Kid Lit Review of “She Persisted” by Chelsea Clinton

The title of this book for children by Chelsea Clinton comes from the statement made by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in February 2017 about Senator Elizabeth Warren that soon went viral. In trying to silence Warren, McConnell said: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Women responded in outrage all over the social media, using the hashtags #LetLizSpeak and #ShePersisted.

Clinton decided to adopt that phrase for the title for her collection of short vignettes about 13 women throughout American history who changed the country through their persistence. Obviously there are a plethora of women who could have been featured in this book. In an interview, Clinton explained she chose women who have inspired her over time, the challenge being to narrow down that list. She decided to include a mix of people who were well known and those not so well known, in the hope those in the latter category would become as familiar as those in the former.

The thirteen, most of whom engaged in social activism to bring about a more just world, include Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Clara Lemlich, Nellie Bly, Virginia Apgar, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Colvin, Ruby Bridges, Margaret Chase Smith, Sally Ride, Florence Griffith Joyner, Oprah Winfrey, and Sonia Sotomayor.

Clinton writes:

“Sometimes being a girl isn’t easy. At some point, someone probably will tell you no, will tell you to be quiet and may even tell you your dreams are impossible. Don’t listen to them. These thirteen American women certainly did not take no for answer. They persisted.”

Illustrator Alexandra Boiger uses watercolors that will appeal to the young audience for whom this book is intended.

Evaluation: In my own childhood, I heard all those same discouraging statements said to me as Clinton wrote in the quote cited above. I hope this book and others like it help teach young girls that obstacles can be surmounted and aspirations realized, if only one persists.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Philomel Books, an imprint of Random House, 2017

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Review of “Reading with Patrick” by Michelle Kuo

This is a lovely memoir about a mutually transforming friendship between a teacher and a pupil, but also an indictment of the state of education, the justice system, the health system, and the social support system in the largely forgotten impoverished areas of the black South.

Michelle Kuo, a volunteer for Teach for America at age 22 in 2004, was assigned to Helena, Arkansas, a poor, mostly black city in the Mississippi Delta. Her original goal was to teach American history through black literature. She had the romantic notion, as she herself characterized it, that she could change the lives of her students through books. She was sent to a school named Stars, where the local administration placed the so-called bad kids: “These were the truants and the druggies, the troublemakers and the fighters who had been expelled from the mainstream schools.”

Moreover, this area of the Delta was:

” . . . a place that you cannot leave, where you can’t travel or work if you can’t afford a car, where land is endless space that’s been denied you, where people burn down their houses because the insurance money is worth more than the sale price, where the yards of shuttered homes are dumping grounds for pedestrian litter, where water is possibly polluted by a fertilizer company that skipped town….”

This is definitely part of forgotten America. This subset of the American population bears an unequal burden of hardships. Helena specifically is the seat of one of the poorest counties in the country. During the time Kuo was there, there were few jobs and many of the residents had no skills in any event. In the schools, the feeling of having given up, shared by both by students and administrators, resulted in a lack of education or interest in learning.

In addition, Helena not only ranked last in the state in public health, but its teenage birthrate was higher than that of ninety-four developing countries. Many residents had disabilities or emotional or mental disorders. And if someone got in trouble, the police were the last people they would call: as Patrick put it:

“Naw, naw, ain’t no one call the police. The police here ain’t no police.. They out smoking weed and dealing drugs. How they gonna come to your house?”

Kuo astutely observes that while a lot of attention is given to blacks who left the South in the “Great Migration,” not so much is devoted to those who stayed, often not having had the means to leave. They had no money, or no connections up north. Or they could not read or write. Or they were afraid of reprisals against family who did not leave. And naturally there was a fear of places unknown and unfamiliar; how would they support themselves? What if they couldn’t? The ones who stayed, Kuo points out, were likely among the most destitute, the ones most accustomed to defeat.

Kuo found she had to modify her grandiose dreams. The students she encountered in her eighth grade class had limited vocabularies and a circumscribed grasp of history. She reports that “they hadn’t known, for instance, when slavery ended or recognized the vocabulary word emancipation..” They were only vaguely aware of the legacy of violence against blacks, and only knew that Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, not so much who he was or why he was important. In any event, she found, they didn’t want to think about all those painful things; they wanted school to be a refuge.

Kuo began to bond with Patrick Browning, who was 15 when she first met him. He seemed kind and mild-mannered, and when he stopped attending school, she went to his house to talk to him. She promised him to work hard for him, if he would work hard too.

Thus began a relationship that lasted not only until Kuo left for law school, but afterwards. She visited him intermittently, but then a couple of years after she had stopped teaching in Helena, she found out Patrick was in jail for murder. She felt bad for him:

“Now you see Patrick in jail, Patrick alone, Patrick not expecting anything of you or anybody – Patrick blaming himself, Patrick not knowing what he was charged for, Patrick not even knowing how many times he stabbed a person, just knowing he took away a life.”

Kuo decided the only way she could live with herself was to return to Helena and help Patrick. She also contacted a public defender on his behalf – there were only two in Helena, and both had to do other work on the side because of low pay. Not only were their salaries inadequate, but they had to buy many supplies out of their own pockets. They also had zero funds for investigating cases, and over a hundred clients each.

Kuo bemoans the state of criminal justice in the South, excoriating the long sentences for drug-related crimes, lack of legal aid, and resulting mass incarceration. She contends that measures targeting the black poor were part of a massive backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. She cites historian Elizabeth Hinton who pointed out that as overt racism became less palatable, “crime” became the politically acceptable way for politicians to make statements about race. Money was allocated to combat crime, but not to improve the education, employment opportunities, or housing, the lack of which helped contribute to that crime rate.

Back in Helena, Kuo visited Patrick almost every day in jail, bringing him books that they reviewed and discussed together. They read everything from Derek Walcott to Richard Wright to Emily Dickinson. Kuo was heartened that Patrick noticed things and made connections, and that his own writing improved so much. He was especially moved by James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew, saying to her, “It’s real.”

James Baldwin with his nephew

After seven months, Kuo had to leave to take a job to which she had previously committed. She noted how far Patrick had come: “. . . it frightens me that so little was required for him to develop intellectually – a quiet room, a pile of books and some adult guidance. And yet these things were rarely supplied.” But she thought it was time for her to go. Did she change his life, she wondered? Could she? She mused:

“I met Patrick when he was fifteen. He’d watched dope deals at age five, accidentally set himself on fire at eleven, and seen a lot that I can’t know. It may seem crazy to believe that I, or any educator, could have decisively reversed his fate. In the complex portrait of a person’s life, it’s possible that a teacher is just a speck.”

And yet, it’s clear she did change him, perhaps in ways which she isn’t aware of herself. I know in my own life, I was deeply influenced by a teacher. Yes, the teacher couldn’t change the basic trajectory of my life that came from other factors, but my internal world – my capacity to see and hear and appreciate, was radically altered thereafter.

Evaluation: This excellent book is so thought-provoking; it would make a great choice for book clubs. It sheds a great deal of light on “forgotten America”; follows a woman’s journey to realize her own identity; and interrogates the efficacy of trying to make a difference in someone’s life through the beauty and power of words, and the career path of teaching.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House, 2017

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Review of “Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan

This historical fiction novel, both a family drama and a mystery, begins in Brooklyn in 1934 during the Great Depression. Anna Kerrigan, almost 12 years old, regularly accompanies her father Eddie on the job he has held ever since all their money was lost in the stock market. Now he serves as a “Bagman”, or as Anna understood it: “Her father’s job was to pass greetings, or good wishes, between union men and other men who were their friends. These salutations included an envelope, sometimes a package, that he would deliver or receive casually – you wouldn’t notice unless you were paying attention.”

Eddie hated his job, and homelife offered no sanctuary for him. He had another daughter, Lydia, who was physically lovely, but brain-damaged. Lydia and her special needs, as well as the juxtaposition in her (as he saw it) of outward beauty with total disability, educed in Eddie both rage and self-loathing, leaving him numb and spent. “She was not as she should be, not remotely, and the ghost of what she should have been clung to her always, a reproachful twin.”

Only in Anna’s company could he relax and feel good about his life: “She was his secret treasure, his one pure, unspoiled source of joy.” He felt about her that she “pumped life into him as surely as Lydia drained it.” He loved her voice, the pattering quality of it, and the feel of her small hand inside his.

When Lydia’s doctor recommended that she have an expensive special chair to help her sit upright, Eddie needed more money, and went to work for Dexter Styles, a powerful member of local organized crime who managed a number of clubs offering the opportunity for illegal pastimes. Even at the upper levels of crime, however, there was a hierarchy. While there were many people in Dexter’s own pocket, he himself was controlled by a Mr. Q., who basically owned him. As long as Dexter played by the rules, he was rewarded. But like Eddie, Dexter constantly has to be aware of his place and modulate his behavior accordingly. Eddie unexpectedly gave Dexter a taste of escape from the limitations put on him.

Eddie worked for Styles as his ombudsman, checking up on Dexter’s employees and later on his rivals. In a clever description of Eddie’s appeal to Dexter, Egan writes:

“Kerrigan’s cipherlike nature had been essential to the job. He could go anywhere, find out anything. Through him, Dexter had tasted an otherworldly freedom from the constraints of time and space.”

Unfortunately though, Eddie could not take Anna along on his forays to nightclubs and gambling dens, and they grew apart, to Eddie’s infinite regret.

The story shifts, and picks up again when Anna is 19. Her father had disappeared five years before. They never knew what happened to him. She felt sorrow at first, replaced by anger.

The country is now at war, and Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where, because of the shortage of men, women are allowed to hold jobs that had always excluded them. Through perseverance and grit, she becomes the first female diver, “the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations,” helping to repair huge ships in the Manhattan harbor.

WWII era diving helmet

One night while out with a girlfriend, she ran into Dexter Styles at one of his clubs. He didn’t recognize her, so she used a false name with him, “Anna Feeney” (taking a neighbor’s last name). But she realizes he may know what happened to her father, and she continues to seek him out to get the mystery solved once and for all.

Discussion: There is some beautifully-phrased and deftly-constructed prose in this book. For example, when diving, Anna thinks:

“The ship felt alert, alive. It exuded a hum that traveled through her fingers up her arm: the vibration of thousands of souls teeming within. Like a skyscraper turned on its side.”

Or Anna, walking alone on the streets of New York:

“After years of distance, Anna’s father returned to her. She couldn’t see him, but she felt the knotty pain of his hands in her armpits as he slung her off the ground to carry her. She heard the muffled jingle of coins in his trouser pockets. His hand was a socket she affixed hers to always, wherever they went, even when she didn’t care to. Anna stopped walking, stunned by the power of these impressions. Without thinking, she lifted her fingers to her face, half expecting the warm, bitter smell of his tobacco.”

And there is this insight by and about Dexter, who is musing about the difficulty of working with women:

“… this was the problem of men and women, what made the professional harmony he envisaged so difficult to achieve. Men ran the world, and they wanted to fuck the women. Men said “Girls are weak” when in fact girls made them weak.”

And perhaps my favorite image, when the author describes Dexter Style’s house near the ocean:

“…a rowdy flapping of green-and-yellow striped awnings.”

Evaluation: Egan, who is the author of five books of fiction, including A Visit from the Good Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Books Critics Circle Award, takes on four big motifs with this book, any one of which could have made up a separate book: the dynamics of a family stressed by economic hardship and the birth of a disabled child; the nature of organized crime; the clash of gender and ethnicity in the 1940s; and life in the Merchant Marines, which serves as an auxiliary to the Navy during times of war.

For the most part, I think the author gives adequate treatment to all of these themes except perhaps for the organized crime aspect of the book; some of what happened to the characters because of their associations with this element remained opaque (to me) at the end of the story.

Nevertheless, this is a stirring and poignant story filled with memorable characters drawn with perceptive contours. The author’s research was extensive, and I think she adroitly captures a slice of life in wartime America. In addition, the issues raised and complexity of the story make this book an excellent choice for book clubs.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2017

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Review of “Everything Must Go” by Jenny Fran Davis

This is yet another entry into the rich-teens-in-boarding-schools-have-issues category. This young adult novel is made up of letters, press clippings, and other documents assembled by the fictional narrator, Flora Goldwasser, to tell what happened when she first had her heart broken.

When she was 16, Flora had a crush on a teacher, Elijah Huck, at her elite school in New York. Elijah was not only a history teacher but also a photographer, and admired Flora’s style. Flora was into vintage clothes and crafting her image as a “stylista.” Flora agreed to pose for him in her chic retro outfits all around the city, but with her face obscured. Elijah started a blog featuring the photos, identifying Flora as “Miss Tulip.” The blog went viral, with many fan girls trying to imitate Flora’s fashion choices.

Meanwhile, Elijah encouraged Flora to transfer to Quare Academy, a hippie Quaker school he attended in the Hudson Valley, and where he planned to teach the following year. Flora, thinking this was her chance to ensnare Elijah, transferred to the school. Immediately though, she felt like an outsider, judged negatively by the others in this place where paying attention to the “shell” of a person was not only discouraged but considered anathema. She was all about channeling the looks of Jackie Kennedy, while her small group of classmates were focused on their inner selves. To make matters worse, Elijah changed his plans and went elsewhere.

The rest of the story details Flora’s adjustment, and her eventual confrontation with Elijah.

The author has said in an interview that the story largely came from her own life; she too transferred from a posh school in Manhattan to an “alternative, farm, social-justice boarding school…. [with] people who wore tattered shirts and ate a lot of lentils and stuff like that.”

While some of the commentary in the book is wickedly funny (reminding one of Maria Semple skewering Seattle in Where’d You Go Bernadette) it is unclear if the author is making satirical meta-observations about attempts by rich liberals to identify with those who have less, or if the “satire” was my own projection, with the author actually identifying with her protagonist.

Either way, the angst and self-absorption of the 1% can be off-putting. The story is witty enough, but in the end, there doesn’t seem like there is much there there. And I was never convinced Flora was a very sympathetic character.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Wednesday Books, an imprint of St. Martins Press, a division of Macmillan, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “Starry Messenger” by Peter Sís

Peter Sís, children’s book author/illustrator, is known for his picture books that aren’t really just for children. In this tribute to Galileo Galilei, he celebrates the paradigm shift precipitated by Galileo, who was born in Pisa, Italy on February 15, 1564.

In a number of carefully reasoned treatises, Galileo provided evidence that the earth was not in fact the center of the universe. He overturned conventional thinking in epistemology, theology, history, and science, paving the way for modern astronomy.

Much of the evidence provided by Galileo came from his use of the telescope. Galileo did not invent this instrument himself; a Dutch eyeglass maker, Hans Libbershey, was at least the first person to apply for a patent in 1608. But Galileo saw its potential, and was quick to find new uses for the telescope and also to make critical improvements to it.

At the end of 1609, Galileo began turning his enhanced telescope to the sky. After he had made lunar observations, he shifted his attention to Jupiter. On January 7, 1610, he observed the planet and saw what he thought were three fixed stars near it, strung out in a line. The next night, he saw all three stars to the west of Jupiter. Over the next week he returned to the formation every night. He discovered that not only did the little stars never leave the planet, but they seemed to be carried along with it, and moreover, kept changing their position with respect to each other and to Jupiter. Also, a fourth companion entered the grouping that apparently had been around the other side of the planet during his initial observations.

By January 15th Galileo figured out that the moving bodies were not stars but four moons that were revolving around Jupiter. This proved that not everything in space circled the Earth. Therefore, to Galileo, our planet might not the absolute center of the universe, as the Catholic Church maintained (based on its understanding of the Bible).

Galileo's notes on the moons of Jupiter

Galileo’s notes on the moons of Jupiter

In March of 1610 he published a small book, Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), revealing some discoveries that had not been dreamed of in the philosophy of the time: mountains on the Moon, lesser moons in orbit around Jupiter, and the resolution of what had been thought cloudy masses in the sky (nebulae) into collections of stars too faint to see individually. Other observations followed, including the phases of Venus and the existence of sunspots.

scie_galileo2

These revelations and Galileo’s theory that the earth went around the sun had a major impact on cosmology and Galileo became famous. But the Catholic Church “began to worry”:

“Galileo had become too popular. By upholding the idea that the earth was not the center of the universe, he had gone against the Bible and everything the ancient philosophers had taught. He had gone against the Church . . .”

Galileo was tried in the Pope’s court and ordered not to express his beliefs. He was also condemned to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

Finally, the author reports:

“. . . more than three hundred years later, the leaders of the very Church that had punished Galileo Galilei pardoned him, and they admitted he was probably – in fact, surely and absolutely – right.”

[The phrasing of this statement by Sís is a little odd – the Church’s 1992 statement, as reported by “The New York Times,” was quite definitive: “We today know that Galileo was right in adopting the Copernican astronomical theory,” Paul Cardinal Poupard, the head of the current investigation, said in an interview . . .”]

The illustrations by Sís are the real “stars” of the story; they are detailed evocations of historical documents from Galileo’s time and and truly wonder-inspiring. He also incorporates excerpts of handwritten passages from The Starry Messenger.

Evaluation: This book with its mesmerizing pictures (the book was a 1997 Caldecott Honor Book) teaches some important lessons about truth, courage, and persistence even when those in power may act unjustly.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996

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