History, Family, and Race: Three Great Reads

I read three Coretta Scott King Award honor books this week:  picture book The Moon Over Star by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, graphic novel Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri and illustrated by Randy DuBurke, and chapter book Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes.  Despite covering vastly different subjects, each book describes a major event in history through the eyes of a young person with astounding results.  The Moon Over Star describes a young Mae as she witnesses the first walk on the moon in 1969.  The illustrations were fantastic, but I especially liked the dynamic between Mae and her grandfather, a man who has worked hard his who life and wonders:

Why spend all that money to go to the moon where there’s so many folks in need right here on earth?

Mae’s response shows the generational differences and the hope for the future that were present at that point in time in her response:

“Because we can!”  I’d almost shouted, but caught myself.  I began to wonder then what Gramp’s dreams had been.  From the time he was little, he had worked on the farm, doing the same jobs, day to day, season to season.

These words accompanied an image of the grandfather sitting on the porch with a tired look on his face, with the children juxtaposed through the window, jumping and smiling about the moon landing.  This is some powerful stuff, especially for the intended audience, but the words and illustrations come together so well that I think this allows for a really diverse and unexpected view on the past.

Similarly, Yummy looks at Chicago in 1994, when an 11 year old Southsider named Yummy accidentally shoots an innocent 14 year old during gang violence.  The story was reported nationwide as the manhunt to find this tiny killer, weighing only 60 pounds, went on for weeks, until his murder, committed by the gang members he idolized .  Yummy is told from the perspective of Roger, one of Yummy’s classmates and the brother of a gang member, the same gang Yummy belonged to.

This book surprised me in many ways…the complexity of the issues Roger struggles with are things society deals with on a daily basis.  While it is easy to look at kids like Yummy and label them “monster” and discount their actions entirely, Neri does an amazing job through Roger’s eyes of reminding us that Yummy, despite being an armed robber and car thief, still carried around a stuffed animal and loved frogs.  Despite the black and white drawings, the questions raised in this book are very gray – and Neri includes this quote in his author’s note:

Sometimes stories get to you; this one left my stomach in knots.  After three days of reporting, I still couldn’t decide which was more appalling; the child’s life or the child’s death.

From Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

Images like the one above create a story that completely draws the reader in – Icouldn’t put it down.  Even though I was about ten when this happened, I don’t really remember the events at all.  I do remember in elementary school that gang violence in my own small hometown had begun to get bad – in 1995 a fast food restaurant manager was shot and killed while stopping to fix his car, and our playground was often covered in gang symbols and graffiti.  Many kids in this area have to deal with gangs on a daily basis in their schools and neighborhoods.  Yummy was one that was positively reviewed by the Teen Advisory Group members who felt like it was realistic and not too cheesy or moralistic.  There is definitely a moral to the story, but Neri leaves it up to the reader to decide what to think.

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes is an amazing tale of Lanesha, her guardian, Mama Ya-Ya, and New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.  I can’t quite articulate my thoughts on this book – I almost want to say I felt like I was reading a modern children’s classic.  It is beautiful, moving, suspenseful, and complex.  The pace is nearly perfect.  As soon as I felt like I was in Lanesha’s world in the Ninth Ward, chaos strikes and she has to be strong in order to survive the aftermath of the storm.  The historical accuracy of Rhodes telling of Hurricane Katrina could be used in a classroom setting to talk about the human side of a natural disaster.

All three of these books took a historical event and gave it a human voice – along added with issues of race, class, and family, these stories and the young narrator’s experiences pack a powerful punch.  Despite my complaints about award winning book often being a bit depressing, these three manage to rise above the issue and create complex themes around the life changing experiences that happen to the characters.  I think all three should be “must reads” for young people – whether it is in their free time or in a classroom – and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of them to someone looking for a good book.

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Filed under Awards, Coretta Scott King Award

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