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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Neil Gaiman in NYC

I feel strangely obligated and slightly compelled to at least mention that I was one of the audience members (around 500) who went to hear/see Neil Gaiman read the first chapter of The Graveyard Book. He was as always, charming and witty, and the Q&A section where he answered many questions written on index cards went beautifully humorous. And I, as always, did not bring a camera. Oh, well. I am sure that if you google Neil Gaiman Graveyard Book New York City -- you'll see some more enthusiastic and better prepared fans' pictures, videos, and audio clips. Here's an audio file for the entire first chapter as pre-recorded by HarperCollins.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hate That Cat

Hate That Cat: A NovelAuthor: Sharon Creech
Reading Level: 2nd to 5th grade

Pages: 153
Publisher: HarperCollins
Edition: Hardcover, 2008

I was really delightfully surprised at how I enjoyed reading this one. I remember loving Love That Dog and did not think that I was emotionally manipulated -- although most of the time I feel Creech's books highly "manipulative." And again, I cried over this little story and did not hate the fact that I cried. I have been wondering about Verse Novels and this book does not only present itself as a verse novel, it discusses the notion of poetry -- light ones vs. "serious" ones; children's self-reflective writing vs. classic, grand poetry. It's definitely a very teacher-y book. I can see 4th-6th grade teachers all over thinking to themselves, "I can use this in my poetry unit! It even teaches techniques such as similes, metaphors, and alliteration!" The introduction of a deaf mother is an interesting touch. Maybe a little forced but it does offer the opportunity for the young readers to think and discuss the notion of beat/rhythm as "sounds" and actual physical vibrations. (Oh, my, god, can this book even be used by Science Teachers about sound waves?!!)

Anyway. I am pleased with the book.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

Examining The Five Chinese Brothers

On Child_lit (a listserv devoted to the discussion of children's literature), we've been having a heated debate (again) over Bishop's The Five Chinese Brothers. (Claire Hutchet Bishop/Kurt Wiese, 1938) I have been a supporter for this book for the longest time, sharing it with my daughter who is half-Chinese and half-Jewish. (I am 100% Chinese: half Han, half Manchurian, born and raised in Taiwan.) I'm only posting here to let my readers decide whether the common complaints about this book match the facts. The complaints have been mostly based on the illustrations, so that's all we're going to look at today.

1st complaint: everyone in the crowd looks exactly alike in a stereotypical way.
There are only two spreads in this 32-page picture book that contain a crowd scene. Most of the faces are just outlines of the cheeks. These few faces in the front show completely different features: ear and face shapes, noses, mouths, and neck thickness, and one even wears glasses. Their outfits are all alike and every man has a queue (the braided hair) which was the required/prescribed hairstyle for all men in the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1912.) Cutting off the queue or wearing hair in a different style could cause someone's life since that was against the law. So, if the illustrator decided to set the story during those 250+ years, it is entirely normal for a crowd of men to wear queues.

Complaint 2: Chinese people are not yellow like that.
This book was published in 1938, at a time where 4-color separation and multicolor printing was not common and was not done in most children's books. This book has 3 colors which means it has but ONE color. Black and white were a given and one more color was added to brighten the illistrations. Everything is YELLOW in the book -- from the waves of the sea, to the sails of the boat, the treasures on the seabed, and the flames of the fire. As a Taiwanese Chinese, we were taught that we were the "yellow race" and proud of the hue of our skin. Yes, we are not truly "yellow" (like many blacks are not really "black") but we were never ashamed of our skin color.

Complaint 3: Not only the people in the crowd, the other characters all look the same, too. (It's a given that the five brothers have to look exactly alike -- which Weiss managed to do extremely well.)

This is one brother. Examine the pictures following this one: do these faces look "the same" and "the same as the brother" to anyone? Indeed, each face depicted differs from the rest. If the readers/viewers cannot make out the differences, it is not the artist's fault.

Complaint 4: these people all have the stereotypical slanted eyes.
It is true that most of the faces illustrated feature slanted/small/single line eyes. Could it be that - a. many Chinese people's eyes are smaller, without the hanging folds over the eyes, than the Western people? b. The slant of the eyes is prevelent in the Chinese? and c. This is a particular style of the artist?

Complaint 5: Bishop didn't cite a source of this "Chinese" tale.
In 1938, most retellings of fairy and folktales were not sourced.


Saturday, September 06, 2008


Author: Anisha Lakhani
Reading Level: HS/Adults

SchooledI read this after hearing lots and reading quite a few reviews about the book, so I am not entirely sure about my reactions - how much was my enjoyment and annoyance colored by these preset expectations? And how much of my secret pleasure and overt disgust came from my having known the author and has been working in the school that this fiction is supposed to be based on? So read on, those of you who are curious to know my opinions about the book, with caution and many grains of salt!

First, I was surprised how the book does not really feature many recognizable students and faculty from the school, nor does it develop the school as a setting fully. In fact, most teachers do not even enter the story. It's as if this fictional K-12 school has but 50 students and they all go to the 7th grade and there are only half a dozen teachers who come into contact with the protagonist and the children. In short, the setting of the school is not quite fleshed out or rich, and the supporting characters are not 3-dimensional, either. A few incidents or coincidences are probably not identifiable by those who are not intimately connected to the school, either. So much, so much of the story is extremely exaggerated: the characters complete caricatures, and the whole world distorted with the kind of hyper-reality one can only find in Gossip Girls and Sex in the City. (Of course also in the highly manipulated Real Housewives "reality" shows...)

This brings me to say to those who seem to think that this is a truthful portrayal of the Manhattan Private Schools/Ivy League Feeders world, "You are absolutely wrong." This is fluffy fiction and no more than that.

I don't think there is even a need to defend my school since there is so little resemblance in SCHOOLED to the actual school -- including the physical descriptions and the ways teaching and learning are accomplished throughout the years. Suffice to say that I have encountered scores of most brilliant human beings: readers, writers, thinkers, activists, artists, mathematicians, scientists, all kinds of people -- both from its faculty pool and the student body, to feel privileged and proud to be part of this incredible institution.

The biggest weakness of the book, to my eyes, is how bland the writing is... with few exceptions where the lines are actually funny or effective, such as, "The world could be coming to an end and my mother would still find a way to offer a cookie with the gas mask." and "It was an all-purpose word, something of a Swiss Army knife capable of replacing all sorts of words, such as do, write, create, and especially finish." The rest of the book is filled with lines with little crafting or "polishing". Just a few examples here:

page 124: Anna wonders "if Shakespeare would be ... delighted that his work was the cause of such delight to a group of... seventh-graders."
page 126: "The last comment was like a wound in my heart."
page 131: "And I was an air traffic controller trying to control fifteen little planes all trying to land at one time."

To compound the problem of such thin prose is the poor editing. Missing punctuation marks, continuity errors, and misused words, such as "My ears were ringing. And when did faux mitzvah enter everyone's vocabulary accept mine?" ACCEPT? And this is supposedly written/narrated by an Ivy-Leaguer who studied English in college and teaches English to 7th graders.

The one saving grace is that the readers do not admire Anna (oh, maybe a little bit toward the end of the story when she suddenly has a courageous enlightment moment), and that adds some flavor to the tale of a small fry lost in the world of greasy glitz.

And chatting online with a High School student might shed more light on our views over this book:

Edited for clarity:

fairrosa: Yup... I guess... closer to truth. Nothing is TRUE in this book, though. And it's so hyper-reality that anyone thinks this has anything to do with reality is delusional themselves, I think.
student: You overestimate that, I think
fairrosa: overestimate how?
student: I think you overestimate how attuned the average reader is to Dalton
fairrosa: Definitely -- that's why I definitely need to write about how this is NOT the reality. But I did like the book enough... it's better than some other trashy novels, for sure.
student: Wha? O.o
fairrosa: All the flaws aside, Anna Taggert is a main character that does not put on a holier-than-thou air, nor is she pretending to be anything but a corrupted small fry lost in a glitzy world, even though in reality, I have yet to encounter any such real-life teacher.
fairrosa: That's my last paragraph...now.. do you think my analysis fair?? any other issues with the review?
student: Doesn't put on a holier-than-thou air? I really don't think you read this book XD
fairrosa: please let me know if I can post it as is?
student: It's an okay-written review, it's just wrong. It didn't bother you that characters spent the whole time hitting on her? That, somehow, nothing was ever actually her fault?
fairrosa: Hey.. .Anna Taggert is portrayed as a silly, money grabbing, totally lost person. There is nothing there to show that she is better than anyone else...
Everything is her choice -- she decided that she needed MONEY ... she failed to plan lessons -- she is stupid...The character is NOT portrayed as a GOOD person. Did you read the book?
fairrosa: One does not read the book and says to oneself that Anna Tagger is SUCH A GOOD person. Does one?
stuent: No, but she thinks she is!
fairrosa: But the READER knows that she is stupid, spoiled, greedy...etc. and the AUTHOR writes in that way...
fairrosa: she curses. she envies. she receives bribes. she cheats
student: Mmm, yes. But do you really think the point of the book is that she's bad, or that she was a good person placed in a bad system?
fairrosa: I think she was WEAK... maybe Bad/Good is not a great way to describe her or anyone else.
fairrosa: I think she did not really have moral fibers... of course, the world around her doesn't seem to have morals either...
student: She's portrayed as a nice girl corrupted by an evil world. Yes?
fairrosa: Nah... I don't think she's portrayed as a "nice girl" ever -- her motive of being a teacher is so that she would be LOVED by her students...So, I never got the sense that the protagonist is supposed to be a GOOD person.
student: Not that she would really teach or change students' lives.
student: That's absolutely false.
fairrosa: Did you find any of the book funny?
student: no.
fairrosa: Or are you just completely incensed?
fairrosa: Do you think it's because you're too close to it? Too protective of our school?
student: I think I might have been okay with it - or at least, not hated it - had it been marketed differently, had it not billed itself as that "look at what a 5-figure tuition really gets you"
fairrosa: Fair.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Black Book of Colors

Author: Menena Cotton, illus. by Rosana Faria
Reading Level:pre-k - 2nd (and all ages)

Publisher: Groundwood
Edition: 2008, Hardcover

The Black Book of ColorsWhat a unique and amazing book!!!! I am speechless and wish everyone could read/touch/experience it!

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