Slapstick and Watercolor: a Match Made in Heaven

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton, by Matt Phelan (2013)

Opening line: “Life in Muskegon, Michigan was quiet. Ordinary.”

Anyone who knows me can probably guess why I picked this one up. Because it has an elephant on the cover, right? WRONG.

Okay, partially right. But also because it was featured in a Best of Middle School hour long book talk I went to last year! I remember the book-talker mentioning the beautiful watercolor illustrations that accompany this graphic novel, and boy, was he right. They are GORGEOUS. (My instagrammers might have seen my grams.) The colors make you long for midwestern summers on the lake.

Bluffton starts in the year 1908 when young Henry Harrison notices a train full of vaudeville performers arrive in his sleepy town. One of the vaudeville families are the Keatons, one of the premier performing families in the country. The oldest son’s name is Buster. (For old Hollywood fans, this name is probably familiar to you. For those who it is not, no worries.) The Keaton family act is known for their slapstick comedy, and Buster is the best at it. Later, he would go on to become one of the greatest silent film actors ever known, including his film The General, which AFI ranked #18 in their list of 100 greatest American films ever made.

A lot of readers on Goodreads gave this just an okay review. They said that the intended audience wouldn’t appreciate it, that today’s kid readers don’t even know who Buster Keaton is, etc., etc. I however, disagree. Frankly, as a junior high librarian, I had a hard time not selling any graphic novels to kids. They fly off the shelves no matter the subject matter. Attach a good recommendation to it, and I’m likely to have a hold list on it for weeks. Plus, a lot of kids, at least my students, loved seeing glimpses into “things that were real.” They think non-fiction graphic novels are awesome, and while this is historical fiction, I think it would have the same appeal. Lastly, the ART IS AMAZING. The watercolor work is just beautiful, regardless of the story. And actually lastly, who cares what the “intended audience” was? I’m a 27-year-old non-Buster Keaton fan, and I enjoyed it! In fact, it made me want to check out some of his films! Honestly, I’m guessing that is much more the intention of the author — to get a new generation interested in something he finds wonderful.

Lovely. Plus, there’s an elephant on the cover.

2.5 stars


Children’s fiction surprising me with American history, once again.

Crow, by Barbara Wright (2012)

It’s hard to know where to start with this book. Initially, as I was reading, I was coming up with a list of complaints I had that I would share with you in this post, but by the end… most of them seemed kind of petty. The last 90 pages of Crow are extremely powerful, and I’m feeling a little overwhelmed as I write this. So to have a chance to organize my thoughts, let’s start this off with a summary, shall we?

It’s 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Moses Thomas is a smart 11-year old boy living with his mother, Sadie, who is a housemaid in the home of a rich white family (a la The Help), his father, Jackson, newspaper man at the only black daily in the state and one of 10 town aldermen, and his grandmother, Boo Nanney, a former slave who freely shares her wisdom and folk remedies with all who care to listen. Moses’ father is a big proponent of education, giving Moses “challenge words” to research in the dictionary (great language arts tie-in!) and assuring him that with hard work and commitment, Moses can achieve anything.

But as elections for the state and federal government approach, things start to heat up in Wilmington. In the years since the Civil War, Wilmington, the largest city in North Carolina, had become a black-majority community with a rising middle class and a biracial local government (as represented by fictional Jackson Thomas). The state had even elected four black Congressmen to represent them in Washington (incidentally, another African American from North Carolina was not elected to U.S. Congress again until 1992). Because of this, Moses is seemingly unaware of the kind of racism possible, until a group of White Supremacists known as the Red Shirts arrive in town to keep blacks from voting. For days, Moses and his family and friends are kept in their homes for fear of leaving. Following the election, the fear and violence escalate, and even though the Red Shirts were successful at securing an all-white representation for the state and nation, they now demand an all-white local government as well (despite the municipal elections being slated for the following year). What unfolds is bloody chaos as the Red Shirts take over and the black families struggle for safety.

According to Wright’s historical note at the end of her book and the little research I did after finishing reading, the events depicted in Crow are pretty accurate to what happened in Wilmington on the day that is now called “The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898.” Although Moses and his family are fictional, most everything else is a result of careful research. Once again (like with Fever 1793) I found myself incredibly surprised by this event in our country’s history that I had heard nothing of before, an event that was pretty crucial to the shaping of race relations in the south for most of the 20th Century. Had this coup d’etat never happened, things may have progressed in North Carolina (and the rest of the south) in the way it seemed to be shaping–with more African Americans in leadership and government positions, with a growing middle class, and with Jim Crow laws being forgotten. But instead we had a century of oppression for those who weren’t white and equality still hasn’t been fully realized.

Moses’s naive view of the world made this book a great one for those just learning about race relations in the south, I’m thinking especially for communities that are fairly homogenous and may not know racism as well as others. With Moses, the reader’s eyes are slowly opened to the injustices that have accompanied having darker skin in America.

I loved the characters Wright gradually developed, particularly Boo Nanney, Moses’s father, and Tommy, a white kid Moses befriends. This is where Wright shines.

But it’s certainly not a perfect book, so finally, back to my complaints (although they are somewhat minor in retrospect): For the first 150 pages of this book, there is no plot. It kind of reminds me of Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963, in this way, with the many chapters of plateau to a sudden climax and conclusion. But at least with Watsons, each chapter has a story of its own. In Crow, the chapters seemed to be marked somewhat haphazardly. Hit 25 pages, and we’ll throw in a new chapter heading. And they draaaaggg on. I think it would take a persistent kid to commit to this book. That being said, I think it would work great as a book read with a class, either as part of a small group reading circle or as a full class. One thing to watch out for: the n-word is used pretty heavily in the second half of the book and the violence is pretty graphic. Keep an eye out for anxious parents. And when they do come, explain to them the incredibly valuable contributions this book has to make.

2 stars

(PS: This marks my second debut for the Debut Challenge! Note: Wright is not a brand new author, but her first two books Easy Money and Plain Language are for adult audiences.)


Leaving one world for another

Ghostbread, by Sonja Livingston (2009)

A couple years ago, I took a creative non-fiction writing class “for fun” to round out my last semester of college. It ended up being one of the most consuming classes of my college career. It’s a difficult thing to write interesting, purposeful, and honest prose featuring your life, and have it be something you’d actually be okay with someone else reading. Ghostbread is the kind of thing I aspired to write. It is just lovely.

Sonja Livingston grew up as one of seven children in a single parent household. While providing for seven kids is difficult for any family, Sonja’s mother struggled particularly, and the children grew up in extreme poverty, moving from apartment to house to reservation to motel to friend’s house to another friend’s house to home. It was far from a stable environment. And yet, the love and sibling bonds held the family together throughout the turbulence and uncertainty.

The story arc isn’t what captured my heart on this one, though. Instead, I was fascinated by Livingston’s prose. Let me tell you, each sentence packs a punch. She structures the narrative into compact 1-2 page stories, and each is led by a powerful first sentence that sets the tone for that piece. “When you eat soup every night, thoughts of bread get you through,” she writes as she begins discussing the meals while on the reservation. Or of elementary school, “At school, I learned to read and write and use spit in creative ways.” And later, revealing a thought common to many of us in adolescence, “No one told me the thing I most needed to know.” Each beginning line carries you to the next line and you can’t help but read through the rest of the story. To put it simply, it’s captivating.

The well-deserved winner of the Award for Creative Nonfiction (from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), Livingston’s book is highly recommended for any fans of this genre or any readers wanting to get an inside view of what it’s like to grow up hungry.

2 stars

Seeing the world from someone else’s skin…

  To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)

I. Loved. This. Book. Oh, gosh, it was so wonderful.

Most of you are probably like, Duh, Emily, it’s To Kill A Mockingbird, of course it’s wonderful. But I skipped the English course that read this book freshman year of high school, and just never got around to it. My bad.

For those of you in similar boats, do yourself a favor and go get one of the hundred copies probably at your library and check it out. But in the meantime, here’s a quick summary:

Scout and Jem Finch live with their lawyer father, Atticus, in small town Alabama in the 1930s. Always a tomboy, Scout spends the summers playing with Brother Jem and their quirky friend Dill. One of their favorite games (much to their father’s disappointment) is trying to make Boo Radley, the town recluse, come out of his house. Meanwhile, Atticus is busy preparing to represent Tom Robinson, a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. Although Atticus is normally a well-respected member of society, his decision to represent Tom leads to rumbling among the townsfolk and taunts toward Scout and Jem from the local kids. The reader gets to watch the case unfold and the reactions from the racist village from Scout’s point of view, giving a fresh, innocent, often humorous perspective to the well-known struggle between black and white in our county’s history.

It’s nearly impossible to read this and not wish you were able to share the porch swing with young Scout, watching the fireflies, kicking your dusty bare feet, and contemplating the wild wonders of the world around you.

Charming & challenging…three stars.