Jambo Means Hello

A Swahili alphabet book

It’s really no wonder that Muriel Feelings’s Jambo Means Hello won a Caldecott Honor. This picture book may be in black and white, but don’t let that fool you. It’s just as engaging and interesting as any other picture book if not more so with Tom Feelings’s lively artwork. The Swahili alphabet book teaches so much, from actual pronunciation of Swahili words to the vocabulary itself, as well as the geographic regions where one can expect to encounter the language.

But it’s also so much more than that. There are so many different examples of African culture in this book that I think would really help widen the gaze of so many Americans—both children and adults!—as we seem to loop everyone from Africa together without even thinking about how different people are from different countries. Part of it may be because we are so used to being looped together in 50 separate states of one large country—but I think it’s attributed much more to the fact that we pretty much ignore Africa and the rich culture there.

Did you know that both the guitar and the xylophone either came from Africa or have roots there? I have read elsewhere that early democracies and thriving kingdoms come from Africa as well, so why the heck don’t we hear about this stuff in school? We learn about the Egyptians and that’s pretty much it. Is it a cultural shame that permeates our textbooks and souls, a guilt that makes us turn away from the continent where we kidnapped people for slavery—or a nationalistic strategy to keep us in the dark about the continent for the exact same region? Perhaps it is both, but for whatever reason, I am very interested in learning much more about Africa, and especially in helping my daughter learn more about it, too.

This book is a wonderful place to begin. Written by a teacher who lived in Africa for two years, it has a certain reverence to it that I like. It doesn’t talk down to readers or give brassy “they do it this way!” explanations that many cultural books are inclined to do. Its artwork is beautiful—simple yet emotional, conveying the joy on peoples’ faces as they interact, care for their families, and dance. Its information is just as beautiful, with terms like “heshima,” which means respect for elders. (Why do so many nations honor elders when we dump them into nursing homes?) You can learn about food, customs, beauty, and so much more with this lovely book.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

This is the book every junior high student needs to read.

I am utterly addicted to young adult literature right now, and among my latest reads is the book Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. One of the greatest differences between this book and the others I’ve been reading is the fact that it isn’t supernatural in any way; instead, it’s a book about serious teen issues. Another way it’s different is that it’s by a male author. I don’t think I’ve read any other books by male authors this year.

Asher did an amazing job of combining teen angst and true hard issues with an absolutely riveting mystery. A classmate commits suicide and leaves behind 13 stories recorded on cassette tapes to be passed around to the 13 people who had some role in the decline of her life and, ultimately, her death. The issues that teen girls face is especially made accessible to teen males, as the story is told from a male perspective.

This is the story that needs to be read in every junior high class. I love Ponyboy and Sodapop as much as the next English ed major, but The Outsiders isn’t nearly as relevant as 13 Reasons Why. In a world where 1 in 3 females will experience sexual violence in her lifetime, we need to be focusing on ways to prevent such atrocities—which essentially means teaching boys to not harm girls. We tend to focus on the girls—build your self esteem! No sex until marriage! And plenty of other catch phrases—when we need to focus on guiding men to be not just nonviolent, but respectful beings. I don’t mean to say that all men will be violent, but many will as they are raised to be.

I didn’t like the whole man as a hero line of the story, however, which is the note that not only wove the story together but also that it ended on. I think I would have liked it better had the violent boys in the story received their comeuppance—but then again, that’s not life, either; less than 10 percent of rapists see jail time.

At any rate, I think this book is so important that I would definitely teach it in my classroom—and once the kids in my co-op are this age, I may do just that. It’s also a very quick but moving read—I read it in a couple of hours—so I think that it’s also at a level most teens would be able to understand.

A Wolf at the Door

Try out these bite-sized fantasy reads for some fall fun.

Collections by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling are my absolute favorite sources of fantasy literature these days, so when I heard of A Wolf at the Door, I knew I had to read it. Our library doesn’t have this collection, so I used a gift card I won in a writing competition to purchase the book online. I’m very glad that I did, too, because not only was it a great read, it will also be a wonderful book for my daughter to read in a couple of years.

Favorite authors like Tanith Lee, Neil Gaiman, Gregory Maguire, and others are included in the book—as are retakes on favorite fairy tales, such as “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and “Hansel and Gretel.” The latter, in fact, may be my favorite retelling in the entire book—as well as the darkest story in the collection.

Fear not, however, when giving this book to a young adult or even a middle schooler as a gift, as most of the stories within are not fear-inducing. In fact, the element of fantasy is their only unifying quality. Some are sort of love stories, while some are funny. Some are just plain silly, while others have you going for a minute thinking something awful is going to happen when, in fact, everything is okay.

A take on “The Ugly Duckling,” for example, had me dreading that the title character was going to go all Red Dragon on us, but she thankfully did not. As I stated before, the most disturbing tale would be the retelling of “Hansel and Gretel,” also known as “Hansel’s Eyes” in the book. That said, readers will be satisfied with the happy ending—and what fairy tale didn’t have a grisly moment in its original version anyway? With the exception of one or two other dark tales (none as dark as this one, I think), most would be stories that most parents would probably be okay reading to their children.

People interested in these editors and their wonderful fantasy collections might also want to check out Troll’s Eye View, my other favorite collection from them specifically for younger readers. However, it is their fiction for adults—also retellings of fairy tales, though they are far darker and more disturbing, and sometimes more beautiful—that many older readers will be sure to enjoy. I would start with Silver Birch, Blood Moon and go from there.

Wake up, I’m fat!

Camryn Manheim is my new hero.

I just finished Camryn Manheim’s self-acceptance manifesto, which has the same name as her one-woman show, Wake Up, I’m Fat! Though I’ve admired her from afar for years and loved her in tiny roles like her portrayal of Snow White in The 10th Kingdom, I now want to watch everything she was ever in, from The Practice to Elvis to Ghost Whisperer—most of which I’ve avoided because of other actresses I’m not particularly fond of.

In the text, we get to learn a lot about Manheim as she takes us on a journey through her life, focusing most of it on her own size. Unlike me, she was a thin child and didn’t get fat until later in life, but that didn’t stop her from encountering the same fashion fascism, discrimination, hate and self-hate, and general fatty abuse that many of us know quite well, often on a daily basis. Unlike many of us, however, Manheim has this amazing, take-no-prisoners attitude in which she refuses to be treated like a secondhand citizen.

Though she says it wasn’t always that way, it does sound like she always had the guts to tell people off at least somehow—if not about her weight, then about other injustices or just things that angered her, which is something many of us fat people simply do not have. We know that no matter what comes out of our mouths, our size will come into play somehow after the bullies of the world tore out our hearts long ago.

Manheim reminds us that our self-worth isn’t determined by such people, and that we aren’t hurting anyone—we’re just fat!—and her path toward self-love and acceptance is such an inspiring one. I would recommend this book not just to anyone who is fat and shares Manheim’s pain, but anyone altogether who could use a reminder to love him or herself. It’s a fun and funny romp through her career, her activism, and her actual discussions with her own fat—and it’s also a manifesto for anyone tired of using fat as a shield or an excuse for not living.

Yes, we’re going to continue to be discriminated against and encounter bullies—but since that is a given, and since life is so much better once you love yourself, why not do that instead of practice so much self-hate? A the actress notes, it’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s what we need to do.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

This first novel is a lot of fun, but perhaps not as disturbing as it seems.

Have you heard of this remarkable first novel by Ransom Riggs? This bestseller is called Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and I was delighted to finally get my hands on a copy from the library this week. I requested it as an interlibrary loan and the librarian pretty much said, “Oh, this is a bestseller! I will order it instead.” Then I was placed on a subsequent waiting list—at number 26! Go figure. Well, the wait is long over, and I have since read and enjoyed this fun novel.

The book is very different from so many others because it employs both text as well as old peculiar photographs to tell the story. Indeed, some of the story feels like it was catered to randomly fit a few photos, which is fine—the rest were really worked in with finesse. The author credits several people who collected these old black and whites over the years at the end of his book, and I must say that these are often the most disturbing elements in the whole book.

You get the feeling that it’s going to be disturbing altogether—there is death and a couple of gruesome scenes, as well as a few alarming situations. There are also plenty of children with special abilities that are supposed to freak you out—at least, at first. But the dangers presented in the book, as well as the action scenes at the end of the book, just didn’t feel as urgent or well-developed to me as the rest of the book did.

There’s definitely more science fiction than horror here, and I loved the many themes of the book—such as the comparison between monsters and World War II, the disconnect between parents (particularly privileged parents) and youth, the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. There is a big mystery to be solved, and it’s a lot of fun to get to the solution. A touch of romance is also sweetly included in an enjoyable, non-saccharine way.

I was unfortunately dissatisfied with the ending, which did leave the book wide open for a sequel—perhaps even unresolved, depending upon how you look at the book, as well as with the establishment/reveal of the villain. It was at once predictable as well as out of the blue, which I don’t like in mysteries; I like to have my villain right where I can see him or her, yet where I also cannot suspect him or her, either. I want to be shocked and even hurt when someone I like is actually a monster.

Even so, the whole story was fun to read—if it wasn’t I wouldn’t have finished it yet, for sure!—and I do hope that Riggs continues with more adventures featuring this ragtag group. I would definitely like to read them and see what happens next.

Improvements to Grimm

Yes, I've Been Lured In

When it comes to the written word being adapted to the screen, sometimes we wish we’d just stick to our favorite books. Not too long ago, I wrote about how much I disliked the new NBC program Grimm. I had originally been very excited about the show—being a lover of fantasy and fairytales, as well as crime shows and general drama, why wouldn’t I be?—but the first several episodes had greatly disappointed me. However, I’ve continued to give the show a chance—and I am now glad that I decided to do that, because the last few episodes have been pretty stellar.

When episodes with barely recognizable beasts and lackluster plot (along with a lack of women heroes, after the first couple of episodes) air, you tend to squint your eyes at the television and mutter curses to condemn the show to hell—well, at least, I did. But the last few episodes have dealt with recognizable characters, cool plots, and a couple of badass women, one whom I hope will be developed into an even more BAMF role.

We’ve had the three pigs featured, as well as a super cool wolf woman—our own Monroe’s old flame—who can seriously kick some butt (even though she’s a villain). We also had what was perhaps my favorite episode so far, featuring the pied piper, a murder mystery (aren’t they always murders?), and a pretty creative scheme. These episodes have been very enjoyable to watch and I look forward to more.

Nick’s girlfriend Juliette, however, also has me hooked. She has taken an even cooler active role, coming head to head with an ogre that Nick himself could not best, which was—forgive the repetition—super cool! I was worried that she might be a fairytale creature herself (her name, her look, her complete obliviousness and profession…), but now I’m hoping that she, too, will become a hunter like Nick and give the show some real fem-powerment.

Monroe is my last reason for watching more often because he’s made of awesome and he’s actually kind of hot. He’s taken on a much more active role as well, and I love the different things we find out about him in each episode—from his culinary expertise and profession to his pilates and wild history. If nothing else, I think I’d keep watching just to keep up with Monroe and see what happens to him.

Do you enjoy the series? Why or why not? Be sure to post about your favorite fairy tales and local fairy tale authors here at Anaheim Book Club.

The Big Book of Family Fun

A bit dated, but with plenty of creative ideas for fun!

My aunt is always bringing us her finds from yard sales, thrift stores, and other deals. She knows that we homeschool and are always looking for fun activities, puzzles, games, and books to enjoy (doesn’t every family, anyway?). So recently she bought us a copy of The Big Book of Family Fun by Claudia Arp and Linda Dillow. The book hails itself as a boredom buster, holiday helper, and much more, with ideas for both sunny and rainy days as well as sick ones, recipes, travel activities, and more. Though it looks a bit dated, being published in 1994, it remains true to its name, offering dozens of ideas for all of these activities and more.

Though we’ve done quite a few of the activities in the book—such as the oatmeal drum and the milk carton bird feeder—many other ideas are new to us. They have a pretty classic feel to them, without much of a technological aspect (of course!), which I find refreshing.

The book can also be problematic, however. Some of the ideas are religiously-oriented (such as morning devotional time), but you could always adapt these to something else, like meditation. (To teach meditation in my house, I have been using Starbright: Meditations for Children.) It’s also written from and for the perspective of a traditional WASP heterosexual family (even the cover boasts one), so that’s as annoying as it is in any other book that claims it is for general families. One of the most annoying aspects for me as an unschooler and Life Learner is that it promotes bribing children, such as paying them 75 cents for books read and words memorized. Yeah, that’s not learning, and it’s not okay in my book.

Still, if you can get past these things, there are lots of cool ideas to use in the book, such as…

  • How to make finger paints out of soap flakes
  • Several ways to make play-dough, including out of kool-aid
  • How to obtain an ecology kit from the Environmental Protection Agency (I honestly don’t know if this still works; I plan on writing to see if it does)
  • Making various crafts from recycled materials from egg cartons, eggshells, toilet paper rolls, and more

Yes, we do have the internet now, and we can easily look up crafts and activities with the click of a mouse—but having them all in a collection like this is also helpful and useful.