Saturday, December 6, 2014

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop, by Laban Carrick Hill

Title:  When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop
Author:  Laban Carrick Hill
Publisher: Roaring Book Press
Year: 2013
Genre:  Non-Fiction, Historical
Themes:  African American History, Music, Hip Hop
Age Range: 2nd-5th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads

Before there was hip hop, there was DJ Kool Herc.
On a hot day at the end of summer in 1973 Cindy Campbell threw a back-to-school party at a park in the South Bronx. Her brother, Clive Campbell, spun the records. He had a new way of playing the music to make the breaks—the musical interludes between verses—longer for dancing. He called himself DJ Kool Herc and this is When the Beat Was Born. From his childhood in Jamaica to his youth in the Bronx, here's how Kool Herc came to be a DJ, how kids in gangs stopped fighting in order to breakdance, and how the music he invented went on to define a culture and transform the world.

One of the things that my fellow teachers and I lament about is the lack of quality books about people of color to use with our students.  While some children's publishers are making strides in offering more titles with protagonists of color, but there are still not nearly enough.  As someone who works with a student population that is majority African American, I often find myself spending hours online trying to find quality books that will allow my students to see themselves in the writing.

So imagine my delight at finding this picture book while I was preparing for a parent workshop in what's new in children's literature.  When the Beat was Born is the story of one of the founding fathers of hip-hop, Clive Campbell.  He brought a Jamaican style of dubbing music to his New York neighborhood, spinning records at parties and creating longer "breaks" in the music by using multiple turntables for dancers (also the origin of the term "break dancing").  The books shows how Clive, known as DJ Kool Herc, was connected to the other founders of hip-hop and rap through the New York music scene.

While this book is technically historical non-fiction, unlike many books about African American history it takes place after the civil rights era.  Considering the huge impact that hip-hop and rap have had on pop culture in our country, students should be able to understand and appreciate the story because they will have direct experience with the topic in a way they might not when reading about Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks.  Since it is a children's book, there is very little in the way of social critique of hip-hop and the some of the negative issues surrounding it, but as an introduction to modern musical history that is relevant to their lives and experiences, this book does the trick.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

El Deafo, Cece Bell

Title:  El Deafo
Author:  Cece Bell
Publisher:  Harry N. Abrams
Year:  2014
Pages: 233
Genre:  Memoir, Graphic Novel
Theme:  Disability, Perseverance, Friendship, Self-Esteem
Age Range:  4th-7th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads

Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece's class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends. 
Then Cece makes a startling discovery. With the Phonic Ear she can hear her teacher not just in the classroom, but anywhere her teacher is in school--in the the teacher's the bathroom! This is power. Maybe even superpower! Cece is on her way to becoming El Deafo, Listener for All. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it's just another way of feeling different... and lonely. Can Cece channel her powers into finding the thing she wants most, a true friend?

Charming is the first word that comes to mind when I try to describe this graphic novel about a girl (rabbit?!?) with a hearing impairment.  Cece Bell tells her own story in this engaging memoir, which details her bout with meningitis as a toddler, her struggle to learn to lip read, her ambivalence with her hearing aids, and her eventual acceptance of herself exactly the way she is.

Bell grew up in the 1970s, and there are quite a few pop culture references that today's student readers may not get right away.  But I grew up during the same period as Bell, and I found myself fondly remembering times and places from my own childhood.  The setting also highlights the difference in treatment options for children with hearing impairments today, when technology has allowed doctors to return normal or almost normal hearing to many people who would not have been able to hear as well in the past.

What hasn't changed, as far as I can tell, though, is the way that the deaf and hard of hearing are perceived and treated by some in society.  Cece's experiences demonstrate the things that people do, with good intentions or bad, that make people with hearing impairments (or physical or cognitive disabilities) feel like the "other".  Cece was afraid to stand out, didn't want to be noticed for her hearing aids or her awkward speech. She pretended to understand things that she didn't really hear in an effort to "fit in".  She desperately wanted a friend who just treated her like the normal person she really is inside, but the various other children she met during her elementary school years never seemed to be able to totally forget the hearing impairment.  She was the "deaf" friend, the friend who sometimes made unfortunate, laughable mistakes because of her difficulty understanding speech,  and some of the girls who befriended her seemed to be motivated by their own desire to be noticed for their kindness to the "deaf" girl.

There are a few things in this book that might be problematic in a school setting.  It was the 70s, and people smoked in the 70s (including her teacher, which is mentioned one time in one panel).  There is also some bathroom humor involving Cece's ability to hear her teacher while peeing.  I didn't find anything really objectionable, but if you are a teacher, you know your population and what would be acceptable or not.  There are definitely plenty of opportunities for discussion with the themes in this book, and the fact that this is a memoir makes the message even more powerful.

Teacher Resources:
Cece Bell Talking About El Deafo
Cece Bell's Website
Abrams Teaching Guides

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Barbed Wire Baseball, Marissa Moss

Title:  Barbed Wire Baseball
Author: Marissa Moss
Publisher:  Harry N. Abrams
Year:  2013
Pages:  48
Genre:  Non-Fiction, Historical
Themes:  World War II, Japanese Internment, Sports, Perseverance
Age Range: 2nd-6th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
As a boy, Kenichi “Zeni” Zenimura dreams of playing professional baseball, but everyone tells him he is too small. Yet he grows up to be a successful player, playing with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig! When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, Zeni and his family are sent to one of ten internment camps where more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry are imprisoned without trials. Zeni brings the game of baseball to the camp, along with a sense of hope.

There are quite a few children's and young adult books out there that describe the experience of Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II.  Books like The Bracelet and  Farewell to Manzanar have become staples of English classes in schools that strive to teach the complete truth about America in regards to its treatment of immigrants generally, and the Japanese Americans specifically.  There is even another book about baseball and the internment camps, called Baseball Saved Us.  Moss' contribution, Barbed Wire Baseball, tells the true story of a famous Japanese American baseball player named Zenichi Zenimura, sent to internment camps in the desert along with tens of thousands of other Japanese.  The story begins when Zeni was a small boy who became determined to become a great baseball player.  Unlike many young boys with the same dream, Zeni actually had the talent to make it a possibility, and the perseverance to make it happen.

Rather than focusing on the day to day life in the camp,  Barbed Wire Baseball details the extraordinary optimism, hard work, and ingenuity displayed by Zeni and the other prisoners at his camp.  Determined to play baseball, no matter the challenges, Zeni has a vision, a dream of a "real" baseball field in the middle of the stony desert.  He plants grass, chalks lines, steals wood to make bleachers for fans, and takes up a collection to buy equipment and uniforms for the players.  Zeni's quest proves the strength of the human spirit when faced with adversity, while highlighting the inherent injustices in this painful period of American history.

The illustrations pair beautifully with the story, done in a quasi-traditional Japanese style, but with American images included.  This picture book would make a good read aloud as a stand alone title, but would be a marvelous addition to a unit about World War II.

Teacher Resources:
Abrams Discussion Guide
Marissa Moss' Website