Zahrah the Windseeker: For Those of Us Who Don’t Fit In #ReadDiverse2017 #DiverseBookBloggers

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Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu begins with these words:

When I was born, my mother took one look at me and laughed.

“She’s… dada,” said the doctor, looking surprised.

“I can see that,” my mother replied with a smile.

Zahrah has dadalocks, clumps of hair inside of which grow “skinny, light green vine[s].” It’s an unusual, misunderstood trait in Zahra’s kingdom. Many people think it’s associated with strange powers. To avoid prejudice, Zahrah could cut her dadalocks; instead, she grows them down her back. Her hair is heavy, but as her mother has taught her, “it forces me to hold my head up higher.”

Nevertheless, Zahrah is self-conscious. She knows that she different from other children. As she explains:

In Kirki, where fear of the unknown was strong and where so much of the past had been pushed aside and forgotten, my dada hair was like a big red badge on my forehead that said, “I don’t fit in and never will.

Zahrah the Windseeker is a middle grade novel for children who sometimes feel like they don’t fit in. It’s for children who haven’t yet learned how to embrace the unique qualities that make them special. It’s also for adults, because, quite frankly, no one is too old for a gentle reminder to appreciate themselves.

Zahrah the Windseeker is an engaging fantasy novel featuring the friendship between Zahrah and a boy named Dari, who suffers a medical emergency after he and Zahrah venture into the dangerous jungle. Zahra can save him, but only if she learns to harness her powers. To do that, Zahrah must learn to accept herself and push beyond her boundaries. She cannot fear the unknown.

This is another important lesson for my twins, who are shy and rarely take risks. Meanwhile, my youngest, an extroverted, reckless child, needs the opposite lesson. Following Zahrah’s example, she would probably think it’s just fine to explore the woods by herself. But she’s only five and won’t be reading this book anytime soon. When she does, hopefully after she’s learned how to assess risks more appropriately, I hope she’ll enjoy this novel as much as her sisters did.

Here are their thoughts:

Samira: Zahrah the Windseeker is about a girl who must save her friend. I liked it because Misty the Gorilla takes care of Zahrah when she’s sick (though I probably shouldn’t have told you that). There is nothing I did not like about this book. Go read it!

Maram: Zahrah the Windseeker is about a girl named Zahrah and her friend Dari. Dari gets sick, and Zahrah needs to save him. My favorite character is the speckled pink frog that can be annoying but is also wise. Wise people are annoying sometimes. There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about this book, but I wanted to know more about where the town is located and how it got there. I wanted to know more about its relationship to Earth.

I read Zahrah the Windseeker because my daughters recommended it to me (after Akilah from The Englishist recommended it for them). It was a worthwhile read.

Broadening Our Worldview: Sri Lankan Literature

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On February 4th, Sri Lanka celebrated 69 years of independence from the British Empire. Sri Lanka is my mother’s homeland, but I grew up in the United States, where many people are incapable of finding Sri Lanka on the globe. The fact that Americans know so little about the world is sad. This ignorance explains, at least in part, why a large percentage (though not a majority) of American voters felt comfortable electing a xenophobic man for President (and xenophobia is only one of a long list of hateful traits this man exhibits proudly).

If more Americans made an effort to learn about the rest of the world, the United States would be a better country than it is right now. Not everyone has the resources to travel, but books are a wonderful way to broaden our worldview. I think that is particularly true of books for younger readers, who aren’t so entrenched in their views already.

To learn more about Sri Lanka, check out Cinderzena’s list of Sri Lankan literature (and bloggers!). As she explains:

I decided to create a list of some of the best, spell binding and intriguing Lankan literature written in English. Of course there are so many more wonderful masterpieces in both Sinhala and Tamil (which are both official languages of the country) but translations of them are also widely available. I tried my best to chose from a wide range of genres including translations.

Cinderzena was kind enough to include Anusha of Prospect Corner, the middle grade novel I wrote with my twins. We are Sri Lankan-American (I am half Sri Lankan; my Dad’s side is predominantly Irish with a mix of Sioux, African, and Basque). The novel was a way of exploring our identity as we grapple with what remains of our Sri Lankan heritage while we live thousands of miles away from our mother country.

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anusha-front-cover-smallerTo learn more about Anusha of Prospect Corner, find it on:

Amal Meets Amal (Finally) #DiverseBookBloggers #ReadDiverse2017

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I don’t often come across a character in a book who shares my first name: Amal, which is Arabic in origin and generally means “hope.” Thanks to Amal Clooney,* more people in my part of the world are aware of it now, but when I was a kid, I didn’t come across any other “Amals” in reality or in fiction. The only exception is “Amahl” from the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, and not only is that character’s name spelled differently from mine, but we’re also different genders. His existence encouraged many people to assume I’m male when they see my name on paper, a mistake that used to bother me when I was a kid.

Back then, I would have appreciated a book like Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. This light, young adult novel features an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teenager named Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim. Like me, she knows what it’s like to look different from everyone else at school, to practice a different religion, and to have a name that people frequently misspell or misstate. As she recounts hearing:

Hey Amal, did you notice the sub teacher called you ‘Anal’ at rollcall this morning?

I’m familiar with that embarrassing typo too. I often receive mail addressed to “Mr. Anal [B.].” Spell check is not my friend.

It was nice to read a book with a character who knows what this feels like. Amal Abdel-Hakim is smart, funny, and brave enough to assert her identity even when she knows it won’t be easy. In the novel, she decides to wear a hijab full-time, including at her snooty private school. Ms. Walsh, the principal, is opposed to Amal’s choice, saying,

Amal… hmmm… I don’t want to- I mean, I want to tread delicately on this… sensitive issue… hmm… Did you speak to anybody about wearing… about abandoning our school uniform?

Ms. Walsh assumes that Amal’s parents are forcing her to wear the headscarf–which is not true–and then tells Amal that she’s violating the school’s “history of tradition” by deviating from the strict uniform policy. It’s an Australian private school, which the novel suggests might be able to get away with prohibiting students from wearing clothing associated with their religion. You’ll have to read the novel to find out what happens.

In my country, the United States, private schools are often able to impose strict dress codes that prohibit religious clothing or symbols because students at private schools don’t have constitutional rights, including the First Amendment’s right to freely exercise religion. Public schools are another matter. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), public school students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”** However, courts have upheld many restrictions on student expression, including restrictions that impinge on religious freedom, especially if the restriction is viewpoint- and content-neutral. See, e.g. Jacobs v. Clark County School District, 529 F.3d 419 (2008) (upholding a dress code that prohibited a printed message that reflected a student’s religious beliefs).

These days, whatever the constitution may or may not require, many schools avoid the issue by choosing to have dress codes that include religious exemptions. Here’s one example (PDF): “Head apparel (hats and hoods) are not permitted to be worn inside the school building, with the exception of those worn for medical or religious purposes,” thus permitting hijabs and similar religious clothing.

I wonder, though, as my country becomes increasingly Islamophobic, will these exemptions disappear? If so, will the courts condone it? We shall see.

 

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*Thanks, but no thanks. Virtually everyone I meet for the first time points out that (1) I share my name with George Clooney’s wife, and (2) we’re both lawyers. I’m tired of having this conversation over and over again. [Update: And now that Amal and George are expecting twins, they’ll add that to the list too!]

**Public school teachers don’t “shed their constitutional rights [] at the schoolhouse gate” either. However, at least in my state, they do not have the right to wear religious clothing at school. In Pennsylvania, a state law prohibits public school teachers from “wearing… any dress, mark, emblem or insignia indicating the fact that such teacher is a member or adherent of any religious order, sect, or denomination.” 24 Pa. Cons. St. Ann. § 11-1112; see U.S. v. Bd. of Educ. for Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, 911 F.2d 882 (3d Cir. 1990) (upholding the statute under an employment discrimination law because “barring religious attire is important to the maintenance of an atmosphere of religious neutrality in the classroom”).

***For another opinion on Does My Head Look Big in This?, see: Huntress of Diverse Books (“Abdel-Fattah took a topic that is discussed in such detail so often (nowadays and at that time) and was able to make me feel like I wasn’t being lectured.”)

Hope In The Dark: The Joy of Chasing Butterflies #SJBookClub

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It feels wrong to be happy.

As Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark, a thought-provoking book she wrote in 2003-04 to counter the despair so many of us felt during the tumultuous years of the Bush Administration:

[A] part of the Puritan legacy [of the left] is the belief that no one should have joy or abundance until everyone does, a belief that’s austere at one end, in the deprivation it endorses, and fantastical in the other, since it awaits a universal utopia.

But, as she explains, “Joy sneaks in anyway, abundance cascades forth uninvited,” and it sustains us.

Solnit gives us the example of Roger Casement, a human rights activist and Irish nationalist, who took breaks from his investigation of human rights abuses in South America a century ago “to admire handsome local men and to chase brilliantly colored local butterflies.”

Coincidentally, I’m looking forward to chasing brilliantly colored butterflies in a few months (I plead the Fifth on admiring handsome men from afar in the meantime 😉 ). Greeting butterflies in my garden is a dream I’ve had since the bleak days after the 2016 election, when my daughters asked me what they could do in response to Donald Trump’s unconscionable win.

At first, I didn’t know what two third graders and a kindergartener could do. Whatever “political” activity it was had to be tangible, relatively easy to understand, and meaningful to them. It became clearer when they shared their fears about the environment (a fear I didn’t substantiate by saying anything about Trump’s anti-science pick for the Environmental Protection Agency).

So, we’ve decided to plant a butterfly garden. We joined the Monarch Squad at the World Wildlife Fund, we learned about the declining monarch population, we planted milkweed seeds in November (we’ll do another round of milkweed planting in the spring), and we’ve started to research butterfly-friendly plants.

Most of our work in the garden will happen during my daughters’ spring break in a few months, but for now, it’s fun to plan our project and to dream about beautiful butterflies. This project gives us a sense of joy we sorely need during these dark times.

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*I’m reading Hope in the Dark for the Social Justice Book Club (hosted by Kerry @ Entomology of a Bookworm and Janani @ The Shrinkette). I’m 50% finished with it. Solnit wrote the book in 2003-04; however, it has a more recent foreword (2015) and afterward (2014).

**I’m sorry to have found out through Google that Roger Casement met a sad end.

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Not a Monarch, but a beautiful butterfly I found in someone else’s garden. Is it an eastern black swallowtail?

 

What Do Our Kids Read During Independent (But Not Really) Reading Time?

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When students choose “independent reading” books, what do they pick? According to Renaissance Learning’s 2016 report, high school students chose To Kill a Mockingbird, (9th graders), Night (10th graders), The Crucible (11th graders), and Macbeth (12th graders).

It’s hard to believe The Crucible, a 1953 play by Arthur Miller, would surpass comic books or modern fiction, but these results aren’t an indication of what children choose to read entirely of their own accord. The report is based on data from 9.9 million participants from grades K-12 in the company’s Accelerated Reading 360 program (presumably including my children, who go to a school that participates in this program). It isn’t truly independent reading: teachers set individualized goals with each student, the students choose from books selected by the program to meet those goals, and, ultimately, the students take quizzes on the books.

Interestingly, Renaissance Learning found that students are generally reading below grade level, and high school seniors are reading below the expected reading level of incoming college freshman: “By the time students finish high school, they are reading books in the 5-6 range, which is close to the level of typical fiction best sellers of about 5.6; however, their selections are one to two grades below the demands of books assigned as summer reading to incoming freshman (6.5) and typical nonfiction best sellers (7.2).”

It’s concerning that American students aren’t meeting expectations, but it’s hardly surprisingly in a country in which more than a quarter of adults haven’t read a single book in the past year. Hopefully, in the future, more high school seniors will graduate with enough of a love of reading to read more than adults do today–whatever the level.

*I learned about this report from Education Week, November 30, 2016.

“The Basis of My Sexual Education” #GabiReadalong

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Gabi Hernandez of Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, A Girl In Pieces is an unusual main character to meet in an American young adult novel. She looks nothing like the sickeningly thin protagonists we typically find on the covers of many books in this genre. She’s also of Mexican ancestry, a background some question when they look at her:

They always think I’m White, and it bugs the shit out of me. Not because I hate White people, but because I have to go into a history lesson every time someone questions my Mexicanness.

But overall, she’s a typical teenager who writes poetry, struggles with certain subjects in school, applies to college, hangs out with her friends, and wants a romantic relationship. When we meet her, she’s a high school senior who’s never been kissed. She’s interested in a handful of boys, one of whom is worthy of receiving her beef jerky from Mexico. When this guy comes over, “Everything was ready… the beef jerky, the sodas, my heart, hopes and expectations.”

Those hopes and expectations do not include an unplanned pregnancy. Gabi’s fear of pregnancy is borderline obsessive and stems from the story of how she got her name. As we learn in the opening paragraph of the book:

My  mother named me Gabriela after my grandmother who–coincidentally–didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was not married and was therefore living in sin. My mom has told me the story many, many, MANY times of how, when she confessed to my grandmother that she was pregnant with me, her mother beat her. BEAT HER! She was twenty five. That story forms the basis of my sexual education.

It’s no wonder Gabi is afraid of getting pregnant. Her fear reminded me of an article I read recently about Franz Kafka, whose aversion to sex may have been based on an intense fear of the potential consequences of sexual activity, particularly the contraction of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Gabi, however, lives in a time and place with much better treatments for STIs–even for infections like HIV that were unknown in Kafka’s time–and so her silence about STIs is understandable. I saw only one mention of STIs in the novel (three STIs at once: AIDS, herpes, and chlamydia).

For Gabi, the worst outcome of sexual activity is an unplanned pregnancy that could limit her future. She wants to go to college. She wants to move out of her “one-horse town.” Hoping to achieve these goals, she recalls her mother’s advice: “‘Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.’ Eyes open, legs closed,” but wonders why her mother’s advice to her 15-year-old brother is merely, “Make sure you take a condom with you.” It’s one of many unfortunate double-standards girls face on a daily basis. This novel is an interesting way of exploring these important issues.

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*Thank you to Naz of Read Diverse Books for encouraging me to read this book & organizing the #GabiReadalong. There will be a Twitter Chat about this book on Thursday, December 15th at 8 PM EST (the author will be answering our questions!). Please join in.