Finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
★ Starred reviews – Horn Book, Kirkus, School Library Journal
A re-imagined Paul Bunyan legend gives one Chinese American girl the courage to face adversity.
Thirteen-year-old Mei lives and works in an 1885 Sierra Nevada lumber logging camp in the graphic novel, The Legend of Auntie Poby Shing Yin Khor. Her father, Hao, cooks for the workers, and Mei is famed for her pies. Mei, unlike the other women in the camp, does not wear a dress and is conflicted about her budding sexuality and her feelings towards Bee Anderson, the camp foreman’s daughter.
Within the camp, racial tensions simmer and the Chinese workers face discrimination and violence. Abusive behavior towards women in the camp also adds to an increasingly hostile environment. Camp foreman Hel Anderson, Bee’s father, turns a blind eye to all that is happening.
To help her and the other women and children cope with these injustices, Mei invents a Bunyanesque character, Auntie Po, only she can see. The stories she spins about Auntie Po and her blue water buffalo, Pei Pei, give courage and hope to the others.
Following the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese workers are forced to leave the mill. Mei stays with Bee’s family, but Hao and the other Chinese workers leave to find work in San Francisco. When camp conditions severely deteriorate, Anderson travels to Chinatown to persuade his former workers to return. Hao, mindful of Anderson’s acceptance of the discriminatory conditions, negotiates a better deal for the Chinese workers. Anderson agrees and Hao and the others return to the camp. Father and daughter are reunited.
Author/illustrator Khor’s colorful illustrations authentically capture 19th lumberjacking life, demonstrating the amount of research she did to convey the details of daily life and conditions experienced by the workers and their families. In addition, this graphic novel highlights the art of storytelling and how each story can be shaped or reimagined by the experiences of the teller and the listener.
As the story concludes, Mei and her father decide it’s time for her to go away to school. Mei has also resolved some of her identity issues:
“I know who I am. I am a good cook. I have good friends, I have the best pa in the world” (p. 272).
The author’s endnote and her bibliography contain valuable information, as does her video on how this book came about for anyone who wants to learn more about the legends and history behind this engaging graphic novel. This is truly the middle-grade at its finest.
(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)
The release of this fast-paced and interesting middle grade novel was scheduled around Major League Baseball’s Opening Day events. We all know that’s been delayed due to the pandemic, but there’s no reason kids cannot enjoy the thrill of baseball season between the pages of an engaging novel. Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disastersoffers readers just that with its insider’s perspective on the sport along with the ups and downs of being on a team. But that’s only part of the story as the title hints. It’s a diverse novel set in Japan that addresses repatriation, dementia, special needs, and bullying. Read below to find out more. Also a pdf of discussion questions is available here.
Thirteen-year-old Satoshi Matsumoto spent the last three years living in Atlanta where he was the star of his middle-school baseball team—a slugger with pro potential, according to his coach. Now that his father’s work in the US has come to an end, he’s moved back to his hometown in rural Japan. Living abroad has changed him, and now his old friends in Japan are suspicious of his new foreign ways. Even worse, his childhood foe Shintaro, whose dad has ties to gangsters, is in his homeroom. After he joins his new school’s baseball team, Satoshi has a chance to be a hero until he makes a major-league error.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA: When did the idea hit you to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team set in Japan?
SUZANNE KAMATA: Hmmm. I did write a picture book baseball story, which was published in 2009, at my son’s request. Around that time, I started writing an adult novel based on my husband’s experience as a Japanese high school baseball coach. Originally, Satoshi was a character in that novel. Later, maybe about ten years ago, a friend suggested that I write a YA novel about Koshien, the extremely popular Japanese national high school baseball tournament. I took Satoshi out of my adult novel and tried to write a YA novel about him. Even later, readers suggested that it seemed more like a middle grade novel, so I made adjustments. That’s the long answer. I guess the short answer would be that I never set out to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team in Japan.
GRWR: Let’s talk first about the pop flies portion of your novel’s title. With Major League Baseball put on hold due to the Corona Virus, readers get to vicariously experience the sport in your book. Have you been a baseball mom and, because you write about it so convincingly, do you enjoy baseball?
SK: I do enjoy baseball. My husband was a high school baseball coach for 12 years, and I used to go to his games. So, first, I was a baseball wife. My son played baseball from elementary school throughout high school, and I also taught at a couple of high schools in Japan that were known for their strong baseball teams. I feel like I know a lot about high school baseball in Japan, but I often checked with my husband and son about the details. I read an early draft to my son, and he corrected a few things.
GRWR:Upon his return to his old school, Tokushima Whirlpool Junior High, a private school founded by his grandfather, the main character Satoshi Matsumoto’s old friends and classmates “are suspicious of his new foreign ways.” I love how your book honestly explores the struggles of this thirteen-year-old’s readjustment upon returning to rural Japan after three years living in Atlanta. Can you speak to the pros and cons of the international experience to help readers understand his mixed emotions and the changes that occur in people after a move abroad.?
SK: Personally, I feel that there are no cons to having lived or traveled abroad. I am sure that many kids in Japan don’t feel that way now, but when they grow up they will understand the value of these experiences. For my own children, having a foreign mom and growing up with additional cultural elements (like the tooth fairy, and macaroni and cheese, and speaking English at home) set them apart and perhaps made them feel a bit lonely at times. This was especially true since we lived in a small town in a conservative, somewhat remote part of Japan. However, I wanted them to understand that there was a world beyond the one that they lived in, that even though they were in the minority in the town where we lived, they had a tribe out there somewhere. When you live abroad, you start to look at your own country differently. You can see things that people who have never left cannot. I think, in many ways, you begin to appreciate your own country and culture more. In the book, Satoshi goes through the same thing.
GRWR:The novel’s supporting characters include Satoshi’s grandfather (Oji-chan) who now has dementia and once had a chance for a promising career in baseball before WWII, and younger sister, Momoko , age four, who has cerebral palsy and uses sign language to communicate and leg-braces or a wheelchair for mobility. Are they based on actual people in your life and how are special needs and disabilities treated in Japan?
SK: Yes and no. For many years, we lived with an elderly relative who showed signs of dementia, and my daughter is multiply disabled. She is deaf and has cerebral palsy, and, yes, she has leg braces, uses a wheelchair, and communicates mostly via sign language. But these characters are fictional.
As in the book, children with special needs and disabilities are not usually mainstreamed. There are separate schools for children who are deaf, blind, or who have intellectual or physical disabilities. For the record, my two children, who are twins, went to two different schools.
Children with disabilities, or some other difference, are sometimes bullied.
While accessibility is gradually improving, there is still a degree of shame in Japan surrounding mental health issues and disability. To be honest, certain members of my Japanese family don’t approve of my writing about disability so openly, even though I am writing fiction. However, I think it’s important to do so.
GRWR:A bully named Shintaro plays a prominent role in this story. He bullied Satoshi before his move abroad, and the fact that his dad has ties to gangsters makes him all the more scary. He picks on both Misa, a new student who is biracial and Satoshi, sometimes quite aggressively. Is bullying common in Japanese culture and how does the approach to dealing with bullying in school differ in Japan than in the U.S.?
SK: Bullying is a persistent problem in Japan. Typically, teachers try not to intervene, with the thinking that kids should try to work things out by themselves. Japanese schools have classes in morality, where they might discuss bullying, but most schools don’t have counselors, and some classes have up to 40 students, which is a lot for one teacher to manage.
GRWR:There’s a crucial part of the story where Satoshi’s ego is on full display when he chooses to ignore instructions from his coach. I was surprised by this display of disobedience, especially given all the examples of students being raised to be very respectful. Do you think there are too many rules in a Japanese student’s life and that’s why Satoshi preferred his life in America? Here is good spot to ask you to speak to any cultural differences about being a team player in the US and in Japan.
SK: Independence is valued more in the United States, whereas conformity is valued more in Japan. As a teacher, I have come into contact with many students who have gone abroad for a year or more. They are different when they come back. Generally, they enjoy the sense of freedom and self-expression that they experienced in the U.S. Satoshi enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of American school, and he finds it hard to buckle down. Also, in Japan, it’s not good to stand out. It’s better to be humble and to give credit to your teammates than to draw attention to your abilities.
GRWR:Satoshi’s grandfather has a therapeutic robo-pet seal known as Nana-chan. Where did this unusual idea come from because it’s sweet, funny and a plot driver as well?
SK: I first read about these therapeutic robo-pet seals in a Japanese textbook, and then I later saw one in person at a science exhibition. I was immediately charmed – a seal! How random! — and I wanted to put it into a story.
GRWR:I like that there are illustrations included by Tracy Bishop in every chapter although I only saw an ARC and am not sure if there were any changes made before publication. Did you always picture the novel with illustrations?
SK: No. Actually, I didn’t expect that the novel would be illustrated, but I love having my work illustrated, so I was very excited about it. I am glad that the illustrator is Japanese-American, and that she was familiar with what I wrote about. I was very happy with the final result.
GRWR:What advice can you offer to readers who may have international students at their schools here in America?
SK: As they say, “variety is the spice of life.” Make an effort to get to know people who are different from yourself. Be patient with students from other cultures when they make “mistakes” or do something differently from you. You can learn so much from people from other countries.
I would also encourage students to read books, such as mine, about kids in other countries and from other cultures. There’s nothing like a book to build empathy.
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
SK: If readers enjoy this book, perhaps they would be interested to know that I have written two other novels that have a connection to Japan, and are appropriate for middle grade readers – Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Indigo Girl. Both feature Aiko Cassidy, a biracial girl with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my writing!
Award-winning author Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan for over half of her life. Suzanne raised two kids and now lives with her husband in Aizumi, Japan.
Thank you so much, Suzanne, for your honest, enlightening replies. I loved learning about your experience as an ex-pat living and raising a family in Japan and how it’s informed your writing. I hope readers will get a copy of Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters to find out all the things Satoshi dealt with upon his return to Japan. Good luck on your works-in-progress (an adult novel and several picture books), too.
Angelenos will home in onThe Echo Park Castawaysfor its title—Echo Park—because we know that place! This neighborhood is where the story’s characters converge in their latest foster-care home. Quentin, a boy on the autistic spectrum, is the newest addition to Mrs. K’s house. Though almost nonverbal, he clearly communicates his desire to go home to his mom. Nevaeh, Vic, and little Mara may be veterans of the system but they understand Quentin’s need.
The reader is shown how each character struggles to get by since the story is told in three viewpoints. “Loud Boy” Vic lives in a fantasy world where he’s a superspy spinning tales about his father’s absence—anything is better than accepting the fact he was deported to El Salvador. “Quiet Girl” Mara barely speaks English but can get through to Quentin. As Vic plots how to reunite Quentin with his mom, “Tall Girl” Neveah has to put aside her already too-full workload of chores and college prep to keep the younger kids out of trouble; she’s their caretaker, like it or not.
Circumstances beyond their control bring these kids from different walks of life together. Though obstacles face them in everyday life, they forge connections and make a family for themselves. This fast-moving story illuminates how children with limited options adapt to a flawed system.
The Echo Park Castaways is a deeply personal book for the author, M.G. Hennessey, who volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in the L.A. foster care system. In that position and as a youth mentor for the Lifeworks program, Hennessey has witnessed the system responsible for society’s most vulnerable children. The book presents characters based on case stories that illustrate the very real challenges foster children face every day. There are 30,000 kids in L.A.’s child welfare system—the largest in the nation.
I’M OK Written by Patti Kim (Atheneum BYR; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
In the middle grade novel I’m OK by Patti Kim, twelve-year-old Ok Lee’s world begins to fall apart when his father dies suddenly. Even though his mother works three jobs, they barely get by. To help out financially, Ok starts braiding girls’ hair at school and resolves to win the talent show’s $100 prize—though he doesn’t have a talent in mind.
The flawed characters in I’m Ok weave together realistically in a story about the imperfect lives of recent immigrants and middle schoolers. Ok’s unwitting sidekick is Mickey McDonald, a girl with the biggest hair and a personality to match. Her family’s also poor but she doesn’t care what other people think. Mickey adds a lively, funny element to a story that also depicts race and social class discrimination. Set at an indeterminate time, Americana details such as Enjoli perfume or the TV shows “Charlie’s Angels” and “MacGyver” will resonate with older readers.
The ending feels genuine and opens the door to talking about why life doesn’t always turn out the way you expect or want. Ok is bound to his mother, and her decisions direct their future.
This was June’s book-of-the-month at Chevalier’s Books’ middle-grade book club in Los Angeles. I’m Ok was well liked by all. The animated discussion considered many interesting elements of this novel including nice story-writing details such as how the story is bookended by two similar yet quite different scenes.
Welcome to Multicultural Children’s Book Day! We’re delighted you stopped by. We’ve got a review of a terrific and unique picture book from our friends at Story Quest Books today. But before you get the scoop on Sunbelievable, please take a few minutes to learn more about MCCBD and help us celebrate and promote diversity in kidlit. Use the hashtag #ReadYourWorld and spread the word!
THE MISSION OF MULTICULTURAL CHILDREN’S BOOK DAY: The MCCBD team’s mission is to spread the word and raise awareness about the importance of diversity in children’s literature. Our young readers need to see themselves within the pages of a book and experience other cultures, languages, traditions and religions within the pages of a book. We encourage readers, parents, teachers, caregivers and librarians to follow along the fun book reviews, author visits, event details, a multicultural children’s book linky and via our hashtag (#ReadYourWorld) on Twitter and other social media.
This multiple award winning picture book will draw young readers in immediately with its magical mood, vibrant colors and creative artwork done by cleverly combining photography and collage. Readers will feel as though they’ve stepped inside the book alongside the two adorable main characters.
The charming story opens with sisters YaYa and Leen at the beach as dusk approaches after what was clearly a busy afternoon of building sandcastles and collecting shells. Later, back at home, when it’s bedtime, little Leen doesn’t want to go to sleep so big sister YaYa makes up a story to lull her sister off to dreamland. While bringing inventive ideas into her whimsical tale of the sun’s power and all the wild and zany things it can do, YaYa manages to enthrall and entertain Leen. Does the sun really teach at Firefly School? Can flowers talk to each other? Can the sun talk to birds? Can it scrub its rays clean? The interplay between the siblings is delightful and soon Leen is joining in with a story of her own. Both girls happily drift off to sleep full of sunbeams and the promise of a beautiful sunrise the next morning.
Using peppy dialogue that kids can relate to, the authors have created a fast-paced story with jump-off-the-page illustrations that not only complement the text, but definitely add another layer of appeal to Sunbelievable. I also love the playful handling of the topic of the sun’s various roles that provide inspiration for these two young girls’ imaginations. What better way to put your own child to bed at night than with a picture book that fills growing minds with new STEM ideas to dream about? I can just hear the conversation you’ll have with your child after reading this story! This is not only a sun power story, but a girl power one as well.
In the back matter, you’ll find helpful educational information about the sun courtesy of NASA’s Chief Technologist, Robert D. Braun, Ph.D. Also included is a Firefly Lullaby poem. Its accompanying music can be listened to online at StoryQuestPublishing.com.
But why is this book included in Multicultural Children’s Book Day you may ask? Because, children of all races, ethnicities, and abilities should be represented in literature so that, as the MCCBD mission states, young readers can “see themselves within the pages of a book.” Sunbelievableis an excellent example!
RELATED ACTIVITY: Making a fun sun print (aka a Cyanotype) This easy activity requires the advance purchase of sun print paper available online or at a photo supply store. Another option is to use red or black construction paper. Once you have chosen the paper, head outdoors with your child and look for things found in nature like leaves, flowers or sticks and arrange them in a design. If you prefer, look around the house for a spoon, a coaster or a coin from your wallet. It’s recommended to use items with clear, defined borders as the goal is to have good contrast for the finished print. Place the item/s on the paper and leave out in the sun for at least five minutes. What is happening is the sun is fading the exposed part of the paper thus creating an image where the item/s were placed! After time sitting in strong sunlight, the paper can be rinsed under the faucet. Your child will soon see the image appear and in doing so learn about the power of the sun, or solar energy.
MCCBD now has its own Paper.li! A Paper.li is a free online newspaper that aggregates information on the topic of multicultural books for kids from all over the Internet. Please feel free to subscribe and stay up-to-date with this topic.
Classroom Reading Challenge: Help spread the word about our Classroom Reading Challenge. This very special offering from MCCBD offers teachers and classrooms the chance to (very easily) earn a free hardcover multicultural children’s book for their classroom library. These books are not only donated by the Junior Library Guild, but they are pre-screened and approved by them as well.
What we could really use some help with is spreading the word to your teacher/librarian/classroom connections so we can get them involved in this program. There is no cost to teachers and classrooms and we’ve made the whole process as simple as possible. You can help by tweeting the below info:
Teachers! Earn a FREE #Multicultural Kids Book for Your Classroom! #teachers, #books #teacherlife http://ow.ly/UUy96
FIREBIRD Written by Misty Copeland Illustrated by Christopher Myers (G. P. Putnam’s Sons; $17.99, Ages 5-8)
Firebird won the 2015 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, received the 2015 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award New Writer Honor, and was an NPR Best Book of 2014.
In Firebird; American Ballet Theater ballerina, Misty Copeland, shows a young girl how to dance like the firebird. Copeland, author of Life in Motion, has written a spare but powerful picture book about a young African American girl who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. Daunted by the process, the young girl compares her ” gray as rain” self to the “swift as sunlight” Copeland, believing that she could never be as good as her idol. Realizing that the girl lacks confidence and is overwhelmed by what lays ahead, Copeland offers encouragement and support in a lyrical conversation between mentor and protégé:
“darling child, don’t you know
you’re just where I started …
your beginning’s just begun …”
Copeland assures the young girl that, despite the challenges and hard work (“…I had a thousand leaps and falls …”), her ability will grow. One day someone will need her support:
“then they will look to you in wonder
and say …
the space between you and me is longer than forever
and I will show them that forever is not so far away”
Lovely ballet similes and metaphors are woven into a narrative as powerful, yet as graceful as the dancer’s art:
“ …Like me you’ll grow steady in grace
spread an arabesque of wings
and climb …”
And while the narrative is a conversation is between a beginning dancer and an experienced ballerina, Copeland’s message of determination and realizing your dream is an important and inspiring message for all of us.
Using bold and striking mixed media illustrations, award-winning illustrator Christopher Myers enhances the soaring and inspirational text by dramatically capturing the movement of the dance and Copeland’s amazing ability to stretch her body in extraordinary positions. Likewise, his illustrations also depict the tender and affirming relationship between Copeland and her protégé. Myers, the son of the late children’s author Walter Dean Myers, has received multiple awards for his illustrations. Visit Reading Rocketsfor a selected list of his books and a video interview.
The Afterword contains a poignant message from Copeland about her childhood struggles and how ballet “saved” her. Nevertheless, as an African American, she did not see herself in this almost exclusively white world. With hope, hard work, and support she made it and has turned to supporting other young dreamers like herself to enter the world of Classical ballet.
Copeland has just been appointed the first African Americanprincipal ballerinaofAmerican Ballet Theater.Visit Misty at her websiteand see her reading Firebirdat the April 6, 2015 White House Easter Egg Roll. A search on YouTube will display many videos featuring interviews and performances. Click on the link to read an excerpt of Life in Motionand see a short video of Copeland discussing her determination to succeed. Earlier this week it was also announced that for two weeks this August, Copeland will star on Broadway in the musical “On the Town.”
Ever gotten lost on a subway? In New York? I have and I’m from New York! But once you’ve navigated your way around and feel you’ve got the hang of the subway, it’s like you’re on top of the world, not 35 feet underground (like at the 42nd St. Station). You might never take the bus again.
I’ll start this review by pointing out that a purchase of Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure, is like getting multiple books in one! First there’s the graphic novel adventure featuring Pablo, a boy new to both his school and to the city. Alicia, a classmate, volunteers to partner with him on a field trip to the Empire State Building using public transportation. At the uptown Manhattan subway station (96th St.), the pair get separated from their class and have to find their way alone. Eventually even Alicia and Pablo get separated which may seem frightening, but it’s never presented that way. In fact, it’s empowering for kids to see their peers commuting this way successfully. Demonstrating common sense, the two make tracks individually to the Empire State Building, one on foot, the other using a cross town train. Ultimately, across a crowded lobby, Pablo and Alicia are reunited in time to join the tour, running towards each other like in a scene from a film. They’re clearly overjoyed, but Mr. Bartles, their teacher, is not as impressed.
In addition to the adventure, there’s the budding friendship story. As the bungled journey evolves, Pablo eventually comes to appreciate Alicia’s gesture of kindness to buddy up on the field trip which he so vehemently rejected at the beginning of the book.
“I was only trying help.” – Alicia “Help?” – Pablo “What makes you think I need help! I don’t need anything.” – Pablo “I thought maybe you wanted a friend…” – Alicia
It’s through this friendship that Pablo is able to look at New York with new eyes and begin to feel at home.
Another draw is the NYC subway system, like an extra character, with its express and local lines, the colorful maps, and the various stops or stations in the city. I was delighted to see my old subway stop in Queens even made it into the book! Fans of transportation trivia will enjoy the enlightening repartee between Mr. Bartle and his students as he educates them on their subway knowledge. I lived in New York for 30 years and had no idea why the Y and U letters were never used. After reading the fact-filled end pages I learned it’s because the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) worried the public would be confused thinking they sounded too much like “why” and “you.”
Last but not least is the inclusion of archival photographs from old New York taking readers back in time to the 1800s and into the 20th century for a glimpse of what early subway stations and construction on them looked like. There are also more details about the Empire State Building and a Further Reading & Resources for those who, like me, cannot resist finding out more about the Big Apple’s history. Author Spiegelman has packed a plethora of interesting information into this engaging and extremely original book. I had no idea that the Empire State Building, where my uncle once worked, has its own zip code (10118) and had its grand opening on May 1, 1931, 84 years ago today! Lost in NYC closes with Tips for Parents, Teachers, and Librarians to make young readers’ experience of diving into a TOON graphic novel more pleasurable.
I have to give a shout out to the amazingly detailed illustrations by Garcia Sanchez. My favorite is the angled perspective of the Empire State Building as the school children zoom up to the observation deck in one of seventy-three elevators. Early on I noticed a man taking photos in almost every scene, but I didn’t notice the policeman watching him. Sanchez, while on a reconnaissance mission for the book, must have aroused suspicion. In a humorous touch, the artist has cleverly inserted himself and the cop who followed him into the story so be on the lookout! Between the diverse cast of characters, the compelling storyline and the excellent artwork, I have to say I am very happy to have found Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure.