Children's book reviews: Titles that celebrate, promote diversity
March 19, 2017 12:00 AM
"Jake the Fake Keeps It Real" by Craig Robinson, Adam Mansbach and Keith Knight.
"Flying Lessons & Other Stories," edited by Ellen Oh.
By Lisa Dennis
Some readers might take one look at “Jake the Fake Keeps It Real” (Random House, $13.99, ages 8-12), an illustrated novel by Craig Robinson, Adam Mansbach and Keith Knight, and immediately assume it’s just a(nother) “Wimpy Kid” knockoff. Those readers would be wrong.
It’s true that the format mimics that of Jeff Kinney’s best-selling series. But Jake’s story is entertaining and authentic, not just a pale imitation.
Jake shares his concerns in a direct, convincing voice. Starting sixth grade at a new school, a music and art academy no less, isn’t easy. The fact that his older sister, Lisa, is a sweet, kind, talented, straight-A student or, as Jake says, “basically a unicorn” doesn’t help.
The authors address real (and universal) insecurities but still manage to keep things light. Jake’s worries are couched in sarcastic remarks and running gags.
Cartoonist Knight’s comical illustrations appear on practically every page. Bodily functions make frequent appearances (this is a book aimed at middle school boys, after all), but the artwork, like the text, slips in some sophisticated humor as well.
Mr. Knight’s illustrations also make it clear that Jake is African-American. In an ideal world that wouldn’t be worth remarking on. But unfortunately, non-white characters still don’t show up in children’s books as often as they would if those books reflected the diversity of their audience.
That’s not just a matter of opinion. Statistics are tallied each year by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It has been keeping track since 1985.
Other organizations and individuals have also examined this issue. Some of them have gotten together to create a grassroots organization.
We Need Diverse Books promotes the publication of more stories with characters of all cultures, abilities and orientations. It sponsors grants, contests and mentorships.
It also partnered with Random House to publish a book of short stories. “Flying Lessons and Other Stories” (Random House, $16.99, ages 9-14), edited by Ellen Oh, features work by 10 authors, several of whom are award winners.
The topics include the familiar and relevant: family, friends, sports and school. Written in verse or in first-person, presented as historical fiction or filled with contemporary language and ideas, the stories examine the search for identity and connection, conformity and independence.
All of which makes them sound like they might be heavy — or, worse, dull.
But while there are lessons to be learned if readers are open to them, the narratives don’t get bogged down by morals or messages.
Kwame Alexander’s story “Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents” is particularly lighthearted. It’s written as a series of poems by a boy named Monk for a school assignment.
Monk doesn’t like his teacher Mr. Jackson much. He doesn’t like writing either. He’s a self-confessed nerd who loves “Stars Wars.” And last year he had a crush on an unattainable classmate.
How everything changed for Monk may not be the realistic memoir that his teacher asked for. But it is definitely “interesting,” which was part of Mr. Jackson’s request and something readers will appreciate.
“The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin has a more somber tone. Her heroine, Lingsi, is a servant. And while her current existence is both exhausting and demeaning, the future holds the possibility of even harder challenges.
But Lingsi has been permitted to share the lessons given to the son of the house. And that circumstance, along with the words of a poem, give her the means and the heart to grasp an unlikely opportunity.
Lingsi is not the only character to face hardship. In “Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina, Merci Suarez faces the pain of bigotry and discrimination.
Merci and older brother Roli both help out with the family business. This summer they’re working at the private school Merci will be attending in the fall.
Sympathetic readers will cringe at the way the privileged student athletes behave. And they’ll understand why Merci gets so angry when her father’s hard work is disrespected by her future classmates.
Merci’s father, however, accepts what happens with more equanimity. It’s not that he’s unaware or resigned. But providing opportunities for his children takes precedence.
That kind of commitment, as well as recognition of the strength to be found in diversity, is the subject of a nonfiction photo essay by John Coy and Wing Young Huie.
“Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice and Hope in a New Land” (Carolrhoda, $19.99, ages 6 and up) pairs photographs and portraits taken over a span of 30 years with a brief inspiring text. It begins: “My family came here from far away … because they dreamed of more.”
Pictures — some color, many black and white — showcase families and individuals eating, talking, playing and working. Details of dress, skin color and facial features reveal the variety of cultures represented.
Whatever their country of origin, however, Mr. Coy’s words capture their shared goal: to give their children choices that they didn’t have.
His final question is aimed at those children and at all of us, no matter how long ago our families came here. “What will we do with their great gift?”
How we answer that question may depend, at least in part, on how well we understand ourselves and each other. And one way to seek that understanding is in a book.
The fact that sometimes laughs come along with the learning or adventure accompanies the opportunity to expand our horizons is a bonus. And a gift we’ll gladly accept.
Lisa Dennis is coordinator of children’s collections at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
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