Tasting the Sky by Ibtisam Barakat

December 17, 2007

Just finished this memoir by Palestinian American author (born in Ramallah). Story is framed by 17-year-old narrator’s letters and then goes back to begin the story with three-year old Ibtisam’s memory of the Six Day War. By the end, I was ready for the next volume (we stop with Ibtisam at about age 6 or 7, I think), so it’s a good thing Barakat is already at work on her next book. Prose is simple, elegant.



September 11, 2006

Seems I’ve been off my blog for a bit. Good to get back and check in with Marc’s impression and Ted’s hawgblawg, for instance (see “blogs not bombs” sidebar). Ceasefire. I feel strange getting back to mundane blog postings like the one I’m about to do on young adult literature. But here goes.

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow by Faïza Guène (translated from the French by Sarah Adams, NY: Harvest/Harcourt, 2006 – originally published in 2004 by Hachette) takes place in Paris, in the projects. First-person narrative by Doria, who’s got a great brash voice — her mom is illiterate, works cleaning a hotel. The dad, whom Doria calls “the Beard,” left his family and returned to Morocco, where Doria assumes he’ll remarry and finally get the son he wants. Doria’s insights on the psychologist and the social workers range from caustic to hilarious, and she calls everything just as she sees it. Like this:

Since the old man split we’ve had a whole parade of social workers coming to the apartment. Can’t remember the new one’s name, but it’s something like Dubois or Dupont or Dupré, a name that tells you she’s from somewhere, from a real family line or something. I think she’s stupid, and she smiles all the time for no good reason. Even when it’s clearly not the right time. It’s like the crazy woman feels the need to be happy for other people because they aren’t happy for themselves. Once, she asked if I wanted us to be friends. Like a little brat I told her I didn’t see that happening. But I guess I messed up, because the look my mother gave me cut me in half. She was probably scared social services would cut off our benefits if I didn’t make nice with their stupid social worker.

Before Mme DuThingamajig, it was a man… Total opposite of Mme DuWhatsit. He never cracked a joke, he never smiled, and he dressed like Professor Calculus in The Adventures of Tintin. Once he told my mom that in ten years on this job, this was the first time he’d seen “people like you with only one child.” He was thinking “Arabs,” but he didn’t say so. Coming to our place was like an exotic experience for him. He kept giving weird looks to all the knick-knacks around the house, the ones my mom brought over from Morocco after she got married. And since we wore babouches at home, he’d take off his shoes when he walked in, trying to do the right thing. Except he had alien feet. His second toe was at least ten times longer than his big toe. It looked like he was giving us the finger through his socks. And then there was the stench. The whole time he played the sweet, compassionate type, but it was all a front. He didn’t give a shit about us. Besides, he quit.

Faïza Guène is French-Algerian, nineteen years old. Can’t wait to see what she writes next.

red kayak

July 30, 2006

Cummings, Priscilla. Red Kayak. NY: Puffin/Penguin. 2004.

narrator: first-person, Brady

I’m at p. 89 and this continues to be pretty intense. Red Kayak reminds me a lot of Blackwater — similar issues, somewhat similar setting. I’m curious to see what else Brady learns. I like the details of crabbing and the dad’s voice.

It’s 1 August — I finished Red Kayak on the plane on Sunday on my way home from Omaha. I like the amount of time spent on what happens when Brady makes his decision to do the right thing. I’m not totally convinced by Digger’s transformation but it still works. The dad character continues to deepen. I’d pick Red Kayak over Blackwater for a text that requires critical ethical decisions by the narrator. But the cousin character in Blackwater is a really good bad-guy character.

Riordan’s teacher guide

July 18, 2006

OK, so how cool is this! I just got a comment under The Lightning Thief from Becky Riordan letting me know that Rick Riordan has a teacher’s guide for the Percy Jackson series. Thank you, Becky. I love the internet! I’ve added the guide to the Curriculum Resources section.


July 18, 2006

Bunting, Eve. Blackwater. NY: HarperTrophy/HarperCollins, 1999.

narrator: first-person, Brodie Lynch

Thirteen-year-old Brodie Lynch must make an ethical decision; he’s hindered by his cousin Alex and helped by Hannah, a neighboring girl who visits in the summer. Effective view from Brodie’s perspective of dealing with heavy-duty consequences. Contrast between Alex and Brodie also works well.


July 17, 2006

Spinelli, Jerry. Stargirl. NY: Knopf, 2000.

narrator: first-person, Leo Borlock

Gorgeous. Just gorgeous. Finished this last night and kept thinking about it after I was done. I read Spinelli’s Maniac Magee when my son had to read it for summer reading before seventh grade, and I’m pretty sure I liked it a lot more than my son. The book was presented as a novel dealing with race, and it is that. But that’s not so much what I remember about it. I remember the quirkiness of Maniac Magee and his love for baseball. Like Stargirl, Maniac affects an entire community by being himself. He’s an orphan — at least, there are no parents in the picture — and he lives with an older homeless (?) guy, who is Maniac’s parental figure. The book starts out with the legends surrounding Maniac. Maniac Magee and Stargirl are both peculiarly their own selves; that individuality forces those on other sides of social divisions to break those barriers — so race, in Maniac Magee, and high school cliques in Stargirl, become re-arranged.

But Spinelli doesn’t offer panaceas or fantasy solutions. Stargirl (Susan Julia Caraway) transforms the school by her individuality; the school then veers back to its rigid cliques when their basketball team starts winning for a change. Social relations move in waves with a tide-like back and forth between transformation and conformity. Same thing happens on an individual level as we see Leo struggle with his admiration for Stargirl and his need for peer approval.

Again, parents don’t figure too strongly, and the main adult figure is a retired paleontologist, Archie. Here’s the paragraph introducing him:

“A.H. (Archibald Hapgood) Brubaker lived in a house of bones. Jawbones, hipbones, femurs. There were bones in every room, every closet, on the back porch. Some people have stone cats on their roofs; on his roof Archie Brubaker had a skeleton of Monroe, his deceased Siamese. Take a seat in his bathroom and you found yourself facing the faintly smirking skull of Doris, a prehistoric creodont. Open the kitchen cabinet where the peanut butter was kept and you were face to fossil face with an extinct fox” (30).

Spinelli is as good with setting as he is with character. Stargirl’s enchanted spot in the desert, Leo’s moonlit bedroom window, the Sonoran desert and saguaro cactus. This is a rich book with deep portrayal of conflict, personal and communal. Leo is a junior and Stargirl is a sophomore and the novel takes place in a high school, like Code Orange (Mitty is also a junior in high school) but the issues of conformity/individuality, bullying, shunning are accessible to any reader.


July 17, 2006

Westerfeld, Scott. Peeps. NY: Razorbill/Penguin, 2005.

narrator: first-person, Cal

Pretty good. I like the alternating chapters on parasites. That’s a cool idea. Not sure if it’s Cal talking, but I guess it’s supposed to be him. Not sure it sounds like him. Not sure it matters. Kinda weird reading this after Code Orange, because all the virus/mutation/infection stuff started to blend together. Both books even share mention of the same historical figure: Typhoid Mary. Now, I’ve GOT to read Octavia Butler’s Fledgling. I know she’ll do something unexpected and insightful with the vampire trope.