Sunday, January 17, 2010

Refusing to be Enemies

When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he's come from,
where he's headed.
that way, he'll have strength
enough to answer
Or, by then you'll be
such good friends
you don't care.

from "Red Brocade"
by Naomi Shihab Nye

On Sunday, January 24, the Diversity Committee of Emerson School will show "Refusing to be Enemies", a movie that tells the story of the women of Zeitouna and their efforts to better understand what being Jewish or Palestinian means to them and to the other women in their group. Several women of Zeitouna will join us after the movie to talk about their experiences and offer ideas to help with conflicts in our world, our community, our school, and our personal lives.

The women of Zeitouna are twelve Ann Arbor women, six of whom are Jewish and six of whom are of Palestinian origin, Muslim and Christian. They have been meeting regularly for several years, making sure that they listen to each other with respect and caring. The movie is the story of their coming together and their meetings. These women are not working to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are only working to understand each other, believing that by getting to know each other as people they can not be enemies. You can read more about their story and see a trailer of the movie at their website "refusing to be enemies".

"Refusing to be Enemies" contains references to the violence of the area but has very little graphic content. However, it is not for young children who, at the very least, will probably find it boring. Middle School students and mature fifth graders will benefit from watching the movie along with parents and friends.

Parents have asked that I suggest some books for upper elementary and middle school students who might want to view the movie. There are many books available about what is happening in Israel and the West Bank. Not surprisingly, it is not easy to find one that offers a truly unbiased point of view. In fact, the presence of bias often depends on your personal experiences and point of view. I do not suggest that any of these books, or even all of them as a whole, will offer a truly fair or accurate picture of the causes and meanings of the conflict. Instead, I offer them as a starting point for your discussions.

Emerson was lucky enough to have Naomi Shihab Nye visit our school several years ago. As the librarian I was doubly blessed because I got to drive Ms. Nye to her next stop and enjoy an outstanding dinner and discussion with her. Ms. Nye writes poetry and novels for middle grade and older readers. She also has one delightful picture book. The quote at the beginning of this post as well as the one at end are from Nye's poetry collection 19 Varieties of Gazelle. The poems in this collection and her two other collections of poems from the Middle East--The Flag of Childhood and The Space Between our Footsteps--carry great emotion and offer insight into the lives of people living in the Middle East as well as those who have emigrated to other parts of the world.

Habibi, Nye's first novel for middle grade readers, moved me personally as it describes a girl's first visit to the land of her father. In Habibi Liyanne travels to Jerusalem and the small Palestinian village where her father was born. The family stays long enough for her to enroll in a Jerusalem school so Liyanne sees more of the good and bad, the confusion and the beauty of this once alien place. Nye's picture book, Sitti's Secrets tells a similar story of a little girl visiting her grandmother in a Palestinian village. It ends with a clear and concise plea for world peace.

Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi won the Batchelder Award from the American Library Association for its portrayal of a young Palestinian boy who finds himself in an Israeli hospital ward. He believes that the Israeli's are to blame for his brother's death so he is not eager to interact with the other boys in the hospital. Gradually, however, Samir gets to know these boys and befriends Yonatan. Together they offer a strong message for understanding and for peace. The author was born in Tel Aviv and currently lives in Jerusalem. This book is suitable for grades five and older.

A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird with Sonia Nimr looks at war and peace through the eyes of a Palestinian boy. It clearly has a Palestinian bias but carries a strong feel of the impact of war on all who live through it. This book is best suited for middle school students.

When I Was a Soldier: A Memoir by Valerie Zenatti is a Batchelder Honor Book. This gritty, frank book well be best appreciated by young adults. It tells the true story of a young Jewish girl from France whose family immigrated to Israel. Like all Israeli youths, she joins the army soon after her 18th birthday. Using memories and journal entries, Zenatti tells her story as a rebellious young woman who wonders about her friends, her family, her boyfriend, and her personal commitment to her adopted home while facing life and death decisions on a regular basis.

Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat gives a brief overview of the conflict before settling into her own story which begins with the Six-Day War. She writes with the grace of the poet that she is. The author was born in Ramallah and earned a degree in English literature in the West Bank. In addition to writing, she works with young people dealing with injustices in their lives. This is another book that is aimed at Middle School readers.

Deborah Ellis visited children caught up in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at orphanages and schools, at McDonald's and at the Holocaust memorial, at home and in public to find out how they were dealing with life in a war zone. In Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak they talk about sibling rivalry and wanting a special toy or pet, but they also talk of families separated, friends lost, and dreams put on hold. Throughout all of the stories, there runs a thread of hope that their lives will be better and at least some of their wishes will come true. While the writing is simple, I suggest that readers wait until reaching fifth grade or older to tackle this book.

Let's change places," the teenagers said.
"For a week, I'll be you and you be me."
Knowing if they did,t hey could never fight again.

Listen to them.

from "Trenches and Moats and Mounds of Dirt"
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I Have a Dream

I have a dream that is not nearly as inspiring as Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. My dream this week is that people will use a part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday to think about peace, justice, and equity. You could throw in a few books about King himself.

In fact, books are about King may be the easiest to find. For a first biography as well as beautiful illustrations, check out Martin's Big Words by Doreen Rappaport. This award winning book lets the story of King's life grow from quotes from his speeches. The words of the story itself are sparse. Text changes in font, size, and color to bring emphasis. Some of the concepts are not easy to grasp, so parents will want to share this book with their children for the first read. Then you can expect to see your child reading it again to fully appreciate the art and the words.

Search your library for the longer biography of King that best suits your interests and needs. There are many and I hesitate to suggest any one as my favorite. You will find many that are wonderful. You will also find some that were written to get to get on the bandwagon with little to offer in terms of writing or information. Look carefully.

If you want to address the Civil Rights Movement, there are many options.

In Warriors Don't Cry Melba Patillo Beals tells a moving story of her experiences as one of the students who integrated Little Rock High School. Young adults and adults will be touched by the courage that it took to face angry classmates and their angrier parents every day.

The brilliantly illustrated Rosa by Niki Giovanni is the most beautiful of the many biographies of Rosa Parks. Parks has also written an autobiography for middle grade readers.

Not everyone wants to read non-fiction. Luckily for all of us, there are many wonderful novels that address the inequalities that lead to the painful fight for civil rights.

For the reader in grades four and up it is hard to beat the works of Christopher Paul Curtis and the best of his works for talking about Civil Rights is The Watsons go to Birmingham--1964. As with all of the books by Curtis, its ability to capture the voice of a young boy with healthy dose of humor soon has the reader engulfed in the story. Because we are so comfortable with the characters as they travel from Flint, Michigan, to visit relatives Alabama, the ending is especially moving and meaningful. If you know what happened in Birmingham in 1964, you can already predict the event what event changes the story and the lives of its characters.

My two favorite picture books that give a poignant look at the 1960s are best shared with students in grade two or older because they include topics that require explanation and thought. Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles features two young boys who ignore the differences in their skin color because they are friends. Then the city decides that rather than integrate the swimming pool as the new Civil Rights Act decrees, they will see that no one gets to swim. The emotions of the boys are the feelings any boy on a hot summer day would feel but also bring them to the realization of how differently the world views each of them.

A Taste of Colored Water by Matt Faulkner follows two young white children into town where they hope to see the "colored" water fountain. In their minds this means rainbow colored water that probably also means wonderful flavors. What they encounter is a group of protesters and police. It is a powerful story.

Let us not dwell entirely on the African American experience. There are many other fights that continue today for justice and equality as well as many others who have worked to make change.

Demi has created a beautifully illustrated biography simply titled Gandhi. The story is detailed but the lush pictures with gold accents will draw younger readers to listen to parts of the story. There seems to be a growing interest in offering Gandhi's story to elementary and grade school readers. Keep looking for a biography that appeals to you.

Biographies of Caesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and many more have found their way into juvenile literature. Explore libraries and bookstores to find stories of your favorite leader of change.

Ultimately, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is about working for peace and understanding. With beautiful photographs from around the world, A Little Peace by Barbara Kerley offers simple ways to find peace around us all and to spread the message to others.

The Peace Book by Todd Parr is an even simpler, brightly colored discussion of peace. It strives to show very young readers that peace can be as simple as appreciating the right to wear different clothing or that not everyone likes the same things.

World Book has collected essays and thoughts on peace and human rights in Stand Up for Your Rights. Not all of these will appeal to everyone but it will not take you long to find something that appeals to you.

Look also for a book called We Are Born Free--The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures which, as the title indicates, offers a variety of illustrations to help everyone more clearly understand the intent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Find your own way to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and celebrate his day by finding a way in which you can work to make a positive change in the world.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Books on a Plane

While flying may not be the great adventure it once was, it certainly offers great opportunities to pull out a good book. There are the long waits for your flight after you rushed to get to the airports early enough to be sure you were on time. Then, at least if you fly in the winter, there is the extra time spent on the plane as they de-ice the wings. Finally, there is the long flight with no flight attendant bothering you with meals and such.

My husband and I flew to San Francisco to spend the holidays with our math teacher daughter. (The musician spent the holidays sharing her voice with lucky listeners in churches and other venues.) It is a good long flight so we had plenty of time to read. The result is that I have four good titles to recommend that you consider for adult reading enjoyment.

Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago offers an interesting premise. What if death decided to take a vacation and suddenly no one was dying? Saramago ponders this possibility with humor and philosophy. Imagine, if you will, the impact on religion if clerics no longer could tell people about the importance of what comes after death? Would the funeral industry be forced to offer services for pets? This novel is one that you will think about long after you finish the last page. Thank you to the parent who suggested that I would enjoy it.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh takes the reader to Calcutta in the 19th century. The colonists have strongly encouraged the people of the rural areas to turn their wheat fields into poppy fields for the opium trade with China. The many characters who people the story represent all of the parties involved in this end of the opium trade. A woman whose husband has died from the addiction that came with his job processing the poppies into opium must run away to find a safe refuge. A ship's second mate tries to understand this new world that he reaches after a harrowing journey which has taken him far from the life he knew as a freed states in the young United States. The British, other natives of the area, and people from all walks of life bring strong accents and stronger feelings to this beautifully written story. I was totally engrossed in this book. The hardest part is that it is the first of a trilogy with the other parts yet to come.

The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles is set in Brazil in the 1920s and 1930s. Two sisters, raised by an aging aunt in the back country of Brazil, have very different dreams of how they will use their talents as seamstresses to fulfill their dreams. Luzia broke her arm as child and will never again be able to bend her elbow. This is the deformity that marks her when she becomes part of a notorious group of roaming bandits who rob and brutally murder the rich to give to the poor. Her sister Emilia has always dreamed of living in the big city of Recife so jumps at the chance when she meets the son of a wealthy man. Though their lives go in very different directions, each sister keeps an eye open to learn what the other is doing. It is the quality of the writing and the juxtaposition of the the two divergent ways of life that keep one rushing to the end.

I confess that I did not read Stitches by David Small until I got back from my trip, but I don't want anyone to miss this amazing memoir. David Small is an children's book author and illustrator who lives on the west side of Michigan. He won a Caldecott for So You Want to be a President? by Judith St. George. He also illustrates books by his wife Sarah Small and his own stories with easily recognizable drawings full of personality and life. Stitches, however, is not for children. This is the graphic story of Small's very difficult childhood. He survived abuse, cancer, and shocks and disappointments that no one should ever face. It makes one appreciate his happy tales even more. Sarah Stewart and David Small visited Emerson School about a dozen years ago. Everyone who heard them talk was moved by what kind and gentle people they are. This story adds new levels appreciation that I felt for them at that time.

You don't have to fly to find time to read. May your reading be one of the many pleasures you find in 2010.