One-Minute Book Reviews

November 14, 2009

‘Claudette Colvin’ – Phillip Hoose’s Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Honors a Teenager Who Wouldn’t Give Up Her Bus Seat

Note: Since I posted this, a visitor has pasted into comment #1 a good short video about this book that lets you hear Claudette Colvin and see some of the excellent archival photos in the book. You can watch it without leaving this site. Jan

CLAUDETTE COLVIN: Twice Toward Justice. By Phillip Hoose. FSG/Melanie Kroupa, 133 pp., $19.95. 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Claudette Colvin brings down from the attic of American history a life that deserves a place on its front porch. The judges for the National Book Awards will announce on Wednesday whether this 2009 finalist is, in their view, the year’s best book of young people’s literature. It is certainly one of the most inspiring.

Beginning in late 1955, tens of thousands of black residents of the Alabama capital refused to ride the city’s buses after the police arrested Rosa Parks for not giving up her seat to a white passenger. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted until the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling in Browder v. Gayle that segregated buses were unconstitutional. The decision strengthened the civil-rights movement and the career of the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery who had encouraged the protesters to remain nonviolent, Martin Luther King Jr.

A plaintiff in Browder v. Gale was Claudette Colvin, an intelligent and strong-willed teenager from a family who lived in one of the poorest sections of the city. Nine months before Parks took her historic stand, Colvin was arrested and jailed after she refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a Montgomery bus. At the age of 15, Colvin had studied black history in school and idolized the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. So she did not go gently, as Parks did, when ordered her to yield her seat. As the police dragged her backwards off the bus, she screamed, “It’s my constitutional right!”

But while Parks became famous, Colvin remains little known. Phillip Hoose shows the injustice of that neglect in this fascinating story of her early years – much of it told in her words — that combines oral history and pictorial biography. Colvin’s memories of growing up in segregated Montgomery are at times almost heartbreaking in their understatement. “My mother had always said, ‘If you can even talk to a white person without lowering your eyes you’re really doing something,’” Colvin recalls. And such comments are enriched by well-chosen black-and-white archival photos, including a copy of a Jim Crow–era sign that says: “NO DOGS NEGROS [SIC] MEXICANS.”

Claudette Colvin leaves unanswered many questions about Colvin’s later life, apparently because some events were too painful for her to discuss. But anyone would prefer to have this fine story of her life than none at all.

“The wonderful thing which you have just done makes me feel like a craven coward,” a man in Sacramento wrote to Colvin after hearing that police had arrested for her staying in a bus seat she had paid for. “How encouraging it would be more adults had your courage, self respect and integrity.” Indeed, it would.

Best line: One of many memorable details of life under Jim Crow laws, in Colvin’s words: “We could shop in white stores – they’d take our money all right – but they wouldn’t let us try anything on … When [my sister] and I needed shoes, my mom would trace the shape of our feet on a brown paper bag and we’d carry the outline to the store because we weren’t allowed to try the shoes on.”

Worst line: None.

Read an excerpt from Claudette Colvin.

Furthermore: Claudette Colvin is a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature. the winner will be announced on Nov. 18, and the prize sponsor has posted more on the book on its Web site.

About the author: Hoose‘s other books include Perfect, Once Removed, a memoir of the summer when his cousin Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series.

You can also follow janiceharayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, which may have other comments on the National Book Award finalists.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 17, 2009

PTSD for 9-Year-Olds? Two-Time Newbery Medal Finalist Jacqueline Woodson Deals With the Consquences of War in ‘Peace, Locomotion’

A 12-year-old orphan sees the effects of war when a member of his foster family returns without a leg

Peace, Locomotion. By Jacqueline Woodson. Putnam, 136 pp., $15.99. Ages 9–12 (see further discussion below).

By Janice Harayda

Jacqueline Woodson is a spare and thoughtful writer – a bit too spare and thoughtful in this slow-moving sequel to Locomotion, a National Book Award finalist in which a sensitive orphan told his story in 60 poems. Now Lonnie Collins Motion (nicknamed Locomotion) is 12 years old and describes his life in letters to his younger sister, Lili, who lives with a different foster mother. The epistolary format may be the most interesting thing about the book.

Peace, Locomotion exemplifies a disheartening trend in children’s fiction toward novels that often read like bibliotherapy: They focus on feelings at the expense of plot, suspense and character development. This book has passages in which we don’t just hear Lonnie’s feelings: We hear his feelings about his feelings. After his teacher makes him “feel stupid,” he tells us: “I hate that feeling.” The novel has relatively little action. Lonnie likes living with his foster mother, whom he calls Miss Edna, in Brooklyn. But her son Jenkins joined the Army Reserve to earn money for college and has ended up fighting in an unnamed war – apparently, in Iraq. Jenkins loses a leg to “insurgents and a car bomb,” and when he comes home, has to use a wheelchair until he learns to walk with crutches. He also has signs of post-traumatic-stress disorder. Lonnie finds a sense of purpose in helping his foster brother and realizes that “Peace is the good stuff / That happens to all of us / Sometimes.”

Peace, Locomotion reflects a quiet pacifism that might help to disabuse some children of Rambo fantasies. But its heavy subjects clash with the lightweight treatment they receive in the novel. Jenkins doesn’t come home from the war until page 104 of a 136-page story – a timing that limits the potential for a relationship to develop between them and for transformation to occur. “Locomotion” is an odd name for a narrator whose story moves so languidly and to whom, in this book, so little happens.

Best line: “That’s what she calls old people – seniors. Like they’re about to graduate from high school or something.”

Worst line: Peace, Locomotion sticks closely to the prevailing therapeutic ideas about what’s “good” for children and is less interesting than it might have been if Woodson had taken more risks.  Here is Locomotion’s foster mother speaking to her son after he comes home without a leg: “Let all the tears you have in you come on out, she kept saying. It’s good. It’s okay.”

Recommendation: School Library Journal recommends this novel for grades 4–6, but – grim subjects like PTSD notwithstanding – it has a much less complex plot than many books appeal to that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels.

Published: January 2009

About the author: Woodson was shortlisted for a National Book Award for Locomotion and Hush and for a Newbery Medal for Feathers and Show Way.

Furthermore: The letters in this book are interspersed with a scattering of poems, also written by Lonnie.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 17, 2009

Joke of the Day — Literary Wit From ‘Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend’

Filed under: Humor,Joke of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:08 am
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A white reporter who watched Satchel Paige pitch in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s said that when Paige threw the ball, you saw only something that resembled “a thin line of pipe smoke.” Janet Maslin writes in a review Larry Tye’s new Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (Random House, 392 pp., $26).

“When asked if he threw that fast consistently, Paige, who would become famed for choice aphorisms, replied: ‘No, sir. I do it all the time.’”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 9, 2009

Are Y’all Payin’ Attention? Ah May Be a Yankee From New Jersey, But Ah Might Could Have a Review for Y’all of Kathryn Stockett’s Novel, ‘The Help’

A New York Times bestseller describes the mistreatment of black maids at the dawn of the civil rights era

The Help: A Novel. By Kathryn Stockett. Putnam’s/Amy Einhorn Books, 464 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Forty-five literary agents rejected The Help, and although that’s not an alpine number in today’s market, it’s easy to imagine why they did. A white University of Alabama graduate has written much of her first novel in the alternating voices of two black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s – as though Margaret Mitchell weren’t still taking heat, 60 years after her death, for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind.

For anybody who isn’t put off by the transracial ventriloquism, The Help may hold surprises. Kathryn Stockett tells the story of a white Ole Miss graduate who returns to her well-off parents’ cotton farm, cringes when she sees how her friends treat their “help,” and vows with the secret cooperation of the maids to write a book that exposes the abuses. There’s a lot to expose.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has rejoined a world in which maids work for less the minimum wage and must wear uniforms if they attend the weddings of children they helped raise. They must use dishes and bathrooms their employers don’t. And if they protest these and many other indignities, they may be fired and blackballed by women who can keep them from working again in their towns. In their off hours, they face all the other injustices of segregation, including that can’t use white hotels, restaurants and libraries.

The Help falls into the category that publishers call “mainstream women’s fiction” and has many of its hallmarks, such as a subplot involving Skeeter’s romance with the callow son of a politician. And yet it has something rarely found in novels that have as much pink on their covers as this one does: sustained social commentary. Stockett describes the results of a silent auction at the Junior League Annual Ball and Benefit in Jackson:

“As names are read, items are received with the excitement of someone winning a real contest, as if the booty were free and not paid for at three, four, or five times the store value. Tablecloths and nightgowns with the lace tatted by hand bring in high bids. Odd sterling servers are popular, for spooning out deviled eggs, removing pimentos from olives, cracking quail legs.”

That is sharper and more interesting writing than you will find in many novels with more literary pretensions, and it makes you wonder what Stockett could do if she gave a free rein to her satirical instincts. In some ways The Help resembles The Nanny Diaries, though the plot is more far-fetched and the writing less polished. Justice comes for the household employees, to the degree that it arrives at all, at scalper’s prices. Students of the abuses of the Jim Crow era may find much of The Help unsurprising, but the collective memory of those abuses is fading. This novel would be welcome if only because it will help to keep the hidden cruelties alive both for those who have never known of them and for those who would prefer to forget.

Best line: The belles of The Help know that before you marry, you can never give too much thought to choosing a silverware pattern. One woman says: “Skeeter, you’re so lucky to come from a Francis the First family pattern.”

Worst line: The black maids often say things like: “Law, my phone was disconnected cause I’s short this month.” And Stockett makes phonetic substitutions in their speech but not usually in their employers’. Given that her black characters say things like “terrified a” instead of “terrified of,” shouldn’t some of her whites be saying “Ah can’t” instead of “I can’t”? Ah may be a Yankee, but ah think they might could, because ah know how often writers done been tryin’ to show how white people talk in New Jersey.

Editor: Amy Einhorn

Published: February 2009

About the author: Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and lives in Atlanta.

Mini reading group guide to The Help: 3 Discussion questions for book clubs: 1) So, did y’all think Stockett was brave or insane for writing in the voices of Aibileen and Minny?

2) Janet Maslin wrote of The Help in her New York Times review: “It’s a story that purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions. And it celebrates noblesse oblige so readily that Skeeter’s act of daring earns her a gift from a local black church congregation.” How much truth does this comment contain?

3) Erin Aubry Kaplan wrote in her review in Ms.: “As an African American, I accept black idioms as an aesthetic choice, but they nonetheless grated. Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have? There’s also the narrative rut of downtrodden but world-wise blacks showing white people their own souls, leading them out of a spiritual wilderness to their better selves. The Help has much more on its mind than that, but it doesn’t avoid going down a road too well traveled.” Do you agree or disagree?

Furthermore: The Help is #30 on the most recent New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Seller list.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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