Sunday, September 11, 2011

Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson

Title:  Feathers
Author:  Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher:  Putnam Juvenile
Year:  2007
Pages:  116
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Multicultural
Themes:  Acceptance, Disabilities, Multiculturalism
Age Level:  6th Grade and Up

Summary: (from Goodreads)
"Hope is the thing with feathers," starts the poem Frannie is reading in school. Frannie hasn't thought much about hope. There are so many other things to think about. Each day, her friend Samantha seems a bit more holy.”There is a new boy in class everyone is calling the Jesus Boy. And although the new boy looks like a white kid, he says he’is not white. Who is he?
During a winter full of surprises, good and bad, Frannie starts seeing a lot of things in a new light:—her brother Sean's deafness, her mother's fear, the class bully's anger, her best friend's faith and her own desire for the thing with feathers.”

Woodson's books are like small jewels, each one getting right to the heart of the matter in lyric prose that is sparingly beautiful.  In Feathers, Frannie is living in the early 1970s, a time when we as a culture were still struggling to come to terms with the many changes brought about by the turbulent 60s.  Woodson does a wonderful job portraying that particular time, especially the racial divisions that persisted despite the civil rights movement's many battles for equality.  The arrival of Jesus Boy throws everyone's beliefs about racial identity and where they "belong" into question.  His peacefulness and obvious unconcern for how he is perceived by others makes no sense to a group of children who are constantly monitoring themselves and each other for "coolness".   Her brother Sean's deafness, and the way that he carries himself with confidence despite it, plays a large part in her realizations about courage and hope.  Frannie is also deeply affected by the death of her sister as a baby, and her mother's subsequent miscarriages and depression.  When her mother becomes pregnant again, Frannnie is upset that she will no longer be the "baby" of the family, and worries about whether this baby will make it.  Through the course of the book she goes from a self-centered child only concerned about losing her mother's attention, to a compassionate young woman full of hope for her mother to be healthy and happy with her new sibling.  This short book is ripe with topics for discussion, and could be used as part of a unit on family or multiculturalism very easily.

Teacher Resources:
The Best Children's
Penguin Reading Group Guide

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Memories of Summer, Ruth White

Title:  Memories of Summer
Author:  Ruth White
Publisher:  Laurel Leaf
Year:  2001
Pages:  160
Genre:  Realistic Fiction/Historical Fiction
Themes:  Family, Mental Illness
Age Level:  7th Grade and Up

Memories of Summer is the moving story of Lyric and Summer, two sisters who move from coal mining country in the Appalachians to Flint, Michigan in the mid-1950s.  Their mother died when both girls were quite young, and after the death of their grandfather in a coal mine explosion their father, Poppy, decides to try his luck in the booming auto industry.  Summer has always been different than the other children, and shortly after moving to Flint she begins to demonstrate more and more bizarre behavior.  After a series of frightening episodes, she is diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Fourteen-year-old Lyric and Poppy desperately want to care for her at home, but hiding her disability and managing her increasingly dangerous behavior become more than they can handle alone.

White's touching story is based on the real events of her childhood and adolescence, when it was her own sister who descended into the madness that is schizophrenia.  She chose to set her story in the days before mental illness was as accepted and understood as it is today.  It is clear that the story comes from her own personal experiences from the depth of feeling and the inherent authenticity of Lyric's narrative voice.  While the main purpose of the story is to highlight the effects of mental illness on family dynamics and relationships, White also does a good job capturing the time period-a time period when many southern families were migrating north to find work in the ever-expanding manufacturing industry.  My own grandparents came to Chicago by way of Alabama to find work in the railroads.  White clearly captures the ambivalence that Lyric feels towards her sister-love and embarrassment and worry and annoyance  coming over her in waves depending on the situation.  In an interview with the author at the end of the book, White states that often in her novels she rewrites history to give herself at least moderately happy endings for events from her life that were anything but.  However, in Memories of Summer, she found that she could not pretend, even for a fictionalized version of her life, that the story of her sister ended in anything but the tragedy of institutionalization.