Reader’s Response Journal: Esperanza Rising

Esperanza RisingCitation:

Ryan, Pam Muñoz. Esperanza Rising. 2000. New York: Scholastic, 2007. Print.

Plot:

After Esperanza’s father is murdered and their house mysteriously burns down, Esperanza and her mother escape with a family of their former servants (Hortensia, Alfonzo and Miguel) in the middle of the night to avoid being caught by Tío Luis, who wants to marry Esperanza’s mother in order to increase his political status. They make the long journey to California hiding in the bed of a papaya truck and then on a dusty train, where they settle in with the family of Alfonzo’s brother to work in the fields picking fruits and vegetables. At first Esperanza has a hard time adjusting to the sudden poverty that she had never experienced before. When Esperanza’s mother falls seriously ill, Esperanza steps up and takes her place working in the fields to be able to pay the medical bills and save money to bring Abuelita from Mexico. One day, Miguel runs off and Esperanza discovers that he has stolen all of the money she saved. Esperanza’s mother recovers and Miguel eventually returns with a surprise that lifts everyone’s spirits.

Setting:

Set in the 1920s and 1930s in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and the San Joaquin Valley, California.

Point of View:

3rd person

Theme:

Coming of age, riches-to-rags, humility, poverty, corruption, racism and classism, teamwork, importance of family.

Literary Quality:

The writing is descriptive and believable, from Esperanza’s spoiled brat attitudes to her extreme worry over her mother’s health. Muñoz Ryan creatively uses fruits and vegetables as themes for each chapter, symbolizing an important event and eventually the growing season that Esperanza and her “extended family” arrange their lives around. This book won the Pura Belpré Award, was honored by the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature and made multiple “best books” lists.

Cultural Authenticity:

The book is peppered with Mexican proverbs and even a traditional birthday song in Spanish, all translated to English as well. Muñoz Ryan wrote this book based on the recollections and the life of her own grandmother who immigrated to the United States to work in the migrant farm camps under similar circumstances and conditions. She researched the strikes and labor movements described in the book, the Repatriation and Deportation Acts and the Valley Fever that made Esperanza’s mother sick (and that Muñoz Ryan herself tested positive for the antibodies of due to growing up in the same valley).

Audience:

This book would be appropriate for an upper-elementary or middle school audience. It has a general appeal and a twist on the rags-to-riches theme where the wealthy are humbled instead. The Spanish language and cultural content is handled with support for the unfamiliar reader.

Personal Reaction:

This book pleasantly surprised me, because I expected a more babyish story. Instead I got a realistic look at life during this time period, with dynamic characters that had very human emotions and reactions. Esperanza’s difficulty with adjusting and her irritation with Isabel were so very well done. I had always meant to read this story and had even always heard positive reviews of it, even from students who are reluctant readers, so I am glad that I had the chance. The book was so engaging that I just ate it up.

A House divided: Little House on the Prairie and Birchbark House

Little House and the Prairie (by Laura Ingalls Wilder) and The Birchbark House (by Louise Erdrich) are both children’s books about relatively the same period of time, both with interactions between white settlers and Native American populations. Truly, different households though–one white and one Native! After visiting both, I end up feeling uneasy about the merits of a so-called American classic.

I understand the nostalgia surrounding Little House on the Prairie, but I don’t have it myself. I didn’t read the series as a child, nor did I watch the show. (The mall in my hometown did put up these great robotic displays of the Big Woods Ingalls family around Christmastime though.) Truthfully, the book made me really uncomfortable, even before I considered what the critics had to say. Manifest destiny and white imperialist attitudes really bother me anyway, and there were plenty of those in the book. (I also hate that this still goes on in our world… I’m sorry, but no, we don’t need to go out and tame the “heathens.” There is a fine line between service and imperialism). Yes, it seemed like when Ma and Pa shut Laura down as she was basically asked, “Isn’t it their land?” that it was an acknowledgement on Wilder’s part that even the characters knew their attitudes weren’t right.

The prejudice, fear and naïvety toward the Natives Americans was also a little much for me. It was undesirable to have Indian qualities: Ma didn’t want the girls to be “brown like an Indian” or “yell like an Indian.” The Indians that the Ingalls interact with “smell terrible,” steal and menace them. The diplomatic descriptions romanticized the Indians as “noble savages” (e.g. Laura’s “papoose” or Soldat du Chêne being “one good Indian”).

I don’t know why Huck Finn didn’t bother me the same way. Maybe the difference for me was that Little House was quite frankly written for a much younger audience and I wouldn’t expect the same level of critical thinking about these issues by elementary students. It feels a little too much like negative indoctrinating.

That said, the storyline was cute and I did enjoy the pioneer adventure. The idea of building everything from the ground up reminded me a little of wilderness camping and the kind of stuff my grandpa did/does out in the country on his farm.

As for Birchbark House, I don’t nearly have as much to say. I loved the story; it felt like I was looking in a window of another culture. I thought the story was masterful in that each character truly served the story and moved the plot forward. I had kind of forgotten about the introduction about Tallow and the “Girl from Spirit Island,” so that was a pleasant surprise. I read the book an early morning flight after an exhausting (but fun) trip, so I nodded off a few times, but I don’t think that had anything to do with the story quality.

Birchbark House isn’t as much of an adventure story though, so there was less action, but definitely more character development. I felt like I knew Omakayas and understood how she felt by the end. I didn’t feel this with Laura. I smiled when she was “naughty” (aw man, that part about wading in the stream and her “naughty foot”… that was the best!) but she seemed a little more robotic to me. I didn’t feel like I was walking in her shoes. I did want to know “what would happen next” more with Little House, and there was less of this for me with Birchbark House (with the exception of the smallpox).

I was satisfied when I finished Birchbark House; I felt like I had learned. I was a bit relieved at the end of Little House though; I definitely had mixed feelings. I was glad to have read it, but also glad that I hadn’t as a child.

Reader’s Response Journal: The Birchbark House

The Birchbark House book coverCitation:

Erdrich, Louise. The Birchbark House. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1999. Print.

Plot:

The Birchbark House follows the life of an Ojibwa girl named Omakayas for a year on the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. During the gathering dance that marks the beginning of the winter settlement, a dying fur-trader appears, infecting much of the village with smallpox, including most of Omakayas’ family. Though she did not fall ill from smallpox, Omakayas is weakened from the grief over the death of her baby brother Neewo. In an attempt to snap her out of it, a friend of the family, Old Tallow, takes her aside and reveals that she rescued Omakayas as a baby when she was the sole survivor of a smallpox outbreak on Spirit Island. This is why Omakayas didn’t catch smallpox while caring for her adopted family. Omakayas finds some peace in the realization of her budding gift for healing and the truth of her past.

Setting:

An Ojibwa village on an island in Lake Superior in 1847

Point of View:

3rd person (Omakayas)

Theme:

Identity, grief, community, storytelling, coming of age

Literary Quality:

Louise Erdrich crafts an engaging story for readers while offering a look into Ojibwa traditions. There are illustrations by the author throughout the novel to help us visualize how she imagined the characters. Erdrich masterfully includes other Ojibwa stories to develop characters or tie the plot together. The use of Ojibwa vocabulary in context, often with recasts in English, gives the reader an exposure to and repetition of the language. Well-written and researched, The Birchbark House was honored as a National Book Award Finalist in 1999.

Cultural Authenticity:

This book is an uplifting representation from the point of view of a minority group not often celebrated in American historical fiction from this period. Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa and wrote The Birchbark House to honor and retrace her own family history. Through research, she found that she had ancestors who lived on Madeline Island during the same time period that this book was set. She chose an authentic Ojibwa name for the protagonist from a real Turtle Mountain Census to further honor the people of that time. Erdrich also humbly consulted with the historical society, teachers and tribal elders to represent the Ojibwa culture and language as best she could.

Audience:

This book is appropriate for a middle school, high school or even adult audience. Although the main character is a 7 year-old girl, the reading level might be a little difficult for a younger or beginning reader, especially with the integration of Ojibwa vocabulary. Young readers may not understand how to consult a glossary and could get stuck on foreign pronunciations. Because of the extensive cultural content, older readers may enjoy the view into the language, culture and history of a people through fiction, instead of a traditional non-fiction representation.

Personal Reaction:

This novel fed some of my curiosity and gave me a deeper appreciation for one of the Native cultures present in my state. My prior knowledge of the Ojibwa had been very casual, so I was pleased to get what seemed to be a deeper look. I was also pleased to notice that pieces this book corroborated with other pieces I’ve encountered over the years (like a historical fiction book about a smallpox epidemic in Quebec or a video piece about Ojibwa deer hunting). I especially enjoyed the inclusion of the Ojibwa vocabulary since I am a bit of a language buff. It was helpful to have the words in context and repeated. By the end I actually felt like I retained some of the words! American culture often ignores or misunderstands Native culture since they are often literally marginalized on reservations. This book does a great job of adding a human face to a beautiful culture that more people should know about.

Reader’s Response Journal: Little House on the Prairie

Citation:Little House on the Prairie book cover

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. Illus. Garth Williams. 1935. New York: Harper & Row, 1953. Print.

Plot:

Laura and her family leave their cabin in the Big Woods of Wisconsin to settle out in Indian Territory. The family and their dog travel in a covered wagon with meager supplies before settling on the high prairie west of Independence, Missouri. For the next year, they build a house, a barn, a well, a hearth and furniture, while struggling with wild animals, Indian encounters, fires and malaria. It is the growing concern over the Indian presence and rumors of a federal government order for white settlers to leave the area that causes Pa to move his family. They pack up again, abandoning the homestead, and head back toward Independence to eventually start anew.

Setting:

The high prairie of eastern Kansas near the Verdigris River, between 1869 and 1871

Point of View:

3rd person (Laura)

Theme:

Pioneer spirit, self-sufficiency, family unity, contact between cultures

Literary Quality:

This book is third in what is considered a series based on the adventures of the Ingalls-Wilder family. The American Library Association recognized Laura Ingalls-Wilder’s contribution to children’s literature by naming an award after her to be given to authors or illustrators who have made similar long-lasting impacts. Little House on the Prairie is considered somewhat of an American classic. It is still in print and has been widely translated, also spawning a television series. It is perhaps the subject matter of a family’s pioneer spirit and nostalgia for a simpler life and time that has inspired such popularity.

Cultural Authenticity:

The portrayals of the Native Americans in this book are often done from a white, imperialist point of view. Several characters believed that they had the right to the land and that the government should continue to displace Indians for white settlers. The encounters that the Ingalls family has with the Indians are often painted with fear, prejudice and naïvety. Indian qualities are undesirable: it is not good to be “brown like an Indian” nor “yell like an Indian,” and the Indians they do meet “smell terrible,” steal and want to attack. Even when the some of the characters discuss Indians in a more diplomatic light, they are depicted as romanticized “noble savages”—like Laura’s “papoose” and Soldat du Chêne as “one good Indian.” There also is little acknowledgement of Native culture, other than mention of abandoned Indian camps, found beads and their dress/appearance.

Audience:

The book was written at a lower reading level and was likely aimed at upper elementary students (grade 3-5), though it could be appropriate as a read-aloud for younger students. The adventure story and the young, spunky protagonist who is sometimes “naughty” could also appeal to young readers. Even though there is a contrast in parent-child interactions between then and now, Laura is not a perfect child and has a wild side. However, I would encourage parents and teachers to read this book critically with children because of some of the problems with cultural authenticity.

Personal Reaction:

I did not read this series as a child (nor did I watch the television series), so I had little attachment to the Little House books, other than these great automaton displays of the Ingalls family they would put up in the mall at Christmas-time. As I read this book for the first time as an adult, I was very uncomfortable with the attitudes toward and portrayals of the Native Americans, especially when the family spoke of their right to the best land. I realize that this was perhaps very realistic and common at the time for white settlers, but I was a bit relieved that I had not been exposed to the book when I was young and more impressionable, since I might not have recognized the “other side” of the story. However, I am glad to have finally experienced Ingalls-Wilder’s work and recognize her contribution to the canon of classic children’s literature. After all, the pioneer spirit that she writes about still sparks the imagination and creates nostalgia for the “good ole days” in many of us.

Reader’s Response Journal: The Land

The Land coverCitation:

Taylor, Mildred D. The Land. New York: Phyllis Fogelman-Penguin Putnam, 2001. Print.

Plot:

Paul-Edward Logan slowly learns the cruelties of being a biracial child as he encounters bullying, injustice, discrimination in his community and eventually betrayal at the hands of his own [white] brother and best friend, Robert. At the age of 14, while on a trip with Robert and his father to East Texas, Paul gets into some trouble and flees with his former bully-turned-friend, Mitchell. The two wander the South for several years, working at lumber camps before going their separate ways for a bit. Paul’s long-time dream of buying his own land almost falls through after Mitchell is fatally attacked, the land contract they had been working toward is reneged upon and Paul almost loses his entire savings in earnest money. Paul reaches out to his sister for money help and in doing so, saves his dream property deal. He settles down to raise a family with Mitchell’s widow and is eventually reunited with the rest of his estranged family.

Setting:

Before the Civil War through the late 1880s in Georgia, East Texas and Mississippi

Point of View:

1st person (Paul Logan)

Theme:

Racial relations, identity and finding your place in the world

Literary Quality:

Taylor’s writing reflects the time period and dialect well, while not excluding the sensibilities of readers who might be unfamiliar with historical Southern culture. Her descriptions are complete and the dialogs were engaging, always moving the story forward. The Land was honored with the Coretta Scott King Award and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. It is also a prequel to a Newbery Medal Winner (Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry).

Cultural Authenticity:

Mildred D. Taylor based this book off of her own family history, retelling the stories she heard from her father about her ancestors. As a minority voice telling her family’s story, the depictions are likely unbiased and authentic. Her characters do not seem to be stereotypes or caricatures; she seems to give positive and negative examples of human nature and behavior from both racial groups, without overly victimizing or villainizing.

Audience:

The main character is a pre-teen when the story picks up, so the book is probably very appealing to a middle school audience on the low end, but young adult readers will not feel alienated by juvenile content either. The story is universally appealing because most readers can identify with the importance of working toward a dream and finding a place where you feel you belong. Biracial readers may also be especially interested as they may identify with Paul Logan’s frustrations of not fitting in well with either racial group.

Personal Reaction:

The Land was an enjoyable read. I was not initially compelled by the plot because the conflict was not obvious to me at first, but I was very engrossed in the characters. The conclusion choked me up a little, with empathy for Paul and the near loss of the land. I admired Paul’s composure at times when he was frustrated with injustice and held his tongue. I am glad that I read this book, because it was a very nice, complete story. However, I’m not sure that I would recommend it specifically to anyone in particular in my life for recreational reading, mainly because it didn’t jump out at me as an earth-shattering experience. I think its potential for use in the classroom, on the other hand, is very rich.

Reader’s Response Journal: Day of Tears

Day of Tears cover

Citation:

Lester, Julius. Day of Tears. New York: Jump at the Sun-Hyperion, 2005. Print.

Plot:

Pierce Butler, a divorced, Southern plantation owner, deep in debt due to gambling, decides to auction off his slaves in the biggest slave auction in U.S. history. The slave who looks after his children, Emma, is sold away from her family, despite Butler’s promise not to. After several years, Emma’s fiancé Joe meets a white man, Mr. Henry, who helps them to escape across the Ohio River to freedom. Emma encounters Butler’s ex-wife, Fanny Kemble, in Philadelphia and she helps them escape one more time to Canada, for fear of the Fugitive Slave Act. Told from the viewpoints of several characters at the time of the auction and from the future looking back, Lester’s work is based on a true story.

Setting:

The day of the auction in 1859 and the years preceding and following the Civil War on the Butler Plantation in Georgia, the Henfield Plantation in Kentucky, Philadelphia and Nova Scotia.

Point of View:

1st person (all characters), in dialogue.

Theme:

Sadness and grief, personal strength, enduring love despite time and distance.

Literary Quality:

Through the use of dialogue, flashbacks and multiple points of view, Lester recreates a dramatic event in U.S. history, lending a personal side and emotion to the story. The novel depicts the stories of characters from multiple perspectives of slavery: white and black, pro-slavery and abolitionist. The descriptions are rich but not heavy, with an extended metaphor of rain to express sadness throughout the book.

Cultural Authenticity:

Julius Lester used the primary source writings from several of the characters in the story, as well as records from the actual auction to recreate the event. The humanity and feelings of the characters are expressed openly, making it easier to understand their motivations, even the ones who outwardly seem to be despicable. Lester notes at the end that his purpose for writing this book was to give voice to those who were unable to tell their own stories.

Audience:

The intended audience of this book is likely upper-elementary or middle school children. The dialogue format is simple and clear, with character changes clearly noted, so most young readers will not struggle with the change in voice. However, the changes in time, through also noted in words and by use of italic font, may pose more difficult for younger, more abstract readers. The book lacks the brutality and violence common in stories about this period of history and instead focuses on grief, also making it more appropriate for a younger audience.

Personal Reaction:

I enjoyed the book immensely, especially once I realized that the story was based on a real historical event, because the characters became more human and three-dimensional to me this way. The use of dialogue was a little strange since it seemed to alternate between 1st person narrative and play-script, and I would have preferred one or the other, but not both. It was a quick-to-read book, but dense in meaning. I have never read another book that had treated the auctioning of slaves as fully as this one did, and I think it would be a valuable piece in fostering an understanding of this part of our history.

Historical Fiction and the Mirror of Multicultural Lit

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has a line on their website about multicultural literature and how “all children deserve books in which they can see themselves and the world in which they live reflected.”

We’ve been looking at the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for my class, and I agree that the characters as caricatures in Huck Finn are sometimes less than helpful (and especially racist). While I think the book still has literary merit, I’m not sure it’s real useful as the kind of multicultural “mirror” that the CCBC suggests.

Which makes me think… is historical fiction really the most effective tool for such a pursuit? It’s good for bringing the past to life and hopefully keeping us from being “condemned to repeat it,” but I’m not sure kids can always see themselves very well in historical fiction, especially if we’re talking about a group that has been oppressed as much as the slaves were.

Even with a well-written, unbiased historical fiction novel, one could argue that slave culture might be harder for today’s kids to identify with. Obviously, there can be more to identify with than that, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about. On the other hand, Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney’s Sam and the Tigers has more of this timelessness in its illustrations than the original Bannerman Little Black Sambo storybook or this terrible 1935 cartoon.

Historical fiction is often more of a window than a mirror. We might do better to focus on multicultural books that reflect the same [contemporary] culture or have illustrations/names that are timeless.