A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Fatty Legs: A True Story

Great title, eh? As soon as I saw it, I wanted to know more. When I read this memoir by Canadians Christy Jordan-Fenton and her mother-in-law Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, I wasn’t disappointed.

In 1944, Olemaun Pokiak (Margaret) was a strong-minded Inuvialuit girl who really wanted to learn to read. Because she lived in a small village in the Canadian Arctic, that meant she had to leave home to go to boarding school.

Despite warnings from her older sister, who had recently returned from school, Olemaun badgered her father to let her go. Finally he relented. The trip to Aklavik took five days by schooner. At the age of eight, she said goodbye to her parents and family, expecting to be reunited – and literate -- within the year.

What follows is an account of the price Olemaun paid for learning to read, which she considered the “greatest of the outsiders’ mysteries.” As one year stretched into two, she endured hard labors, punishments, and both cultural and personal humiliation at the hands of The Raven. This nun singled out Olemaun for extra doses of punitive “education,” epitomized by the awful red stockings Olemaun alone was forced to wear. Those ugly stockings earned her the nickname “Fatty Legs.”

Pokiak-Fenton’s true story reminds me of Roald Dahl’s fictional Matilda – except Olemaun’s situation was all too true to be humorous. Olemaun’s torments were committed not only against her but against the Inuvialuit culture that nurtured her spirit. Fortunately, two things saved Olemaun: her determination and The Swan, a kind nun who counteracted some of The Raven’s worst abuses.

The power of literacy comes through loud and clear in this story. Through Olemaun's quest to learn to read, we see the indignities, small and large, that accompany the disadvantage of illiteracy. Imagine, for one, mistakenly purchasing – and trying to brush your teeth with – the contents of a tube of shaving cream that looked like toothpaste.

In 104 pages, this first-hand account conveys directly and uniquely what it felt like to be an indigenous child at boarding school, powerless at the hands of adults from the dominant culture. The telling is thoughtful, spirited, and frequently eloquent. Evocative illustrations by Liz Amini-Holmes enhance the chapters, while the black-and-white photographs from "Olemaun's Scrapbook" convey a strong sense of era and setting.

On this Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I’m thankful that Olemaun Pokiak did indeed learn to read and found a way, with Christy Jordan-Fenton, to tell her story. Thank you for reminding us that “A wren can be just as clever as a raven.”

Published by Annick Press.
Kirkus, starred review, Nov. 14, 2010.
Fatty Legs book trailer here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tough Topics

I had a sad task this week. I had to look for good children’s books about death.

Two students at my school, from two separate families, each lost a parent in unrelated, tragic accidents. These students, as well as their friends and classmates, will be asking -- or surely thinking about -- the kinds of simple, basic questions that can be most difficult to answer: What is death? Why does it have to happen? How do we cope with our feelings? What happens to our loved ones after death?

Adults struggle with these same questions. One-size-fits-all answers are hard to come by, all the more so, distilled into words and concepts a six-year-old can understand. It’s one thing to explain the death of a beloved pet, or an elderly grandparent, or even someone younger who has been seriously ill. But accidental deaths come without preparation or any sense of transition or notion of fitting within the natural cycle of all living beings.

Wearing my librarian hat, I found several books that deal with the death of a pet or a grandparent. A couple approach death in general as part of the life cycle. But unmitigated tragedy? That’s a tough one, most likely because it’s so difficult to write about.

When I put on my writing hat, I realize how hard it is to think about. How would I approach the topic in a way that kids could relate to? I don’t get very far before my brain starts to fizzle.

My respect and appreciation go out to writers who can fill the need for those books.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Diamond Willow

In general, I am not a fan of novels in verse. To me the continual line breaks get annoying. I tend to complain: Just get on with the story! And the voice, which is so integral to both poetry and fiction, often seems to wear thin.

That said, I’m a big fan of Diamond Willow, a novel by Helen Frost that is written primarily in shape poems. The story is about a 12-year-old part-Athabascan girl struggling to find her sense of self. She lives in a fictional Bush village in Alaska. The voice is authentic, an almost painful reminder of what it feels like to be a young girl on the cusp of adolescence. The plot is powerful on an emotional level, as a family secret unfolds and issues of friendship and relationships are examined. It is also an adventure story, as Willow survives a blizzard and serious outdoor challenges while dog mushing. And if that isn’t enough, it’s a terrific dog story, as well.

Throughout the story, Willow speaks in shape poems, most often diamonds.

These are not highly structured poems in the traditional sense, which is probably why they work as narrative prose. But look more closely: do you see the words in bold? Each poem contains some. Like a secret message, they summarize the theme of that poem, underscoring Willow’s emotions on that page.

A gimmick? Well, maybe. But it’s nifty and innovative. And it works.

Other characters also talk to us throughout the story. Their voices appear in standard line format, which helps the reader shift from one point of view to another. But even their contributions to the story have a twist: they are all animals, some representing the spirit of Willow’s relatives who have died.

All in all, it’s a great read. It reminds me a little of Stone Fox, both in terms of subject matter (love of family, dog sledding, struggling to find one’s way) and emotional impact. The story is more complex -- its intended audience is older, I’d say 5th to 7th grades – and the main character is a girl. But in both stories that special love of a child for a dog shines through.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Running for Books

Today is election day. After yet another almost unbearably intense election season in Alaskan and national politics, I awoke this morning with some trepidation, worrying about the outcome. Then I checked my e-mail. Waiting was a message from a friend saying, Who should I write the check to for your school library?

Those are mood-changing words for any librarian, but especially for librarians in underfunded school libraries. These days, with tight school budgets and so much money going into testing and technology, books are not always the top priority that they should be if we truly want kids to read. My friend understands that. She is a runner who, with the help of just one other person, over the past two years has organized a series of fun-runs in our little community. She uses the proceeds from those runs to help out her favorite community groups. The school library where I work is one of them.

The check isn't huge -- it's a small run in a small community -- but it's significant. It will buy books the kids want to read. Maybe equally as important, it sends a message: your community understands that reading and books matter. Your community cares.

However the elections turn out today, might I suggest: do something positive for literacy, for children, for libraries. You'll feel good about it and you'll probably make someone's day.