“I Hate Seeing You Walk”: Thoughts on A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

Teenager Veda Venkat, the star of Padma Venkatraman’s A Time to Dance, believes she excels at only one thing: Bharatanatyam dance. The rhythmic beats of this classical Indian dance speak a magical language to her, changing the way she sees herself. As she explains:

my graceful movements make up for

my incorrectly proportioned face.

I can dance beauty into my body.

Dancing defines Veda to such a degree that when an accident takes away her leg below her knee, it threatens to take away her identity too. A Time to Dance is a lyrical novel, written in verse, that describes the poignant process of healing after a profound loss.

I do not know what it is like to lose a limb, an aspect of the novel that is not #ownvoices, but Veda’s feelings felt realistic to me and even somewhat familiar based on losses I’ve experienced in my life. Veda experiences a range of feelings, from grief to jealousy, as she reestablishes herself as a dancer despite the physical changes she has endured.

She says to her best friend, for example, “I hate seeing you walk.”

This line reminded me of how much I hated the sight of pregnant women after my twin pregnancy ended at 26 weeks, leaving my daughters struggling for their lives in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for 78 days. It made me feel like a monster to hate looking at pregnant women, but I couldn’t help it. Those feelings only intensified when my next pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage, making me believe my body was irrevocably broken. My final pregnancy ended well over a month early, and my daughter spent a few days in the NICU. It was a better result than we’d ever had before, but still far from what I had hoped.

I hadn’t realized the degree to which I had absorbed my culture’s emphasis on female reproductive capacity–the terribly harmful and inaccurate belief that a woman’s role is to have children–until I just couldn’t achieve it the “right” way. I wondered what was wrong with me.

Those feelings of inadequacy have dissipated, thanks to time and the fact that my three children are now healthy. Looking at my twins now, you’d never know how fragile they once were. As a result, I am in a position to appreciate the silver linings of my family’s tumultuous beginning, and I even look back on our time in the NICU fondly (see Rosy Retrospection & #ReadingEmily). I’ve come a long way since those harrowing days beside my children’s incubators, watching their heart rates fall.

In A Time to Dance, Veda ends up in a similar place, feeling stronger as a result of her loss. To find out how she gets there, please read the book. I highly recommend it.

A Time to Dance is ideal for readers of middle grade and young adult fiction. One of my nine-year-old twins read it four times in a row because she loved it so much.

 

*Recommended by the Huntress of Diverse Books. Thanks, Sinead.

The Scent of Old Books: How Do You Describe It?

“The smell of books intrigues and inspires,” Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlic write in their research article, Smell of Heritage: a Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours. They contend that smells, such as the scent of historic paper, are part of our cultural heritage and worthy of conservation and inclusion in museums. As they explain, citing guidelines by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England: “the smells of a place are considered of value because they affect our experience of it. For this reason, they should be taken into account when defining the character of a historic area.”

To explore the identification and documentation of historic smells, the researchers studied the odor of old books, looking for ways to communicate how it smells. The sample book was Les Chardons du Baragan, published in 1928 and purchased from a second-hand bookstore in London. Study participants smelled an extract of this book as one of eight unidentified odors, which included “chocolate,” “coal fire,” “old inn,” “fish market,” “dirty linen,” “coffee,” and “HP sauce.”

Participants described the historic book smell in a variety of ways. The word “chocolate” was the most prevalent description. The next most common descriptions were “coffee,” “old,” “wood,” and “burnt.”

Meanwhile, participants chose the following words to describe the smell of Wren Library at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a historic library: woody, smoky, earthy, vanilla, musty, sweet, almond, pungent, medicinal, floral, fruity, green, rancid, bread, citrus, sour, and creamy.

The authors of the study connected this information to a chemical evaluation of the historic paper odor and created a odor wheel so that “untrained noses could identify an aroma from the description and gain information about the chemical causing the odour.”

I, with my “untrained nose,” have always loved the smell of old books, especially the earthy fragrance that permeated my undergraduate library. I described this aroma in my new adult novel, Two Lovely Berries (2014), like this:

I spent much of my time at Yale, probably too much of it, in Sterling Memorial Library, a grand building in need of no ivy, where the stacks led to well-hidden reading rooms that were empty enough for me to think or daydream without interruption. A faint musty scent hung in the air, the smell of tradition and scholarship; I wore it like a perfume.

Fond memories of that “faint musty scent” at the same alma mater aren’t the only similarities between Nora Daly’s fictional life and my real one, but it’s all I’m willing to admit.  😉

Sterling Memorial Library in New Haven, CT

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*Cecilia Bembibre & Matija Strlic, Smell of Heritage: A Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours, Heritage Science (2017) (linked above).

**See also, The Quest to Better Describe the Scent of Old Books (Smithsonian.com)

What Every Kindergartener Needs: A Study Guide for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road?

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Recently, Moppet Books, led by Frederik Colting and Melissa Medina, launched a series of so-called “learning guides” for children based on classic novels for adults. Known as KinderGuides, the books contain illustrations and simplified versions of the original classic plots.

These derivative works would be fine if the classic books were in the public domain, like L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, a source of inspiration for Anusha of Prospect Corner (Modern Middle Grade), and Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the basis for Amelia Elkins Elkins (Contemporary Fiction).

While at least one forthcoming KinderGuide is based on a public domain work–Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice–the majority are based on books that are still under copyright. The first set of KinderGuides includes the following copyrighted works: Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Moppet Books does not have a license to borrow from these novels, prompting the literary estates of Capote, Hemingway, Kerouac, and Clarke, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster to sue them for copyright infringement. The plaintiffs filed the complaint–available here (PDF)–in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on January 19, 2017.

According to the complaint:

Although defendants call their Infringing Works ‘guides,’ the Infringing Works do not purport to be companion reference books or study guides for readers of the novels, such as those commonly used by college students. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a situation in which a 6-year-old child would have the need for a ‘study guide’ to inform his or her understanding of the adult novels.

Yes, it is hard to see a Kindergartener using a “study guide” for these classics, but the derivative works could still be “fair use” (and therefore not copyright infringement) depending on its (1) purpose, (2) nature, (3) the “amount or substantiality of the portion” of the original work used; and (4) the impact of the use on the original work’s market. Copyright Act, 17. U.S.C. § 107.

Without examining the allegedly infringing work against the original novel, I can’t say whether I think these KinderGuides violate copyright law. My gut sense is that it could be copyright infringement if the KinderGuides add little new content to the original works (and thus aren’t sufficiently “transformative”) and use a substantial portion of the original works. We’ll see what happens with the case.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time Moppet’s Frederik Colting has found himself in court facing similar allegations. He is the author (writing under a pen name) of 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, the unauthorized sequel to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In 2009, Salinger filed suit against Colting, alleging copyright infringement. In the settlement, Colting agreed not to sell his derivative novel in the United States.

Among the “coming titles” in Colting’s KinderGuides series is a children’s version of Catcher in the Rye. I wonder what the Salinger estate thinks about that.

A Review of Anusha of Prospect Corner (Our #Ownvoices Novel Inspired By Anne of Green Gables)!

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Via Sinead at The Huntress of Diverse Books, a book blogger with Sri Lankan roots:

I had such a weird feeling while reading this book, as I was actually able to relate to some of the experiences that Anusha and Pramila had. I’ve never been represented like this before, so it took me a long time to get used to it. People not knowing where Sri Lanka is; people asking where I’m originally from; and the mispronunciation of my name (even though my name is Irish) – these are all things that have actually happened to me.

One of my goals when I was writing Anusha of Prospect Corner with my twins was to create a character with whom they could identify, and it’s wonderful to know that others identify with Anusha too. Sinead is a quarter Sinhalese Malaysian, and Anusha, like my daughters/co-authors, is a quarter Sri Lankan. The experiences Anusha and her mother have come from experiences I and my family members have had as multiracial Americans of Sri Lankan ancestry.

Sinead’s full review of our middle grade novel is available here. I shared her thoughts with my twins, and they were thrilled. Thank you, Sinead, for reading and reviewing our book!

To learn more about Anusha of Prospect Corner, find it on:

Here’s the description:

For Anusha Smyth, four-leaf clovers pop out of the grass like 3D optical illusions, practically begging her to pick them. She hopes they’ll bring her luck. She has big plans for 7th grade, but first she needs to convince her mom to move back to the United States. Unfortunately, a nosy neighbor keeps getting in the way. With Mrs. Lowry on the prowl — and she isn’t the only obstacle — Anusha’s going to need more than luck to make her dreams come true.

PS. Anusha’s “superpower” is something I share. I don’t look for four-leaf clovers. They find me. Over the summer, I even came across a six-leaf clover.

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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.”)

“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.

These Cats Are “Srs Bznz”

Not long ago, my (almost) 9-year-old twins faced a problem: What do they read after Harry Potter?

They wanted another series. They wanted fantasy. They wanted adventure.

For recommendations, I turned to a friend of mine with older kids. Without a second thought, she said: “The Warriors. It’s about cats.”

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Look at these covers! These cats mean business. Serious business.

This feline franchise consists of an enormous number of books, including several story arcs, spin-offs, and special editions. As of 2012, 14 million English-language copies had been sold around the world, and I’m sure that number is much higher today. The author is Erin Hunter, a pseudonym for a writing team developed by HarperCollins.

So far, my kids have read 32 Warrior books. I haven’t read them myself, so I have no idea how to describe them except to say that any mention of these books reminds me of Wanda Gág’s iconic children’s story, Millions of Cats:

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There are countless warrior cats in these books, all with awesome names like Cinderpelt, Bramblestar, and Leafpool.

What do these cats do? I’m not really sure, but this is how the publisher describes the first series, Warriors: The Prophecies Begin:

For generations, four Clans of wild cats have shared the forest according to the laws laid down by their ancestors. But the warrior code is threatened, and the ThunderClan cats are in grave danger. The sinister ShadowClan grows stronger every day. Noble warriors are dying—and some deaths are more mysterious than others.

In the midst of this turmoil appears an ordinary housecat named Rusty . . . who may turn out to be the bravest warrior of them all.

My kids are addicted to this franchise. They’ve renamed our family’s cats “Flowerfur” and “Sunpelt,” engage in Warrior Cat-infused imaginative play, and write Warrior Cat fanfiction.

Now, the question is, what should they read when this feline phase is over?*

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*I am particularly interested in fantasy/series featuring diverse characters, but appreciate all recommendations ideal for a middle grade audience. Thank you!

**Everyone in our household now has a “Warrior Cat” name. My twins are Autumn Tail and Copper Pelt.