a gift from abuela

I’ve spent the last few weeks in upstate New York, and it’s been a gift to be able to see my grandmother (now 101 years old!). For many months she couldn’t have visitors because of COVID-19, and we’re all very aware that that could happen again—so any time together is precious beyond measure. Thinking of how much I value my grandmother’s presence and appreciate her support as an adult made Cecilia Ruiz’s picture book A Gift from Abuela feel even more poignant.

a gift from abuela by cecilia ruiz cover
The first time Abuela holds Nina, her heart overflows with tenderness. And as Nina grows up, she and Abuela spend plenty of time together. Abuela can’t help thinking how much she’d like to give Nina a very special treat, so she saves a little bit of her money every week — a few pesos here, a few pesos there. When the world turns upside down, Abuela’s dream of a surprise for Nina seems impossible. Luckily, time spent together — and the love Abuela and Nina have for each other — could turn out to be the very best gift of all. With a soft and subtle hand, author-illustrator Cecilia Ruiz draws from her own history to share a deeply personal tale about remembering what’s most important when life starts to get in the way.

In this Mexico City-set picture book, a child and grandmother are fast friends. However, as the child grows up, life gets in the way of visiting, and slowly they grow apart. One day, the child learns that their grandmother was saving money for a special gift, but because of political/economic upheaval, those savings became worthless. Together, grandmother and grandchild decide to make banners out of the old paper currency, and bond anew.

A Gift from Abuela is a heartfelt and bittersweet story notable for its unique setting and its celebration of the small habits and special moments spent together that make relationships memorable. Children who have seen the film Coco will find much to identify with in this story, as the same threads of family, remembrance, and art are woven through out. The narrative itself is simple and universal, and while it could be set anywhere in the world, the Mexico City setting is uniquely lovely. The papel picado (cut paper art used in celebratory banners in Mexico) border design on the cover, textures used throughout the book, and varying colors all add to that sense of setting and place.

The highlight, as it often (always?) is with picture books, is the art. Ruiz’s designs are symmetrical and almost architectural—and the page spreads often rely on these idealistic outlines of the grandmother’s kitchen/building/city for structure. In addition, Ruiz uses lots of patterns in primary colors, with a screen-printed effect. The art will appeal to adults just as much as the children.

This book would make a wonderful gift for a grandparent to share with their grandchild (no guarantees that the grandparent won’t cry, though!). It’s also a good candidate for cultural learning units that include Day of the Dead traditions (without a specific reference to that holiday). It’s a must for libraries that are looking to add to or feature diverse voices and experiences in their collections.

In all, A Gift from Abuela is a meticulously-illustrated and poignant look at the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren.

Recommended for: fans of culturally diverse picture books, parents, grandparents, and libraries looking for stories featuring Latinx characters, and anyone who enjoyed Dreamers, Juana & Lucas, and Duncan Tonatiuh’s picture books.

when stars are scattered

In 2018 I started volunteering at an immigration legal aid clinic. I wanted to find a way to help, and I needed to focus on positive change rather than my rage over how the US treats immigrants. Sometimes a happy side effect of helping others is that you see yourself more clearly, too. Soon after, I went back to school to become a teacher. And now I’m evaluating graphic novels about immigration to share with my students! The important things circle around (if you're paying attention!). This brings me to today’s book review: fantastic middle grade graphic novel When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed. Omar’s story is poignant, relevant, and beautifully illustrated: it’s well worth the read!

when stars are scattered by victoria jamieson and omar mohamed book cover
Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Life is hard there: never enough food, achingly dull, and without access to the medical care Omar knows his nonverbal brother needs. So when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future . . . but it would also mean leaving his brother, the only family member he has left, every day.

Heartbreak, hope, and gentle humor exist together in this graphic novel about a childhood spent waiting, and a young man who is able to create a sense of family and home in the most difficult of settings. It’s an intimate, important, unforgettable look at the day-to-day life of a refugee, as told to
New York Times Bestselling author/artist Victoria Jamieson by Omar Mohamed, the Somali man who lived the story.

Meet Omar and Hassan, brothers who live in Dadaab, a huge refugee camp in Kenya. Forced to flee Somalia’s civil war when they were little, now every day in the camp they follow the same routine: pray, wait for water, clean the tent, and play. When Omar is offered the chance to attend school, he must balance his dreams with what he always thought of as his future: caring for Hassan, who has medical needs and does not speak, and waiting for their mother to find them. Omar loves school, but he worries that his thirst for learning means abandoning Hassan.

When Stars Are Scattered is a heavily autobiographical graphic novel about former refugee Omar Mohamed’s experiences as a young boy and teenager, illustrated, fictionalized, and co-told with celebrated graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson. At its core, When Stars Are Scattered is a story of two very different brothers growing up together, and the ways that they learn to trust each other and those around them. It’s also a story of experiences in a refugee camp, the privation of daily life and vanishingly small chances of resettlement, and how hope and despair can develop side by side. And lastly, it’s entertaining, bittersweet, and deeply authentic. I have read several refugee and immigrant graphic novels recently (The Unwanted, Illegal, Escape from Syria, Alpha, Undocumented), and this one is the most personal and accessible I have found. I think my students will eat it up.

The book is organized into three parts, or time periods: childhood, early teens, and late teens. At the end of the book Mohamed and Jamieson share real-life photographs of Omar and Hassan and others mentioned in the narrative, and add a small epilogue to tell you what happened “after the story.” This will please any reader who likes resolution to their stories, and it offers parents and educators a chance to connect Omar’s story to news stories and laws around immigration today. In addition, Mohamed and Jamieson discuss how they met and decided to tell Omar’s story together – interesting information for aspiring writers!

I want to touch on what I found most impressive about the book: that it is deeply personal, literarily valuable, and also offers a big picture view of refugee camp life that children and teens will relate to. Managing and balancing these three elements takes enormous talent and speaks to Jamieson and Mohamed’s skill. When I told my uncle about this book yesterday, he said, “That doesn’t sound like something that kids would just pick up on their own!” And if it was just the subject matter, he’d be right. But this is a story is told with heart-wrenching honesty, in an accessible and enjoyable format, and readers of all ages will root for Omar and Hassan to finally find “home.” I can see myself using When Stars Are Scattered as an additional reading suggestion when I teach The Odyssey in parallel with immigrant journey photo essays, and recommending it as choice reading to any of my students, full-stop.

Really quick before I wrap up, let’s talk about the art! It’s very colorful, and in Jamieson’s regular style (slightly rounded heads that are bigger than bodies). The focus is on human figures rather than landscape, and because there is so much story packed into the book, most pages are full of traditional comic panels. The occasional full-page illustration helps moderate the pacing. Visual and text elements that wouldn’t be immediately recognizable to an American audience are explained either in footnotes or as part of the story. As always in a graphic novel, the illustrations make or break the book. The book is fantastic, ergo… the art is perfectly suited to this story!

In all, When Stars Are Scattered is an engaging and necessary addition to any graphic novel library. Omar’s story (and all refugee and immigrant stories) is relevant for young people, and Jamieson and Mohamed have crafted a tale that will entertain, inform, and melt readers’ hearts.

Recommended for: all fans of graphic novels and comics, but especially the 10-15 year old crowd, readers and curators interested in a personal story of refugee life, and anyone who leans towards the nonfiction section when they get to pick their choice reading.

dreamers

Unless I type up a review within minutes of finishing a book (a vanishingly rare occurrence!), I organize my thoughts by writing them down long-hand. And then… given my current rate of production… it may take a year or two to actually convert a review to a digital version and post it on my blog. In the autumn of 2018 I had a hugely productive couple of months, reading- and review-wise, and I’m only just now starting to think about posting those reviews. Yuyi Morales’ beautiful and much-lauded picture book Dreamers was one of those titles, and today I’m finally getting around to reviewing it. While my thoughts may not be as fresh, I can say with conviction that the art has stayed with me – vivid in memory. Morales’ talent has definite staying power.

dreamers by yuyi morales cover
In 1994, Yuyi Morales left her home in Xalapa, Mexico and came to the US with her infant son. She left behind nearly everything she owned, but she didn’t come empty-handed.

She brought her strength, her work, her passion, her hopes and dreams…and her stories. Caldecott Honor artist and five-time Pura Belpré winner Yuyi Morales’s gorgeous new picture book Dreamers is about making a home in a new place. Yuyi and her son Kelly’s passage was not easy, and Yuyi spoke no English whatsoever at the time. But together, they found an unexpected, unbelievable place: the public library. There, book by book, they untangled the language of this strange new land, and learned to make their home within it.

Dreamers is a celebration of what immigrants bring with them when they leave their homes. It’s a story about family. And it’s a story to remind us that we are all dreamers, bringing our own gifts wherever we roam. Beautiful and powerful at any time but given particular urgency as the status of our own Dreamers becomes uncertain, this is a story that is both topical and timeless.

In Dreamers a mother (Morales) tells her son about her journey to the United States. She illustrates becoming an immigrant, navigating a new life and new customs, and reacting to the new, foreign world around her. While this memoir leaves out some more practical details, it’s an immigrant story made accessible for all ages. Morales trails more difficult, mature clues throughout the illustrations, and discusses what happened in some detail in the back matter in a section entitled “My Story.” But the undisputed center of the story is when mother and son encounter a library for the first time: an improbable, suspicious, and imagination-sparking place that makes all of the previous difficulties palatable and traversable.

Morales writes:
“Books became our language.
Books became our home.
Books became our lives.”

This love letter to books and libraries is accompanied by astonishingly beautiful art – the true star of the book. Morales’ mixed media art pops on each pate, and color is used as a metaphor for opening the mind (it grows as the author settles into a new life and makes discoveries). I loved the use of color, the embroidery art, and textures. Accompanying the art and exuberance over books is a back matter index of “Books that Inspired Me” if the reader wants to follow Morales’ path.

The book as a whole is very positive, and the focus is not on the hardships of the immigration journey (though they are hinted at, as I mentioned above), but the wonder of libraries and books as places and things that can act as a catalyst for creativity and take you as far as you can imagine (or farther!). Side note: this isn’t a book about DREAMers or DACA recipients. It’s an artfully told exploration of opening doors and flowering creativity after a rough transition. It would pair especially well with other books that touch on those themes such as Juana & Lucas and The Day You Begin.

In all, Dreamers is a beautiful book that will inspire fanciful art as well as deep questions and conversations. It’s more of a stare-at-the-pictures kind of book, but would also work well during storytime if combined with lots of context.

Recommended for: every picture book library, and especially for bibliophiles, no matter their age.

the black god's drums

I’ve been meaning to read P. Djèlí Clark's novella The Black God's Drums for a long time. I’m proud to say I finally finished it (and that the long wait had nothing to do with the book itself, which was fast-paced, satisfying, and a romp and a half!). A couple of years ago I borrowed this novella from the library and racked up a $13 late fee – before returning it unread. *sigh* And then I bought a hardcover copy sometime in the past year… but teaching (and grading!) burned through all of my personal reading time. And THEN I finally bought a digital copy as well – to read whenever. And whenever happened to be over the last few days, sitting with my Kindle in the sunshine at my uncles’ place. It was extremely satisfying to check this one off my to-read list!

the black god's drums by p. djèlí clark book cover
Creeper, a scrappy young teen, is done living on the streets of New Orleans. Instead, she wants to soar, and her sights are set on securing passage aboard the smuggler airship 
Midnight Robber. Her ticket: earning Captain Ann-Marie’s trust using a secret about a kidnapped Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls the Black God’s Drums.

But Creeper keeps another secret close to heart—Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, who speaks inside her head and grants her divine powers. And Oya has her own priorities…

Young orphan Creeper sleeps rough and knows the ins and outs of a steampunk version of New Orleans from her life as a pickpocket. Her dreams are bigger than the streets she loves, though – she wants to get away, to join an airship crew and fly the world. When she stumbles upon valuable information about a weapon of mass destruction called the Black God’s Drums, she thinks that selling it to the right source may be her ticket out of town on a Haitian pirate airship. The goddess Oya, who haunts Creeper’s thoughts with visions, may have a different plan – and so the intrigue and adventure begin.

The Black God’s Drums is primarily young Creeper’s story, but it is firmly moored in an alternate history and place: a steampunk version of New Orleans full of airships and mechanical marvels, where the North and South signed a treaty to end a much longer Civil War and Free New Orleans rebelled and lives in its own bubble. In this version of reality, Creeper is on her own and a master at avoiding the risk and danger of her world, and at the same time trying to escape to live in the skies. She’s dropped into intrigue by accident (is it really an accident or Oya’s will?), and thus follows an adventure that crisscrosses New Orleans and brings her up against sinister enemies.

One of the story’s great strengths is the crazy steampunk and cultural mashup in its pages (and that’s also one of the possible weaknesses, if you can’t untangle the threads). It’s speculative fiction, which you always take a bit on faith, but it imagines a mostly hopeful past: one where Haiti thrived and prospered after its slave uprising and revolution (even at terrible cost), the rest of the Caribbean followed it to freedom, and Free New Orleans is a diverse melting pot full of a Blacks, Creoles, and more. Also there are airships! And unlikely information gatherers, and queer characters, and a rollicking pace that catapult the reader through adventures one after another.

The one thing I wish we got more of in the story is MORE of the story – I’d love to see this become a series like the Murderbot novellas by Martha Wells did. Clark has woven a history and a cultural milieu that are rich with detail, and characters you want to know more about. I think there’s more to Creeper’s story, and I’d love to read it.

In all, The Black God’s Drums is an inventive, electric steampunk short story filled with Haitian airship privateers, the unique flavor of New Orleans, and a young heroine who will steal into your heart.

Recommended for: those looking to read more fiction by Black authors, fans of short stories and YA steampunk/alternate histories (e.g. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series), and anyone on the hunt for a fast-paced read.
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