Friday, December 8, 2017

The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild

The Treasure Box is a sensitive portrayal of the effects of war through the medium of a picture book. The opening line sets the tone of this story immediately.
"When the enemy bombed the library, everything burned." War wrecks havoc upon the culture of a nation, destroying memory and tradition. But sometimes there are ways to protect and remember that culture.

After the bombing, People catch the charred paper that floats to the ground, all that remains of the books that once populated their library. But one book survives-the book Peter's father has signed out from their library. In an act of war Peter and his father, along with others in their village, are ordered to leave and their homes are burned.

To preserve this favourite book, Peter's father places it into an iron box and carries it as they walk from town to town. But the harsh journey soon takes its toll and Peter's father sickens and dies. Peter promises to keep safe their treasure, the book in the iron box. However, the iron box soon becomes too heavy for Peter to carry so he makes the decision to bury the box beneath a tall linden tree at the edge of the last village. Years later Peter returns to search for the iron box and its precious contents.

This simple yet evocative story captures the effects of war, the plight of refugees, and the loneliness and loss children experience in wartime through the subdued artwork of Freya Blackwood and Margaret Wild's sparse text.  At the beginning of the story, Blackwoods illustrations are in muted browns, greys, blues and ochre representing the devastation of war. Only the precious book, representing the hope of peace and the future, is coloured red. But when Peter returns to the village as an adult, in peacetime, the Blackwood fills her illustrations with the bright colours of orange, red, and greens. Australian illustrator, Blackwood, worked as a special effects artist on the Lord of the Rings movies (she worked on the hobbit's feet) but is also a prize-winning illustrator of children's books. She was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal for distinguished illustration in a children's book for Harry and Hopper published in 2010.

The illustrations for The Treasure Box are rendered in pencil and watercolor and are a mixture of collage and paper cutouts. Blackwood used the text from the foreign editions of The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett and of Once and Then by Morris Gleitzman. This gives a unique look to the story book.

Book Details:

The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild
Somerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press    2013

Thursday, December 7, 2017

It All Comes Down To This by Karen English

It All Comes Down To This is a story set in the summer of 1965 in Los Angeles. Sophia LaBranche is a twelve-year-old black girl who lives with her older sister Lily and her father who is a lawyer and her mother who is the director of an art gallery. Their family moved to Montego Drive in the spring. Sophie's family were the first colored family on their block; they were ignored by everyone. But a week after they moved in, Jennifer Abbott knocked on the LaBranche's door, asking to meet Sophie. Despite the fact that Jennifer is a white girl, she and Sophie discovered that they had a lot in common; they both skipped a grade and would soon be thirteen going into grade nine, they loved the Beatles, and they loved to read.

However Sophie begins to discover that life is uncertain for a person of color in their new neighbourhood, something her family's new housekeeper reminds her. Sophie's sister, Lily decides she will apply to work at Marcia Stevens, a boutique store, despite Sophie's skepticism because she's never seen any colored people working at the store. Lily tells her they don't actually know if they won't hired colored.

Sophie tells Lily her own experience a few days prior. Her new friend Jennifer wanted to to swimming at the Baker family's pool. The Bakers are a white family with three girls; Marcy, Deidre, and Jilly. However, when Jennifer and Sophie arrive at the Baker's, Jennifer is told she may swim, but Sophie cannot. Although Sophie encourages Jennifer to stay and swim, she refuses. Instead Jennifer tells the Baker girls they are prejudiced and she and Sophie leave.

As the summer progresses Sophie's life becomes more and more complicated. One afternoon while exploring her father's study, she finds a suspicious letter from an unknown woman, Paula Morrisy. She doesn't read the unopened letter but suspects that her father might be involved with another woman. This is confirmed later while out with Jennifer and her mother, Sophie sees her father in a small coffee shop with another woman, holding hands. Sophie is convinced this woman is Paula.

Sophie and Jennifer discover that the community center will be hosting a play called That Talk. Sophie is determined to win the part of Olivia, while Jennifer wants the part of the villian, Julie. They get copies of the script and begin studying their lines for the audition later in the summer.

Meanwhile, Sophie's older sister becomes involved with Nathan Baylor, Mrs. Baylor's son, against the wishes of her mother who believes she is just "toying" with him. However Lily disregards her mother's warning and begins to date Nathan.

Then Sophie's summer is shattered when her mother walks out on her father. This is precipitated by her father's mistress calling their home and her mother discovering a credit card charge for a motel room. Sophie's mother tells her and Lily she is going to stay with Aunt Rose in Elsinore.

Sophie must cope with the stress of her parents marriage crisis, her sister's difficult relationship with Nathan, racial prejudice from her neighbours and community and the rebellion in Watts. It is a summer that forever changes Sophie's perception of her identity.


It All Comes Down To This is a novel that brilliantly captures the undercurrent of racial tension between blacks and whites in suburban Los Angeles in the mid-1960's. It is a summer where twelve-year-old Sophie LaBranche comes to the realization that the world is a different place for people who are dark-skinned. Her family is the first "colored family" on their block, suggesting that the neighbourhood is undergoing a gradual change, becoming integrated. The fact that they are ignored and not welcomed suggests that people are not happy to see a black family move in.

English sets the tone of what it was like in 1965 Los Angeles to be a young black girl growing up in a predominantly white community by capturing what Sophie calls "a sneaky kind of hate", small, covert incidents of racial prejudice. This happens when Sophie goes to lunch at Sutton's with Jennifer and her mother after shopping. After their meal when Sophie and Jennifer choose a glitter pen from the restaurant's treasure chest, the hostess accuses Sophie of  taking an extra prize. The hostess tells Mrs. Abbott  who questions why her on why she thinks Sophie stole a pen,
" 'Well,' she said with a smile, as if she and Mrs. Abbott were secret friends, 'You know how they are. They'll steal at the drop of a pin.' " This makes Mrs. Abbott furious.

Sophie discovers an old Jet magazine from 1955 and reads about the horrific murder of Emmett Till by two white men in Mississippi. Sophie is completely overwhelmed by what she reads and attempts to understand this senseless crime. " We didn't live in Mississippi but hate was under the surface everywhere. Wasn't it? Even if it was a sneaky kind of hate. It made people look at me and automatically think they were superior. It made them think I was a thief or maybe I'd do something to their swimming pool."

In Los Angeles in the 1960's it was very common for black men to be pulled over by the police and questioned and patted down. This happens to Lily's boyfriend Nathan in an incident that is both scary and humiliating for him, Lily and Sophie. After checking his identification, patting  him down, handcuffing him and forcing him to sit on the curb, the officer questions Lily, "Just what are you doing with that nigger?" and who Sophie is. They are allowed to leave when Lily who is light-skinned tells the officer Sophie is her sister and that Nathan is NOT a nigger.

Sophie experiences more discrimination when she pays a visit to the community center and finds herself accused of stealing someone's wallet - a wallet that has been missing for some time. Sophie wishes that her friend Jennifer was with her because as a white person she could vouch for Sophie. An unsettling realization begins to dawn on Sophie: "Something really unsettling crossed my mind, then. What if I had to go through this for the rest of my lie? Always, people looking at me -- with suspicion." Sophie recounts to Nathan what happened at the community center and expresses her worry that the woman who accused her of stealing will likely be one of the judges for the auditions. "...she's going to think I'm a thief and not let them pick me." Nathan encourages her to audition anyway. "Always just do things like that anyway."

When the audition goes as Sophie feared - she is never considered a serious candidate - she is discouraged but Mrs. Baylor encourages her to persevere,  "You gonna have to develop a thick skin and don't let nothin' stop you. YOu keep on pushing and you keep on tryin' and you'll get what you workin' for." In a chapter titled It All Comes Down To This, Sophie realizes all her hard work, memorizing ALL the parts of the play, doesn't matter, because only the colour of her skin mattered.

The turning point of the novel is the Watts Rebellion which begins when a young black motorist, Marquette Frye is pulled over by a white police officer for driving while intoxicated. The growing number of spectators in the predominantly black neighbourhood believe that this is yet another incident of racial prejudice and they begin to fight and scuffle with police. Years of frustration over inadequate city services, poor housing conditions and racism boil over.

This incident, the tumultuous relationship between Lily and Nathan, the arrest of Nathan by the police, her parents' marriage crisis and the pain Sophie experiences over her only friend Jennifer becoming friends with Linda Cruz whose family is prejudiced towards blacks, leads Sophie to realize she is "going to go through a rough lonely patch."

Despite everything, Sophie begins to discover an inner strength. Angry that the television coverage by white people is placing the blame on the black citizens of Watts, that assumptions are made about her by people like Jilly and Deidre Baker, Sophie begins to stand up for herself and in doing so, realizes that she can take care of herself. And things do begin to work out for her; she meets a new girl, Charlotte who is thirteen and like Sophie, new to their school, her father returns home, and Nathan and Lily seem to have worked out some kind of compromise. She learns from Lily's experience with Nathan that "You can't force something to happen. If it's meant to happen,

In what could have been a harsh and heavy subject for a middle grade novel, English is gentle in her portrayal, never getting too dark, yet offering her young readers the opportunity to think a bit deeper on the events she portrays. Besides the characteristic racism Sophie experiences and the Watts Rebellion, there are other aspects to explore. For example, English touches on the colorism that existed within the black community. Sophie's mother doesn't like Lily dating Nathan, because he is dark skinned. Lily is furious because Nathan is attending Berkeley and is a responsible, hard-working person. Sophie recognizes that they have their own prejudice within the black community against darker skinned people. She attempts to explain this to her friend Jennifer. "I didn't want to tell Jennifer the other reason. It felt shameful and embarrassing -- something white people wouldn't understand. But I blurted it out anyway. 'He's dark skinned.' ...It's hard to explain.' It was the kind of thing nobody talked about openly. It felt like I was letting her in on a secret. 'See light-skinned colored people almost always marry light-skinned colored people on purpose. So they'll have light-skinned kids.' "

It All Comes Down To This
is a touching story about one girl's struggle to understand the world around her and her place in it. It is historical fiction that provides some background to those interested in the American Civil Rights movement. English drew from her own personal experiences to pen this engaging story.

For more information on the Watts Rebellion of 1965, check out the Civil Rights Digital Library website.

Book Details:

It All Comes Down To This by Karen English
New York: Clarion Books 2017
355 pp.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became The World's Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating

This beautiful picture book tells the story of a young girl named Eugenie Clark who was so fascinated by sharks and that she devoted her life to learning more about them. Eugenie was born in 1922 at a time when a career in science was not considered a reasonable choice for a lady. Eugenie's love affair with sharks began with a trip to the Battery Park Aquarium one Saturday afternoon.

Life was challenging for the young Eugenie. Her father died when she was only two years old. Because she was of Japanese-American heritage; her father was American, her mother Japanese, Eugenie sometimes experienced bullying and racism. However, Eugenie used these difficult experiences to forge a determined spirit that was to help her in her studies in the male dominated science disciplines.

Eugenie Clark
Fascinated by the underwater world of the oceans, Eugenie continued to visit the aquarium every weekend, to learn as much as she could about the fish she saw in the tanks. When Eugenie informed her parents that she wanted to become an explorer like William Beebe, a famous naturalist and marine biologist, her parents suggested she consider working for someone like Beebe as a secretary.

Undaunted, Eugenie attended Hunter College where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Zoology. Eugenie was able to undertake post graduate studies at New York University after being refused entry to Columbia. The department head refused her application fearing she would leave her research to raise a family. Dr. CharlesBreder Jr., a renowned ichthyologist guided Eugenie's research at New York University. In 1950, Eugenie earned her Ph.D for her research on platies and swordtails.

Not only was Eugenie determined but she showed courage too. On her first dive when she was a research assistant at Scripps Institute of Oceanography Eugenie used a helmet and face mask. During the dive,  a diving hose ruptured. Unable to breathe, Eugenie removed the helmet and surfaced. Despite this frightening experience, Eugenie did a second dive shortly after and many more. In fact, diving became a part of her work as a scientist and when scuba gear was invented, Eugenie used it for her dives.

Eugenie helped to found the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Placida, Florida in 1955. It moved several times; to Siesta Key and Sarasota. In 1967, it was renamed the Mote Marine Laboratory.

Eugenie became interested in studying sharks after receiving a request from a cancer researcher to capture sharks for a study. With the construction of a live shark pen, Eugenie had access to sharks and surprisingly she was able to train them to push a button for food. This countered the belief at the time that sharks were mindless monsters of the ocean, intent on seeking out food only. Eventually Eugenie became more and more interested in sharks, studying them in the wild, and advocating for their protection.

Eventually Eugenie joined the faculty at the University of Maryland and became a full professor in 1973. Eugenie made several interesting discoveries in her research. She discovered a that a type of flatfish named the Red Sea Moses sole secretes a substance that repels sharks. On a dive into caves in Mexico to investigate sharks who lay motionless, Eugenie theorized that they do so to shed parasites. Eugenie and her team also discovered that whale sharks live birth to live young. 

Jess Keating and Marta Alvarez Miguens have crafted a delightful picture book that tells Eugenie's life story. Miguens colourful illustrations, done using Adobe Photoshop capture in an imaginative way, Eugenie Clark's intense interest in life in the oceans. There is a section at the back, titled Shark Bites that offers unusual facts about sharks and a colourful time line of Eugenie's life, highlighting her major accomplishments. In her Author's Note, Keating indicates that she wanted to tell Eugenie Clark's story because of her determination to follow her childhood dream of becoming a scientist. Eugenie did not let anyone or anything deter her.

Book Details:

Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became The World's Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating

Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky   2017