Book Selections

Adult/High School

 
The Song Poet

Kao Kalia Yang








The Song Poet


A daughter tells her father’s story in his own voice. Award-winning memoirist Yang (The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, 2008) focuses on her father, Bee Yang, who transformed his experiences and family’s history into songs. Yang and her siblings grew up surrounded by them: “my father sings his songs, grows them into long, stretching stanzas of four or five…raps, jazzes, and sings the blues when he dwells in the landscape of traditional Hmong song poetry.” Bee gave up singing after his mother died, in 2003, but as an adult, the author discovered the one cassette he had recorded and was struck by the songs’ “humor, irony, astute cultural and political criticism.” Yang’s evocative, often moving memoir, told from Bee’s perspective, reveals a life of struggle, hardship, deep love, and strong family ties. Bee was born during the Laotian civil war and grew to adulthood during the French occupation and the Vietnam War; “more and more men in uniforms entered our lives,” he remembered, and Hmong men and boys were recruited to aid the Americans. In 1975, when the Americans left Laos and the communists took over, “genocide was declared against the Hmong for helping the Americans.” Yang recounts in harrowing detail the persecution Bee and his community suffered. By 1980, Bee, his young wife, and baby daughter ended up in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, in Thailand, where their second daughter, the author, was born. During the eight years the family lived there, Bee was forced by Thai soldiers to transport opium “from one uniformed guard to the next,” a mission he hated but carried out with “fear and shame.” At last, they came to America, where Bee took arduous factory work to support his growing family. Although he encountered prejudice and exploitation, he never lost hope for his children’s futures. Yang’s gentle prose captures her father’s sufferings and joys and serves as a loving celebration of his spirit. (Kirkus Review)

Middle School


Home of the Brave

Katherine Applegate








Home of the Brave 


In her first stand-alone book, Applegate (the Animorphs series) effectively uses free verse to capture a Sudanese refugee's impressions of America and his slow adjustment. After witnessing the murders of his father and brother, then getting separated from his mother in an African camp, Kek alone believes that his mother has somehow survived. The boy has traveled by “flying boat” to Minnesota in winter to live with relatives who fled earlier. An onslaught of new sensations greets Kek (“This cold is like claws on my skin,” he laments), and ordinary sights unexpectedly fill him with longing (a lone cow in a field reminds him of his father's herd; when he looks in his aunt's face, “I see my mother's eyes/ looking back at me”). Prefaced by an African proverb, each section of the book marks a stage in the narrator's assimilation, eloquently conveying how his initial confusion fades as survival skills improve and friendships take root. Kek endures a mixture of failures (he uses the clothes washer to clean dishes) and victories (he lands his first paying job), but one thing remains constant: his ardent desire to learn his mother's fate. Precise, highly accessible language evokes a wide range of emotions and simultaneously tells an initiation story. A memorable inside view of an outsider. (Children's Book Review)






Elementary


Their Great Gift

John Coy and Wing Young Huie








Their Great Gift


Cleareyed photography illustrates the modern experience of immigrating to the United States. The simple opening words are immediately familiar. “My family came here from far away….” American children have long heard the stories of how their strong and courageous forebears built this country. Most immigration stories for the young, however, are told from a single point of view. Author Coy and photographer Huie have taken the opposite approach. Faces of many ethnic backgrounds grace the moving yet everyday images that fill the pages. Asian, African, and Latino people are shown living their lives in their new land, playing, eating, working, and being themselves. Young Asian Boy Scouts stand next to the American flag. An older woman in a headscarf studies for a test. A tall black girl stands on a track surrounded by her blond classmates. Visually, their different-ness is apparent. Yet the words are universal. “They worked long, hard hours, at difficult jobs….They saved and did without and sent money back.” The result joins the intimate, individual family stories to the universal immigration experience with a love for freedom and the responsibility that it requires. The last question pulls readers back to the present: “What will we do with THEIR GREAT GIFT?” Both author and photographer include their own family arrival stories in the endnotes. A heartfelt reminder of a significant American ideal. (Kirkus Review)