10.27.2011

Immigrant City: American Too


This looks like it will be my last immigrant-in-the-city themed book of the month. I have certainly not exhausted the topic, but I am happy to be ending this theme on a high note: American Too.

None of the immigrant-themed books I've written about so far have focused on that perennial symbol of hope for a new life: the Statue of Liberty. It's certainly been in the illustrations of most of the books, but in Elisa Barone's American Too, it is moved to the forefront.

A very young Rosina immigrates to America with her family and the first thing she sees is the Statue of Liberty. Rosina find her beautiful and hopes one day to be as beautiful herself. Growing up in New York City, Rosina starts to value her American life and culture over the Italian one at home. She refuses to speak Italian, sits on her hands when she speaks (to avoid gesturing!) and discards her red coral necklace when the neighborhood girls tease her about being superstitious. In the process she acts like many American teenage girls and yells at her parents. Mon Dieu! When, to her dismay, she is chosen as queen of the Italian festival of San Gennaro she harnesses her admiration of the Statue of Liberty and becomes an Italian-American Queen.

American Too is a high-spirited book with a positive outlook on the immigration experience. Ted Lewin's watercolor illustrations are amazing. I am usually a fan of a less realistic style of illustration for children's books, but his painting serve the book remarkably well. The expressions on the characters faces brilliantly capture the emotions expressed in the story. The city in the book is not nitty-gritty, colors are light, tenement apartments are clean and sunshine is abundant. Apartment interiors and views of city sidewalks will draw you in with their detail. The iron work and stone detailing on the buildings are particularly impressive. Having tried working with watercolor myself, I am always amazed when artists exhibit such control over a naturally uncontrollable medium.

Ignore the two bad customer reviews on Amazon, they completely missed the point of the story. Fortunately, the professional review did not. This would be a great book to read in conjunction with any patriotic holiday.

Want More?
Bartone and Lewin also collaborated on Peppe the Lamplighter, also about Italian immigrants. I reviewed that book here.
I've also reviewed Lewin's book Stable, set in Brooklyn, and the Lewin-illustrated Paperboy.
Watch this blog for more Lewin illustrated books, because they are coming.

10.24.2011

Immigrant City: Hannah Is My Name


Hold on to your hats, here's a book about an immigrant family that's not set in New York City!

Belle Yang based her book, Hannah is My Name, on her family's experience immigrating to San Francisco from Taiwan. Over the course of two years, Na-Li, who adopts the name "Hannah," becomes accustomed to life in America. But her life is not carefree, as she and her family have moved to America without legal status. Hannah relates many of her anxieties about her new life, including her family's need to find a cheap place to live, the fear that their application for green cards might be denied, the danger of being discovered working illegally, and even the shame over wearing shabby cloths. These realities are not glossed over in the book. Hannah watches as her friend is deported and her father hides during a green card check at his place of employment.

This is a picture book for children 6 and up, and there is a lot of text. I didn't realize that Yang's book was set in the 1960s until one day Hannah's teacher tells the class that Martin Luther King was just killed. There is nothing in the illustrations to date them. In fact the illustrations are quite colorful and help emphasize the story's more cheerful notes.

San Francisco is the closest big city to my hometown and the images of the city in Yang's book are familiar to me: cable cars, a Chinatown full of treats like moon cakes and ducks hanging from the windows, the Golden Gate bridge in the background. Yang, who also illustrated the book, begins the story with a two page illustration of the family in rural Taiwan being transported by ox and cart, but ends the book with the family being transported through the city by a taxi. In both illustrations the family is joyful: at the start because they are on their way to a new life, and at the end, because they have just received their green cards (which are actually blue!).

I think Hannah is My Name is a good book to share with slightly older children. The anxieties that Hannah's family feels are a good talking point for discussions over the difficulties illegal immigrants feel and the importance of being sensitive and empathetic with their situations.

Want More?
Visit the author's website.
Read more about the author in an article in UCSC's Currents.

10.21.2011

Shovel City: All the Way to America


All the Way to America got a lot of internet buzz when it came out earlier this year. And rightly so. Its author is the fantastic Dan Yaccarino, who has written several books we already know and love.

Yaccarino's story, based on his own family's, begins on a farm in Italy. His great-grandfather, Michael, worked the land with his little shovel. Whenhe immigrates to America, his father gives him the shovel. The shovel acts as a generational link through the book as Michael raises his family in New York City. Descendants move to the New Jersey suburbs(!), but then (thankfully) back to the city.

Yaccarino's book is a delight from start to finish. His characteristic graphic illustrations are colorful and full of life. I love his images of Little Italy -- he even includes the Feast of San Gennaro. The skyline is frequently in the distance, reminding us of all the people with similar immigrant stories. The movement from farm to city to suburb and back to city reminds me of the current trend of city resurgence. Mid-century, everyone wanted to move out of the city, but these days the city has regained some of its reputation. In fact, this mirrors my own immigrant family's movement - from the Swedish farm to the City (Minneapolis) to the suburbs (CA) and the my move to the City (NYC).

You're destined to enjoy this one.

Want More?
Read a thorough review at Jen Robinson's Book Page.
Visit the author's website.
One of our favorite Yacccarino books is Every Friday, which I featured here on Storied Cities.
I reviewed Peppe the Lamplighter, also set in Little Italy, but with a much different feel.

Big Kid says: Little Italy: I've been there.

10.20.2011

Making Book Reviews Useful

After reading the excellent post at Abby the Librarian, Why it's Critical to Review (and Read) Critically, I started getting worried that my reviews on this blog were less than useful.

I have always acknowledged that I am not the most talented writer (or reviewer) out there. I notice that I tend to repeat phrases (I'm trying to be better about that) and I rarely delve deeply into the plot of the books. On the one hand, I don't see the point of re-inventing the wheel. If someone has already written a great plot review, why not just link to it in the "Want More?" section of each post? Similarly, I make a point of (for the most part) not reviewing books that many other people have already reviewed or are extremely well-known. Why review Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day, for example?

On the other hand, I hope to craft a review post that introduces a book in such a way that the reader (i.e. you) will know whether or not she wants to further investigate the book, either by reading other opinions of it, or by putting it on hold at the library. How do I do that? Well, I don't have a formula, and no doubt some posts are less successful that others -- depending on various factors such as my own fatigue level, time constraints or that mysterious thing we call inspiration.

This blog has a very limited focus, too: books with an urban setting. I always try to include my perspective on how the urban setting is represented in the book, what role it plays, and so forth. I suppose that is my unique take on a book -- what I see as making my reviews "useful" ... or not. It's probably also the factor that keeps my blog's readership low. In the beginning, I thought it would also be what would draw people to the blog. Shows you how much I know. I love books and I love the city, however, so I keep plugging away.

But back to my original point. I'd always love to know if there is anything in my individual reviews that you would like more of. What would make them more useful?

10.19.2011

Storyteller's City: The Castle on Hester Street


In my series on immigrant-themed picture books we are returning again to the Russian-Jewish experience. I haven't yet determined if it is just my particular knack for finding these books, or if there is indeed an abundance of books about Russian Jewish immigrants. What do you think?

In any case, Linda Heller's The Castle on Hester Street is a clear winner. When it was first published in 1982 it won the Sydney Taylor Book Award, and for its reissue 25 years later, Boris Kulikov added his terrific and vibrant illustrations (Heller did the original illustrations).

Julie's grandfather is a weaver of tales. On day he tells her how he came to America. It is an extraordinary tale indeed, Moishe the goat carried him all the way from Russia in a golden wagon, he was met at the docks by Theodore Roosevelt himself, and he made his living selling jewel encrusted buttons.

Or did he?

While he tells Julie his tale, her grandmother sets the record straight with a more accurate rendition of events. Both versions, however are full of love for their adopted country, for each other and life itself.

Heller's text is vibrant, lively and grandfather's tale pulls us in immediately.  Her witty take on the immigrant story -- placing side by side a dream-like, fanciful version and a realistic one, is not unlike the immigrant experience itself. After all, in many ways America idealizes the immigrant experience, which is always one of a new life, filled with hardships as well as dream-fulfillment of some kind. And that's also the story of the City, especially New York City: a place where you go "to make it" and find your way, but also a place of challenges to the body and the mind.

Reading this book as an adult begs the question: how will you tell your tale to your children? But whatever you chose, make sure you read this book to them.

Want More?
Read about the illustrator and see more great artwork at Seven Impossible Things.
Visit the illustrator's website.

Big Kid says: Why was the grandfather making that stuff up?

10.16.2011

Cinematic City: Silent Movie

Avi, the author of Silent Movie, is better known for his chapter books (such as the Poppy series), but perhaps the illustrator, C. B. Mordan, should be billed as a co-author, because like silent movies, the story here is told as much through the pictures as it is through the words.

The story begins in 1909, when a Swedish man arrives in New York. But Six months later, when his wife and son arrive he cannot find them at the dock. Mother and son scrape by and when the boy recognizes a theif who had robbed them earlier, he in turn is "discovered' by a famous movie director. The boy, Gustav, becomes a movie actor and is spotted by his father on the screen and the family is reunited.

This book is lovely in the way it captures the spirit of early movie dialogue and storytelling through emotional gesture and light. The story is conveyed through a series of black and white "stills" and the text is kept simple. You can easily imagine it as being on the screen. Silent Movie also accurately reflects one version of the American Myth of immigration: that things might be hard at first, but in America you will become rich and famous -- easily!  Of course this is not true, but it was (and is) the stuff that movies are made of, and is also unique to stories (melodramas!) about America. Avi and Mordan have created an interesting and beautiful book. There is also a good historical note at the end of the book which is worth reading, but I was surprised it didn't touch on New York City's role in early film history.

Want More?
Visit the author's website or the illustrator's website.
Read about Vitagraph Studios, one of NYC's movie studios, which produced silent movies.

10.14.2011

Snowy City: When This World Was New


In D.H. Figueredo's When This World Was New Danilito and his parents leave their home in the Caribbean in order to live in America. Danilito is nervous, everything is new and strange. He worries whether his family will be able to have everything they need in the new country.  His Uncle Berto takes the new immigrants to what is to become their home and the next morning, Danilito sees something he never has before: snow. Spending the morning playing in the snow with his father eases some of Danilito's fears and he feels ready to meet his new life.

Figueredo has written a thoughtful tale and the book is pleasant enough. Although the book doesn't stand out for me, if you are tackling issues of diversity and immigration I would certainly include it in your reading. The metaphor of new snow/new world is an obvious one, but it works here. Figueredo also successfully addresses the issue of a child's fears over the meeting of basic necessities.  Enrique O. Sanchez's illustrations are a good match.

Both the island left behind and the city are never named, but we might assume that they are based on Cuba and a city in New Jersey, mirroring the experience of the author as a teenager when he immigrated to the United States. The city certainly feels like something in New Jersey: a suburban-like neighborhood against the nondescript city skyline.

Want More?
Read a bit about the author or the illustrator.
If you want to use the book for further discussion, this guide might help.

10.13.2011

Carousel City: Feivel's Flying Horses


Since last week's selections all contained an immigration theme, I thought I would just continue in the same vein through the month. I had planned to review a series of immigration book around the Fourth of July, but never got to it. Now is as good a time as ever, right? After all, in October we celebrate a man who many people consider to be the first modern European immigrant.

Today's selection, coincidentally, is about another Jewish immigrant. His homeland is never specified, but the title character in Heidi Smith Hyde's Feivel's Flying Horses is a wood carver specializing in fearsome lions and ornate desks for synagogues. When he immigrates to New York, leaving his family behind, he finds work in the Lower East Side making more mundane tables and chairs. One day he finds a job making carousel horses in Coney Island. He earns enough money to send for his family.  When the elaborate and beautiful carousel is finally complete, they family is able to ride it together.

I found this to be a lovely, touching story which celebrates many things: the artistic influence immigrants have our culture, the struggles and joys they faced when they came to America, the difficulty of leaving loved ones behind, the potential rewards of hard work (not just monetary) and, of course, the pleasure of a simple carousel ride. Johanna van der Sterre's illustrations are pleasantly nostalgic but not sappy, and she gives us a fun view of old Coney Island (be sure to find the sliders). An author's note gives further historical information.

I think you'll like it.

Want More?
Read another review at Feathered Quill or Amusing the Zillion.
Read about another Coney Island tradition in Mermaids on Parade.
I have not read it yet, but there is another Carousel/Coney Island/Jewish Immigrant picture book: The Rose Horse.

Big Kid says: I've never ridden a carousel at Coney Island. But we did at Prospect Park.
Little Kid says. Those are horses!

10.07.2011

Crowded City: Immigrant Girl, Becky of Eldridge Street


Well, I might as well round out the week with another book about Russian Jewish Immigrants. This trio of books was not at all planned, but fortuitously came during the week between the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Brett Harvey's Immigrant Girl: Becky of Eldridge Streetis much different in tone and style that my previous two selections. This is clear from the first page, when Becky sets the scene in 1910. Her family has just immigrated to New York City in order to escape the pogroms in Russia where, "Many Jews were killed and their housed burned. Our zayde was shot. Bubbeh would have been, too, but she hid in the cellar." This is a picture book for an audience older than the typical 4-8 set.

The overriding image of the city in this book is one of crowded, busy, active streets and homes. Becky narrates her experience of living in New York, which seems to be dominated by crowds of people, whether children, pushcart sellers, factory workers or family members filling the house on Shabbes. At one point, Becky tells of her 19 year old aunt who works in a shirtwaist factory, where the doors are always locked. I was a bit nervous the book was also going to cover the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. While the story does not gloss over what were very real hardships in immigrant life, Becky's story makes life sound full and exciting.

Becky's narration emphasizes the importance of her family and she tells us of some truly enjoyable city experiences, like cooling off in the fire hydrant, visiting the nickelodeon, attending school (her teacher smells like roses), sleeping on the roof and escaping to open space in the Bronx. In addition, Becky's Jewish identity is central to her life and her narration ends with a Passover seder. Deborah Kogan Ray's black and white illustrations (done in charcoal, maybe? I'm not an expert.) give weight to the period setting of the story and she certainly doesn't skimp on the masses of people! Harvey includes a glossary of terms, from Bentsh lisht to Zayde, for those of us who could use a little help.

Immigrant Girl: Becky of Eldridge Street is a thoughtful narration of life in early 20th Century New York City -- a time and place dominated by immigrant life. If you are discussing this topic with your children, I highly recommend taking a look at this book.

Want More?
The Jewish Museum in NY has an extensive book list in their resource section on immigration.
Visit the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. If you don't live in NYC, their website includes many resources.
Clearly the next book I should read is What Zeesie Saw on Delancey Street.

10.05.2011

Familial City: Mimmy and Sophie

I my last post I reviewed The Doll Shop Downstairs, which stars daughters of Jewish Russian immigrants enduring reduced economic circumstances in early 20th Century Manhattan. In today's double feature I introduce you to sisters (only two this time), granddaughters of Jewish Russian immigrants in depression-era 1930s Brooklyn.

The inspiration for Miriam Cohen's two books about sisters Mimmy and Sophie came from her own girlhood in Brooklyn. Side by side the books are physically very different. The first Mimmy & Sophie,is a large picture book, every inch filled with colorful illustrations in a storyboard layout.  The sequel, Mimmy and Sophie All Around the Town, is an early-level chapter book with numerous black and white line-drawn illustrations. Tomas F. Yezerski illustrated both books.

Both books, however, are separated into short stories. Each short story could stand by itself, but strung together they paint a lively portrait of two girls who explore their neighborhood with each other, their friends and their extended family. Their adventures include a trip to Coney Island, a journey on the trolley to visit their grandparents on Pitkin Avenue, a visit to the cinema, as well as varied experiences on their block like a visit from the ice cream truck, sisterly spats and playing school with friends. My favorite vignette was the family vacation: a picnic on Brooklyn Bridge, from which they watched the sun like a "melting raspberry Popsicle on the water." I wouldn't say that these are technically the best written stories I've ever read, but they certainly have their fair share of charm, liveliness and family love. The trap in a book like this is to wallow in a pool of sentimental nostalgia and thankfully Cohen avoids doing that.

As you might imagine, the city, especially Brooklyn, is a key player in the story. Not only are specific places referenced throughout, but the environment in which the neighborhood children explore is defined by its "urban-ness." You don't find many alley-ways full of trash treasure in the countryside, for example. It's only in a tightly packed city that children can gather at a moment's notice on a stoop for an impromptu game of school.  And, like many "kids in the city" books, the children seem to have an awful lot of adventures without their parents present! Yezerski's illustrations keep us well situated in the city at all times. There's nary an empty sidewalk or vista without an apartment building.

My guess is that you and your kids will enjoy reading these together.

Want More?
Mimmy & Sophie was awarded a Parent's Choice award.
Visit the illustrator's website and see some of the pages.

Little Kid says: Popsicle book! Popsicle book!
Big Kid says: They don't have trolleys like that now.

10.03.2011

Entrepreneurial City: The Doll Shop Downstairs


Before I moved to New York 10 years ago, I thought the idea of living above a store was so old fashioned. Wasn't that what Nellie's family did in Little House on the Prairie? No one does that anymore, right? Wrong. Although, most people don't live above or behind their own business these days (they commute, I guess), Yona Zeldis McDonough's The Doll Shop Downstairs takes us back to a time, when such a thing was not uncommon. In this case, the store is a doll repair shop, and what girl wouldn't love to live above a doll shop?

McDonough writes in an afterward that her inspiration came from the real life story of Madame Alexander. The fictional family in her story are Russian Jewish immigrants. The three daughters love to play with the expensive dolls who are waiting for repairs. However, when WWI begins, their father finds he can no longer obtain the necessary parts to repair broken dolls because all the parts come from Germany. Instead, the family works together to design and make their own, "limited edition" dolls, which are then spotted by a buyer from FAO Schwartz. 

The city is very important to the girls' story and McDonough splendidly conveys a detailed sense of place throughout the story. The family lives in the Lower East Side, and there are many references to the kinds of sights and places they see on a daily basis and for special treats. The "packed narrow streets," "crammed with shops, horses, wagons, pushcarts and crowds of people" are contrasted with the wide streets of Fifth Avenue lined with fancy, upscale shops. Moreover, the girls are exposed to a variety of different types of people -- one of the best things about living in the city.

This book is doubly interesting because it seamlessly incorporates, without being didactic, the historical moment in which the action occurs. Small details play a large part in establishing the world the girls live in. I wonder how my son would feel if I sent him to school with a lunch made of "rye bread spread with horseradish, a cold boiled potato, and apple." The family's economic situation changes with the start of the war, the mother must take in work and the girls try to think of ways to earn money. But the girls apply their boundless energy and creativity to help move their family forward.

McDonough has written solid book, with much to recommend it. Heather Maione's black and white illustrations are perfectly suited to the time period. The characters are appealing, the family, even in difficult times, sticks together and the overall tone is positive.  Early chapter book readers will enjoy this one and younger ones should have no difficulty following it as a read aloud.


Want More?
Visit the author's website.
Read a comprehensive review at Truth, Praise and Help.
Coming Soon!!! The Cats in the Doll Shop.
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