Happy Birthday Wilhem Grimm

Happy Birthday to Wilhem Grimm, born on this day in 1786

k10300Wilhem and his brother collected and shaped the fairy tales that we know and love today: Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, the Juniper Tree to name only a few. If you’re interest, fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes recently published the first ever english translation of the Brother Grimms’ first edition of collected fairy tales. The version of tales we are most familiar with are from an eighth edition, and were heavily edited by the brothers to be more appropriate for children. So yes, the tales we think are gruesome are the HIGHLY EDITED ONES. Zipes’s translation features stories that the brothers removed from later editions, as well as show the tales in their most “raw” form.

What’s your favorite Grimm fairy tale?

Olemaun and Alice

When I Was Eight

Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

Art by Gabrielle Grimard

Published in 2013 by Annick Press

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The Story: Olemaun, an Inuit girl, longs to go to school so she can learn to read the outsiders’ books, especially the book about Alice that her sister Rosie reads. Olemaun begs her father to take her to the outsiders’ school until he reluctantly lets her. But school is nothing like Olemuan imagined. A black-cloaked nun cuts off her long hair, strips away her warm parka, and takes away her Inuit name, and calls Olemaun instead Margaret. For weeks Margaret does nothing but chores: scrubbing the floors, washing the walls, dishes, and laundry. Margaret is no closer to being able to read, so she takes her education on herself and teaches herself to read. One day, intended to shame Margaret, a nun throws a large book towards Margaret and tells her to read, and Margaret “confidently sliced through the words without a single moment of hesitation.” Margaret feels powerful from this victory and realizes she is “Olemaun, conqueror of evil, reader of books. . . I finally knew this, like I knew many things, because now I could read.”

What Wallace and I Think: This is a picturebook about Canadian residential schools. Let that sink in. I don’t remember being taught about residential schools when I was in school. It may have been mentioned, but there wasn’t any emphasis to make it stick in my memory, and I think this was intentional. Why? Because Canada, our nation, is embarrassed, ashamed, by what was done to Indigenous children in these schools. And what do we do when we’re embarrassed about something? We don’t talk about it, because talking makes the knot in our stomach, lets others know about that thing we’re embarrassed about, that we don’t want other people to know about. It makes us, the person who is embarrassed, uncomfortable.

But those like the Fentons are telling their own stories, so that what was done is not ignored and not forgotten. The Fentons do this by writing a picturebook, to start education about this dark history young. When I Was Eight is the true story of the Margaret Fenton’s experience at residential schools, and she has dedicate the book to “the Indian Residential School survivors who haven’t yet found their voices.” And perhaps it may help those to find their voices if what happened to them wasn’t ignored, and this picturebook is a step is solving this ignorance.

So as you can probably already guess, I think this is an important picturebook that needs to be read to children. It will take many children outside their own lived experience and help to develop their empathetic sensibilities, and will give voice to many children whose own family members are still coping with what was done to them in residential schools.

I could recommend this book being read to children as young as six or seven (grade one age).

Wednesday’s Wise Words

“All the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people. And you know that if you looked at these facts when you’re happy, you would feel great because you’re describing unity.”

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Stephen Chbosky

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Don’t Be Afraid of Virginia Wolf

Virginia Wolf

Kyo Maclear (Author) and Isabelle Arsenault (illustrator)

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The Story: Vanessa and Virginia are sisters. Sometimes Virginia is in a “wolfish” mood: she growls and howls and acts very strange. Vanessa does everything she can think of to cure Virginia’s mood, but nothing works. One day Virginia tells Vanessa about an imaginary, happy place called Bloomsberry, which gives Vanessa a wonderful idea! With her paint brush in hand, Vanessa brings Bloomsberry to life by painting on the walls and transforming them into a beautiful garden. Virginia soon picks up her own paint brush and undergoes a transformation of her own.

What Wallace and I Think: I got to hear Kyo Maclear talk about this picturebook last year. She was kind enough to give a talk to my supervisor’s picturebook class. She was even kinder to talk to me one on one, and we had a great discussion about my research, and how she wants to start a PhD on a similar topic. She was soft-spoken, intelligent, and just, well, as I said, KIND. So, as you can tell, I’m now a Kyo fan for life.

She told us the picture book was born out of her desire to talk about mental health with children. There is still such a stigma attached to issues of mental health, and Maclear expressed that maybe a way to fight the stigma is to get people talking about mental health issues as early as possible. The result is a beautiful picture book that tells three profound stories:

  1. A story of friendship between siblings.

At the most basic level, this story is about the importance of family support, and the love shared between siblings. The images are beautiful, the text is lovely. It is simply a delight to read.

  1. A story loosely based on the real life sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

The picture book also provides the opportunity to introduce children to important cultural figures: author Virginia Woolf, her sister and artist Vanessa Bell, and The Bloomsbury group. As I have said in other posts, intextuality is important in early children’s literature, for it can spark later curiosity. Maybe when your little one is a teenager they’ll be more inclined to pick up Mrs. Dalloway because they’ve already been introduced to Woolf. And hey, if you’re a parent that finds Virginia’s name familiar, but haven’t heard of Vanessa or the Bloomsbury group, maybe your own curiosity will be piqued

I had someone say to me: “this not a great way to talk about depression with children, because they can find out that Virginia Woolf committed suicide, and that could spark the idea to do the same if they’re depressed.” This kind of comment infuriates me. First, it depicts children as sponges that passively receive information. Children are not passive. Don’t make them passive! They have brains. Encourage them to use their brains! When they can talk, they want to talk to you about things that matter, like depression. This comment does an injustice to children. Second, as someone who has struggled with depression her whole life, I can tell you from personal experience that learning about people like Virginia Woolf (who I learned about when I was a young teenager and she meant a lot to me), who were brilliant and created beautiful things, made me stop believing that I was weak, and that I was alone. And I’m still here because I was inspired by Woolf’s life, not her death. Your child, hopefully when they’re much older, are going to learn about suicide. Don’t you want to give them a foundation, the mental fortitude to talk about such things, so they aren’t overwhelmed later?

  1. A story that can begin conversations with children about feeling “wolfish”

I’ve spoken to a few teachers about their experiences of reading this picture book to their classes, and they were blown away with the types of conversations the reading provoked. The students shared stories of when their own siblings, and parents, and friends have felt “wolfish.” They discussed things they did to help their loved ones, and how it felt to have a loved one struggle in this way. Others talked about feeling wolfish themselves, what helps them when they’re feeling this way, and what they wished their loved ones would do for them when they’re feeling this way. This is powerful! The picturebook gave these children the tools to talk about a subject that is insanely hard to talk about.

I would recommend reading this picturebook to even the youngest of children, as even if they’re too young to talk to you about feeling wolfish, the pictures are beautiful. It is a picturebook that children will understanding more deeply the older they get. And like I said, why not give children the tools to talk about something like depression as early as possible?

I give this picturebook a 5/5

Review of American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang

Published in 2006 by First Second

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The Story: The graphic novel American Born Chinese tells three seemingly unconnected tales:

  1. Jin Wang’s family moves from San Francisco’s Chinatown to a new neighbourhood, and Jin finds he’s one of the only Chinese-American students at his school. He and his other Chinese friends are picked on constantly, and to make things even worse, Jin falls in love with a stereotypical All-American, blonde haired, blued eye girl in his class.
  2. The Monkey King was born from a rock, and soon after establishes his monkey kingdom. He’s mastered the Arts of Kung-Fu, the Four Major Disciplines of Invulnerability, and has achieved the Four Major Disciplines of Bodily Form. However, even with power and adoring subjects, the gods, goddesses, demons and spirits of heaven only see the Monkey King as . . . a Monkey. The Monkey King yearns for the respect he deserves.
  3. Chin-Kee is the accumulation of every negative Chinese stereotype. Once a year he visits his cousin Danny in America and RUINS HIS LIFE. After every visit Danny has to transfer to a new school to escape the ridicule his cousin brings. This year’s visit is worse than ever.

What Wallace and I Think: A review on the back cover of my edition compares American Born Chinese with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (a wonderful comparison in my opinion) in that they both explore “the impact of the American Dream on those outside the dominant culture” (School Library Journal). This is a story as old as the American Dream itself, but with the current success of ABC’s sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, nearly ten years after it was first published American Born Chinese’s continues to be significant. Yang’s graphic novel tackles stereotypes, as well as the effects these stereotypes have on first-generation Chinese-American children. At its core, the graphic novel is a coming of age story for Jin who must learn to integrate himself in American culture while also maintaining his Chinese roots. Because of the constant teasing and racist assumptions Jin’s peers make, Jin thinks the only way to be accepted into American society is to erase his “Chineseness”. But, as a wise woman tells a young Jin (after learning he wants to be a Transformer when he grows up), “It’s easy to become anything you wish . . . so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul” (29). What Jin must determine is whether forfeiting his soul to become what he thinks he wants is worth the price.

The Monkey King’s story is a delight and a gateway to further exploration of Chinese fables. The Monkey King is tied into Jin’s story-line in a surprising way, and also introducing readers to a traditional Chinese story. The Monkey King is a main character is the Chinese Classical novel Journey to the West, and is also found in later stories and adaptations. The Monkey King’s section loosely follows the story line of Journey to the West. Like the classical novel, Yang’s Monkey King is imprisoned under a mountain after rebelling against heaven, and is only released from the mountain when he agrees to accompany a Monk, Xuanzang (who also appears in the graphic novel), on a journey. Yang updates the fable, for the Monkey King’s mission intersects with the story lines of Jin and Chin-Kee. Comparing the Monkey King’s protrayal in American Born Chinese to his classical protrayals could make for interesting discussions.

The Monkey King shows those heavenly snobs who's boss!

The Monkey King shows those heavenly snobs who’s boss!

Chin-Kee’s story line should make you feel uncomfortable. Blatantly a racist depiction of Chinese stereotypes, Chin-Kee forces American-Chinese characters to confront fears of how they’re being perceived. Chin-Kee is the conscience of the graphic novel and acts as a “signpost” to Jin’s “Soul” (221). He also acts as the signpost and conscience of readers who may be to blame for acting similar to Jin and Danny’s bullies in the graphic novels; to those who are to blame for naming the stereotypes and bringing them into being. Mary Roche argues a main benefit of reading literature is that it opens us up to the lived experience of others, deepening our sympathies and understanding beyond our own lived experience. Given the chance, this is what American Born Chinese can accomplish, especially through the depiction of Chin-Kee and how he links up to the two other story lines. And to those that already identify with Jin’s experience, the graphic novel functions as a friend, who will warmly put his arm around your shoulder and say “you are not alone. You matter.”

This is a young adult graphic novel, and I would recommend it to grade seven readers at the youngest.

I give this novel a 5/5

Junior’s Absolutely True Diary

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

By Sherman Alexie and art by Ellen Forney

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Disclaimer: this novel contains sexual content and language possibly offensive to some readers. Please check with your parents before reading.

The Story: Arnold Spirit, nicknamed Junior, lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and he is really excited about starting high school, especially his first geometry class. When his geometry teacher, Mr. P, hands out their textbooks, Junior’s has a name scribbled on the first page: Agnes Adams. Junior’s mother’s name. Which means the textbook is at least thirty years old. The one light in Junior’s life is diminished as he realizes no one really cares about his education, and he feels trapped. In a rage he throws the text book and hits Mr. Pit in the face, breaking the teacher’s nose. Instead of being mad, Mr. P apologizes to Junior: “You were right to throw that book at me. I deserved to get smashed in the face for what I’ve one to Indians,” but Mr. P adds: “All the Indians should get smashed in the face too . . . The only thing you kids are being taught is how to give up . . . All these kids have given up. All your friends. All your bullies. And their mothers and fathers have given up, too. And their grandparents gave up and their grandparents before them. And me and every other teacher here. We’re all defeated” (42). Mr. P sees promise in Junior because he hasn’t yet given up, so he urges him to leave the rez school and transfer to Reardan high school, for a better education.

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The novel follows Junior’s difficult journey of transferring to a new school. Junior battles feelings of guilt that he has betrayed his tribe, and the loneliness from feeling invisible in the white-washed halls of Reardan high school. Junior must learn how to navigate staying connected to his family and community, while also integrating himself into a new community at Reardan.

What Wallace and I Think: This is my third time reading Absolutely True Diary, which is funny because one character, Gordy, says you have to read any book three times to get the most out of it. However, after finishing my third reading, I know there is much more to gleam from even more rereading’s, and I’m sure this isn’t the last time I’ll come to it. My future students can expect to see this on many a syllabus.

The Absolutely True Dairy started out as Alexie Sherman’s autobiography, but publishers encouraged him to pursue it as his first YA work, because so much of it was focusing on his childhood. As a result, Junior shares many commonalities with his creator. Like Junior, Alexie was born with “water on the brain” and barely survived his infancy, but didn’t have all the lasting side-effects that Junior does, like his stutter and lisp. Like Junior, Alexie also found his mother’s name in his geometry text book, but when he angrily threw the book it thankfully hit a wall and not a teacher. And like Junior, Alexie transferred to Reardan high school, but did so because he had already decided to go to college, and needed extra credits that were only offered in Reardan.

In literary studies, we have the habit of questioning when the narrator tells the reader they are telling the truth. Because Junior declares this story is absolutely true, I have been trained to automatically be suspicious, and consider him an unreliable narrator. It’s the whole, the lady doth protest too much, thing. If the narrator IS telling the truth, why does he have to tell us he’s telling the truth? Does that mean anything else he said, and didn’t indicate as being true, was a lie? Literary scholars are a distrusting bunch. But asking these sorts of questions helps to investigate meaning in the narratives, and learn more about the narrators. So while many of the stories are true, the title begs the reader to question (or so an English major would argue), is it an absolutely true diary? Looking at the similarities and differences between Junior and Alexie, finding what is absolutely true, is one place to investigate the meaning in the gaps between truth and fiction.

Junior has a dark sense of humour that literally had me laughing while crying several times. On my third reading. So I knew what was coming, and I still was crying while laughing. Junior strikes a fine balance of healthy pessimism with a dash of optimism. Meaning, he sees people and things for what they truly are, but he doesn’t lose hope that he can overcome the obstacles before him. Much of what Junior says is meant to make readers feel uncomfortable, whether they come from a background similar to his, or that of the kids at Reardan. No one gets a free pass. It aims to challenge readers’ thinking and perceptions.

A special feature of the novel is Ellen Forney’s illustrations. Junior is a cartoonist. He is always drawing because “I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation. I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats” (6). Forney does an amazing job of creating art for the book from the perspective of Junior. She includes doodles from his notebooks, cartoons and caricatures of himself, his family and friends that are brutally honest, and more realistic sketches that are a loving way to honour those close to him. Junior’s illustrations add depth to an already profound novel. Forney does so well at echoing the dark humour Alexie gives to Junior, giving it new form through the illustrations.

The Absolutely True Diary is an important book to read because of its dark humour and its ability to challenge readers’ thinking and make you uncomfortable, because this may change your thinking and actions in the real world. Young adults, as well as adults should be reading this book. Really, we should be reading anything by Sherman Alexie, because he is a gift.

I give Alexie’s novel a 5/5