Sunday, January 29, 2017

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan by Ashley Bryan

This captures African culture and universal human desires juxtaposed with slavery. I'm living in South Africa. Last weekend we went to Soweto to see Nelson Mandela's house. A young man wanting money walked us across the street pounding on his chest creating a drumbeat and singing a Soweto welcome song trying to earn some money. The song was fun, joyful, and uplifting. Music is an integral part of this culture. Students break into spontaneous song and dance and any student-centered event includes open mic. A day later I read in this book, "Drums were forbidden./Owners feared that messages could be carried by drum./We used our bodies /to beat out rhythms/Clapping hands, slapping sides/stamping feet." Through free verse Ashley Bryan describes how slaves used talents such as music to ease burdens and help with survival.

Bryan is now 93 and still cranking out books and artwork. This tale captures an indefatigable spirit and vibrant culture in an oppressive time as it shows 11 slaves being sold on the Fairfield estate. His illustrations show the face of each slave and the money they are being sold for at an auction. Each slave has unique skills that give them pride and they find freedom in performing each day. The first page explains their skills and situation while the following page has the slave's dreams that contain their given name from Africa and his or her desire for a better future. Slavery was meant to strip blacks of their dignity and demoralize them. The section of each slave's dreams shows their humanity and universal desires that all people have regardless of race.

The free verse repeats the words, freedom, dreams, and memorable phrases such as "My knowledge makes me/ hunger for more" and "Learning how to work/ with measurements and tools/ gives me an inner strength." This would be good for class discussions grades 3-5. You could just read part of it if the students get twitchy. The illustrations remind me of woodcuts and some are very detailed while others are not. I read this as an ebook and the format was fine. I can see why it has won three awards.

5 Smileys

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West by Candace Fleming

In the U.S. cultural perceptions of gunslinging cowboys, fierce Native Americans, shoot-outs, and showdowns in the West were influenced by Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in 1883, but as Candace Fleming shows, many of Cody's stories were tall tales, embellished for entertainment: "It's a stirring story. Too bad it's not accurate." This book explores the myths surrounding Buffalo Bill Cody compared to historical truths. A fascinating glimpse into Westward Expansion and colonial cultural encounters with the Native Americans, Fleming reveals the good and evil in Buffalo Bill. A man of contradictions he influenced the Wild West myth and perpetuated a stereotype that exists even today for some: that America's conquest of the West was won by white people who bravely fought savage Native Americans spreading civilization and creating a democratic society by taking "free" land.

A man of contradictions, Buffalo Bill Cody painted himself as a hero, but he had a shady past. As a youth, his family was victim to hostile settlers, their lives threatened and home robbed when his father had to flee for his life. Yet as a teenager, Cody inflicted on others the same thing done to his family as a child as he enlisted with militant bands of fighters that stole, persecuted, and burned the homes of innocent people. In his Wild West show, Cody exploited hired Native American's to make whites feel superior, but he also treated the Indians well in terms of food, money, and certain freedoms. He claimed he was "equal" with Chief Sitting Bull, but scalped an Indian for his own glory and portrayed the Indians as savages in his show. When he died the Oglala Lakota Indians issued a statement expressing their sympathies and calling him a "warm and lasting friend." He was respectful and disrespectful. He was generous and exploitive. He was flawed and real.

Why did hundreds of Indians agree and show up for tryouts year-after-year (that lasted 30 years) to be in Cody's show when he went to the reservations seeking talent? The show was demeaning. In sections called, "Panning The Truth," Fleming reveals the historical context and the horrible conditions of the reservations where Native Americans were starving. Cody paid his employees fairly well with enough to feed their relatives. On reservations, Native Americans couldn't practice their religion in sweat lodges, sing, dance, wear traditional costumes, speak their native language, ride horses, live in tipis, or leave without the government's permission, to name a few. Acting in the show let them reclaim their past and pass on traditions they were afraid of losing. They could visit other relatives on different reservations. Chief Sitting Bull joined the show to save his tribe from starvation. And he came to hate the show. Fleming's task of presenting the complexities of Buffalo Bill's character and self-centeredness is handled with skill and care. Readers can decide for themselves what to think of him.

The Indians were one of the Wild West show's main attractions with the U.S. government approving whether or not over a hundred could perform in the show. Cody re-enacted a Buffalo hunt, battle between Native Americans and colonialists, and a stagecoach attack. These scenes required Indians for authenticity; however, when on tour in Europe seven died from diseases and accidents. The government began an investigation that threatened to revoke the use of Native Americans in the show (not because they feared for their safety and well-being but because they wanted to make them live like the "white man" and Cody's show perpetuated their traditions). In response to the investigation, Cody sought out and added to his show skilled foreign horsemanship from Russian, South America, and Arabs countries. In a strange twist, the government not only dropped their investigation but gave thirty Native Americans the choice of going to prison or joining Buffalo Bill's show after the Wounded Knee Massacre. Twenty-three signed up with Cody's show and brought their families totaling more than seventy people. Cody's show had 650 employees, buffaloes, horses, elk, deer, and more. It was an enormous production requiring large outdoor spaces to perform.

Lately, I've been reading books like, "The Underground Railroad," by Colson Whitehead with the theme of the victor or dominant group in a society controlling the narrative of history or literature to suit themselves and their agenda. Candace Fleming uses this same theme revealing how Buffalo Bill created a show that romanticized the West, but was a far cry from the realistic brutality, racism, and selfish exploitation of the times. Buffalo Bill was an international celebrity during his life. A superstar who knew how to sell himself. And While Fleming doesn't judge, readers might feel some cognitive dissonance that reveals self-awareness of racial prejudices. Or not. If you just want a fun yarn, you can get that from it too. Don't miss this one.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence

The elephants steal the show in this book - as the author intended. Lawrence Anthony owns a game reserve called, Thula Thula in South Africa. One day he unexpectedly gets a call asking if he'd accept nine rogue elephants.  He's told that if he doesn't accept in two months, they will be shot and killed. He's dealing with other issues such as poachers on his land who are threatened by the prospect of elephants. They cannot poach with those big creatures and they sabotage Anthony's efforts to build a fence. When his workers get shot at the situation gets dangerous and Anthony is forced to solve the problem. The nonstop action and issues make this story sound like it is from the Wild West, not the 1990s. When Anthony finally gets the elephants they are so angry he risks his life to save them. Not only do the elephants respond to him, they visit his home after his death of a heart attack in 2012. They return every year on the day of his death to pay their respects. These are amazing animals and this story is a fascinating look into not only running a game reserve, but what local Zulu culture was like, and how humans can communicate with intelligent animals. I highly recommend it.

5 Smileys