Archive | July, 2012

Soaring the Skies: Flying the Dragon by Natalie Dias Lorenzi

25 Jul

Natalie Dias Lorenzi’s lovely book pictured with my treasured wood block print of a cat looking at Mt. Fuji (purchased in Kyoto six years ago).

Flying the Dragon
by Natalie Dias Lorenzi

Pub Date: July 2012

Publisher: Charlesbridge

Level: Middle Grade/Ages 9-up

Natalie Dias Lorenzi’s eloquent middle grade debut, Flying the Skies, told in alternating narrative is about two cousins from different worlds who overcome vast cultural differences to find common ground. Fifth-grader Skye Tsuki lives with her Japanese-born father, Issei, and American mother, Cathy in Virginia, and has just found out she’s made the All-Star soccer team. But Skye knows something is up with her folks, especially her dad, who hasn’t been acting like himself lately. “The first sign of trouble was when her dad switched from silverware to chopsticks. Maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, her dad was Japanese. Sort of. He’d been born and raised in Japan but hadn’t been back since he married her mom. To Skye he was pretty much American.” (pg. 1) Her suspicions are soon confirmed when her parents tell her that she must take Japanese language lessons, which unfortunately conflict with soccer practice. Skye learns that Issei’s father is very ill, and will be traveling to the United States for medical treatment; in order to properly communicate with her grandfather, Skye needs to improve her rudimentary Japanese. Also accompanying Grandfather is Skye’s cousin, Hiroshi, and his parents.

Hiroshi is none too pleased about being uprooted from Japan to travel to America and visit relatives he doesn’t really know. More importantly, the trip coincides with his first rokkaku kite battle for which he and Grandfather (a master kite maker and rokkaku champion) have diligently prepared. Hiroshi and Skye’s initial meeting is awkward and confusing–both feel self-conscious around each other, which affects their ability to verbally communicate with each other. As Skye introduces herself to her Hiroshi, we learn that her birth name is Sorano (“of the sky” in Japanese), but that she changed it years earlier to avoid explaining her background to her inquisitive classmates. Names are often the very first clue about a person’s ethnic/cultural heritage; for many, a name reveals family origins, even right down to what town/city you’re from. But for Skye, it’s easier and less complicated to blend in by using a Westernized version of her birth name.

Lorenzi astutely captures Skye’s feelings about straddling two cultures. “She wasn’t pretty like the Ambers of the world or even pretty like the Chinese American Lucy Lius of the world. Skye was somewhere in the middle–not Asian, not white. Caucasian applied perfectly to her–‘Asian’ hiding in a word meaning ‘white.'” (pg. 33) Indeed, with the arrival of Grandfather and Hiroshi, Skye finds herself caught between her Japanese and American identities.  At school, she is embarrassed to be seen conversing with her cousin in Japanese, but at home, she longs for the deep connection Hiroshi has with their grandfather. Hiroshi also feels lost, and struggles to get his bearings in Virginia. The only thing that keeps him going is his time spent with Grandfather, flying kites in the park. However, when Grandfather suggests including Skye in their excursions, Hiroshi wrestles with jealousy. Skye also begins to realize how fleeting and precious her moments are with her grandfather. She endeavors to see him more, knowing but not caring that Hiroshi sees her as an interloper.

However, there are moments when the tension eases between Hiroshi and Skye. Observing her classmates’ insensitivity towards Hiroshi, Skye shares language tips with her cousin, teaching him how to use American slang/colloquialisms. By novel’s end, both cousins have developed a friendship, bonded together by their mutual love and respect for Grandfather.  Skye grows throughout the book, and we see her eventually take pride and ownership of her Japanese heritage.

The storytelling is so authentic and palpable that readers will relate equally to Skye and Hiroshi. Both characters are fully realized, and Lorenzi adroitly maps out their flaws and strengths, adding dimension to the story. Lorenzi also expertly covers complex family dynamics as seen in the reasons behind Issei’s estrangement from his family in Japan, following his marriage to Cathy. There are so many things going on in this book, but rather than feeling bogged down by it all, readers will feel as though they’re peeling back layers, and getting more invested in the characters and their plights.

I especially loved the multi-generational component in this novel – as I mentioned in an earlier review on this blog, the relationship between different generations is a significant element in multicultural storytelling. Grandfather’s relationships with Hiroshi and Skye are uniquely defined–he bonds with Hiroshi over kite-making and shares tender stories about Grandmother with Skye. You’ll want to have Kleenex while reading, just sayin’.

Readers will also appreciate Lorenzi’s detailed research of Japanese culture, evident in the many Japanese phrases and kanji included throughout the book. Flawless writing, nuanced storytelling, and reverence and respect for diversity make this book a treasure.

For more on Natalie Dias Lorenzi and her writing process, check out these fabulous interviews:

Interview with Natalie Dias Lorenzi by From the Mixed-up Files of Middle-Grade Authors

Interview with Natalie Dias Lorenzi by YA Librarian Tales

Finished book for review kindly provided by Charlesbridge.

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Dream Ride: Tia Isa Wants a Car

7 Jul

Tia Isa Wants A Car by Meg Medina/Illustrated by Claudio Muñoz

Pub Date: 2011

Publisher: Candlewick

Level: Picture book/ages 5-up

About a year ago, having been newly appointed to ALA’s Amelia Bloomer Project, I was on the lookout for picture books with feminist themes. For ABP, it was relatively easier to find YA books that highlighted feminism. But finding picture books with significant feminist content presented a slight challenge. Picture books have the ability to convey a sophisticated message through simple text and evocative artwork. According to selected criteria, ABP nominated books should show some awareness of gender inequities (Is the main character overcoming stereotypes/oppression?), reflect empowerment, but also be age-appropriate. Basically, there has to be a balance between the content and appeal to readers. A heavy handed message about feminism could go over readers’ heads by coming off as too pedantic. On the other hand, if the message is too light, it’s practically non-existent.

So, you can imagine how happy I was to read Meg Medina’s Tia Isa Wants A Car, which was personally recommended to me by Raquel Matos, Marketing Services Supervisor at Candlewick Press.

Tia Isa Wants A Car is  about a woman and her niece who defeat incredible odds to reach their ultimate goal. With beautiful simplicity, Meg Medina shares a profound message that resonates with many folks, particularly those of us who are immigrants: We all possess the ability to perservere and achieve our dreams. On the surface, Medina’s story is about a little girl and her aunt saving assiduously to buy a car that will take them far out of the city, to beaches that remind them of the native home and family they dearly miss.

Tia Isa Wants A Car was inspired by the memory of Medina’s beloved aunt, Ysaira, who had a “light-blue Wildcat that stalled everywhere and was awful to park on crowded streets…but that car could take us anywhere we wanted in this new country; it was freedom.”(rear bookjacket) Medina sprinkles her book with expressive Spanish phrases, and rich descriptions of Latino culture. She also shows us what it’s like to truly struggle for something…sometimes a novel concept in picture books.  We see Tia Isa saving to send remittances to family in an unnamed Latin country. When she and her niece try to buy a car, they are derided by Isa’s brother who proclaims their idea to be “Rrrridiculo.” At the car lot, the dismissive salesman tells them that they don’t have enough money. And here’s where the story really begins to tug at your heart.

Tia Isa’s enterprising niece begins approaching members of her community, offering services for fees that include helping out at the grocery store, feeding kitties, and teaching a librarian Spanish. Before long, she has saved up enough money to supplement her aunt’s savings, and they have enough for a car! Tia Isa and her niece exerted their independence (very feminist!), ignored naysayers (who all happened to be dudes), and purchased a car (a metaphor for freedom). When Tia Isa and her niece tape a picture of the family they hope to see very soon, we realize that the car is simply a promise of better things to come. Beautifully brought to life by Medina’s lively prose and illustrator Claudio Muñoz’s lush watercolor artwork, Tia Isa Wants A Car stayed with me long after the last page had been turned.

Review copy kindly provided by Candlewick Press.