamenco guitar, the idea for Ole! Flamenco was born.

The book follows Janira Cordova, who is studying flamenco with her dance company, Flamenco's Next Generation, as they learn the tools of their art in preparation for their performance at Santa Fe's annual Spanish Market.

Ancona's photographs document Janira from rehearsal to performance while integrating the cultural history of flamenco through a powerful combination of photographs and narrative. For example, the left hand page of one spread displays a montage of pictures showing the many hand movements, facial expressions, attire, and body movements that flamenco dancers use to perform. The text reads, "A dancer's face is never still. Along with arm, hand, and foot movements of flamenco, the face shows what the dance feels through expressions such as a frown, a glare, or a smile." The opposite page is a full page photograph of a dancer in mid-motion--face intense, dress flying, hands moving--while the guitar player sits in the background. Together, the double page spread provides the reader with an understanding of the many layers that go into a well performed flamenco dance.

The release of Ole Flamenco is timely since flamenco was inscribed  in  2010 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity which includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

The UNESCO site is a good resource for learning more about flamenco including a slideshow and video (see below).

 An interview with George Ancona is on the Lee and Low site.

Ole! Flamenco is an excellent addition to the school and classroom library for many reasons. An important aspect of the book is that it provides a link to the cultural heritage of the dance while also showing how the dance is performed today. But, it will also interest kids who are familiar with the dance and also those who want to know more. As a child, I remember being fascinated by the beautiful dresses the women wear when performing the dance and would have been intrigued by a book that provided more information.

Ole! for Ole! Flamenco!

Friday, December 3, 2010

2010 National Book Award Winner, Young People's Literature

The 2010 National Book Award Winner for Young People's Literature is Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, published by Penguin.

In Caitlin’s world, everything is black or white. Things are good or bad. Anything in between is confusing. That’s the stuff Caitlin’s older brother, Devon, has always explained. But now Devon’s dead and Dad is no help at all. Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger’s, she doesn’t know how. When she reads the definition of closure, she realizes is what she needs. In her search for it, Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white—the world is full of colors—messy and beautiful.

Interview by Eisa Ulen 

Eisa Ulen: The female protagonist in your novel, Caitlin, has Asperger’s syndrome, a condition your daughter also has. In Mockingbird, Caitlin must struggle to get along with classmates who marginalize her. Are Caitlin’s experiences similar to your own daughter’s experiences? What does your daughter think of your depiction of Caitlin’s inner world?

Kathryn Erskine: A few of the experiences are similar, but mostly I did a lot of research—reading, going to workshops, talking to people affected by Asperger's—because I wanted to make the story as universal as possible. Every kid is different, just like every kid with Asperger's is different, although there are certainly traits that are similar and are used to define the condition, such as (over)reactions to noise or touch, lack of eye contact, difficulty in social situations, etc. I was glad, though, when my daughter read the book and said she thought it was a very accurate depiction of the way a child with Asperger's sees the world.

EU: The Oscar-winning 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird figures prominently in your book. Like the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee on which the film is based, Mockingbird is a Bildungsroman that explores themes of courage and compassion, or what Caitlin calls empathy. When did you first read To Kill a Mockingbird and why do you think Lee’s novel has meant so much to you?

KE: I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was about 8 years old. My older sister, a born teacher, had read it and insisted that I read it. I loved it. I think we both identified with the book because, like Jem and Scout, she was a few years older than me and was a do-the-right-thing kind of older sibling, like Jem, and I was more the sometimes-gets-into-trouble tomboy, like Scout. Also, we'd recently moved from South Africa, under apartheid, and we understood the injustice of that racial separation. I remember feeling so proud, upon discovering I was an American, and announcing to my mother that we didn't have apartheid in our country. I'll never forget her answer: "Oh, yes, we do. We just don't call it that." And I'll never forget how devastated I was to discover that truth about my own country. In fact, it's the theme of the novel I just finished writing (tentatively titled Facing Freedom).

EU: You’ve said that the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings compelled you to write Mockingbird. Because the shooter had a history of mental illness, many Americans used this incident to highlight the problems in our health care system, especially with regard to mental health treatment. Is your novel, in some ways, a response to that public discourse?

KE: I do feel strongly that early (and continuous) intervention is the best way to handle any problem, health and mental health issues included. I can't help but think that if the shooter had been given attention earlier, and been monitored throughout his childhood and adolescence, maybe things wouldn't have escalated to such a horrifying conclusion. That's also why I make Mrs. Brook a prominent character in Mockingbird, because I want to send the message that, especially in this time of budget cuts, we need counselors in all of our schools because they help all of us cope with and understand each other.

EU: I have a cousin with Williams Syndrome, and her mother does not allow people to use what she considers offensive language. For example, if someone jokingly says “That is so retarded,” she calmly tells them that she finds their language unacceptable. I thought of her when I read the gym class scene in your chapter “It’s a Girl Thing” and whenever Caitlin questioned the meaning of words like “special” and “autistic.” Is it your hope that readers will be thinking about language and labels differently after reading Mockingbird?

KE: Yes. In fact, I love what my pediatrician said upon my daughter's diagnosis: "It doesn't matter what we call it. Let's just call her by her name." I love the idea of focusing on the person, not on any label that person might have attached to them. Labels de-personalize the person. It's easy for kids to use words like "retarded" or "special" to poke fun at people. When they get to know the person and understand why the person acted that way, it's not as easy. In fact, I have to relate this story told to me by a mother who read Mockingbird to her kids. When her twins were at camp with an autistic boy who reacted in a situation that surprised the other campers, the twins not only accepted him for who he was but also defused the situation by explaining his reaction to the other kids. That story was so gratifying it made me tear up—because that's exactly why I wrote this book.