November 21, 2012


Annie and Helen. By Deborah Hopkinson. Illustrated by Raul Colón. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills. By Renée Watson. Pictures by Christian Robinson. Random House. $17.99.

Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird. By Stephanie Spinner. Illustrated by Meilo So. Knopf. $17.99.

Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama. By Selina Alko. Knopf. $16.99.

Room for the Baby. By Michelle Edwards. Illustrated by Jana Christy. Random House. $17.99.

Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town. By Warren St. John. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

      Even in the few dozen pages of a picture book for ages 4-8, it is possible for an author to communicate a great deal of engagement, pathos and real-world information, all of which Deborah Hopkinson provides in Annie and Helen. This is the latest of many books about the relationship between the young Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, and it is quite an extraordinary introduction to an even more extraordinary story. Hopkinson keeps the words simple but affecting: “Helen was like a small, wild bird, throwing herself against the bars of a dark and silent cage.”  Hopkinson intersperses her narration with excerpts from Sullivan’s own writings, and Raul Colón’s sensitive illustrations effectively imagine the facial expressions and body language of teacher, student and the few other characters in the book. The difficulties Sullivan encountered in teaching Helen are clearly explained: “She didn’t understand that each motion [made in spelling out words in sign language] was a letter, that letters made up words, and that words could be names for things.” But after the famous breakthrough when Helen understands the word “water,” Helen learns remarkably quickly, and Hopkinson explains some of Helen’s further education and the delight she took in learning: a Colón illustration showing Helen in four poses, leaping into the air and landing again on the ground, is tremendously expressive of the joy of discovery. The book ends when Helen, during a trip, is able for the first time to write a letter to her mother – and the letter, from 1887, is on the story’s final page. A tale that remains touching, heartwarming and uplifting no matter how often it is told, the story of Helen Keller is beautifully presented in Annie and Helen – in a way that hopefully will inspire young readers to learn more about it from other sources.

      Florence Mills is as little-known to most people as Helen Keller is well-known.  A short-lived singer and stage performer (1895-1927, although the book gives her birth year as 1896), whose voice was never recorded and whose performances were never filmed, Mills was famous in her own time, an era of deep-set segregation.  Mills was black – Duke Ellington composed the song Black Beauty as a tribute to her – and she was a trailblazer in many ways: the first black woman photographed for a full spread in Vanity Fair, she was offered a leading role in the Ziegfeld Follies and would have been the famous show’s first black star if she had not turned Flo Ziegfeld down.  A very poor girl, daughter of former slaves, Mills used her tremendous talent first to pull herself up in the world and then to give others of her race a chance to perform as well.  The best thing about Harlem’s Little Blackbird is that the book reaches out to children of all races: although African-Americans can be justifiably proud of Mills, it scarcely matters (except historically) that Mills was black and that Renée Watson and Christian Robinson are as well.  This is not to minimize the discrimination and racial troubles that Mills had to overcome – but this is, at heart (and it is full of heart), a book about a young person with talent learning to harness and develop her abilities, overcome the difficulties of her external circumstances, and succeed, to a very great extent, on her own terms.  It is an uplifting tale that does not try to hammer home politically correct messages about the evils of racism and discrimination – instead, it tells the story of a little girl who made it big in a life cut tragically short by tuberculosis (a fact not mentioned in the book). More surprising than the omission of the illness that caused Mills’ death is the fact that the book does not give her nickname. It was not “blackbird” – the book’s title comes from a line in one of Mills’ songs.  No, what Florence Mills was called was “the Queen of Happiness.”

      There is a real bird at the center of a more-recent real-life story in Stephanie Spinner’s Alex the Parrot.  Alex was a year-old African grey parrot bought at a pet shop in 1977 by graduate student Irene Pepperberg, who then spent 30 years demonstrating the remarkable intelligence of African greys – something taken for granted now but deemed out of the question just a few years ago, when “most people thought that animals were just barely intelligent” and scientists believed that learning correlated strictly with brain size, which would mean that African greys’ walnut-size brains could not be good for much beyond management of basic bodily functions.  Pepperberg spent years teaching Alex and finding ingenious ways to determine that he really did understand what he was talking about – for instance, he invented the word “banerry” to describe an apple (banana + cherry). Alex, shown by Meilo So engaged in many forms of learning, had real personality and was no more patient with repetitive testing than are young children, so he rebelled by sometimes ignoring his trainers or deliberately giving the wrong answer.  Spinner’s book is about progress in science and about the way entrenched ideas sometimes need a single champion, or just a few, to question them. Spinner introduces Roger Fouts, who taught Washoe the chimp sign language, and Francine Patterson, who did the same for Koko the gorilla – Fouts and Patterson were among the few scientists who knew that animals other than humans could speak and understand words. But Pepperberg’s work with the bossy, impatient Alex was something entirely different, and her work with another African grey, Griffin, after Alex’s death in 2007, has extended our knowledge of animal communication further. The subject of Alex the Parrot is an unusual one in a book for young readers; just as Alex was no ordinary bird, this is no ordinary book.

      Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama is more straightforward and more to be expected at this time of year, but Selina Alko’s (+++) tale still has its share of real-world pleasures. It is, as the title makes obvious, the story of a religiously mixed family: “Our tree is crowned with one shiny star./ And we light eight candles for Hanukkah.”  The whole book consists of ways in which the family mixes Jewish and Christian winter traditions, sometimes in quite charming ways: “Mama scatters golden gelt under the tree./ Daddy hooks candy canes on menorah branches.”  The unnamed girl who narrates the story helps with the decorating, the singing “about Maccabees and the manger,” the cooking, the gift-giving and the storytelling: “Uncle Zachary recalls the miracle of the oil./ Aunt Faith tells about the animals in the manger.”  Everything is pleasant, warm and cooperative, even during post-holiday cleanup and a look ahead at the new year and “all the other holidays following/ Hanukkah and Christmas.”  There is not, though, a single forthright mention of the religious underpinnings of the two winter holidays (of which the Christian one is far more important to members of that faith than the Jewish one is to Jews; the primary Jewish holidays occur at other times of the year). The book is really for families comparable to the one invented by Alko, who already know the differing traditions and will enjoy reading about inventive ways to mix celebrations together.

      Room for the Baby, another (+++) story with a strong Jewish flavor, also uses an invented family to present real-life circumstances.  Here the subject is the soon-to-come new baby (announced by Mom “one fine spring morning, as we buttered our Passover matzos”), and the need to clear enough space for a crib in the family’s sewing room.  The book is also about recycling, because what is all over the room is old material, such as worn-out sheets, that Mom has been meaning to work on but has never quite gotten to remake. Now, spurred by her pregnancy, she makes “dozens of soft diapers for the baby” and then some more for a neighbor’s coming granddaughter; then she makes clothing, and “that autumn on Rosh Hashanah…Mom had stacks of tiny sleepers and onesies and little shirts ready for the baby.”  And sure enough, neighbors admire the clothing and want some for their own families, and Mom obliges – she is clearly an excellent and very fast-working seamstress.  There is no particular reason for the family to be Jewish in Michelle Edwards’ and Jana Christy’s book, but Jewish holidays are used to mark the progress of the seasons and the pregnancy, and the new baby, a girl, is born on the third night of Hanukkah.  And in a final pleasant twist to a very pleasant story, after the boy narrator gives away a last batch of unneeded items to make a little more space in the sewing room, those items return in modified form as baby gifts made by all the neighbors for whom Mom had made clothing.  It is a gentle and entirely suitable ending for a sweet book.

      Real-world stories for young readers are of course not limited to picture books.  Outcasts United is a (+++) adaptation by Warren St. John of his adult book, Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference. The subtitle has been changed for younger readers, ages 8-12, and the story has been shortened and simplified, but it remains essentially the same: the Fugees, a youth soccer team made up of refugees from around the world, have a dramatic season in the town of Clarkston, Georgia, under the inspirational leadership of their tough coach, Luma Mufleh. The team members are from various war-torn countries; Mufleh herself is Jordanian, although educated in the United States. Although the story is essentially true, it follows the fictional arc of many, many sports-as-bonding stories: team members learn how to behave on and off the field, find out how to start making new lives for themselves in their adopted country, and learn to get along with each other and their coach; and everyone matures and learns something about himself or herself.  There are debates and disputes – about hair cutting, about bonding with young people, teammates or not, from the same country, vs. bonding with the team as a whole.  There is slow progress with learning English and understanding what the coach wants; there are comical or almost-comical moments, such as the Under Thirteen team doing laps only when in Luma’s line of sight, but otherwise walking and chatting while she cannot see them; and there are, of course, the games, some of which inevitably go better than others. And when one goes well, “Her players, some of them still strangers to each other, were high-fiving and shouting joyfully at the sky as they ran toward her on the bench.”  The whole book is both heartwarming and obvious from start to finish; despite the many problems and all the heart-tugging, or perhaps because of them, it reads almost like a fairy tale come true – one with sports at its center.

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