It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? #imwayr 9/26/16


On the blog:

  • A curation of my favorite online reading from the past week

In reading:


Antoinette Portis’s Wait is really a perfect little book. Using only three words (hurry, wait, and yes), Portis manages to tell a dynamic and emotionally resonant story of a mother and child trying to get where they’re going in a busy city environment. The mother, of course, is in a hurry, but the child keeps seeing marvelous things that require waiting. Portis is especially good at showing the shifting perspective of the busy scene from a harried adult’s perspective and then from the much more magnified and observant lens of the child.


A Penguin Story has many more words than the other Portis titles I’ve read, and it turns out that Portis writes extremely well. I loved Edna, the penguin who is convinced there is “something more.” Edna is bored by her black, white, and blue world and is certain there is more than ice, day and night, and fish. She sets off on an adventure to discover that “something more.” I was disappointed by her discovery and didn’t think the last third of the story worked as well as the first two-thirds, but this might be one of those titles that works better with actual children. I found the “something more” Edna discovers pedestrian, taking away from the book’s overall sense of wonder and discovery, but child readers might feel quite differently and be amazed to find humans in this landscape.


My son’s verdict? “This is a weird book.” My verdict? Perfection! Perhaps it won’t work for all kid readers, but The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles features exquisite work by Erin Stead and a gentle, whimsical story about overcoming loneliness by Michelle Cuevas.


In Dori Kleber’s More-igami, Joey discovers a passion for folding paper after a classmate’s mother visits his classroom to demonstrate the art of origami. Informed that mastery of origami will require patience and practice, he sets about folding every piece of paper in sight, until his mother finally loses her patience. His solution to the problem of resources takes him to his favorite Mexican restaurant, where he folds napkins until he masters origami. Directions for making an origami ladybug are included. I appreciated the many diverse faces in G. Brian Karas’s illustrations.


I had high hopes for Jennifer Nielsen’s second series (though I was more than ready for it to be over by the end, we did enjoy our read-aloud of the Ascendance trilogy), but Mark of the Thief was a disappointment. My son never quits on a series, but even he doesn’t want to read Book 2. In fact, he fell asleep during the last chapter, where there’s a big reveal, and he didn’t even want me to reread it to him the next day. Flat is the best word I can think of to describe this book. Flat characters, flat writing, flat plotting, flat world-building. There’s so much potential in the premise and the setting (Why haven’t I read more children’s and middle-grade historical fiction set in ancient Rome?), but Nielsen does almost nothing with it.


And then there is Raina Telgemeier’s new graphic novel, Ghosts. I just heaved a big sigh before I started to write this sentence, because it pains me not to be able to recommend one of her graphic novels. But there are so many problems with Ghosts. It starts off strong. Cat’s family has just moved to a new coastal California town where her little sister, Maya, who has Cystic Fibrosis, will hopefully be a little more comfortable. The dynamic between the sisters is compelling, and Maya’s interest in ghosts, her desire to find out what happens after we die, and Cat’s resistance to such questions is so poignant. There is a great deal to work out and explore in terms of character, plot, setting, and theme. But Telgemeier’s narrative and visual choice is to appropriate Mexican culture and erase Native American history as she develops and resolves plot and theme, and I spent well over half of this book shaking my head in disbelief. I had read articles by Debbie Reese and Laura Jiminez before reading Ghosts, but I still wasn’t quite prepared for just how problematic this book is. (Jiminez’s piece about cultural appropriation is especially instructive, I think. Must-read material for readers struggling to understand the issues.)

Cat is half-Mexican, but her mother has repudiated her Mexican heritage, which is a really convenient plot point leaving Cat totally ignorant of everything Mexican and ripe for education by her new neighbor, Carlos, who family is so very Mexican. Which we know because they eat enchiladas and guacamole and Carlos carries maracas around. The depiction of Dia de los Muertos was also problematic for me. There is actually a long, complex, and serious history to the Day of the Dead celebration: it’s not just floral skulls and parades. For many people, it’s a serious celebration to honor the dead, not an excuse to dress up in a cute costume and party.

And then there are the ghosts. The ghosts are a big problem. They’re happy ghosts who love nothing more than to listen to visitors chat in Spanish and to drink orange soda. The ghosts originate at the crumbling Spanish mission. And here there seems to be complete ignorance of the purpose of the missions in California, what would have happened on that land and in those buildings and just who would have been buried there.  Ghosts erases the history and presence of the Native American peoples these missions were designed to colonize, convert, and oppress. The Spanish mission system stole land that belonged to Native Americans, forced Native Americans to convert to Christianity and conscripted them to labor for the Spanish. I have a hard time imagining the ghosts on mission lands wanting to chatter in Spanish and sip orange soda while grinning maniacally.






14 responses to “It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? #imwayr 9/26/16”

  1. The Logonauts (@thelogonauts) Avatar

    Ghosts, sigh. I wanted so much to love the book, but you’re right that the problems appear immediately. Just read the Jimenez article after your rec’d yesterday, and she was able to put into words a lot of what I was trying to say. Such a disappointment when Raina so clearly vetted the CF material but not any of the cultural references.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      This book has me thinking a lot about how we develop the knowledge we need as writers to write about experiences that aren’t our own. I really like your point here–the cystic fibrosis material was so thoughtfully incorporated and clearly represented more than a 10-minute Google search. But the Mexican cultural references were superficial to the point of being insulting to readers, and a 10-minute Google search about Spanish missions in California covers forced labor, forced conversion, murder, land stealing, etc. You just don’t have to look very far or very deeply to know better and do better. Very disappointing.

  2. kelseyempfield Avatar

    Thanks for your honest review of Ghosts. Of course, I’m always excited to read anything by Raina, but I don’t think I’ll pick this one up after reading your thoughts. However, have you subscribed to Nerdy Book Club Podcast? This week featured an excellent speech by Raina about how her memoir Smile made a huge difference in her first crush’s life. Absolutely poignant – it made me cry in a good way. It was so great that I’ll be playing it for my kids tomorrow as they continue to write their own memoirs.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      I was thinking after I published my post this morning how Ghosts really does lend itself to a terrific lesson about cultural appropriation. I’m not sure I can think of a book that more clearly highlights the problem. Now I’m starting to cook up a unit for Children’s and Adolescent Lit! I had totally forgotten that Nerdy Book Club has a podcast! I have been meaning to reread Smile (my son is doing graphic novels as breakfast read-alouds and I know he has long wanted to be “in the know” about Smile, Sisters, and Drama, since he sees so many kids at school reading them), and I will definitely listen to this particular podcast!

  3. Scott Day Avatar

    One thing I’ve come to expect (and appreciate) from your blog is HONESTY. Thank you. Jimenez’s article helped me understand cultural appropriation better (I will not read Ghosts). I will pick up Wait. I also liked The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles but not as enthusiastically as, say, a book like The Storyteller. I have a whimsical imagination, and so wanted to see a mermaid in the book.

  4. Revisiting Childhood Avatar

    You’ve got my interest peaked with “Wait”. As the mother of a 4-Year-Old, it feels like “wait”, “hurry”, “yes” and of course “no” are the words of choice in a lot of situations! Patience is hard thing to learn when there is so much to explore! I really enjoyed your reviews and will be looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of “Wait”.

  5. Jane the Raincity Librarian Avatar

    Wait is such a fantastic book – it just beautifully captures the realities of being with a small child, and the importance of sometimes letting your own inner child slow you down so you don’t miss all the wonders around you.

  6. Kay McGriff (@kaymcgriff) Avatar

    The picture books look delightful. Thank you for your honest thoughts on the novels. I enjoyed earlier books by both Neilson and Telgemeier, so I’m disappointed to hear your take on these. I do want to read more on the issues. Thank you for linking to the other articles.

  7. Michele Avatar

    Just had a conversation about Uncorker with another teacher and I loved the open endedness of the book!
    I went ahead and added Ghosts to our Mock Newbery list. I wanted to have a graphic novel on our list and I’m going to bring the articles written about it to our discussion. I think it will end up being an important discussion for our “committee” members to have. They need to learn to read (as do I) with that critical eye and not take everything they read for truth.

  8. Tara Smith Avatar

    I like the idea of using this book to teach the dangers of cultural appropriation. But I’m sad any way…an opportunity lost by this author, I think.

  9. lindabaie Avatar

    I am following Debbie Reese’s posts now & learning as she points out different views I hadn’t thought or known about. My class did a thorough study of the Spanish missions a long time ago, so I know of that terrible history, not to be handled lightly. Sorry to hear about this, and it feels as if editors might start learning to examine themes more deeply too, or is it only the authors’ responsibilities? I loved and bought “Wait”, so apt as I have in the past walked more slowly with the grand-girls. I’m looking forward to The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, think it’s probably my kind of book. Sorry about the Nielsen too. I enjoyed that earlier series. Thanks for all, Elisabeth. I enjoy your opinions!

  10. Beth Shaum (@BethShaum) Avatar

    I’m still wrestling with the cultural appropriation issues in GHOSTS. I really liked the story and the artwork, but I also understand (now) what is problematic with it. I guess in my naivete, I initially saw it as a positive portrayal because our cultural climate is so quick to demonize Mexican culture that I appreciated that it put one of their cultural celebrations in a positive light… but I didn’t stop to think that perhaps that representation was offensive to some.

    And I completely understand your son’s reaction to THE UNCORKER OF OCEAN BOTTLES. I too thought it was weird, though beautifully weird. And I appreciated it as an adult, but I’m not sure how many kids will feel the same way.

  11. cweichel Avatar

    I love Portis’ work but haven’t read these two yet. I’m just enchanted by the cover of The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles. I can only hope for grandchildren soon so I can begin purchasing all these amazing picture books.
    I had already decided not to read Ghost because of what I had read about it by Debbie Reese and others. It is very sad because her work is always very popular.
    I’m glad to read your thoughts on Mark of a Thief. I was turned off her work at the end of the Ascendance trilogy and haven’t bothered to give her another try. I appreciate that you have validated my reticence.

  12. Myra GB Avatar

    Oh my goodness, thank you for that detailed critique of Ghosts. I would still most likely buy it as my daughter is such a huge Telgemeier fan – and would still recommend it to my higher degree class because it will make for good discussion and analysis about the issues from a critical multicultural analytic perspective.

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