Kid Lit Review of “Separate Is Never Equal” by Duncan Tonatiuh

Historically, Hispanic children were segregated from Anglo children in many public school districts in the southwestern states. The legal struggle in the courts to rectify that segregation took several interesting turns as it (1) influenced, and (2) was influenced by, the litigation efforts by blacks to end racial segregation in the public schools.

A landmark case in the struggle for equality was Westminster School Dist. of Orange County et al. v. Mendez et al. (161 F.2d 774, 9th Circuit), decided April 14, 1947. This book for children tells that story from the point of view of young Sylvia Mendez.

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Sylvia Mendez was born in 1936 to a Mexican immigrant father and a Puerto Rican immigrant mother. When Sylvia was eight, her aunt took her, her siblings, and her nephews and tried to enroll the children in the “whites-only” school because it was superior to the ill-equipped wooden shack for Hispanic students. Sylvia’s aunt was told by school officials that her children, who had light skin, would be permitted to enroll, but that Sylvia and her brothers, who had darker skin and a Hispanic surname, could not enroll.

Sylvia’s father, aided by civil rights attorney David Marcus, began a community movement to file a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles against four Orange County school districts — Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and El Modena (now eastern Orange) — on behalf of about 5,000 Hispanic-American school children.

Sylvia Mendez as a child

The trial court found that segregation of Hispanic children violated the 14th Amendment. Tonatiuh reviews why the judge found in favor of the plaintiffs, which I greatly admire: I think it is an excellent practice to treat children with the respect of explaining adult subjects to them, especially in ways they will be able to understand.

Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, the defendant school districts appealed, arguing that the plaintiffs had not stated a federal cause of action; since they were not authorized by California law to segregate the students, they were not acting within their authorized powers “as the state,” and hence were not covered by the 14th amendment. [The author does not go into this much technical detail in his book.] In any event, The Ninth Circuit disagreed, and again ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Thereafter, then California Governor Earl Warren signed a law stating that all children in California were allowed to go to school together, regardless of race, ethnicity, or language.

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[Later, when Earl Warren was serving as Chief Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, he heard the case Brown v. Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney, used the arguments developed for Mendez v. Westminster to argue the Brown case. ]

At this point, the story in the book ends, with Sylvia’s mother advising Sylvia that when she returned to the school that initially rejected her, she should hold her head high:

“Looking around, she saw that other children were smiling at her. By the end of the day, she had made a friend. And by the end of the school year, she had made many friends of different backgrounds. She knew that her family had fought for that.”

In the Author’s Note that follows the story, Tonatiuh does mention, again to his great credit, that while the Mendez case applied to de jure segregation, it did not apply to de facto segregation, which has actually increased, because of rigidly segregated residential subdivisions, in a development with similar consequences for African-American students. Today, Latino and black students are more likely than ever to be attending segregated schools, largely a function of the composition of the areas in which they live, which in turn is strongly affected by poverty. See research reported by The Civil Rights Project and researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (now located at UCLA where you can find updates to the Harvard research) here, noting that:

“Latinos, who are fast becoming the largest minority group in the country, attend the most severely segregated schools. Latino segregation has been increasing ever since data was first collected in the 1960s….”

Similarly,Tonatiuh cites a 2013 study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA reporting that “43 percent of Latino students and 38 percent of black students attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white.”

As the author writes:

“The Mendez family went to court almost seventy years ago, but their fight is relevant today. As the education specialists in the trial argued, the segregation of children creates feelings of superiority in one group and inferiority in another. We need to be able to interact and mingle so that prejudices break down, so that we can learn from one another, and so that evewryone has a fair shot at success.”

Not to mention that schools in poorer districts have a marked dearth of resources and good teachers. The Harvard Civil Rights Project study linked to above finds that “Poverty is linked to lower educational achievement, and racially segregated schools for all groups except whites are almost always schools with high concentrations of poverty.”

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That study cites the hostile political environment (and that was in 1999!) observing:

“Forty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education declared “separate but equal” as “inherently unequal,” segregation continues to produce unequal educational opportunities, particularly for low-income minority students. . . . In a time when the country is rapidly growing and becoming more diverse, it is important that the nation’s schools reflect this diversity. The immense gains of the civil rights movement cannot be taken for granted. As difficult as progress was to achieve, without a strong national policy supportive of desegregation, it is just as easily rolled back.”

Tonatiuh ends by stating his hope that children learn about the background of civil rights and that “this book will help children . . . realize that their voices are valuable and that they too can make meaningful contributions to this country.”

In addition to the Author’s Note, the story is followed by photographs, a glossary, bibliography, and index.

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Tonatiuh, who is also an award-winning illustrator, wrote on the Seven Impossible Things blog about his gorgeous folkloric art work:

“My artwork is very much inspired by Pre-Columbian art, especially by Mixtec codices from the 14th century. That is why my art is very geometric, my characters are always in profile, and their ears look a bit like the number three. My intention is to celebrate that ancient art and keep it alive.”

The simplicity of the illustrations (which also tell the story without words) offset the details of the much denser text, and thus serve to extend the appropriate age range of this book.

Evaluation: This book gives children an intelligent and well-constructed look at the fight for equal rights, while also showing that the battle rights is not just relevant for African-Americans. With the increase in (overt) nativism spurred by the American presidential fight, the message in this book is all the more important. In addition, the mesmerizing illustrations will teach something about folk art and its ability to convey the truth of a story in spite of its lack of realism. Recommended age group is 7-12.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Abrams, 2014

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Review of “Marked In Flesh” by Anne Bishop

This is the fourth book in the ongoing paranormal series about a world mostly divided into humans and the terra indigene, commonly known as The Others.

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These Others include shapeshifters (such as werewolves), vampires, “elementals,” and “harvesters,” inter alia. There is also a third sort of in-between species with extra-sensory perceptiveness, one of which is the cassandra sangue or blood prophets, females who can see visions of the future after self-mutilation. These girls were previously kept in compounds by human abusers, tied up, and often raped or brutalized in other ways. Sessions offering their prognosticating services were sold to interested (and wealthy) parties. But the Others put a stop to the practice after a criminal consortium arose which sold the blood of the cassandra sangue as a street drug to make people go on insane homicidal rages.

In addition to this threat to world harmony, a new political movement has been growing – Humans First and Last (HFL), which wants to challenge the hegemony of the Others and “take back the land” (which of course was never theirs in the first place). [The increasing popularity of the HFL populist leader, who stirs up prejudices and hatreds and inspires violent attacks, should not seem unrealistic to anyone following American politics.]

The story focuses in particular on Simon Wolfgard, who is handsome, mid-thirties, and the dominant Wolf and leader of the Others’ Lakeside Courtyard, where humans and Others mix in an uneasy but mutually beneficial detente. In Book One, Simon gave the job of Human Liaison to Meg Corbyn, 24, a cassandra sangue who escaped her compound. Meg quickly became beloved by all the Others, and in particular, Simon, although he doesn’t quite like to admit his feelings for this non-wolf.

But Simon has bigger problems than resolving his personal problems: overlording all the life on Earth are the Elders – dangerous primal beings who have issued warnings to Simon that if the humans keep harming the Others, their very existence as a species is at stake. That would include Meg, as well as the rest of the human “pack” now living in the Lakeside Courtyard, largely because of Meg’s influence. If the Elders destroy some, most, or all of the humans, can the Others replace what the humans have provided without losing who they are? And how can they protect those humans who have allied with them? And – besides Meg – do they even want to help the humans?

Discussion: Most of this fourth book concerns the showdown between the Humans First and Last Movement and the Others. The author does a good job of maintaining the tension and pace. But as much as I enjoyed the ins and outs of the battle for the planet, let’s face my shallow interest: I wanted more of Meg and Simon together!

The romance between Simon and Meg is proceeding very, very slowly, and I do like the fact that this means the series will last all that much longer. And at the very end of this book, we get a hint that the action between them might ramp up in the next book.

Evaluation: I love this ongoing series about a young woman and her seeming soulmate and would-be paramour who is a werewolf. Who wouldn’t like a hero, who, when he isn’t being a sexy handsome great big guy, is an attractive great big doggy, whose fur you can run your hands through and against whom you can cuddle up and sleep?

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by ROC, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016

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National Poetry Month Post Commemorating the 200th Birthday – April 21, 1816 – of Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë, the beloved author of Jane Eyre, also wrote poetry, but it wasn’t very good. This was probably a blessing, since the lack of success with her poems (published under the pseudonym of Currer Bell) led her to turn her talents to writing books instead.

Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell was a volume of poetry published jointly by the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne in 1846, and their first work to ever go in print. Because of contemporary prejudice against female writers, the Brontë sisters adopted masculine first names, retaining the first letter of their first names: Charlotte became Currer Bell, Anne became Acton Bell, and Emily became Ellis Bell. The book was printed by Aylott and Jones, from London. The first edition failed to attract interest, with only two copies being sold.

Branwell Brontë, painting of his three sisters,  left to right Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë.

Branwell Brontë, painting of his three sisters, left to right Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë.

In the small volume, one can find some passionate poems by Charlotte on the subject of love. Some of these may have been inspired by the crush she developed, in 1843 at age 26, for the headmaster at the school in Brussels where she was studying French and German. Constantin Héger, the founder of the school and her personal tutor in French, was married with children, but Charlotte was apparently besotted. She began writing him as frequently as twice a week about her feelings. For example, she confessed to Héger:

“I would write a book and dedicate it to my literature master – to the only master I have ever had – to you Monsieur.”

“If my master withdraws his friendship entirely from me I will be completely without hope … I cling on to preserving that little interest – I cling on to it as I cling on to life.”

Héger, who barely responded, asked his wife to deal with the situation, and Madame Héger wrote to Brontë instructing her that she could only write once every six months at most. Fortunately, the purple prose of Brontë’s letters and poems did not make it into Jane Eyre. (Jane Eyre was Brontë’s second novel; her first was The Professor, a book based somewhat on her experiences in Brussels. It was rejected by publishing houses, but was eventually published posthumously.)

Author Daphne Merkin, reviewing a new biography of Brontë, discusses the influence of Héger’s rejection of Brontë, writing:

“The main thrust of Harman’s biography endeavors to show how this most self-doubting yet obdurate of young women turned her emotional vulnerability and anxieties about her place in society as a fiercely passionate but plain Jane into a new kind of literature, one that forged a candid and poignant female voice of unaccountable power, telling of childhood loneliness and adult longing.”

Charlotte Brontë, chalk, 1850, by George Richmond

Charlotte Brontë, chalk, 1850, by George Richmond

Still, Brontë considered herself a poet at heart, and in an 1848 letter to literary critic George Henry Lewes derided Jane Austin for her perceived lack of the same sensibility: “Miss Austen is not a poetess. Can there ever be a great artist without poetry?”

You can read Brontë’s poems online here, if you still desire to do so after sampling this excerpt from one of her poems about love:

“Stanzas.” by Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855)
First Publication: Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell London: Aylott and Jones, 8, Paternoster Row, 1846. pp. 126-127.

My love is almost anguish now,
It beats so strong and true;
‘Twere rapture, could I deem that thou
Such anguish ever knew.
I have been but thy transient flower,
Thou wert my god divine;
Till, checked by death’s congealing power,
This heart must throb for thine.

And well my dying hour were blest,
If life’s expiring breath
Should pass, as thy lips gently prest
My forehead, cold in death;
And sound my sleep would be, and sweet,
Beneath the churchyard tree,
If sometimes in thy heart should beat
One pulse, still true to me.”

 John Hunter Thompson, Charlotte Brontë, ca. 1855, oil on canvas. © The Brontë Society


John Hunter Thompson, Charlotte Brontë, ca. 1855, oil on canvas. © The Brontë Society

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Be sure to stop by other blogs this month that are linking up to poetry posts. Serena’s blog has links to profiles of poets and poetry by participants from around the blogisphere. Jama’s Alphabet Soup, my favorite blog for kids books, is also collecting links on poetry posts. In addition, the fantastic website poets.org has a sign up to receive an email of a “Poem-a-Day,” featuring over 200 new, previously unpublished poems by today’s talented poets each year. I also like the subscription service for “Teach This Poem” that accompanies poems with resources and activities to help understand them (which I often need, teacher or not!)

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Review of “Fellside” by M.R. Carey

One expects some spookiness from the author of The Girl With All the Gifts. M.R. Carey kind of reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan. His imagination goes off in unexpected and remarkably original flights tinged with horror and violence. In fact, I thought this book had a number of similarities to “Sixth Sense.” The main protagonist, Jess Moulton, has had a life-long relationship with ghosts. When she comes close to death herself, one of those ghosts – Alex, decides to save her so she can help him get closure.

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As the story begins, Jess Moulton is regaining consciousness in a hospital. She suffered severe burns from a fire she is thought to have set in her flat. She and her boyfriend were shooting up heroin, and Jess has no memories of what happened thereafter. But they were both burned, and a little boy who lived upstairs and whom Jess had befriended, Alex Beech, died in the fire. Jess feels awful about Alex, and so makes no effort to help her court-appointed lawyer defend her. She is found guilty and sent to Fellside, a woman’s prison, where even the other prisoners – no saints themselves – revile her as a child murderer.

Jess decides to kill herself by going on a hunger strike, but she is visited by the ghost of Alex, who saves her so she can help him; he insists he was not killed by the fire but by something else. She vows to help. But after her miraculous recovery, when Jess is released from the prison infirmary and put into the general population, she is ironically even closer to death than she was by starving. The prison is a hotbed of drug trafficking, abusive administrators, and a lethal network of prisoners who are actually in charge. Anyone who doesn’t do their bidding is at risk. Jess just wants to stay alive long enough to help Alex. But the likelihood of her staying beneath the radar is unfortunately low.

Discussion: Not all the plot threads seem to fill some sort of purpose commensurate with the space they occupy, such as the condition of Jess’s aunt’s back, or the weird psychological problems of the lawyer, Paul Levine, who is helping Jess. Nor is it clear what the rules are of this Other World, in which there are many ghosts, but not all ghosts, and no clear indication of why some are there but not others who would have the same reasons to be there as Alex. And why does Alex, who seems dedicated to protecting Jess, help her some times but not other times? Nor do we ever discover why Jess has this ability to see the ghosts but no one else does.

Also, it initially seemed as if the landscape of the Other World of Death was set up as an ironically better contrast to life, which, at least in prison, was pretty awful – run by a guard metaphorically (or realistically) known as The Devil, and totally lacking in justice, in spite of the novel’s center turning on “the justice system.” But it turned out the Other World wasn’t such a great place either, and not even being dead could protect you in all circumstances. This didn’t exactly give the reader much hope of relief or redemption.

The biggest problem I had with the book, however, is that I never really connected to any of the characters, most of whom, at any rate, were pretty execrable. It felt like the author was more interested in creating this spooky dreamlike world than developing the characters or our sympathy with them.

In the end, therefore, the book again reminded me of the work of M.Night Shyamalan, but this time of his work after “Sixth Sense”: you expect so much of him, admire his creativity and the haunting nature of his stories, but in the final analysis I thought he just didn’t come up to the level of his previous work.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Orbit, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, 2016

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Review of “The Devil Wins: A Jesse Stone Novel” by Reed Farrel Coleman

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

The Devil Wins is Reed Farrel Coleman’s second attempt at reproducing the late Robert B. Parker’s character of Jesse Stone. Stone, about 35, is the police chief of the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. He is also an ex-alcoholic. He has made inroads into the corruption and crime in Paradise, and is well liked by the police force.

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In this book, an anonymous mutilated corpse is found murdered in a collapsed building near the skeletons of two girls who had been missing from Paradise for over 25 years. It transpires that the missing girls were good friends of Molly Crane, Jesse’s faithful and omni-competent assistant. Somehow, there seems to be a connection among the dead bodies, and indeed, we later learn that there is. In fact, no fewer than four more murders, all connected, occur in this complicated story.

On its own merits, this is a good detective-crime novel. The story is well-crafted, complex yet consistent, and the ending has a nice twist that ties up all the loose ends. Moreover, Coleman’s handling of Jesse Stone’s character is pretty true to Parker’s original, with perhaps a little more emphasis on Jesse’s drinking.

However, there is no mistaking Coleman’s writing for Parker’s. Even though, like Parker, he uses short chapters and fast pacing, his diction and rhythms are different. Parker often devoted two or three chapters to little other than snarky dialog. The repartee of Coleman’s characters is never as witty as that of Parker’s characters. Sometimes Coleman even has to alert the reader that he tried to be clever by having one of the characters say something like, “Funny man, Jesse Stone.”

Evaluation: Coleman is good at telling an interesting story. Indeed, he has won a number of awards for detective novels. But fans of Robert Parker will find that Coleman has a bit of a different overall tone and style from that of Parker.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2015

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