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Staff Picks: Books

A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings

Of the 100 buildings pictured and discussed in this 2015 book, only nine are in the United States, the closest to Kalamazoo being Mies van de Rohe's 1945-1951 Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. Hence, this is quite an international volume. The chapters are Pioneers, Rhetoric (Building with a Message), Sacred, Urban Visions, Big and Beautiful, Material Matters, and Lost and Found. I wonder if the wonderful O'Connor/Houghton volume on Kalamazoo buildings gave Mr. Cruickshank the idea for this last chapter title? Excellent photography and concise commentaries are present in each entry. I particularly enjoyed the one on the Stockholm, Sweden, Public Library. There are photos of both exterior and interior, including the central reading room, of which the author says, 'The white walls reflect light down onto the desks below, making the tall cylindrical room the epitome of intellectual enlightenment.' This is truly a spectacular building, along with the other 99 included herein.


American Nations

Could the cultural values of the different European immigrants that first immigrated to what we now call the United States still be affecting our election results? Colin Woodard thinks so. He breaks the country up into eleven regional cultures, but he sees most of political history as a conflict between Yankeedom, descendants of the Pilgrims and Puritans; and the Deep South, immigrants from the British colony Barbados that landed in Charleston, South Carolina in 1670. In American Nations, Woodard tells the history of the arrival and expansion of these different groups and how they have aligned and broken apart through the next four centuries.


The most fascinating part for me was the Revolutionary War section which showed that the colonies were in no way united about whether or why to start a revolution.


Towers Falling

I remember how nice the day was. How I didn’t want to go to school. I remember being bored in my Focus on Freshman class when the assistant principal ran, red faced and huffing, into the classroom, handed our teacher a piece of paper, and then ran out. I remember the whole class asking if we were on lockdown, if there was an active shooter in our school, or in the high school across town. I remember the teacher struggling with how to explain what had just happened to a bunch of 9th graders. I remember thinking the world was about to change.

It’s hard to imagine that something that happened not that long ago, something I can still remember so vividly, could be a foreign concept to someone else. In Towers Falling, fifth grader Dèja Barnes wonders how something that happened before she was born could have to do with her. How could this bit of history, something that happened 15 years ago, have any impact on her now? The story follows her as she realizes that 9/11 may have happened before she was born, but the effects have touched everyone around her, and ripple outward to affect her life in ways she did not previously understand. This book does such a fabulous job of showing how we are all connected through our small communities that build outward and how we’re all connected as Americans to 9/11 and how history is never something that exists only in the past tense.


The Princess and the Warrior, A Tale of Two Volcanoes

There have only been a few occasions where I have discovered an author that I would eventually become obsessed with.  Duncan Tonatiuh (toh-nah-tee-YOU) is one of those authors.  I was so excited to read his latest children’s book, The Princess and the Warrior, A Tale of Two Volcanoes. In it, he retells the legend of the two great volcanoes overlooking Mexico City: Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.  Once again Tonatiuh's artistic style successfully represents the legends, the people, the history, and the culture of Mexico.  

Tonatiuh is Mexican American and he grew up in both countries.  He has received well-deserved recognitions and awards for his works including the Pura Belpre’ Medal and the New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book Award. Now more than ever, it is important to continue to highlight diverse children’s books that promote pride, acceptance, and appreciation for all cultures. This book does all this and more.

 


Best Book on Racism I've Ever Read

There is nothing I can say to do this book justice. Let's start here: certain books change our life, our perspective, our understanding, and bring us to a new level as moral human beings. This is one of those books (The Invisible Man and Between the World and Me come to mind as well). But this was the best book I've ever read on racism in America, bar none. I enjoyed Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, and this is similar, but Stamped is much better in terms of scope and writing style, ambition and courage.

Do not be fooled or scared by the length of the book. I devoured every single page and, wanting more, began reading it again. It reads fast, like a short book with huge ambition - it chronicles the entire history of racist ideas in America, and it does so brilliantly to a popular audience. From sipping English tea and trading slaves to the Americas, to Barak Obama as president, all ideas about race are analyzed and put into their historical context (to name one: "law and order")

Some main ideas to chew on. First, ideas about race come in three flavors (a) antiracist ideas, which means roughly "there's nothing wrong with Black people." hint: that's the correct position. (b) segregationist ideas, "there's something inherently wrong with Black people", and (c) assimilationist ideas, "there's something wrong with Black people, but we can fix it, and they probably need to be more White." The book is a case study in how wrong, insidious, and powerful assimilationist ideas are throughout our history. Second, Black folks can be racist towards black people. Ideas don't discriminate and we are all swimming in the same pool. Indeed, the author begins the book by saying he had several racist ideas that he had to shed during the writing of the book. He drank some of the kool-aid, without even knowing it. A big part of the book is boldly calling out these ideas. He is not soft on historical figures. History has always had antiracist ideas and racist ideas. Third, most of the solutions we have tried have not worked, sadly. Pointing at successful Black people and saying "see! look!" hasn't worked (and has the opposite affect). And educating White people hasn't worked either. Kendi believes nothing less than a massive, grassroots movement (e.g. Black Power, Black Lives Matter) which forces powerful people to end discrimination will work. And having truly antiracist people in power is the only long-term solution. End discrimination, he says, and you end racism and racist ideas about Black people.

 

 

 

 

 


American Treasures

December 26, 1941: “He wouldn’t fully relax until the B & O National Limited reached its final destination the following morning, but the fact that the train was leaving Washington, D.C., carrying its cargo, accompanied by two of his finest agents, was a promising milestone in the mission.”

So what was on the train? American Treasures: The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address describes the work to safely secure and store these documents, an effort lead by the Library of Congress. So where were they stored? I’m not giving that secret away – read this fascinating book.

I won’t say this is a page-turner but the back stories about these three documents and how they came to be, is quite interesting as are the efforts to protect, preserve, and appropriately display them over the years. 

The importance of these documents seems especially relevant in this season of political rancor. I have renewed, deeper appreciation and respect for the founding fathers and the documents they drafted.


Nat Turner and Slave Resistance

Filmmaker Nate Parker made history at this year's Sundance Film Festival when he sold his film, The Birth of a Nation, to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the highest amount ever paid at the festival. The film went on to win the festival's U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. The film follows the life of Nat Turner, and the slave revolt he led in Virginia in 1831. When asked in an interview why he chose to use the same title for his film as the 1915 silent film often credited as a catalyst for the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, Parker responded, "I've reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change."

When news of this film at Sundance first emerged many months ago, some friends and I were discussing our eager anticipation of the film, which opens in theaters today. Those conversations led me to think more about slave revolts and how these episodes in American history are often minimized, or completely ignored. In fact, well into the mid-20th century some white scholars of American history still claimed that Africans passively accepted enslavement. We know this isn't the case, but it's not a topic covered very thoroughly by most history courses before university-level. Wanting to learn more, I began reading more works on slave resistance.

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne
Historian Gerald Horne argues the Revolutionary War was a tactic used by the founding fathers to prevent the abolition of slavery in the colonies, challenging the traditional narrative of our country's founding. Highly recommended.

American Uprising: the Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen
This book details the 1811 revolt in what is present-day Louisiana. Hundreds of slaves from several different sugar cane plantations marched together in an attempt to overtake New Orleans. It is thought the Haitian Revolution, ending in 1804, partly inspired this uprising, which was ultimately unsuccessful and led to the execution of 95 slaves.

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
This award-winning graphic novel details Turner's life, beginning with his mother's enslavement and ending with his execution for his role in the revolt.

Ardency: a Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels by Kevin Young
This is a poetic retelling of the Amistad revolt by poet and scholar Kevin Young, who was long-listed for this year's National Book Award for poetry and was named director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture this past August.


Banned Books Week: Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl and an Adolescent Thief

When I was eight years old, I stumbled across a book in my elementary school library that sparked a decades-long obsession for a certain period of world history and sewed the seeds for the activist I would become as an adult -- Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl.

The books in my elementary school library were sorted by grade level. Students were only allowed to check out books from their grade range. A few times per week, my class would visit the school library for an hour of quiet reading. During one of these visits, as I walked up and down the aisles, an off-white book with a black and white photo of a young girl caught my eye. I remember studying her face, her large eyes, and wondering what she was thinking about at the moment that school photo was taken. Intrigued, I plopped down on a whistle chair in a private corner and started to read.

Within minutes I was sucked into the world of this 13-year-old girl and quickly lost track of time. When my teacher informed the class it was time to check out, I panicked. I knew I would not be able to check out the book, as I was not old enough. I was desperate to finish it, so I made the drastic choice to slip the diary into my backpack. I remember sweating, being terrified as I walked out of the library, waiting for a firm hand to grab my shoulder and an angry voice to call me out as a thief. I thought about how much trouble I would be in. Despite the fear, I wasn’t swayed. I HAD to finish the book.

Anne’s life was drastically different from mine, but in many ways, I related to her. I too found escape through writing. I too found relief in creating other worlds I felt safe in. I identified with her feelings of isolation and desperation for a different life -- a different, kinder world. By the time I neared the end of the diary and realized she died alone at Bergen-Belsen, I was heartbroken. I felt like I had lost a friend, a confidant.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but at 8 years old, I had experienced the age-old, controversial practice of book banning. Someone else deemed the material was inappropriate for someone my age. Someone else determined I was not mature enough to handle the content of the book, and demanded my school prevent students of my age access to it. This someone had no idea the impact this book would have on my life. While I absolutely do not condone stealing, I do not regret my decision. 

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Since Anne’s father Otto Frank published the first edition of the diary in 1947, Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl remains one of the most challenged books in history. The original published diary, and the subsequent releases of the rest of Anne’s writings have been under constant fire by opponents, mostly Holocaust deniers, who have questioned their authenticity.

Because of the persistent accusations against the diary in the 1960’s and 70’s, Otto Frank led the charge for a number of investigations. The most extensive was executed in the early 1980’s by the Netherlands Forensic Institute at the request of the National Institute for War Documentation. The result was a 250-page report that irrefutably proved the authenticity of Anne’s collection of work.

It is ironic that ever since her death at age 16 in 1945, Anne Frank is still being persecuted. As recently as 2013, a mother of a seventh-grade girl in the Northville school district in Michigan claimed the definitive version of Frank’s diary, which includes passages left out of the original 1947 edition, is too graphic for young students. The mother felt Anne’s description of her developing body was “pornographic.” Fortunately, the school district rejected the challenge.

Anne Frank’s diary is considered one of the most influential, historical documentations of The Holocaust, which is exactly what Ann hoped to accomplish when she rewrote her diary with the intention of publishing it when the war was over. Anne wanted to “go on living, even after her death” and she has. Hatred and ignorance extinguished her life, but despite continued oppression, her voice is louder than ever.


Hispanic Heritage Month

I am a huge fan of the award winning author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month I submit these two excellent picks by this author.

The Princess and the Warrior is a re-telling of one of Mexico’s most cherished legends. It is the story of unlikely love between a princess and a lowly warrior. The king issues a challenge to the brave warrior: defeat their enemy Jaguar Claw. Will they end up together? Find out.

My other pick is Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras. This is the history of the Day of the Dead Calaveras. Calaveras are those skeletons dressed as ladies called Catrinas, and other characters that you see around the time of the Day of the Dead. The library will be hosting programs for the Day of the Dead at many locations. Check our LINK.

If you’re interested in a jump start on the history of the artist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) who made the skeleton images an indelible part of these celebrations, you’ll enjoy this book.


The Upside Down Boy - El niño de cabeza

In The Upside Down Boy - El niño de cabeza, United States Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera tells the story, in verse, of a pivotal time in his childhood when his mother and father moved their family to the city so that he could attend school. He tells the story of how his third grade teacher, Mrs. Sampson, invited him to the front of the class to sing a song. He sang “Three Blind Mice” and Mrs. Sampson told him “You have a very beautiful voice”.  The book is dedicated to Mrs. Lucille Sampson, Herrera’s third grade teacher, who, at age 95, was present at the Library of Congress when Herrera was inaugurated as the United States Poet Laureate in 2015. You can hear Herrera tell this story in front of an audience at the Kansas City Public Library on New Letters On the Air.

Juan Felipe Herrera’s Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes is a Pura Belpré author honor book.