Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty
by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke

published by Lee & Low Books
96 pages

Publisher's description:
Eleven-year-old Roger is trying to make sense of his classmate Robert "Yummy" Sandifer's death, but first he has to make sense of Yummy's life. Yummy could be as tough as a pit bull sometimes. Other times he was as sweet as the sugary treats he loved to eat. Was Yummy some sort of monster, or just another kid?

As Roger searches for the truth, he finds more and more questions. How did Yummy end up in so much trouble? Did he really kill someone? And why do all the answers seem to lead back to a gang—the same gang Roger's older brother belongs to?

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty is a compelling dramatization based on events that occurred in Chicago in 1994. This gritty exploration of youth gang life will force readers to question their own understandings of good and bad, right and wrong.

My comments:

For a few days in the fall of 1994, 11-year old Robert "Yummy" Sandifer became infamous for shooting an innocent girl during an attempted gang murder and made the cover of Time magazine. This account of Yummy's short life succinctly illustrates the cycle of gang violence in poor neighborhoods, where kids are groomed to be both bullies and victims.

The events all take place in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago's South side. While Yummy's story is true, Roger has been invented to narrate it. So is this a work of fiction or nonfiction? I've seen it reviewed as both, and it is cataloged as nonfiction at my library and a few others. Other libraries have it cataloged as fiction or included in mixed graphic novel collections.

Either way, it's a gripping read and one of the best graphic novels I've seen all year. The black and white artwork by DuBurke digs beneath cliche Chicago images like the Sears Tower, Michael Jordan and Al Capone, presenting the people and events in stark clarity. This is a neighborhood of nondescript brick boxes and ramshackle frame houses. The infamous cover of Time is worked into one sequence, and Yummy's mugshot serves as inspiration for the cover. His small stature is perhaps the most surprising element of the art.

In an author's note at the end, Neri (then a teacher in South Central LA) recalls where he was when Yummy's story first broke, and how he followed it day by day. "Yummy was both a bully and a victim--he deserves our anger and our understanding," he concludes. A list of author's sources includes a blend of news articles from the time as well as more recent critical analysis.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Good, The Bad and the Barbie

The Good the Bad and the Barbie
by Tanya Lee Stone
published by Viking
130 pages

Publisher's Description:

During her unparalleled fifty-year history, Barbie has been the doll that some people love and some people love to hate. There's no question she's influenced generations, but to what end? Acclaimed nonfiction author Tanya Lee Stone takes an unbiased look at how Barbie became the icon that she is, and at the impact that she's had on our culture (and vice versa). Featuring passionate anecdotes and memories from a range of girls and women, a foreword by Meg Cabot, and original color photographs, this book explores the Barbie phenomenon in a brand-new light.

My Comments:

My own impression of Barbie as a kid was mixed. I had a couple of the dolls, but was more interested in playing with Dallas, Barbie's horse. When I played My Little Ponies, Barbie was often the villain. So, I was bolstered somewhat by Stone's even-handed history, which acknowledges that not every little girl was enamored with Barbie.

Barbie's creator, Ruth Handler, is presented as a feminist who worked outside the home from an early age. She helped to form Mattel with her husband Elliot and another partner named Matson. Mattel under the Handlers is presented in a very positive light – the company was progressive and integrated before integration was required. Stone does later mention that the Handlers eventually resigned from Mattell amid some scrutiny from the SEC. While the writing overall is very good, I was occasionally bothered by simplistic statements like on page 25, “television, movies and music do a great job of reflecting what is happening in society at any given moment.”

Overall, though, the book presents a balanced and thorough view of Barbie. Chapter 5 provides a nuanced, thought-provoking examination of Barbie’s effects on girls. It includes interviews with fathers as well as girls and women. Stone also makes it clear that Mattel counted on customers buying clothes and acessories for their dolls, and that the company cared about what would sell as well as quality. Chapter 6 delves into racial and ethnic identity. Stone reveals that, while it may be more obvious to think of Barbie's unattainable proportions as being harmful to girls in general, a more common problem may have been how the doll's whiteness effected non-white girls. Chapter 7 gets into how kids (including boys) played with Barbie. There are several laugh-out loud moments. Chapter 8 examines Barbie as art, and how the doll has inspired many artists and designers.

I found the otherwise-engaging forward by Meg Cabot to be somewhat troubling because of one instance of poor word choice. She said that Barbie was “useless without Ken,” which invalidates her other statements about Barbie inspiring girls to be whatever they wanted to be. I think maybe what this slip reveals is that girls’ aspirations have been limited by social conventions, and that these limitations had more effect on how they played with Barbie than vice versa.

There are many photos throughout, and the section of color photos toward the back is a lot of fun. Stone acknowledges Peter Harrigan, a theatre professor whose massive Barbie collection is featured prominetnly in these photos. The book is very well-documented. Quotes from personal emails of Barbie fans and detractors are noted while maintaining privacy. Additionally, many books and articles have been consulted. Photo credits are given ample space, making them easily readable. The index denotes textboxes in addition to photos and is well-organized in general. I liked this book even better than Almost Astronauts, which was a YALSA finalist last year.

Your Comments?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing *2011 YALSA Award Winner*
by Ann Angel
published by Amulet/Abrams

Publisher's description:
Forty years after her death, Janis Joplin remains among the most compelling and influential figures in rock-and-roll history. Her story—told here with depth and sensitivity by author Ann Angel—is one of a girl who struggled against rules and limitations, yet worked diligently to improve as a singer. It’s the story of an outrageous rebel who wanted to be loved, and of a wild woman who wrote long, loving letters to her mom. And finally, it’s the story of one of the most iconic female musicians in American history, who died at twenty-seven. Janis Joplin includes more than sixty photographs, and an assortment of anecdotes from Janis’s friends and band mates. This thoroughly researched and well-illustrated biography is a must-have for all young artists, music lovers, and pop-culture enthusiasts.

My comments:
This book was a labor of love. It began as a short piece that Angel was encouraged to expand. She worked on it for years, conducting email interviews with Joplin's friend and bandmate Sam Andrew (who wrote the introduction), Joplin's former road manager John Byrne Cooke and her friend and publicist Myra Friedman. Angel even forged her own friendship with Friedman.

The eye-popping design is a delight. The colors and patterns adroning the pages reflect the psychedelic look of the album art incuded as illustrations. There are also many photos of Joplin, some filling an entire page, that show her both in her awkward youth and as the performer that she transformed herself into. This a fun book to browse through.

Angel does a really good job of describing Joplin’s persona and the impact her persona had on people, but what I felt was missing was in-depth analysis of her music. There is discussion of a few song lyrics, but it seemed a little too shallow to me. I would also have liked to hear more thoughts from fans and musicians who were influenced by Joplin. I thought that the view of 1950s culture presented was a little simplistic, but I liked how Angel shows Joplin as a misfit who struggled with her self image -- something that teens can identify with.

The bibliography is a bit difficult to navigate, because personal emails, articles, books, and albums are all lumped together without any obvious indication to show which is which. Divisional headings would have been helpful. The well-documented source notes, however, are very insightful, because they include the full sources and helpful things such as links.

Your comments?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

YALSA's Nonfiction & Morris Chat

I mentioned YALSA's upcoming chat on the Morris & Nonfiction shortlists last week, and now one detail has changed. The chat has been moved from ALA to Adobe Connect. This means that ANYONE can join in, not just YALSA members.

That chat is set to take place today (Wednesday, Dec. 8) at 8pm Eastern Time (7pm Central Time). The link to access the chat is:

The shortlists for both the Nonfiction and Morris awards are available on the YALSA website.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mock YALSA Voting Results / YALSA Official Shortlist Announced

I just came from the mock discussion and vote for the YALSA nonfiction award. It was held at National-Louis University's Center for Teaching Through Children's Books. I sat in a room with 9 other lovely librarians and discussed the nonfiction titles that I had picked (somewhat subjectively) as being among the best of the year. The titles we discussed are:

Borrowed Names by Jeannine Atkins
Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery
Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World by Sid Fleischman
They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman
The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone
Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel

There was a lot of great discussion on the books, as well as related topics including how to categorize poetry, whether "appeal" could be considered to fit within the definition of "presentation" and how much white space is too much white space. In regards to poetry, someone made the point that a majority of poetry could be considered nonfiction, because it is intended to present Truth (with a capital T). After the discussion, a vote was taken. The War to End All Wars and They Called Themselves the KKK were tied at 3 votes apiece, with Sir Charlie and Kakapo Rescue also garnering votes. A runoff vote between the top two vote-getters resulted in a win for They Called Themselves the KKK with 6 votes.

So, congrats to Susan Campbell Bartoletti for They Called Themselves the KKK! There is no prize associated with this mock award, other than perhaps it will inspire a librarian somewhere to put the book on display, or it to hand it to a teen and say, "Try this book, it's really good!" Which really should be the point of having these awards, right?

The five official finalists were also announced by YALSA earlier this week. Here is the OFFICIAL list:

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Spies of Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network that Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement by Rick Bowers

The Dark Game: True Spy Stories by Paul Janeczko

Every Bone Tells a Story: Hominin Discoveries, Deductions, and Debates by Jill Rubalcaba and Peter Robertshaw

I'm not at all surprised to see They Called Themselves the K.K.K. on the list. I've read two of the other finalists. I thought that Spies of Mississippi was really good, but it didn't stand out for me like several books did. I enjoyed Janis Joplin (more extensive comments are coming soon) and I love the design.

The Dark Game also has a definite cool factor. I haven't even had a chance to see it since it arrived at the library, as it's been checked out the entire time. Every Bone Tells a Story is probably the biggest surprise, simply because it's been off my radar. I'm going to have to get a hold of it, now.

The official winner will be announced during the MidWinter meeting of ALA in San Diego.

Your Comments?