Kid Lit Review of “Yo Soy Muslim: A Father’s Letter to His Daughter” by Mark Gonzales

Mark Gonzales is a poet and a distinguished Professor at the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. Born into a Roman Catholic Latino family in Mexico, he converted to Islam in his early twenties.

He addresses this book to his daughter, in anticipation that she may [in fact, almost assuredly will] encounter hostility because of what she looks like and what she believes.

He tells her that if “some people in the world will not smile at you,” she should say to them:

Yo soy Muslim.
I am from Allah, angels,
and a place almost as old as time.
I speak Spanish, Arabic,
and dreams.”

Further, he suggests she say,

“Mi abuelo worked the fields.
My ancestors did amazing things
and so will I.”

The book shows the dad dancing with his daughter as he tells her:

“Dance. Smile.
Laugh. Pray.
Say it with me:
Yo soy Muslim.
Yo soy Muslim.”

Illustrator Mehrdokht Amini uses colorful folk art collages to create imaginative pictures that will enchant readers. There are fantastical scenes as well as realistic ones, and depictions of diverse settings that convey the idea that Muslims are part of every culture.

The emphasis is not on the nature of the Muslim faith; rather, the focus seems to be on instilling confidence and pride. “No matter what they say,” the dad tells his daughter, “Know you are wondrous. A child of crescent moons, a builder of mosques, a descendant of brilliance, an ancestor in training.”

Evaluation: The Pew Research Institute reports that as of 2015, there were an estimated 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, making Islam the world’s second-largest religious tradition after Christianity. Muslims make up a majority of the population in 49 countries around the world. Given the number of people ascribing to this faith, as well as a recrudescence of prejudice and suspicion in many countries against minority cultures, this timely book takes on new importance. Children are our future, and they deserve to feel good about themselves, and grow up with hope rather than bitterness. Parents of all kinds will appreciate the positive messages conveyed in this book; after all, any child that is in any way different will face some of the same issues.

Published by Salaam Reads, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2017

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Review of “Stay Hidden” by Paul Doiron

This is the ninth book in Doiron’s crime series featuring Maine former game warden and now newly promoted warden investigator Mike Bowditch. (In Maine, game wardens are full law-enforcement officers, with all the powers of state troopers: “They are the ‘off-road police.’” Warden investigators are “for all intents and purposes a plainclothes detective.”)

Mike has been a game warden for six years but a warden investigator for only four months when he is assigned his first hunting homicide. The woman killed, Ariel Evans, 37, was a famous journalist from Manhattan renting a house on the [fictional] island of Maquoit off the coast of Maine, possibly to work on another exposé. Her previous book had been a best-selling exposé of neo-Nazis, of which there were a few in Maquoit. She was shot, allegedy mistaken for a deer. But as Mike explains:

“. . . accident is not a term we use in the in the Maine Warden Service. Game wardens understand that even when guns misfire or bullets ricochet, when feet stumble or fingers slip, there is always a trail of causation you can follow that will lead you back to an act of culpable negligence.”

Maquoit is accessible only by boat or plane, so Mike is flown over to the island by his old friend, Charley Stevens (a retired patrol warden who still volunteered the use of his plane when the other planes in the warden Aviation Division were otherwise engaged). It is a bit awkward; Mike and Charley have been estranged since Mike’s relationship with Charley’s daughter Stacey ended back in the summer, after Stacey left to start a new life in Florida. Mike was perhaps more upset by the loss of his friendship with Charley than about the end of his relationship with Stacey: “Nothing on earth could have made me sadder. Charley Stevens was the closest thing I had ever had to a real father.”

Maquoit, with a population of eighty-nine people, is primarily a lobster fishing community. But as Charley points out:

“All these old fishing outposts are dying off as the groundfish disappear and the oceans warm up. Lobsters are moving north in the Gulf of Maine. Give it a few years and Maquoit will go dead in the offseason, too.”

Maine lobster traps via Greta Rybus for The New York Times

[The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website reported in 2016: “the lobster industry in New York and southern New England has nearly collapsed. . . . The story is much the same in Connecticut, where landings fell 96.6% from the most profitable year, and in Rhode Island, which saw a 70.3% drop from its most profitable year.” On the other hand, the story noted, “Maine’s lobster fishery has boomed. From 1994 to 2014, Maine’s landings surged 219% to more than 124 million pounds.” But of course, as Doiron points out, lobsters keep having to move ever northward. The New York Times recently observed that while, since the early 1980’s, “climate change had warmed the Gulf of Maine’s cool waters to the ideal temperature for lobsters…,” now it is getting too warm: “’Climate change really helped us for the last 20 years,’” said Dave Cousens, who stepped down as president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association in March. But, he added, “’Climate change is going to kill us, in probably the next 30.’”]

Doiron routinely fills readers in on many details about the flora and fauna of Maine, incorporating a lot of background on Maine seamlessly into his stories. In this book he has Mike observe:

“Lobsters are cannibals. Leave them together in a tank without rubber bands around their claws, and they will dismember and devour each other in short order. Drop a bunch of lobstermen together on an island – Maquoit, for instance, twenty miles off the Maine coast – and they begin to resemble the cold-blooded creatures they catch.”

He heard from the residents that violent feuds occurred between the lobstermen. In addition, drug use was high in Maine’s fishing communities.

To add to their troubles, the island was overrun by deer. As Stacey, a wildlife biologist, told Mike at one point, the prime carrying capacity for a place like the island would be ten deer per square mile. The current estimate for Maquoit, based on their most recent survey, was seventy deer per square mile. The deer on the island were starving, and most of them were infested with Lyme-disease-carrying ticks. But the islanders didn’t want to give them up or stop hunting them.

When Ariel was found dead, no one confessed to the shooting, but in spite of the small population on the island, there were plenty of suspects. None of the townspeople wanted to talk however. Mike was an outsider. Plus, he could leave; the rest had to stay there.

As Mike goes around questioning people, he uncovers more and more layers to the puzzle. Finally, as he gets too close to an answer, his own life is in danger.

Evaluation: I always love learning more about Maine from Doiron’s books. This one has more character development than suspense, as opposed to previous books, but with no less enjoyment for the reader. I always look forward to more stories in the series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, 2018

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Review of “The Orchard” by Yochi Brandes

Rabbi Akiva, born shortly after the birth of Jesus, is venerated in Judaism as one of the greatest rabbinic sages, although much of the stories about him are sketchy and wrapped in myth and mystery. This book purports to tell his story from the point of view of his wife Rachel.

According to what little history is known, Akiva was an illiterate shepherd working for one of the wealthiest men in Israel, Kalba Savua. On the morning that 19-year-old Rachel, Savua’s only daughter, was to be betrothed to Ishmael, the handsome and brilliant son of a priest, Rachel chanced to meet 38-year-old Akiva. She was so struck by his mind and character that she reneged on her betrothal and turned all her attention to Akiva. At first, she just taught him to read, and found to her delight that he read like no one else.

Judaism has always allowed for a multiplicity of voices in the interpretation of its laws and traditions, albeit with different “schools” having strong ideological bents. In the yeshivas, or institutes of learning where Jewish students study sacred texts, energetic participation is encouraged for interpretation and analysis. Early Jewish sages viewed the lack of “pure” or “objective” truth as positive: one must come to faith by active intellectual engagement. As reinforcement for this idea, a scroll of the Hebrew Scriptures must contain only consonants, forcing the reader into a creative process by having to determine contextual connections and inflections. Thus, Jewish law grows from the constant creation and interpretation of texts.

Typical Page of the Talmud

Akiva was apparently especially adept at noticing the differences between the construction of words and at ascribing meaning to the letters and spaces. Rachel became determined that Akiva go to a yeshiva, and she sold her hair for the money to send him. As Brandes tells the story, Akiva was appalled that she “disfigured” herself:

“‘Why didn’t you marry Rabbi Ishmael’ he shouts.

‘I don’t want Rabbi Ishmael. I want Rabbi Akiva.. . . You will become Rabbi Akiva. . . . I have known it from the moment I first laid eyes on you….’”

He finally agrees, and promises never to return until he is “Rabbi” Akiva.

Rachel thus becomes “Agunah” – an abandoned woman shackled to a missing man. She is scorned by most of the rest of society. But through associates of rabbis at the yeshiva, she learns what is happening with Akiva, who doesn’t return for twelve years.

The historic Akiva lived after the destruction of the second Temple of Jerusalem and, as implied above, during the growth of the “Nazarene” movement. Nazarenes were those who follow the teachings of Jesus ben Joseph from Nazareth, later of course called Christians. In this period, there was a great deal of dissension among Jews. First was the ongoing antagonism between Jews and Romans and what was the best course of action for the Jews. Then there was disagreement over how to handle this new Nazarene sect that sprung from Judaism. And most importantly to this story, there was continuing tension from the conflict among the Jews in yeshivas between the oppositional teachings of different schools of thought.

Akiva became immensely popular. Rachel understood right away what made Akiva stand out as a teacher. Akiva tells her “God is in the Torah. I feel Him when I study more than I ever felt Him [before] . . . ” Rachel says to Akiva: “That is why the students flock to your classes. In the other sages’ classes they study laws, but in your classes they feel God.” [The Torah, or Jewish Written Law, consists of the five books of the Hebrew Bible said to have been given to Moses on Mount Sinai and known more commonly to non-Jews as the “Old Testament.”]

Rabbi Akiva’s method of interpretation was called midrash, or inquiry. Another rabbi explained to Rachel: “In the past, the nation of Israel encountered God in the beit mikdash’, the House of Holiness, that is the Temple, ‘but now we encounter him in the beit midrash,’ the House of Inquiry.” Rabbi Akiva’s Torah was the Torah of renewal. The other rabbi averred to Rachel, “The nation of Israel is returning to Mount Sinai. Rabbi Akiva is giving us the Torah anew.”

The climax of the story comes when some of the main characters, including Akiva, enter “the Orchard,” or Paradise. This tale comes from the Aggadah, or the non-legalistic exegetical texts from rabinnic literature that incorporate folklore, hearsay, anecdotes, and practical advice, inter alia.

According to the Aggadah regarding the Orchard, four sages, including Rabbi Akiva, entered Paradise. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; one looked and became an apostate; and only Rabbi Akiva departed relatively intact. But he was not the same, and his belief in the place of God in their lives had radically altered, with profound repercussions for the Jewish people.

Discussion: While I enjoyed the stories of the early sages of Israel and insights into what lay behind different interpretations of the Talmud, I never felt like I understood any of the characters, not even Rachel. On the contrary, she seemed more like a plot device to illuminate the internecine struggles of the rabbis. I also felt that the author did not make a commitment on the side of either history or legend, so that supernatural elements were added to otherwise actual events without comment or explanation.

On the other hand, the story of Akiva’s encounter with God in the Orchard and what Akiva learned there makes an interesting contribution to the subject of theodicy. This is an attempt to answer the question of how the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent God is consistent with the existence of evil or suffering in the world.

Evaluation: In spite of my reservations, this novel provides a very interesting way to learn about Talmudic lore and about the response by Jewish leaders to the challenge of Christianity.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in English translation by Gefen Publishing House, 2017

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Review of “Operation Greylord: The True Story of an Untrained Undercover Agent and America’s Biggest Corruption Bust” by Terrence Hake (with Wayne Klatt)

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Operation Greylord is the riveting tale of how a few honest lawyers in the United States Attorney’s office in Chicago, with the help of the FBI, uncovered and prosecuted the almost unimaginable corruption in the lower reaches of Chicago’s criminal and traffic court system.  I say almost unimaginable corruption because I was exposed to some of it when I just graduated from law school.  

I began my practice of law as a litigator with a large firm in Chicago.  As a junior partner, I did not try cases, but appeared in pre-trial procedures in both state and federal court.  State and federal courts operated under different formal “Rules of Civil Procedure.”  They also operated under substantially different “informal” rules.  As far as I could tell, on the surface at any rate, the federal courts were totally honest and, for the most part, quite competent.  

In the state courts, however, competence among the judges and litigators varied tremendously.  For example, in one case in which I appeared, the opposing counsel was from one of Chicago’s most prestigious and capable firms.  In an informal discussion, the opposing lawyer told me he was delighted that we had drawn a particular judge [whose ironic nickname among experienced counsel was “Brains”] because the lawyer’s case was somewhat weak but the judge was almost sure not to understand the issues.    

I also noticed that experienced state court litigators sometimes (albeit rarely) included small bribes tucked into their filings so that the court clerks would call their cases first.  Petty corruption was more prevalent in the County Recorder’s office, where extra money would assure you that your deeds or lien claims would be promptly and correctly filed.

After reading Operation Greylord, I learned that the petty venality I observed was nothing like what was going on in low level criminal courts and traffic courts.  There, dozens of judges were on the take from dozens of sleazy lawyers.  Bribes of several hundred dollars, depending on the seriousness of the alleged offenses, were routinely passed from lawyer to clerk, who took his percentage before passing the bulk of the payment on to the judge.  

Terry Hake, the author, began as a naive 1977 graduate of Loyola College of Law and a new prosecutor in the State’s attorney’s Office. In 1980, he was recruited by the FBI to work in a major “sting” operation that would achieve national prominence as Operation Greylord. Hake reports:

“No one knew at the time how massive Operation Greylord would become, leading to an overhaul of the entire system, as well as three suicides and more than seventy indictments.”

He also allows:

“I think only someone as hopelessly naive and optimistic as I had been would have volunteered to put himself in such danger, and, in effect, give up his law career. I found myself a sheep wandering in a wilderness of wolves.”

Hake describes the difficult process by which he insinuated himself among some of the lower ranking shysters who participated in the rampant dishonesty in the criminal courts and gradually worked his way through the “system” ultimately to implicate more prominent lawyers and even judges while wearing a “wire.”  He writes that his cooperation with the Justice Department and the FBI earned him the obloquy of other lawyers, even honest ones.  Nevertheless, he persisted and finally prevailed, assisting in the conviction of numerous judges, clerks, and lawyers.  

The people of Chicago owe a debt of gratitude to Hake and the others who risked their careers, and even their lives (some of the corrupt lawyers and judges had mob connections) to rid the legal system of corruption.   Hake’s book is an easy read and well worth the effort. 

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by the American Bar Association, 2015

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Kid Lit Review of “Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly

Thanks to the book by the same name for adults, as well as the successful movie based on that book, many people know the story of the four African-American women who helped NASA send men into space. Now the author and an illustrator have teamed up to bring the story to children.

Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden were “really good” at math, and they loved it enough to want to make a career out of it. Dorothy Vaughan got interested during WWII, out of a desire to serve the country by working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics [NACA], the government agency that designed airplanes. This was in the 1940’s, when “computers” were actually persons who did math by hand. But the government agency was in the state of Virginia, where “Jim Crow” laws were in effect.

[Jim Crow is a term adapted from the song “Jump Jim Crow” performed by a white minstrel in blackface. It came to mean the social customs, policies, and laws put in place to maintain the hierarchy of whites over blacks. The Jim Crow Era lasted from the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.]

Thus, in Virginia, blacks and whites could not eat in the same restaurants, drink from the same water fountains, use the same restrooms, attend the same schools, sit by each other in theaters, and so on.

But Dorothy had confidence that she was so good at math, the NACA would overlook her color. She was indeed offered a job at NACA’s Langley Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, in 1943, although she had to work in a separate building with other black “computers.” She stayed on after the war, as the Americans were trying to build faster and safer planes.

In 1951, Mary Jackson got a job as a computer at Langley, helping test model airplanes in wind tunnels. Mary was also a computer but wanted to be an engineer. The obstacles were great: she was not only a woman, she was a black woman. But she refused to give up, and eventually became the first African-American female engineer at Langley.

Katherine Johnson applied to the lab in 1953, doing math that analyzed the effects of turbulence on airplanes. Being so good at what she did also helped her, like the others, overcome the barriers put in her way on account of being both black and female.

In the 1950’s, Langley bought a machine computer, and Dorothy helped program the machines. She also taught other black computer women to program.

In 1957, Russia launched Sputnik into space, and now the “space race” was on. NACA changed its name to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, and the people at Langley were tasked with figuring out how to send astronaut John Glenn into space and back to earth safely. Katherine helped calculate the trajectories for the rocket. Even though NASA was now using machine computers, Glenn wanted Katherine to double-check the machine computer’s calculations before he would get into the rocket. Only when she confirmed them did he blast off into space.

Christine Darden came to Langley in 1967. As the author reports, Christine wanted to become an engineer, and thanks to Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine, she knew it was possible.

NASA meanwhile, was now working on getting a man to the moon:

“The next adventure wouldn’t be easy and would require lots of tests and lots more numbers. But Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, and Christine knew one thing: with hard work, perseverance, and a love of math, anything was possible.”

The book concludes with a timeline that goes from 1903 (the first powered flight) to 1969 (the first humans landing on the moon). The career spans of Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, and Christine are also shown on the timeline. Short biographies follow for each woman – “Meet the Computers.” Finally, there is a glossary, and an Author’s Note. In the Note, Shetterly writes:

“It’s my hope that the heroines of Hidden Figures will spark the imaginations of the next generation of readers – and the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers – and encourage them to ride their dreams as high as their talent and determination will take them.”

The terrific illustrations by Laura Freeman use bold colors to display the well-researched historical events the book describes. Her artwork is simple, and yet attitude is all over the faces of these four determined women! Freeman includes so many clever but subtle touches. She adds patterns to clothes and math symbols to dreams. To depict changes during the Civil Rights movements, she shows a diverse group of people holding hands, presumably inside a bus, while images of Civil Rights icons appear through the windows.

And Freeman realized her own dreams in becoming an artist. I love this reminiscence by the illustrator in an interview:

“. . . .I was about five when, after looking at a beautiful children’s book, I asked my mom about the pictures and she told me that it was someone’s job to create them. I thought: ‘Wow, that’s a job?’”

Evaluation: It’s so gratifying to see more books for kids about women who persisted against huge odds to make a difference in any field, but especially those of science and math. The book isn’t as exciting as the film of course, but it is perfect for the younger audience for whom it is intended.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe star as Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson respectively.

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