Monday, May 25, 2015

Primary Lessons: A Memoir by Sarah Bracey White

“As an African-American child growing up in the segregated pre-Civil Rights South, Sarah Bracey White pushed against the social conventions that warned her not to rock the boat, even before she was old enough to fully understand her urge to defy the status quo. In her candid and poignant memoir, Primary Lessons, White recalls a childhood marked by equal measures of poverty and pride—formative years spent sorting through the “lessons” learned from a complicated relationship with her beloved, careworn mother and from a father’s absence engendered by racial injustice and compromised manhood.” (Press release from CavanKerry Press) 
Photo taken in 1963 at Sarah's Debutante Cotillion, age 17
I don’t normally quote a press release when introducing a book, but I couldn’t improve on this synopsis of Sarah Bracey White’s memoir. I first “met” Sarah in the pages of Childrenof the Dream: Our Own Stories of Growing Up Black in America. After reading about her experiences as a Sumter, South Carolina teen working in a camp for wealthy New England girls, I friended her on Facebook and told her about my work-in-progress. She promptly sent me a copy of her memoir which, has since helped fuel writing Half-Truths. I think Sarah's memoir is best revealed in her own words.
The city buses are a sore spot for me. We don’t have a car, and I seldom have a dime to ride the one that travels from Liberty Street downtown to the shopping area. Even if I did, I wouldn’t want to ride the bus because I hate sitting at the back. Maybe we are poor, but even if we had extra money, it wouldn’t change the thing I hate most: the fear colored adults exhibit toward white people, even white children. (p. 127)
Sarah with her family (minus her father). She's the young lady in front,
about nine years old.
At one point their small house is vandalized. Sarah writes,
Even though we had nothing of value, it’s frightening to think that strangers have spent the day in our house—on my bed. Why had they picked our house? Would they come back?... Why had they smashed them [the figurines]? Were they angry because they found no money or valuables? Whoever they were, they had to be colored. White boys stood out too much in a colored neighborhood to consider mischief like this. (p. 131)

Sarah's home in Sumter, SC
 She recalls the role of supportive teachers:
Maybe my teachers like me because they can see that I’m an outsider, trying to fit into a life I don’t want. Or maybe they like me because they like my mama and know the hardships she endures. Whatever the reasons, my teachers are a source of comfort. They give me approval and confidence. By the time I reach high school, they no longer tell me to stop talking so much. In fact, they encourage my outspokenness and open doors that make it possible for me to use my gifts in ways that benefit me. (p. 142)
Sarah writes: "Lincoln Jr./Sr. High School on Council Street. Here, I learned the basics that allowed me to reach higher ground. It was also the place where teachers and classmates quenched my thirst.This school was not integrated until 1971."
In an unusually frank conversation her mother admitted,  
"Mama. . . Still young and hopeful. Roberta Bracey White"
“The people in this town. They always said I wasn’t good enough for your daddy. He came from a fine respectable family, and I came from nothing. They used to say my real daddy was a white doctor who my mama worked for. 

I’m shocked by Mama’s confession. “Is it true?” I ask. 
“I don’t know. I was always scared to ask my mama about it. When I was about ten, I went over to the doctor’s house and hid behind a tree until he came home. I wanted to see if I looked like him.” 
“Did you?” 
“Not one bit! I didn’t look like my daddy either.” Mama pauses. Her eyes glaze, and she sighs deeply. “I loved my daddy. He used to call me his sunshine. Said I was the light of his life and that it was my job to banish the darkness. I never understood what he meant by that. I love the darkness. In the darkness, I’m the same color as everybody else.” (p. 164-5)
When Sarah asked her mother why she didn’t move north like her siblings did, her mother replied, “When you move out of the south you leave your past behind. The only thing that counts up north is how much you got in your pocket. Everybody up north is running away from their past. The past is all I’ve got."

Sarah wrote, "Today I feel like she has exposed the rusty chain that holds her prisoner in Sumter." (p. 165-6)

"My mother, the teacher"

When Sarah is getting ready to make her debut she considers, 
Until those cotillion classes, I’d only been given instructions on what not to do. A long list of restrictions seemed to say that I was the problem, that my only for survival was to be invisible. But I don’t want to be invisible. I want to stand above the crowd and shine. That’s not the life plan for young colored girls like me. Yet being selected as a debutante has nurtured a rustling hope inside me. Maybe, just maybe, I can escape my fate.(p. 176)
At the cotillion she thinks,
Tonight the fact that we're colored doesn't matter. Tonight I feel like a princess, smiled upon and feted by people I respect and who respect me. Tonight I'm more than just another poor little colored girl living in the shadows. I'm filled with the infinite possibilities of who I can become. (p.179)
Sadly, two weeks after that special evening, Sarah's mother suddenly dies. At the funeral Sarah looks at her mother and thinks, "She looks more peaceful now than she ever looked alive." (p.197)

Sarah has no choice but to continue carrying out her plans. In 1963, she works as kitchen help in Vermont before entering college and receives an education:
When I ask Mrs. Lee [the woman who supervises the help] why we can't ride the horses or swim in the lake she smiles sadly and says, "We're the help, and the help doesn't mingle with the campers." Up north, it seems segregation is a matter of class and skin color. 

Despite my anger at these restrictions, I am shamelessly curious about the campers. Never before have I been in such close proximity to so many white people. Daily it gets easier to eavesdrop on their conversations as they grow used to our brown presence and we become about as significant as the pine trees. No one worries about a pine tree hearing secrets. Soon I learn that white skin brings no solace from problems, that money doesn't ensure smooth boy-girl relationships or prevent sadness and heart ache. I also learn that white girls are cruel to other white girls. I had always assumed that whites were only cruel to colored people. I'm especially shocked to learn that white girls openly envy one another's looks. Almost every girl wants to be blond (I always thought long hair of any color was beautiful) and that every white girl would die for a perfect tan. I don't understand why they want to have skin like ours if they don't like colored people. (p.224)
In another conversation with Mrs. Lee Sarah questions why the white counselors make more money than she does, even though they are all "college girls." 

Mrs. Lee shrugs, just the way Mama used to. "That's how life is," she says. 

I can't understand why adults accept everything. Just because that's the way it's always been doesn't mean that that's the way it should always be. When I get to be an adult, I'm gonna change things. (p.225)
Sarah is now the executive director of arts and culture in the town of Greensburgh, NY and teaches at the Hudson Valley Writers Center For more information about how Sarah is busy "changing things," please visit her website
Sumter County Library Author's Fair
January, 2015

"Finally, a seat at the lunch counter."
Sarah writes, "Places like this [a previously segregated lunch counter in Sumter, SC, ] are always a disappointment to me. We weren't missing anything. ….I wanted to see and document. I spoke with the two black women who have worked here for years."  November, 2013

Monday, May 18, 2015

Who Is Your Audience?

Congratulations to Joyce Hostetter who won the audio book, "Red Berries, White Clouds, & Blue Sky" from last week's blog.
As some of you know, my husband and I recently went on a cross-country adventure. Seeing the northwest has been his bucket-list dream for years. Now that he is "semi-retired" we had the time to do it.

I’ll admit I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of driving from Florida to Seattle and back again, but it was amazing to see new parts of the country. Stationed in the backseat of our van along with my computer, Iphone, maps, books, and snacks, I enjoyed the ride and staying in touch with my world.

 I also enjoyed sharing pictures via Facebook and texting. What can compare to seeing snow-covered mountains and texting them to my friends in the South and East?
Mt. Ranier, Washington
as seen through the car window
It felt somewhat egotistical to share these pictures and I wanted to avoid a “look at me!” mentality, but I truly was blessed to have this opportunity.  I was amazed at how many people looked at my pictures and commented on them or shared them with others.

A Facebook friend shared this image with her relative who teaches Renaissance Literature:

Wichita, Ks.

Other friends laughed with me about the hullabaloo and long lines we witnessed in Bellevue, Washington when Seattle's first Chick-fil-A opened:
All of this made me consider the concept of audience.

When we share pictures, give a speech or performance; write an article or a book, we’re hoping for a positive reaction from our “audience.”  Sometimes our audience surprises us.

With wind-blown hair, this picture of me taken in the Badlands National Park, South Dakota got more "likes" on Facebook than any other picture I posted. 

My fellow blogger, Barbara Younger, blogs about menopause and all things related to women’s health in latter years. She has an occasional series showing women’s restroom doors.  After spotting this door in The Canon Pub in Columbus, Georgia,  

The hunt was on to send Barbra unusual ladies room doors. Here are two more I found. (BTW, I sent Barbara so many doors she's going to feature them on three separate blogs. Stay tuned!)
At Worden's Deli in Missoula, Mt

Colton's Steak House; Springfield, Mo

I knew my Korean friend Esther, who was recently confined to a wheel chair, would appreciate this sculpture

on a bike trail in Springfield, Missouri, as well as a Korean barbecue restaurant in an international food court outside Seattle.

 I hoped my granddaughter would appreciate seeing the animals in Yellowstone,

And I knew my friend Linda Phillips would appreciate this image from her home state of Oregon:
Multnomah Falls, Oregon

Having an audience added unanticipated fun to my trip. But at some point I started wondering: do I take pictures--or write a book--to please an audience? And as flattering as "likes" are on Facebook or "favorites" on Twitter can be--am I writing to say something or to please an audience?

I’ve heard that it’s a good idea to write your book picturing your target reader. Do you agree?  If you are writing a book, are you writing with a specific audience in mind? If you've already published books, is your audience who you expected it would be? 

Take a look at Augusta Scattergood's blog post on a similar topic.
What do you think? Has anticipating your audience shaped your work? If so, has that been a good or bad experience for you?

Meanwhile, thank you, blog readers and Facebook friends, for being a kind, supportive audience. This picture is for you:
Coeur D'Alene, Idaho

Monday, May 11, 2015

Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky by Sandra Dallas: A Review and Giveaway

Congratulations to Sheri Levy who won an autographed copy of "Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars."

The year is 1942 and for 12-year-old Tomi Itano, a second-generation Japanese-American, life is about to change. Tomi loves everything about her home: the strawberries her father grows on their farm, her Girl Scout troop, her Japanese doll, which her grandparents sent her, and the American flag, which her father proudly salutes every day.

JapaneseAmericansChildrenPledgingAllegiance1942-2 by Photo attributed to Dorothea Lange(w). Via US Library of CongressFarm Security Administration and Office of War Information Collection
(Library of Congress). CALL NUMBER: LOT 1801
But amidst the paranoia of World War II, when Japanese newspapers and letters from home, are “proof” of being an enemy spy, the Itano’s become victims of fear, prejudice, and false accusations. Tomi’s father is arrested and taken to prison.  After President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 ordering thousands of Japanese to be relocated, Mrs. Itano and her three children are taken to a series of interment camps. They finally are taken to Tall Grass, Colorado (a fictionalized camp based on Hamache) where they are forced to make a 16 x 20 square foot room their apartment.

Posted Japanese American Exclusion Order" by Department of the Interior. War Relocation Authority
This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 536017.
Despite always worrying how Mr. Itano will find them, the family adjusts to camp life.  Although they don’t want to be there, the children gain friends and Mrs. Itano blossoms in her new role as a quilting teacher. Interactions with the local townspeople add more spice to the story. When Dennis, a boy Tomi meets, confronts her on being “un-American” because of how she looks, she retaliates in anger. Discovering he is the son of a German immigrant, she questions if everyone should be rounded up and shipped to a camp just because they all don’t look alike. His changed attitude towards the Japanese would be a great teaching point for teachers using this book in an upper elementary/middle school classroom.
Original caption: Hayward, California. Members of the Mochida family awaiting evacuation bus. Identification tags are used to aid in keeping the family unit intact during all phases of evacuation. Mochida operated a nursery and five greenhouses on a two-acre site in Eden Township. He raised snapdragons and sweet peas. 

When Mr. Itano is finally reunited with the family, he is a different man. Being unfairly imprisoned has left him bitter.  His love for the country he chose is replaced with anger and apathy. On top of that, his family has changed. His wife is no longer silent and submissive, his family doesn’t eat together, and his son wants to join the army. Unfortunately, his bitterness infects Tomi and her outlook changes also.  Not until Tomi writes a prize-winning essay on “Why I am an American” based on her father’s immigrant hopes and dreams, do her and her father’s attitudes change.

I was most captivated by Tomi’s mother. Faced with the challenges of being a mail-order bride, raising a family in a foreign country, being shuttled from one interment camp to another, and then a bumpy reunion with her husband who is unhappy with her Americanization—she showed the most endurance and strength.  Her authentic response to difficulties was the glue that kept her family together.

The book is recommended for reader ages 8 and up. I think that an 8-year-old would be too young to appreciate and learn from this story; I believe it is more suitable for boys and girls who are at least 10-year-old. Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky is Sandra Dallas' second book about a terrible period in our nation’s history, and can be a valuable classroom supplement.  Jennifer Ikeda, the narrator of the audio book, did a good job creating the Japanese and American voices.

I took this picture on a recent trip to Bainbridge Island near Seattle Seattle. Then I found this on the same Wikipedia site where I found all of the black and white images.

Bainbridge Island (Wash.) evacuation -- Group of young evacuees wave from
special train as it leaves Seattle with Island evacuees, March 30, 1942
By the way, the 442nd Infantry Regiment which Tomi's brother joined, was composed of almost entirely of Japanese Americans whose families were in interment camps. It was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare. 

Thanks to the generosity of Recorded Books, I am able to offer this audiobook to a blog reader. Please leave me a comment by May 14 and I’ll enter your name in the giveaway. It will be a great addition to a school or homeschool library.  

Monday, May 4, 2015

Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars -- A Review and ARC GIveaway

Hands (or I should say paws) down, Constance Lombardo’s love for all things feline shine through her fun illustrations and text in Mr. Puffball: Stunt Cat to the Stars, an entertaining graphic novel for readers from grades 3-7. Constance admits that Mr. Puffball is a mix of all the cats she’s ever loved.  “Cats have funny, pensive faces, come in so many different colors, stripes, patches, etc. I can't look at a cat without imagining a speech bubble. They've got lots of personality and like to do their own thing and most of them do want to be movie stars!” 

Mr. Puffball’s egotistic-yet-adorable voice is communicated in the opening lines. “My name is Mr. Puffball, and this is my story. It all started in a little town called New Jersey, home to such famous American landmarks as my house.”

His life is changed forever when he sees the movie, Cow-Cats & Aliens starring El Gato. From that moment on, this precocious kitten decides he must become a movie star. Despite nay-sayers among his siblings, his mother fuels his dream by telling him about his great-grandmother Zelda, a star in Cleocatra meets The Mummy.

That’s all the inspiration Mr. Puffball needs. With his tiny replica of Mr. Gato tucked into a cloth waistband and a newspaper ad for a movie audition for The Great Catsby, Mr. Puffball leaves for Hollywood and sends postcards home to his mother. 

Having just experienced a recent close run-in with Kansas tornadoes, I appreciated this illustration:

Unfortunately, fame and fortune don’t come as easily as expected. Metro-Olden Meower studios is closed and Mr. Puffball is twenty years late for the audition. His audition at Purramount Studios falls flat. But when Chester Grumpus (the producer of such great movies as The Sound of Meowsic and Attack of the 50 Foot She-Cat) takes him under his wing (err…his paw), Mr. Puffball meets three friends who help get his career off the ground.

Despite his excellent audition in Nine Lives to Live, Mr. Puffball only receives a part as an extra. Nine Lives is “a classic western with handsome heroes, sinister villains, and old-fashioned rattlesnakes… [the hero] El Gato is after Billy the Kitten, who square-danced with El Gato’s one true love, Veronica, even though she prefers ballroom...They steal Billy the Kitten’s ten-gallon hat, which turns out to only hold five gallons. Laughing about their misadventure, El Gato and Veronica ride into the sunset where they hope to open a hotel with a water slide.” (p. 96)

Determined to make El Gato notice him, Mr. Puffball lands himself a job as his stunt cat and becomes Bruiser’s prodigy: “Ride bad-temper horse now! Going backward! Faster! Don’t fall or you be trampled. See what I tell you?” (Hmm… Wonder whose dialogue Constance mimicked here?)

Hilarious scenes ensue that both children and adults will enjoy. Mr. Puffball rides in El Gato’s limousine equipped not only with cup holders and a mini fridge, but also a climbing wall and catnip. At a night out at the Brown Tabby, he eats fish tacos, plays with Wacky String, and meets Rosie, a (cute!) fellow Kung Fu Kitty.

Although the illustrations will draw readers in, the "a-hero-isn’t-always-who-he-appear-to-be" plot is clever and inspirational. Mr. Puffball’s adventure culminates at the opening night of Nine Lives.

Constance finishes the story with a flourish, a flash-mob, and a glossary that made me laugh out loud. I can't wait for the sequel--fortunately, she is already working on it. Constance writes, “In the next two books, Mr. Puffball will continue pursuing his biggest dream: to be a movie star! Wherever he may travel, whatever television, modeling, stunt or corporate work he takes on, he always keeps his eyes on the Oscar!” 

I don’t want to spoil this book for you. Let me suggest you catapult this book onto your “to be read list” and discover a catacophony of puns and a memorable story about a remarkable tabby cat. One way to support debut authors is by pre-ordering their books. I’m pre-ordering two copies of Mr. Puffball, one for each set of my grandkids. I bet you also know a girl or boy who would cheer Mr. Puffball on his journey to fame and fortune.

To enter to win an autographed copy of my well-loved ARC, please leave me a comment along with your email address if you’re new to my blog. Tag me on Twitter (cbaldwinCarol) or Facebook (Carol Federlin Baldwin) or become a new follower, and I’ll enter your name for each one. will pick a winner on May 7.

THE NIGHT WAR: A MG Historical Novel Review

  By now you should have received an email from my new website about my review of THE NIGHT WAR by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. (It'll com...