Week-end Book Review: This Thing Called the Future by J.L. Powers

Sunday, November 18th, 2012


J.L. Powers,
This Thing Called the Future
Cinco Puntos Press, 2011.

Ages: 12+

Fourteen-year old Khosi lives with her grandmother, Gogo, and five-year-old sister, Zi, in the township of Imbali, a settlement created during apartheid when blacks were not allowed to live in the nearby city of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  Her parents fought in the struggle to end apartheid and, while they have no regrets, they want better opportunities and education for their children who face an uncertain future. Apartheid is over, but poverty is still rampant, and so many young people are dying from “the disease of these days,” a euphemism for AIDS.

Khosi’s mother commutes each week to Greytown where she works as a schoolteacher.  Her father, who cannot afford to pay the lobolo, or bride price, to marry her mother, lives with his own mother in Durban, an hour away. Khosi loves and respects all her elders and tries her best to honor them, but that is not always possible.  Her mother “believes in the things of white men, science and God only,” while Gogo, a Christian also, still believes in the old ways of the Zulu.  This is just one of the tensions with which Khosi grapples.  She is no longer a child, but not yet an adult, which means facing new responsibilities and making choices of her own.

Khosi realizes that men have begun to notice her in a way that is both exciting and dangerous.  Her best friend, Thandi, plays up her sexuality and dates older men, a fact that worries Khosi who understands how AIDS is spread.  Khosi’s own romantic interest is Little Man, a school friend she believes she can trust, but she’s not sure how to proceed with this relationship.  She would like to discuss it with her mother, but she has been staying in Greytown even over the weekends lately and has lost a worrying amount of weight.

Meanwhile, the next door neighbor claims Khosi’s mother robbed her of her late husband’s insurance settlement.  The neighbor has joined forces with the witch Gogo has been warning Khosi to avoid ever since she could remember.  When Khosi and Gogo consult the sangoma, a traditional Zulu faith healer, Khosi feels herself drawn to the old ways though she knows her mother would disapprove. As Khosi works through the ordinary trials of adolescence while trying to balance the expectations of her elders, it becomes clear that her mother’s illness is far more serious than she had first admitted.

J.L. Powers is also known for her 2007 novel, The Confessional, which deals with racial tension and immigration on the U.S./Mexico border.  With This Thing Called the Future she has created a memorable character with whom readers will easily identify, and has thrown into relief the complexity of issues facing the young people of South Africa today.

Abigail Sawyer
November, 2012

PaperTigers’ Global Voices: René Colato Laínez (USA/El Salvador)

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

The War in El Salvador ~ by René Colato Laínez

 When I was a child in El Salvador, I went to school, recited poetry, played with my friends and won a hula-hoop contest on national television. I might say that I had a normal childhood. But then, everything was upside down. For many days the school closed because of civil revolts. The radio and the television always talked about the army, guerrillas and the revolution in the country. The mad game came to El Salvador. The country was involved in a terrible civil war.

As I child, I did not really understand what was really going on. I asked myself many times, Why? Why were they doing this to the country? Before the war, when I heard a “boom”,  I clapped and jumped up a down. It was the sound of the fireworks for Christmas. A “boom” meant that Christmas was around the corner. But during the war, when I heard the first “boom”, I ran home and hid under my bed, while more “booms” went on and on. Because those “booms” were not the sounds of happiness, they were the sounds of war.

During the war, thousands of Salvadorans left the country looking for peace and better opportunities. Many of these Salvadorans traveled to the United States. My mom was the first one in the family who left the country. After many struggles, my father and I left El Salvador in 1985.

I arrived in Los Angeles, California and I had the determination to go to school to become a teacher. Now I am a kindergarten teacher at Fernangeles Elementary School. I am also the author of many children’s books.

In December 2010, Cinco Puntos Press contacted me to participate in a book. They were putting together an anthology about children and war and were wondering if I could consider submitting an essay for the anthology. Of course I said yes! I love Cinco Puntos Press books. I use their bilingual books in my classroom all the time. Participating in this anthology was an honor for me.

The name of the book is That Mad Game; Growing Up in a Warzone: An Anthology of Essays from Around the Globe. The editor of the anthology is J. L. Powers.

Now was the hard part. What to write about? I grew up during the war and I had so many memories. My fourth grade teacher was killed during the war. That morning, the school was closed. Instead of having class, all the students went to a funeral home that was located one block away from school. I also knew friends who were recruited and found dead days later in rubbish dumps.

But I wanted to write all the way from the bottom of my heart. I wanted to write about my family and how the war divided us. But it was hard! Remembering my mom saying good-bye at the airport, visiting my father in jail, listening to the terrible news that archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated and the final chaos at the cathedral during his funeral were all hard memories to put on paper. I must confess that I wrote my essay with tears in my eyes. Also it was a good therapy to write the essay. Yes, the war divided us but it could not destroy our love, faith and family bond.

The name of my essay is Left Behind in El Salvador and it is part of seventeen accounts of children in war around the world. That Mad Game; Growing Up in a Warzone: An Anthology of Essays from Around the Globe is a powerful book. You can hear the voices of the voiceless. In the news, they only talk about names of war leaders, bombings, dead and desolation. But they usually don’t talk about the people who are suffering in the war. Those people that their only “fault” is to live and survive in the middle of a war. This book is bringing light to these forgotten voices. The book will be available this August.

Book Description:

Seventeen writers contribute essays about how they became adults in times of war. Essays focus on modern history but take no sides. Vietnam from both sides. Bosnia. The Gulf War. Rwanda. Juárez. El Salvador. The list goes on and on. There are no winners, just the survivors left behind. Picking up the pieces.

In his review of That Made Game, Charles London, author of One Day The Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War  says “There is heartache in the stories J.L. Powers has assembled here, as well as loss and pain and death. They are about war, after all. But there is humor too, and also love and faith and hope, because they are human stories too, and as each one testifies in its own way, humans are able to heal.”

René Colato Laínez is the Salvadoran award-winning author of many multicultural children’s books including  The Tooth Fairy Meets El Ratón Pérez, From North to South, René Has Two Last Names, I Am René, the Boy, Playing Lotería and My Shoes and I. He is a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults. René is “the teacher full of stories” at Fernangeles Elementary School. In his books, you can find culture, fun and hope for the future. Visit him at www.renecolatolainez.com and read our 2006 interview with him here.

We are thrilled to have René  join us as PaperTigers’ Global Voices Guest Blogger for the month of July. Part 2 of his series will be posted here on the blog on July 18th and Part 3 on July 25th

Week-end Book Review: Colores de la vida by Cynthia Weill, featuring Folk Art by Artisans from Oaxaca, Mexico

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Cynthia Weill, illustrated with folk art by Artisans from Oaxaca,
Colores de la vida: Mexican Folk Art Colors in English and Spanish
Cinco Puntos Press, 2011.

Ages: 2+

Hypnotic. The word is hypnotic. A deep green lizard with a jolting yellow band around its neck leaps off the light green page – literally. Green / verde. Two white polar bears curve into the even whiter page, fine black lines of their fearsome claws made bold by the painter’s brush. White / blanco. From full-color spread to full-color spread, Cynthia Weill uses hypnotic photographs of folk art figures from artisans from Oaxaca to illustrate the beauty, art, and vibrancy of the Colores de la vida, colors of life, in an unforgettable book as much about the wonder of the ways we can imagine the world around us as about names of colors.

Anyone who has had the pleasure of reading ABeCedarios (2007) or Opuestos (2009) will recognize the stylized, vibrantly-painted Oaxacan figures arranged in sets of twos and threes on each spread of marbleized papers in the same hues. Like her previous two books in the highly successful “First Concepts in Mexican Folk Art” series, Author Cynthia Weill brilliantly illustrates the theme of the book – colors – using folk art from other nations and culture. Using friendships formed and connections made during her time in Mexico as a Fullbright scholar, Weill employs artisans from across Oaxaca, both aspiring and well-known, to create the ceramic, tin, wood-carved and papier-mâché figures used.

Colores de la vida supplies minimal text, placing only a single word, the color name, printed in its namesake hue in English and Spanish. This lack of explanation or words, including what the animals actually are, reinforces the irresistible draw between viewer and animal figure. What are those extraordinary winged yellow figures heralding irrepressible glee as an egg hatches a third figure near them. A dragon? Another mythical figure? Each page captures a sense of wonder, of the vibrancy of color, the imagination of the artist, the name of the hue. Colors take life in this small picture book, perfect for small hands, in an astonishing pairing of visual intimacy and artistic joy that make this one of the most distinctive recent books on color – in English or otherwise.

Sara Hudson
April 2012

Week-end Book Review: The Lovesick Skunk by Joe Hayes, illustrated by Antonio Castro L.

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Joe Hayes, illustrated by Antonio Castro L.
The Lovesick Skunk
Cinco Puntos Press, 2010.

Ages: 5+

In Joe Hayes’ The Lovesick Skunk, the award-winning storyteller and prolific author of children’s books recounts his own childhood love of a pair of black high-top sneakers with a white stripe. Even when they wear out and his mother buys him an identical new pair, the kid keeps on wearing his stinky old shoes.

That is, until he and a pal camp out one night in the desert, and a little skunk turns up feeling pretty much the same way about the shoes that the boy Joe feels. She “started making the sweetest little purring sound–almost like a kitten–and began snuggling and cuddling up with my sneakers.” All is well until the little skunk’s big “boyfriend” arrives on the scene, sniffs out what is happening, and takes umbrage at his rival by spraying the shoes. Finally even Joe can’t stand his shoes any more. His friend has to run back home through the desert night to bring Joe his new sneakers.

It’s a simple story, but Hayes is a master of the storyteller’s sense of timing, and each page will leave young readers eager for the next juicy bit of action. Hayes’ language, too, will appeal. To throw away a trusty old pair of shoes, he explains on the back cover, “might take something as scary as a run-in with the south end of a crazy skunk that’s headed north. Did I say crazy? That skunk wasn’t crazy; she was in love–and she had it bad. She was lovesick. That’s even scarier!”

Illustrations by Antonio Castro L. are vivid to the point of caricature and add an outrageous touch to the pleasures of the story. The text is printed in an easy-to-read large serif font. The garish lime-yellow background of the text pages may date the book quickly but it does suggest the heat of the American southwest where Hayes grew up and the story is set. This will be a fun book for young children to have read to them and an even more satisfying read for older ones, especially boys, to enjoy on their own.

Charlotte Richardson

April 2012

Week-end Book Review: Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Christopher Cardinale

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Christopher Cardinale,
Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song
Cinco Puntos Press, 2011.

Ages: 9+

In Which Side Are You On?, Harlan County, Kentucky native George Ella Lyon tells the terrifying true story of the event which inspired Florence Reese’s famous labor rights song. In the process, ably abetted by the darkly powerful images of illustrator Christopher Cardinale, Lyon celebrates not only the courage of union organizers during a 1931 coal miner’s strike but also the vital unifying role of folk music in difficult and dangerous times.

Written in the fictional voice of one of the songwriter’s seven children, the story begins with a description of the virtual slavery of the coal miners, whose homes are owned by the mining company and who are paid in scrip good only at the company store. “Gun thugs” have come for Pa, a miner and union organizer, but he was forewarned and has “lit out” across the mountain to hide. Bullets are ricocheting all over the house. The children are hiding under the bed. Ma, inspired by desperation, realizes, “We need a song.” She tears off a page of the calendar and composes the now-iconic anthem on “the back of May.” It becomes a rallying cry still adapted and sung “by people fighting for their rights all over the world.”

Reese, who lived to be 85, told the story of the strike and the song to many documentarians and organizers over her lifetime. In a wonderful author’s note, Lyon explains that songs and stories change as memories and needs change, then recounts how she learned the version presented in her book. All the issues in the story, she writes, remain “alive today, when wealth and power are held by a small percentage of people so that the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.”

Cardinale’s woodblock-looking illustrations bring alive the spunk and poverty of Appalachian people who stood up to “the man”.  A tidy childlike sans serif font adds to the effect. When Pa returns and Ma sings her song to him, her mouth wide open and her children and husband surrounding her, Cardinale encloses them in lavender streaked with black circular gestures that seem to send her music out into the world. “We can use that,” Pa says of the song. “It’ll bring folks together.”

As Ma writes, her lyrics appear line by line on banners across the pages. Tune and lyrics are also printed on the book cover. Song, story and image combine to introduce readers to rare courage and integrity. Which Side Are You On? presents a disturbing, provocative, consciousness-raising opportunity for children and adults alike.

Charlotte Richardson
March 2012

Week-end Book Review: Mali Under the Night Sky by Youme

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Mali Under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home
Cinco Puntos Press, 2010.

Age 6-9

In Mali Under the Night Sky, Youme beautifully renders the true story of Malichansouk Kouanchao, who, the flyleaf tells us, “walked from Laos to Thailand when she was five years old.” Bordered watercolor paintings capture the simple beauty of her early life in Laos—napping with her family, catching tiny fish in the rice paddies, making spicy traditional foods with her aunts—with key words translated into Romanized Lao as well as the original Lao script.

“But something was changing where Mali lived…Fighting in neighboring countries was bringing danger to the land and the people. Even the birds were disappearing.” Youme pictures a child at the edge of her house, the wide space beyond empty to the horizon. It’s not safe to stay any longer. After a leave-taking that includes the traditional tying of strings around the wrists of each departing family member, Mali, her parents and siblings cross the broad Mekong, offering ritual flowers and rice with prayers for safety. They are met the next day by soldiers and are imprisoned with other refugees. Things look dark, but the strings on her wrists remind Mali of her home, and when she tells the others her happy memories, “their hearts were safe…soag sai—blessings.”

The real Mali, now a beautiful young woman, is pictured on the front flyleaf along with an introduction to her present work as an artist and anti-war advocate. At the back of the book, one of her paintings is reproduced beside her message to young readers: “…when we share about where we have come from, we all find that our homes are safe in our hearts…” A further statement by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Thavisouk Phrasavath describes the effects of war on children and how books like Youme’s about Mali are a balm to heal those traumas.

Cinco Puntos Press has made a significant contribution in publishing Mali Under the Night Sky. Its tender images and heartfelt words will touch children everywhere. While it ends with Mali in prison, young readers also learn of her subsequent success in life and dedication to healing the wounds of war. The book’s value to Laotian families in diaspora is of course incalculable.

Charlotte Richardson
June 2011