Kid Lit Review of “Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation” by Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat, nominated twice for the National Book Award in the adult category, here writes a book for children based in part on her own experiences as a child in Haiti. She was separated from her parents while they tried to get immigration papers for her and her brother to come join them in the U.S.

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In this story, Saya, a little Haitian girl living in America, is longing for her mother, who has spent the previous three months in a prison for women without immigration papers. Even though Saya and her Papa visit Mama very week, Saya misses her terribly. The parents come up with the idea of the mom sending Saya a cassette tape every week, on which she records bedtime stories for Saya to listen to at night.

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In turn, Saya writes for a story her Mama about Mama’s absence, and Papa sends it to one of the local newspapers, which decides to print it. Soon Papa and Saya are interviewed on the local news, and a judge rules Mama can wait for her papers at home. Mama creates a new story, about how “a smart and brave little nightingale helps her mommy find the right rainbow trail, and the mommy follows it home.”

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As the author reveals in an end note, “According to the United States’ Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the people Saya refers to as the immigration police, over 70,000 parents of American-born children have been jailed and departed in recent years.”

The vivid oil-painting illustrations by Leslie Staub are done in the style of Haitian folk-art, employing bright colors and lots of fascinating whimsical details.

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Evaluation: This is a heartrending and heartwarming story, with gorgeous art work.

Rating: 4/5

Note: Kirkus named this a Best Book of 2015, calling this book a “must-read” and writing that “this picture book sheds light on an important reality rarely portrayed in children’s books.”

Published by Dial Books, a member of the Penguin Group, 2015

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Review of “Britt-Marie Was Here” by Fredrik Backman

Britt-Marie is introduced to us as a 63-year-old woman who is a bit of a fussbudget; indeed, at times “a bloody nag-bag,” who manages living with circumstances she cannot control by trying to exert control over the things she can: the arrangement of cutlery in a drawer; keeping things clean; using coasters. For forty years, she has let her husband Kent run their lives, raising his children the best she could even though they never accepted her; worrying about what other people would think; and trying to conduct herself accordingly. But finally, after Britt-Marie receives news of Kent having a (non-lethal) heart attack that is delivered to her by his mistress, she overcomes her fear and loathing of spontaneity, and she leaves.

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She applies for a job at the unemployment office, and is sent to the nearby tiny town of Borg, one of those small, run-down places where “trucks [used to come] home to, but nowadays they only drive past.” Britt-Marie gets a temporary job running the recreation center “that has admittedly not been closed down, but only because they haven’t had time to do it yet.” It is next to a pizzeria (which also doubles as the town pub, the town grocery store, and the town post office). When she arrives at the recreation center, she sees a group of unkempt kids playing soccer in the parking lot. As the author notes wryly, “ . . . the only two noticeable things in Borg are soccer and the pizzeria, because these tend to be the last things to abandon humanity.” The recreation center certainly seems abandoned, and Britt-Marie at once sets to cleaning it.

The author uses a number of humorous ways to show what Britt-Marie is thinking, such as the recurring theme of her not thinking something that “obviously” would be inappropriate, such as when she reflects:

“Britt-Marie would obviously never consider the woman to be ‘fat,’ because Britt-Marie is absolutely not a person who classifies people like that, but it does strike her how nice it must be for the woman to go through life so untroubled by her cholesterol levels.”

Britt-Marie is welcomed to Borg by a variety of absolutely endearing characters, including “Somebody” who runs the pizzeria; Sven, the only policeman, who seems smitten with Britt-Marie from the outset; the teens Vega and Omar and their older brother Sami, who is a “tough” with a criminal past but totally devoted to his younger siblings; Ben, also called Pirate, one of the kids who immediately latches on to Britt-Marie for help with managing his hair; the almost-blind woman Bank, from whom Britt-Marie rents a room; and even a rat, one of the denizens of the recreation center.

The children in the town decide that Britt-Marie must be their soccer coach, because they can’t play in competitions without a coach, and who else is there?

Britt-Marie, who never before liked soccer, comes to see its value, both as a metaphor to determine the character of people (from the nature of their allegiances), to its use as an anodyne:

“Soccer forces life to move on. There’s always a new match. A new season. There’s always a dream that everything can get better. It’s a game of wonders.”

Evaluation: This book has a great deal of charm and humor that grows on you as you get to know Britt-Marie and the townspeople in Borg. The ending is not exactly what I would have wished for, but leaves an opening for a sequel. I would love to see this as a movie.

Rating: 4/5

Originally published in Sweden in 2014; Published in English by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2016

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Review of “Wilde Lake” by Laura Lippman

Luisa (“Lu”) Brant, 45, has just gotten elected as the first female state’s attorney of Howard County, Maryland – a post her father, Andrew Jackson Brant, had also held. Her father, with the help of the housekeeper “Teensy,” brought up Lu and her brother AJ alone, their mother having died a week after Lu was born. Now Teensy helps care for Lu’s 8-year-old twins, Penelope and Justin; Lu’s husband Gabe died at age 39 of a heart attack. Lu moved back in with her father and Teensy after Gabe died.

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AJ is eight years older than Lu, and in alternate chapters we learn stories from their childhood. Lu didn’t have many of her own friends, and often tagged along with AJ and his friends. AJ, always the golden boy and hero-worshipped by both Lu and AJ’s friends, even saved the life of one of his friends when AJ was 18. AJ went on to make a huge amount of money in his career, but then left that lifestyle for a “non-material” existence with his second wife, a yoga instructor.

In the chapters from the present, we follow Lu as she investigates her first murder case as state’s attorney, a brutal attack on a woman in her house. Although DNA allows the police to identify a vagrant right away, there is some question as to whether this man, Rudy Drysdale, actually committed the crime. To make matters worse, Lu’s former boss, Fred Hollister, whom she defeated for the office she now holds, is representing Drysdale.

As the chapters converge, many secrets come out, both about the past and the present, finally coming together in a stunning dénouement full of surprises.

Discussion: Several elements of this book, common to most of Lippman’s books, stand out. First, she is continually musing, in a thought-provoking way that will resonate with most females, on the role of women, and particularly, the demands of parenting. Second, she never fails to add interesting details about the legal process. And last but not least, one of my favorite things about books by Laura Lippman is all the local references. I grew up in the D.C./Maryland area, and I miss it a great deal. With her books though, I am able to revisit many of my favorite places, eat my favorite foods, and even shop at my favorite stores!

Evaluation: This is another engaging standalone from Lippman: not an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but rather a thoughtful and provocative exploration of the messy nature of memories and ‘truth,” and the often serpentine roads that lead to justice.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016

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Review of “Shotgun Lovesongs” by Nickolas Butler

With beautiful prose and interesting characters, this book earns your affection almost immediately. If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you will probably feel like you “recognize” Little Wing, the book’s fictional town close to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The story is centered on six friends in their early thirties – Henry and Beth Brown, Leland (Lee) Sutton, Ronny Taylor, and Kip and Felicia Cunningham, all of whom are anchored to Little Wing by a deep sense of place.

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Lee is supposedly based in part on Justin Vernon, lead singer of the band Bon Iver, who came originally from Eau Claire where the author grew up. Lee, a successful folk-rock musician, has his biggest fans among his hometown friends, and it is in his hometown where he also finds his inspiration, as revealed by these poetic passages:

“And in the fields as it is in the forests: the springtime prairie fires and tire fires and sit-spreaders slowly spraying the fields with rich, rich manure. Sandhill cranes and whooping cranes in the sky big as B-52s and all the other myriad birds come back home like returned mail, making the night sky loud as any good homecoming party. And then summer comes, the green coming in such profusions that you think maybe winter never even happened at all, never will come again. . . .”

. . .

“Late-night softball games at rural diamonds behind crossroads taverns where the sodium-nitrate lights bring in billions of bugs and moths … and in the backyards clothes pinned to lines snap in the cooling-down breezes that signal autumn’s arrival, that elegant season, that season of scarves and jackets, that season of harvest and open night windows and the best season for sleep.”

When Lee was answering questions about how to learn to sing, he’d say:

“Sing like you’ve got no audience, sing like you don’t know what a critic is, sing about your hometown, sing about your prom, sing about deer, sing about the seasons, sing about your mother, sing about chainsaws, sing about the thaw, sing about the rivers, sing about forests, sing about the prairies. But whatever you do, start singing early in the morning, if only just to keep warm. And if you happen to live in a warm beautiful place … Move to Wisconsin. Buy a woodstove, and spend a week splitting wood. It worked for me.”

Around this hub of Little Wing, and the old mill at the center of town which serves as its focus, the characters spin their interconnected stories in alternate chapters. Henry and Beth are the paragon of a married couple to which the others aspire, yet they have their own struggles. Lee is their tragic muse, whose life seems so glamorous, but he can’t always get what he wants. Ronny is the damaged alcoholic they all take care of, and Kip and Felicia represent the Outside – the world beyond Little Wing.

The characters argue with one another, but in the end, they are each other’s families, each other’s homes. As the author alerts us in his epigraph from Moby Dick, the feelings they have for each other are deeply rooted: “But, heave ahead, boy, I’d rather be killed by you than kept alive by any other man.”

I loved this book up until the end, when it just… ended…. But I guess that’s part of why I keep thinking about the story.

Evaluation: Excellent writing with a story that merits a broader audience.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, a division of Macmillan Books, 2014

Note: Suggested music to accompany your reading:

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Kid Lit Review of “Two White Rabbits” by Jairo Buitrago

This book shows a Hispanic father and his young daughter who have left their home and are trying to get somewhere else – sometimes on their own, and sometimes with the assistance of a “coyote”- a person paid to hide migrants and help them get across a border.

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We don’t know why the two left, nor where they are trying to go. Thankfully for the cause of realism, the two protagonists wear the same clothes throughout, although they do manage to look showered, and the father regularly shaven. The more unpleasant aspects of emigration are omitted. For example, we see them traveling the desert by night, but not during the day, when they would have been plagued by the heat and by thirst, even in winter. They always seem to be healthy, and never hungry.

(From the Spanish version)

(From the Spanish version)

Of course one could ask just how much misery and unpleasantness is appropriate to show very young children, but this particular story doesn’t make the horrific trek usually experienced look so bad. On the other hand, all the omissions provide plenty of opportunity for parents or teachers to fill in the blanks or not, as they deem appropriate for each child.

The excellent illustrations by Rafael Yockteng clearly show the father expressing despair over his finances, but happiness when he is with his daughter.

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Evaluation: In today’s political climate, this book will provide an excellent corrective to the canard that all illegal immigrants are rapists and/or criminals of some kind.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, 2015

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