Yaqui Delgado Kicks Ass

A Book Talk: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

Latino and More: Realistic Contemporary Adolescent Literature for Hispanic Americans

Here is a screencast of my presentation of my annotated bibliography and a featured book: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina. (I used Screencast-o-Matic, because it’s an alternative to Jing I’ve been meaning to try. Decent results! It doesn’t have the 5-minute time limit–which I didn’t need to worry about this time. Generally it doesn’t have to be installed either because it’s web-based, though its Java doesn’t cooperate with Chrome on a Mac.)

P.S. Sorry about my yet-again congested voice. (I was on something like round 8-gazillion of 2013-2014 illnesses when this was recorded!)

This “book-talk” is a highlighted in my annotated bibliography entitled, “Latino and More: Realistic Contemporary Adolescent Literature for Hispanic Americans.” (Also, see my Bibliographic Essay and Rationale here.) I was looking for YA books whose primary theme was the teen experience (like “life drama”), inside of focusing only on the Latino experience. I also wanted a relatively equal representation of the Latino groups in the U.S.

Latino and More: Realistic Contemporary Adolescent Literature for Hispanic Americans–Part Two

An Annotated Bibliography

See the Bibliographic Essay and Rationale here. Or, see my video presentation here.

Cofer, Judith Ortiz. Call Me María. 2004. Reprint, New York: Scholastic, 2006.

Worried about her father’s depressive state, María decides to move with him to a barrio in New York to look after him and seek an education, leaving her mother behind in Puerto Rico. María tries to fit in, get used to English (and Spanish) and stay neutral as she witnesses her parents’ marriage deteriorating. Perceptive and introspective María expresses herself in a mix of poems, prose, and letters home to her mother. More than just an immigration story, Call Me María is a collage of emotions and strength that reads easily. Ages 12 and up.

If I Could FlyCofer, Judith Ortiz. If I Could Fly. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011.

When Doris’ mother abruptly leaves for Puerto Rico after a health scare, Doris anxiously hopes she will return. Two months later, her mother confirms that she will not be coming back to New Jersey and her life with Doris’ father as a salsero singer. Doris feels alienated by her father’s move to get a new girlfriend and tries to fend for herself. She turns to her friends, Arturo, Yolanda, her elderly neighbor Doña Iris, and the homing pigeons on the roof. Misfortune strikes them too and Doris wishes she could just escape. After a visit to her mother in Puerto Rico, though, she realizes it’s better to confront your problems than to run from them. Full of life-drama, this book will appeal to adolescents dealing with the grief of divorce and tragedy. Ages 13 and up.

Dole, Mayra Lazara. Down to the Bone. New York: HarperTeen, 2008.

Laura gets expelled from Catholic school and, subsequently, her house when the nuns and her Cuban mother discover that she is a lesbian, also known as a “tortillera” in the Miami Latino community. Her girlfriend, Marlena’s family reacts by sending her back to Puerto Rico to marry a man. Thankfully, Laura is not completely alone and is taken in by her best friend Soli and her mother Vivi. Laura attempts to find herself through several experiments with relationships, all the while maintaining her optimism. Teens will relish the dichotomy of the humor and pain in Laura’s story. Ages 14 and up.

Color of My WordsJoseph, Lynn. The Color of My Words. New York: Joanna Cotler Books, 2000.

Ana Rosa is a dreamer who longs to become a writer, always stealing away scraps of paper to write her poems and stories on. Her impoverished life in the Dominican Republic leaves little hope, especially after she witnesses her brother’s death trying to protect her the day of her thirteenth birthday. She temporarily gives up writing until she realizes the healing power of telling her brother’s story—and her own—with words. Full of beautiful, descriptive language, this story lends itself well to read-alouds and celebrates the triumph of human resilience. Ages 10 and up.

López, Lorraine. Call Me Henri. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2006.

In a rough urban landscape of gangs, beatings, death and abuse, Enrique juggles a complicated existence between a middle school trying to assimilate him with ESL classes and the care of triplet baby brothers that he has assumed responsibility for at home. Privately, he wishes he could just learn French, a language much closer to his native Spanish. After witnessing a drive-by shooting and his own safety now threatened, supportive and sympathetic teachers intervene and arrange for an escape that is a fulfillment of Enrique’s dream. Tension and action pair with hope in this realistic account of a Mexican-American teen’s life in the barrio. Ages 12 and up.

HeatLupica, Mike. Heat. New York: Philomel Books, 2006.

Michael Arroyo is a talented baseball player with a problem. Ironically, it is the same talent that is threatening his future. Rival coaches don’t believe that he could be so good at twelve, but Miguel has no way to prove his age since his birth certificate is back in Cuba! What’s more, Michael has no parents left and if social services finds out that his dad passed away, they will put him and his older brother Carlos in foster care. Their hope is to hide the truth for a few more months until Carlos turns eighteen. There is a fairytale ending in store, but readers will appreciate the snappy dialogue and the passion Michael has for his sport. Ages 11 and up.

McCall, Guadalupe Garcia. Under the Mesquite. New York: Lee & Low Books, 2011.

Lupita’s mother is dying of cancer and their close knit-family feels like it’s unraveling as the disease takes her away. Papi takes care of her mom while Lupita takes charge of her seven younger siblings. After her mother’s death, Lupita struggles with grief and sustaining the will to move forward with what she and her mother saw as goals for herself. She visits and seeks support from family in both Mexico and Texas and eventually comes to peace and finds herself ready to face her future. Beautifully written and entirely in verse, Under the Mesquite offers an honest look at loss, family and love. Ages 12 and up.

Yaqui DelgadoMedina, Meg. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2013.

When Piddy Sanchez is told that a stranger at her new school named Yaqui Delgado wants to kick her ass, she is utterly confused. Though Piddy is half-Dominican and half-Cuban, she is scorned by a rough group of Latino girls for being too white and too smart. At first, she tries to ignore the threats, but the bullying escalates from verbal abuse to physical confrontations. Piddy’s once-strong grades fall and she begins skipping school due to her constant fear of being attacked. There is no simple solution to the problem, but first Piddy has to at least break the silence. Meg Medina skillfully explores the complexity and difficulty of bullying situations, while accurately portraying the terror and conflicting emotions of a victim. This is a valuable, yet realistic book for teens and the adults in their lives. Ages 12 and up.

Miller-Lachmann, Lyn. Gringolandia. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2009.

Daniel Aquilar’s family fled to Madison, Wisconsin, after his father Marcelo was arrested, held and tortured as a military prisoner in Chile. After six years, his father is released and rejoins the family in 1986, but is thoroughly jostled by the adjustment to a new place—“Gringolandia,” he calls it. Daniel and his “gringa” girlfriend Courtney witness the damage that the trauma has caused with mixed emotions. Though in wretched shape, Marcelo is still an activist yearning to continue the fight in Chile and Daniel is led to reconcile his conflicted attitude toward his former country and roots. This novel provides a hard-hitting look at the effects of oppression, post-traumatic stress and healing. Ages 15 and up.

Enrique's JourneyNazario, Sonia. Enrique’s Journey: The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother. New York: Delacorte Press, 2013.

Enrique’s mother, Lourdes, left her children behind in Honduras when Enrique was only five in order to seek relief from poverty and go find work in the United States. Like many children in this situation, Enrique is utterly lost and confused by the absence of his mother, so he sets off eleven years later, determined to find her again, on a treacherous journey across Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico—mostly on the tops of freight trains. Their reunion is not without its ups and downs either as they try to heal the pain and resentment of the separation. Sonia Nazario conducted her research first-hand and traced the journey of this real migrant boy. This book is a young adult adaptation of her 2007 book for adults updated with current immigration statistics, but it does not gloss over the true perils (such as maiming, rape, beatings and death) these migrants face. It is an eye-opening, humanizing look at immigration, sure to trigger discussion. Ages 14 and up.

Osa, Nancy. Cuba 15. New York: Delacorte Press, 2003.

Violet Paz lives in Chicago and doesn’t know much about her half-Cuban roots, nor does she really speak Spanish. She definitely is not interested in having a quinceañera, the traditional Latina coming-of-age party complete with tiaras and frilly pink dresses. But when her abuelita from Miami comes to visit and begins making plans for a “quince,” she eventually accepts. During the preparations, Violet learns a lot about what it means to be Cuban and manages to find a way to make the party her own. Sassy, fun and rich in culture, the reader will have a ball on this romp through a Latino tradition. Ages 12 and up.

We Were HerePeña, Matt de la. We Were Here. New York: Delacorte Press, 2009.

Miguel Castañeda is sentenced to a year of juvie in a California group home. He and two friends he makes there, Mong and Rondell, hatch a plan to bust out and escape to Mexico. They make their way down the coast with a wad of stolen money and hopes of starting over. Miguel keeps a journal of their adventure as he tries to come to terms with his crime and cultural identity, revealing a side most would not see from appearances. The journey comes full circle as two of the boys end up heading back to where they started. This is an intense, gripping story about troubled teens that even reluctant readers will enjoy. Ages 15 and up.

Latino and More: Realistic Contemporary Adolescent Literature for Hispanic Americans–Part One

A Bibliographic Essay and Rationale

See the Annotated Bibliography here. Or, see my video presentation here.

The reason for this theme

I have specifically been working with reluctant readers in my position as a high school ESL teacher for the past four years. The majority of my students are Latinos with ties to Mexico and the Dominican Republic. I have noticed that when recreationally reading very rarely are these students drawn to multicultural books that reflect their own background. Instead when these students choose young adult books, they look for the edgy ones, full of teenaged life drama: teen pregnancies, homelessness, suicide, dystopia, drugs, gangs and cyberbullying.

Sadly, it seems that much of the multicultural young adult fiction out there about Latinos doesn’t have this same edge or at least my students and I aren’t finding it. They don’t seem to be interested in reading about the conflict of being caught between two cultures or having to obey old-fashioned parents—maybe they already live those scenarios and want the escape or adventure that books can offer. Stories of exile from oppressive political regimes and tales of tough conditions on migrant worker camps before Cesar Chavez’s activism may be distant realities for today’s teens.

As I prepared this annotated bibliography about Latino young adult literature, I wanted to identify books that were about more than just Latino culture or the inclusion of expressions in Spanish. Instead, I sought books with Latino characters that had struggles due to being a teen, not just a minority. Themes of the books I selected include: divorce, friendship, LGBT issues, poverty, gang violence, baseball, cancer, bullying, post-traumatic stress, illegal immigration, runaways and rejecting tradition. Of course some of the classic Latino themes are also present, but I wanted the plots to revolve around the teen experience overall.

What is multicultural literature?

For me, multicultural literature needs to be a window into and a mirror of parallel cultures. For outsiders of that culture, the reading experience should provide enlightenment but not reinforce stereotypes; this is a “window.” For cultural insiders, readers should be able to see themselves in protagonists who have real life adventures. Not all Latinos are the same, so readers should be able to see their race and culture represented, but also as unique and diverse. If a book is primarily geared to be a window into the culture instead of a mirror reflecting the presence of diverse protagonists, we risk characterizing these Latino characters as “the other” instead of validating them as real people. In Celebrating Cuentas, Naidoo expresses it this way:

The negative images of their culture that Latino children encounter in instructional material and children’s literature serve as broken mirrors, causing these children to feel worthless, embarrassed, or alienated, and undervaluing their cultural heritage and identity (25)… Latino children, like all children, want to see reflections of themselves (their experiences, languages, and cultures) in the books they encounter, thus affirming their self-worth and presence in society (36).

Though presenting negative and stereotyped portrayals in literature might be educationally useful for criticism and comparative purposes, I tried to keep that out of this bibliography.

About the selection process

I only looked for books that could be considered contemporary and favored books written in the past ten years. For this to still be a useful bibliography for adolescents, librarians and other adults, the books need to be accessible for purchase or lending. If a book was out of print and/or not available for me to check out at my school or local libraries, I stopped considering it. Also, by choosing more recent, contemporary works the list could remain relevant for a longer period of time.

When possible, I preferred protagonists to be high school-aged, though this was not always possible. I was looking to avoid the disconnect that historical fiction sometimes presents. I also looked for books that represented several of the Latino backgrounds in the United States, instead of a list of books based only on the Mexican-American experience with a few outliers, for example. I chose three books with Mexican themes, three Cubans, one Dominican and one Cuban-Dominican, two Puerto Rican, one Central American, and one South American themed-book. The divisions were not easy to split equally, as I found out. Several of the cultures actually had very few books to chose from. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, another group that could have merited representation in the bibliography was the Salvadorans, but there are also few books with these characters (Naidoo 20). (I only found one with Salvadoran main characters written back in 1991, Journey of the Sparrows!) Earlier this week I asked four of my Dominican students that are in class with me this year if they had ever read a book that had a Dominican character in it—every one of them said no (though some knew of movies with Dominicans). I wanted to remedy this, but I’m afraid I was unable to come up with a wealth of book choices for them.

A useful chapter in Latina and Latino Voices in Literature for Children and Teenagers included a list of guidelines as a starting point for evaluating multicultural books for bias, with specific examples for Latinos. The idea of checking the storyline was especially formative for me when considering what a good multicultural Latino book is and how I should select for the teen experience over didactic cultural content (Day 6). For example, standards of success should not be just aligned with white male behavior in order for women or minorities to “make it.” Resolving problems should not require the intervention of a benevolent, able-boded white person. The achievement of female characters should not be valued based on their relationships with males. I was also very careful with how lifestyles were portrayed. I did not want to select books that lumped all Latinos together or depicted them as exotic (Day 6-7). Some of the books on my list may not live up to these considerations, but they are worth considering nonetheless.

Nearly all the authors I selected are cultural insiders, adding to their authority, though some do write about a Latino group different than their own background. There were two who were outsiders but have close connections (through marriage/residence/job experience) that I decided to include anyway because the quality of content merited the inclusion. Interestingly, these two authors represented two of the groups for which I struggled most to find books: the South Americans and the Dominicans. I know of several Latino authors that are prolific writers of historical fiction, for example on Cuba’s “Peter Pan” refugee children or escaping Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. It seemed very unfortunate that such groups do not have many authors writing contemporary realistic fiction in the United States.

Since I was looking for specific cultures to be represented in my annotated bibliography, I did not start with the lists of the major awards for Latino children’s literature, such as the Pura Belpré award, the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature or the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award. Instead, I wanted to be able to search by culture and then narrow the results according to their reviews and awards. I used the Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database (CLCD) to begin this process. I have become proficient with this database through my employment at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) and find it to be an effective way to get an impression of the quality of a book. It is also a powerful tool for searching books included in CCBC Choices, but fall outside of the themes of the librarian-created bibliographies on the CCBC website. At the CCBC, I am responsible for maintaining the records of awards and distinctions for the books in our collection; in this way, I have become familiar with several of the bigger literature awards. For example, even if a book was not awarded or commended by one of the three above-named Latino book awards, but I noticed it was honored by CCBC Choices, listed in publications by similar peer-institutions like Bank Street College of Education or the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (BCCB), or is part of several of the quick picks lists compiled by the American Library Association, I made sure to consider it.

Once I had a short list of candidates for representing each Latino group, my next steps were to identify what the major themes of the books were and what the gender of the main character was to determine if I had a decent balance. I tried not to repeat any major themes and had to reject a couple books because of this. If a major theme occurred in two books, but the main characters had different genders, I tried to select accordingly to maintain a balance of male and female characters. I ended with five male protagonists and seven females.

I identified a few holes, namely in Puerto Rican, Dominican and South American titles. From there, I started searching other organizations’ lists and websites, such as Diversity in YA, Rich in Color, ¡Colorín Colorado! and AdLit.com. I also consulted with the school librarian I work with and one of the librarians at the CCBC. Some of the recommendations offered by these librarians were contenders, but a couple did not work out when I could not locate a copy to borrow. Some books like Red Hot Salsa, edited by Lori Marie Carlson, though highly reviewed, I suspect appeal more to adults than to adolescents (at least without prodding). I also rejected books that seemed a little too young for this list. There are a few titles, however, that are probably aimed at middle level readers, such as The Color of My Words and Heat, but their theme (or lack of better choices) made them worth keeping.

As I alluded to above, not all books were exactly a fit with the philosophy I have described. For example, Enrique’s Journey is nonfiction, unlike the other fiction titles, but merits a place because of Nazario’s vivid descriptions of the situation and her artful articulation of research into a plot. Gringolandia questionably does not have a contemporary setting, being that it takes place in 1986, but the real-life aspect of dealing with a resentful family member makes for a very powerful story. I also hesitated to include two books by the same author, Judith Ortiz Cofer, but I found very few contemporary Puerto Rican stories and she seemed to be the most prolific author with quality work.

My realizations

Young adult literature can be edgy and even controversial, but it seems that it is exactly this that teens are drawn to. I did not shy away from tough topics in multicultural Latino literature because edginess seemed to be the best way to really explore the Latino adolescent experience in an authentic way. The most frustrating part for me was discovering the lack of Dominican and Puerto Rican works. After all, Puerto Rico is part of this country and the biggest Latino group in the United States after Mexico (Naidoo 20), so it’s hard to understand how this could be possible. In this respect, it is additional evidence of how people of color continue to not be adequately represented or included in children’s literature.

References

Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. Accessed April 1, 2014. http://www.clcd.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/

¡Colorín Colorado! Accessed April 3, 2014. http://www.colorincolorado.org/

“The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Advanced Book Search.” Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Accessed April 1, 2014. http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/booksearch/advanced.asp

Day, Frances Ann. “Evaluating Books for Bias.” Latina and Latino Voices in Literature for Children and Teenagers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997.

“Hispanic Heritage.” All About Adolescent Literacy: Resources for Parents and Educators of Kids in Grades 4-12. http://www.adlit.org/books/c819/

“Hispanic Heritage Month.” Rich in Color. Last modified September 24, 2013. http://richincolor.com/2013/09/hispanic-heritage-month/

Naidoo, Jamie Campbell, ed. Celebrating Cuentos: Promoting Latino Children’s Literature and Literacy in Classrooms and Libraries. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2011.

Pon, Cindy, and Malinda Lo. Diversity in YA. http://www.diversityinya.com/ Accessed April 3, 2014.

Schliesman, Megan, Kathleen T. Horning and Merri V. Lindgren. “30 Multicultural Books Every Teen Should Know.” Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Last modified 2012. http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/detailListBooks.asp?idBookLists=253

Reader’s Response Journal: La Línea

La LineaCitation:

Jaramillo, Ann. La Línea. New Milford, Connecticut: Roaring Brook Press, 2006. Print.

Plot:

Miguel’s plans to leave Mexico and join his parents in El Norte change when his younger sister, Elena, unexpectedly joins him. The two take a bus, ride on top of freight trains, and hide under blankets in the back of a pickup to get to the border town where they meet the coyote, Moisés,who will smuggle them across the border. They narrowly escape several dangerous situations, lose much of their money and meet a Central American traveling companion along the way. A seasoned professional, Moisés prepares them and leads them on their walk across the desert, but he is shot and captured by militia halfway through the journey. On their own, they battle thirst and the elements before making it back to civilization in Southern California, barely alive. In an epilogue set ten years later, the brother and sister look back on the experience with heavy hearts.

Setting:

Contemporary time period. Set on the road between San Jacinto, Mexico, and California.

Point of View:

1st person (Miguel)

Theme:

Immigration and migration, survival, danger, coming of age, sibling relations, separation of families.

Literary Quality:

Jaramillo’s novel is fast-moving and succinct, yet filled with powerful imagery. The plot is not overridden the protagonists being assaulted with every worst-case scenario that could possibly happen, nor does it gloss over the real life-threatening perils they face. Each chapter is short, lasting no more than a couple pages and every character and description serves to move the plot forward. La Línea was honored with the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature in 2007 and appeared on multiple “best books” lists during 2006 and 2007.

Cultural Authenticity:

The author was inspired to write this novel by the Mexican immigrant middle school students she teaches in California. She explains at the end of the book how she based the story on real situations and events. She also consulted with individuals and organizations interested in the struggle of immigrants at the border, especially the reporting of Sonia Nazario, the author of the highly acclaimed nonfiction book, Enrique’s Journey. Spanish language is integrated into the novel, often without a recasting of the English translation, yet generally comprehensible from the context. This technique gives the book the feel that the characters actually are Mexican teenagers, not just an English-speaking version of who the author imagines they are.

Audience:

La Línea is probably most appropriate for a middle school or young adult audience. It could especially appeal to reluctant readers because of its length, action and linear plot. This book might also be useful for opening dialogue around the topic of illegal immigration and undocumented children in the United States since it presents the “human side” to the story.

Personal Reaction:

This book takes me though multiple emotions: frustration, anticipation, mistrust, worry, relief, satisfaction, sadness. I love the use of Spanish and the love-hate relationship between brother and sister. I first encountered La Línea a couple years ago when I used it as a read-aloud for a READ 180 class I was teaching. As an ESL teacher, I was aware that many of my students were undocumented immigrants, but I didn’t have any idea how parallel many of their stories were to this book. I remember asking several times, “Does this really happen?” and they would confirm it with extra details of what happened to them, tell me about how they were raised by grandparents while their parents were here, or recommend similar Spanish-language movies. Jaramillo wrote a story that needed to be told!

Reader’s Response Journal: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianCitation:

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Illus. Ellen Forney. New York: Scholastic, 2007. Print.

Plot:

Junior is a Spokane Indian who decides that he will get a better education if he transfers to the nearby white high school instead of staying at the reservation high school. His choice is unpopular with his community and he even loses his best friend Rowdy. His start at Reardan High School is also rocky as he encounters racism and loneliness and tries to hide his poverty. Junior eventually makes friends with the genius kid Gordy,” begins “semi-dating” a white girl named Penelope and makes the basketball team. When Junior’s grandmother, his dad’s friend Eugene and his sister Mary die unexpectedly, Junior blames himself and questions his choice to leave the reservation for school. After Mary’s funeral, it is basketball that brings him and Rowdy back together and gives Junior some peace.

Setting:

Contemporary time period. Set in Wellpinit and Reardan, Washington.

Point of View:

1st person (Junior)

Theme:

Identity, race, hopes and dreams, friendships, maintaining tradition, death and grief.

Literary Quality:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian also won the National Book Award in 2007, among other awards and praise. Alexie created a multifaceted teen-aged character in Junior. As a budding cartoonist, Junior shows us examples of his talent, humor, angst and grief through his cartoons and drawings as well as his words. Supporting characters serve to develop the plot as well as Junior’s reaction to adversity. Alexie did a nice job balancing “teenager behavior” (like  masturbation or playing on the school basketball team) with conflicts that make Junior’s experience unique (like hitchhiking to school or Eugene’s gruesome death). Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of the book was the idea of being a “part-time Indian” and how kids that grow up bicultural sometimes don’t feel fully welcome in either culture (like Junior being called an “apple”: red on the outside, white on the inside—this really happens!) Junior’s experience will speak to kids going through the same thing, regardless of their cultural background.

Cultural Authenticity:

Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian that grew up on the reservation where this book was set. In fact, he dedicated the book to his “hometowns” of Wellpinit and Reardan, the towns featured. The main character of this book was loosely based on his own childhood experiences. The Indians seemed to be represented fairly and we see both their failures and triumphs, strengths and weaknesses throughout the book. The American Indian Library Association awarded its American Indian Youth Literature Award to this book in 2008, indicating that the book “present[s] American Indians in the fullness of their humanity in the present and past contexts.”

Audience:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is probably most appropriate for a high school or young adult audience, due to some mild sexuality and a few tough deaths. Culturally, however, this book has a wider audience than just the Native Americans featured in it. Most teenagers will be drawn to Junior’s honest and humorous take on the world, while learning more about a subculture they might not be familiar with.

Personal Reaction:

When I came upon this book a couple years ago, it was through the recommendation of a high school boy in summer school who claimed it was “the best book he ever read.” That kind of endorsement made me pay attention, especially since it appealed to a teenaged boy (who very rarely seem to recommend books)! It is a very quick read and I think I tore through it faster this time than I did the first time because I knew it was good. Sometimes the cartoon illustrations got on my nerves because there were a few that didn’t seem to help the story, but there were others that I sat and studied for a bit before resuming reading. When I finished, I was sad to leave Junior’s world and wished that I could know more about what happens to him next.

Reader’s Response Journal: The Heart of a Chief

Heart of a Chief book coverCitation:

Bruchac, Joseph. The Heart of a Chief. 1998. New York: Puffin Books-Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 2001. Print.

Plot:

The year Chris Nicola, a Penacook Indian boy, begins sixth grade at Rangerville Junior High School, it seems that almost everyone in his life is growing apart. His father is fighting an addiction and doesn’t live with him, the people on his reservation are divided over the possible construction of a casino on their sacred island, one of his best friends stops talking with him and joins the football team, and other kids at school are upset about the challenge to their mascot, the Chiefs—a debate that Chris seems to have initiated through a group project he is working on for Language Arts. Chris is worried, but has no choice but to step up in leadership and look out for his family, friends and community. He even gets invited to join the wrestling team. The group presentation goes so well that the community takes note and begins the process to vote on a new mascot. Chris is disappointed that his father is not around to share in the excitement, but later his dad comes through with an idea that solves the casino problem too.

Setting:

Contemporary time period. Set in a fictional Penacook reservation and a nearby town in New Hampshire.

Point of View:

1st person (Chris)

Theme:

Cultural insensitivity, coming of age, maintaining tradition and identity, standing up for yourself

Literary Quality:

Bruchac uses powerful metaphors and similes as well as humor in his descriptions throughout the book. The author created a believable and likeable young protagonist in Chris. For example, Chris behaves with trepidation (as many sixth-graders would) when faced with entering an upperclassmen restroom by accident, finding one of the biggest guys in school there and fully expecting to be pounded. Likewise, when he smarts off to a teacher or burns all the surveyors’ stakes, he expects trouble. He does not realize when he overhears his aunt talking about Chris’ growing leadership on the phone with his father that she is talking about him. He sees himself as just a kid that doesn’t have much control. Though the author makes allusions to the “bigger picture” for the reader, the narrator doesn’t pick up on them the same way, in keeping with his status as a sixth-grader coming into his own.

Cultural Authenticity:

Though Joseph Bruchac is not completely of Native American descent (only 1/8 Abenaki), he has professional and personal experience with Native kids. He seems to have drawn upon the realities he witnessed and as described to him by other cultural insiders when creating this novel. He chose to set the story on a fictional reservation, so as not to damage anyone directly, but still tackles many sensitive issues present among these groups. The Native American group that Bruchac featured for his imaginary reservation, the Penacook are actually a Western Abenaki tribe, though not officially recognized as a sovereign nation by the government. Bruchac includes Penacook vocabulary throughout the book and acknowledges common Native American stereotypes as part of the story, which further establishes a neutral bias.

Audience:

With a 6th grade protagonist, the probable audience for this book is upper elementary or middle school. However, many of the characters’ experiences are not completely unique to tweens, so older readers/high schoolers would likely enjoy this book too, since the conflict and issues in the book are generally not very juvenile (mascot controversy, land use and development for a casino, the health aging guardians).

Personal Reaction:

I truly delighted in this story, even though it seemed predictable that our young hero would probably find a way to save the day by the end. I liked that the novel had a contemporary setting and the kids attended a public school, because non-Native American children could have an easier time identifying with the culture and story, instead of dismissing it as “the other” or as historical and passé. I did feel like Bruchac may have confronted too many Native American issues for the context of one novel, but ultimately they served as evidence for Chris’ maturation and growing leadership.

Reader’s Response Journal: Moccasin Thunder

Citation:Moccasin Thunder book cover

Carlson, Lori Marie, ed. Moccasin Thunder. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Print.

Plot:

Lori Marie Carlson compiles an anthology of short stories by ten American Indian writers, each representing a different tribe and telling a unique contemporary story. Each author uses an adolescent or pre-adolescent main character to narrate their tale as they try to make sense of the world and their identities. The teenaged (or tween) storytellers give us an honest glimpse into their [fictional] lives and reveal examples of contemporary American Indian life. Some of the characters exude frustration; others radiate shame; some maintain pride; but most display hope.

Setting:

Contemporary, recent past (or modern history—still during 20th century). Set in the United States or Canada: an Indian boarding school, in a public access cable booth in the Northwest Territories, in a costume shop in Texas, at Grandma’s house out in the country on the Great Plains, in a rowboat in the middle of Lake George, on a hillside near a convent, in an apartment in a refurbished Army barracks, at a potluck for a Storyteller’s visit, at an American Indian Center dance in Chicago.

Point of View:

1st person, ten different adolescent narrators

Theme:

school, family, tradition, racism, substance abuse, sexuality, poverty, dreams, mistakes

Literary Quality:

Each author is an experienced, well-published author, very capable of telling a short story that develops its characters and plot in 30 pages or less. The stories use dialogue and descriptive language to “show instead of tell.” Sometimes the narrator’s voice is so convincing that the reader is wont to go back and check that the story is not actually autobiographical.

Cultural Authenticity:

The editor includes short biographies of each writer at the end of the book, giving the reader a better idea of their background. Each story was written by an American Indian author, qualified to share their cultural experiences. The editor also includes a heartfelt note at the beginning about her reasons for compiling such stories, even though she is not of Native American background or educational expertise. However, there is also an introduction by Dr. Helen Maynor, who does have a tribal affiliation and is an assistant director of the National Museum of the American Indian. She touts the virtues and authenticity of the stories, lending her authority to the compiled selections.

Audience:

This book is probably best used with young adult and adult readers, given that some of the themes are a little raw or graphic (such as sexual assault or drug use). There are a few selections that are less “edgy” that might be appropriate for middle school readers. Adolescent readers will probably be highly interested in this edginess and may identify with some of the characters’ struggles.

Personal Reaction:

I generally felt like this book was enjoyable to read, though some stories kept my attention better than others. I was rooting for Kevin the drug-dealer in “The Last Snow of the Virgin Mary” as he dreamt of turning his life around and smacked my hand to my forehead as I realized he messed up. I got a kick out of the sassy character that fumbles in love in “A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate.” The sexual confrontation in “Wild Geese (1934)” and the brother’s anger in “Crow” made me uncomfortable. I was satisfied that Fawn gets a happy ending in “Drum Kiss,” as tween turmoil can be pretty distressing for kids. Each story managed to evoke an emotion from me as a reader. Overall, I thought Moccasin Thunder succeeded in its goal of sharing contemporary American Indian culture with its audience.