Monday, May 14, 2012

Reading Roundup: YA Multicultural Picks

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I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I am reading a ton of children’s books for one of my library school classes, and I’m really enjoying these nice, easy breaks from my own, often heavier, reading. So technically, “Children’s Literature” covers the JUV section, ages 0-12. There’s a whole separate class for YA materials (which I will be taking in the fall!), but one of our most recent reading assignments had us reading books for the higher end of that range—two books that are classified by the library as Young Adult but could be read by your more advanced JUV reader.

We read these books during our week on multicultural literature (something I want to post more in depth on at a later date). I enjoyed them both, which, because I’m an adult, expands their “appropriate-for range” even further beyond YA classifications! (YA is so good at that, isn’t it?)

The first was Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples. This is the story of a 12-year-old Pakistani girl who is the younger sister in a family with two daughters and no sons. They live in the desert and raise camels, a lifestyle that is heavily dependent on what nature throws at them—they could pack up and move if rainy season comes late, and a windstorm could mean destruction. Shabanu would have it no other way, though; she loves the desert and calls it home. As two girls approaching womanhood, both Shabanu and her sister Phulan have already been promised to husbands and, when the time comes, will leave their childhood lives behind to become property of these men. While Phulan anxiously anticipates her wedding day, Shabanu has not quite bought into the norms of her culture. She’s fiesty and independent and is reluctant to live a life she has not chosen.

I feel the main purpose of this story is to enlighten readers (especially American ones) to a lifestyle so drastically different from their own. The author spent many years living and working abroad as a journalist and spent much time in Pakistan assessing the conditions of women for the US government. I did enjoy this book—it’s rich in detail—but once I finished, the plot seemed relatively…weak? It feels like a book in which setting/lifestyle/place was the first priority, and story came second. However, this is the first in a trilogy, so maybe it does develop. Overall, I think this is a good choice to enlighten young readers (or even adult readers!) on the lifestyle in this part of the world. And if you read it, report back with what era you thought this was set. You’ll be quite surprised late in the book when one little detail pops up that gives this story a concrete place in time!

The second book, and one that I’d been wanting to read for a while, was Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. Junior is a teenager living on the Spokane Indian Reservation and desperate to get off of it. He leaves his school on the rez and starts attending the all-white town school where he definitely stands out as the only Indian. Not only does he have to struggle as the minority in a semi-racist town, the rez (including his best friend) pretty much views his decision as a betrayal making his home life even more difficult. Junior is not one to mope or complain, though, and he throws all his energy into the two things he’s good at: basketball and comics.

I’ve read Alexie’s most famous short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, and the whole while I kept feeling that there could be more. This book is an answer to that wish—a complete story that focuses on one character, highlighting all the ups and downs of modern life on a reservation. I really loved this book because it was so simple and easy; it wasn’t in your face with a message of, “This is life; it’s hard,” and didn’t have any dramatic struggles. Rather, Junior is a likable guy and we can understand the intricacies and contradictions of his life and culture from the little things Alexie put in the story. You sense that life is much darker for some people on the rez, but that prevailing sense of hopelessness hasn’t set in for Junior yet. He’s the anomoly—optimistic, realistic, self-aware, and willing to take action. The writing and format of this book make it so enjoyable and accessible that I can understand why my professor simply summed this book up by saying, “Oh, everyone loves it.”

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