When you gaze at the quilted cover of A Flag for Juneteenth, you will want to reach out and touch it. The artwork depicts a girl wearing a fuchsia dress and kerchief standing proudly in front of a flag, the bright colors of her outfit vibrant against the flag’s soft yellows and greens. The girl’s brown face has no features—nor do the faces of any of the book’s characters—because author-illustrator Kim Taylor wants readers to be able to imagine themselves in this story.
Then you open A Flag for Juneteenth and discover that Taylor quilted all of the illustrations in her debut picture book, and you realize that her textile art perfectly complements her evocative prose, creating an excellent portrayal of Huldah, a Black girl living with her enslaved family on a Texas plantation in 1865.
As the book opens, it’s the morning of Huldah’s 10th birthday. Taylor’s embroidering transforms mottled brown fabrics into textured tea cakes, a special treat baked by Huldah’s mother for her daughter’s birthday. “The scent of nutmeg and vanilla floated through our cabin,” Taylor writes, and her stitched text forms a winding ribbon of words that waft up from the plate as Huldah breathes in the sweet smell.
Soon, Huldah hears the “loud clip-clippity-clop of heavy horses’ hooves” as soldiers ride onto the plantation. She witnesses their historic announcement: President Abraham Lincoln has freed all enslaved people! Taylor emphasizes the importance of this declaration by placing a lone soldier onto a white quilted background. She embroiders the proclamation that he reads “in a booming voice,” forming four lines of text that radiate from his figure.
Elation follows, and Huldah hears shouting and singing. Images of celebration feature the outlines of surprised, ecstatic people jumping and raising their hands in the air for joy. Taylor sets their multicolor silhouettes against gentle yellow-orange ombre fabric that’s quilted with sunburst lines, as though the people have been caught up in rays of light.
Huldah watches as a group of women begins to sew freedom flags. Children gather branches to use as flagpoles, but Huldah goes one step further. She climbs her favorite tree and captures a sunbeam in a glass jar, preserving this extraordinary moment in time forever.
Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021, and A Flag for Juneteenth exquisitely conveys the day’s spirit of jubilation and freedom.
Kim Taylor’s portrayal of a girl witnessing the first Juneteenth, accompanied by exquisite quilted artwork, is filled with a spirit of jubilation and freedom.
A powerful picture book about the transatlantic slave trade, Kwame Alexander and Dare Coulter’s An American Story opens with a question: “How do you tell a story that starts in Africa and ends in horror?” It might seem an impossible topic to teach children, and yet, as the book’s title suggests, it’s an essential part of our national origin story.
Alexander and Coulter approach the subject by interspersing historical information with scenes of a group of students and their teacher discussing these events in a modern-day classroom. For instance, after Alexander offers a list of types of work that enslaved people were forced to do “FOR FREE,” such as “planting corn” and “harvesting coffee,” a student responds, “Why weren’t they paid? That’s not fair.”
Coulter’s artwork, nearly six years in the making, is striking and exceptional. In addition to charcoal sketches (which illustrate the contemporary scenes) and rich, full-color paintings, Coulter created clay sculptures of enslaved people, which he then photographed and incorporated into the book’s illustrations, bringing remarkable dimensionality to the book’s art.
It’s impossible to overstate how impactful Coulter’s illustrations can be. They convey the joy of children playing games around a glowing fire and the peace of lying down to rest among long blades of green grass, but also the terror and sadness of people shackled together in the holds of ships and the suffering of a man with a rope around his neck, “sold like cattle” away from his family.
In fact, the classroom teacher becomes overwhelmed by the lesson. “It’s just too painful,” she tells her students. “I shouldn’t have to read this to you.” Her interjection serves as a helpful pause for readers, allowing them to consider what they’ve read and process their own reactions to it. It also marks the book’s turning point. “Don’t you tell us to always speak the truth,” a student asks, “even when it’s hard?” The text then highlights people who exemplify “speaking up and speaking out” such as Sojourner Truth and Robert Smalls.
An American Story closes with a glorious spread that merges the art styles of past and present, as a clay-sculpture woman places her hand under the chin of a sketched student. In the text, the teacher’s final question (“How do you tell a story this hard to hear, one that hurts and still loves?”) gets its powerful answer: “by holding history in one hand and clenching hope in the other.” Coulter places all of his sketches on yellow backgrounds, and in this pivotal moment, the backdrop takes on a brilliant, radiant glow.
An American Story will not be an easy book to read, and adults should take care when introducing it to very young children. Nonetheless, its pages are filled with needful truths. Alexander’s sensitive, poetic text and Coulter’s majestic art provide a stellar framework for young Americans to learn about their country’s history.
An American Story provides a stellar framework for young Americans ready to learn about an essential part of our national origin story.
Occasionally, a book appears like a shimmering treasure stumbled upon during a forest walk. This is certainly the case with Iliana Regan’s memoir Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir. Her first book, Burn the Place, was a finalist for the National Book Award, chronicling growing up gay on an Indiana farm and creating her own Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago. In both memoirs, Regan is a hypnotizing writer who speaks to readers in a deeply personal way, writing in a natural voice that artfully interweaves past and present.
Regan’s exquisite, carefully planned prose paradoxically feels like a casual chat, the sort that might unfold spontaneously during a long weekend visit. As it turns out, some very lucky people can experience exactly that, because in 2020, Regan turned over her restaurant, Elizabeth, to her employees, and now she and her wife run the Milkweed Inn bed and breakfast in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Deep in the Hiawatha National Forest, 10 guests are treated to Regan’s culinary magic each weekend. During that time, Regan hopes they will experience something similar to the “magic of the farmhouse I grew up in.”
Fieldwork invites readers into this world, as Regan explores and forages in the nearby forest and river for food to use in meals at the inn. She also forages in her own mind for childhood memories, including those of her beloved parents and her grandmother Busia, a gifted cook who emigrated from Poland. Busia’s duck blood soup, or czarnina, exists in the author’s memories as a sort of magical potion, something akin to Marcel Proust’s madeleines. Regan also shares her ongoing struggles with recovering from alcoholism, the difficulties of running an inn during the COVID-19 pandemic, her fears of losing her parents, her anxieties about the world and her desire and attempts to become a parent. Alongside these thoughts, she captures the great beauty and comfort of the outdoors with the voice of a naturalist.
Regan has led an intriguing, unusual life, which gives her memoir a unique and compelling perspective. She notes, for instance, “Sometimes I think I would still like to be a man because I don’t feel like a woman. But I don’t feel like a man either. I feel more akin to a mushroom.” With both Burn the Place and Fieldwork, Regan has earned her place as not only a world-class chef but also a gifted memoirist.
As Iliana Regan forages in the forest for food to use in the meals she serves at her inn, she also forages in her own mind for shimmering, moving childhood memories.
Set in Trinidad in the 1940s, Kevin Jared Hosein’s debut novel, Hungry Ghosts, has the mesmerizing power of a tale told on a bone-chilling night. A science teacher living in Trinidad and Tobago, Hosein explains in his author’s note that he drew on Caribbean oral traditions of “ghost stories and dark domestic parables and calcified wisdoms rooted in the bedrock of an island nation.” Inspired by his grandfather’s stories in particular, Hosein captures Trinidad’s lush flora and fauna, as well as its explosive mix of cultures, races and religions, within a novel that slowly but steadily builds toward a climax of Shakespearean proportions.
In the opening chapter, titled “A Gate to Hell,” readers meet four teenage boys performing a blood oath by a river. They name their union “Corbeau, for the vulture, a carrion feeder,” because the bird “must eat corpses for breakfast, knowing to savour bowels and maggoty flesh, realizing those too are meals fit for kings.” At the heart of the novel is the family of one of these boys, Krishna Saroop. They live in a sugar cane estate barrack, one of many “scattered like half-buried bones across the plain, strewn from their colonial corpse.” The barrack is a “place of lesser lives,” with a yard for communal cooking and five tiny adjacent rooms that house five families who can hear everyone’s sounds and feel the rain dripping through their shared, dilapidated roof. Krishna’s parents are mourning the death of their infant daughter, and his mother, Shweta, prays they can soon buy their own home in the nearby village.
Krishna’s father, Hans, works just up on the hill on the grand estate of Dalton Changoor and his younger wife, Marlee. Their opulent manor is filled with goose-feather cushions and velveteen rugs, and from their box radio drift the sounds of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. One stormy night, Dalton vanishes. Marlee, understandably fearful for her safety, asks kindhearted, fit Hans—with whom she is infatuated—to be her night watchman. It’s an epic setup for a collision of poverty and wealth.
Hosein excels at setting this volatile stage and letting events simmer. Along the way, he delicately explores the often tortured backgrounds of numerous characters in his large cast, revealing their motives and desires. But the heart of Hungry Ghosts is haunted. It’s bleak and visceral, with brutal details of violence and animal cruelty. Readers will long remember this one.
Kevin Jared Hosein captures Trinidad’s lush flora and fauna, as well as its explosive mix of cultures, races and religions, within a novel that slowly but steadily builds toward a climax of Shakespearean proportions.
In A Flag for Juneteenth, Kim Taylor tells the story of Huldah, a Black girl who lives with her enslaved family on a plantation in Texas. It’s June 1865, and tomorrow is Huldah’s 10th birthday—but it’s also the day that Huldah will witness the historic reading of the proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln has freed all enslaved people. A self-taught textile artist, Taylor’s illustrations for the book are exquisitely detailed quilts that fill the story with a spirit of joy and freedom.
Tell us about Huldah and what’s happening in her life at the beginning of your book. Huldah is a mature, curious, insightful little girl. She has the very grown-up responsibility of caring for her baby sister while her parents work on the plantation. We meet Huldah the day before her 10th birthday, which falls on a Sunday. Sundays during this time were a day for rest and reconnecting with family and community. Huldah’s mom baked Huldah’s favorite, tea cakes, for her upcoming birthday, a luxury she may not have had time for during the week.
What did you research to write this book? I devoured everything I could read about Juneteenth, but that was only the beginning! I was curious about what life was like for enslaved people when they were not working and how they connected with their immediate and extended families. I was very interested in understanding how they built a sense of community despite such oppressive circumstances.
I Googled, listened to podcasts and read books about that time. I also looked at pictures of enslaved people, which helped me to imagine their personalities and lives. One picture of a little girl that I found on the Library of Congress website seemed to embody the spirit of my Huldah, and I kept her image in mind as I developed the character.
Many of the characters’ names in the story are symbolic. Will you tell us about some of these names and what they represent? I wanted my main character’s name to be unusual, a name that would be new to my readers. I envisioned this character to be a prophet, one who could bear witness to the announcement of the end of slavery as a legal institution and could also foretell of a future free of bondage. I Googled biblical female prophets and an image of a beautiful Black woman appeared on my screen. Her name was Huldah. As soon as I saw her, I knew that this would be the name of my main character.
Eve, the name of Huldah’s baby sister, is also biblical. It is derived from a Hebrew word meaning “to breathe” or “to live.” In my story, Eve is an infant. She will have the opportunity to live her life without the legal burden of enslavement.
One other character in my story has a name. Mr. Menard is the oldest man on the plantation. He has the last name of Michel B. Menard, the founder of Galveston, Texas, where my story takes place. I thought that it was important to demonstrate that enslaved people were often given the last names of their enslavers to erase any connection to their own family lineage.
You’ve said that each of your quilts feels as though it is created “through [you], rather than by [you]” and that you feel a “deep connection with [your] ancestors during the creative process.” What was the journey of writing this book and creating its quilted illustrations like for you? I felt that I was being guided in some way while writing and creating the illustrations for this book. I saved the pictures that I discovered during my research and looked at them often when writing, trying to connect in some way.
I fell in love with Huldah very early on. Because the people in this book have no faces, I had to figure out how to give Huldah depth and to showcase her personality in other ways. I also needed to make her consistent and recognizable in every illustration. That is no easy task when working with fabric on such a small scale! I remember telling a friend that I felt as though Huldah had become like a daughter to me. I felt a deep connection to her character.
The illustrations took a little over a year to create. It was an enormous undertaking and very emotional. When I was finished with all of the illustrations, I was amazed that I had actually achieved it! I don’t think that I could have done it if I did not know on some level that my ancestors were watching over me and guiding me throughout this journey.
Tell us about your quilting journey and how you began to make story quilts. When I was young, I loved to color, paint and lose myself in arts and crafts projects. I liked to make clothes for my dolls using my mother’s scarves. When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I discovered my mother’s Singer sewing machine, and I wanted to learn to use it. My mom didn’t sew but encouraged me to try it out. I taught myself how to work it and began trying to make clothes for my dolls. Throughout my childhood, I used art as a vehicle to relax or to create something that I needed, such as pillows or simple paintings for a new apartment.
It wasn’t until I discovered story quilting that I began to use art as a vehicle to process deep emotion. When Barack Obama was elected to be our 44th president, I had feelings that I found difficult to verbally express. I wanted to create something to mark the historic event but felt it important to use an art form that had some connection to my ancestors. I thought about my West African ancestors and how women there are master weavers and textile artists. I thought about enslaved African and African American women and how they used quilting not only to keep their families warm but also to tell stories about family memories and ancestral history. I decided to try my hand at this art form and fell in love immediately.
How has your artistic process changed or evolved since you began quilting? At the beginning of my journey, I worried about making mistakes but quickly came to the realization that art quilting is very forgiving. Many things that I saw as mistakes enhanced my pieces and made them more visually interesting.
I decided early on that I would teach myself something new for each quilt. I researched techniques online and bought many books about art quilting to help me to learn the basics. I have become a better artist over the years because of this decision. I am more mindful now about fabric color and texture and how they work together to set the mood of a piece. It’s all been trial and error though. I did not go to art school, so it’s been a wondrous learning journey!
What is your favorite part of the process of creating a quilt? I love exploring different colors and texture combinations when I am just beginning a new quilt. There are so many different possibilities! There is no need to commit to anything in that early planning stage because nothing is sewn down yet. I am free to move fabrics around and discover what feels right for that unique piece.
I would love to hear about how you composed these illustrations. How did you choose the fabrics? Do any of them have special significance? When planning the illustrations, I tried to keep the text in mind and made decisions about what aspects needed to be enhanced. For example, the first page describes tea cakes, a traditional cookie that enslaved people made using simple pantry ingredients. I thought it was important to help readers visualize a tea cake, so I set out to create them using one of the brown fabrics from my stash that had some color variations. Tea cakes were not fancy, but they were delicious and smelled amazing, so I used hand-embroidered lettering to show the movement of the scent wafting through the air. Embroidery was the new thing I taught myself for this project.
I chose fabrics that I felt would have matched the period. Nothing flashy or too modern. I did want to depict a difference in how my characters were dressed before and after the announcement about freedom. Some of the clothing was inspired by my love of African fabric and styles.
What is your favorite illustration in the book? I love them all for one reason or another, but my favorite is the illustration of Huldah high up in her favorite tree, catching a sunbeam. It is such a visually stunning illustration. I love how big the sun is in comparison to Huldah. She bravely faces the sun head-on, taking some of its strength and wisdom back home with her in her little jar. In my imagination, the sun represents life and freedom, and that jar is her heart. I fell in love with nature at a very young age, camping every summer in New York’s Bear Mountain and the Catskills. Nature always felt so big to me, yet I was never overwhelmed by it. Instead, I always felt at home and peaceful, just like Huldah.
What aspect of A Flag for Juneteenth are you most proud of? I am very proud to tell the story of Juneteenth in a way that I hope will encourage children to want to learn more about this historic event. I felt it was critical to highlight the beauty and resilience of African and African American people during their enslavement, as well as to showcase the importance of strong family and community ties. I am also incredibly proud to have illustrated this book with an art form that was used by my ancestors to tell their own stories.
Photo of Kim Taylor courtesy of Erskine Isaac for Ivisionphoto.
The author-illustrator of A Flag for Juneteenth, a picture book illustrated with quilted artwork, describes feeling guided by her ancestors as she created her extraordinary first book.
Journalism professor Michelle Dowd was raised in California’s Angeles National Forest as part of an ultrareligious cult known as the Field, which was begun by her grandfather. She grew up fearing the apocalypse might arrive at any moment, and public education was shunned and largely avoided. “Outsiders” were never to be trusted. As Dowd writes in her excellent memoir, Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult, her father taught his children that “preparing for war is an essential component of growing up.” He forced them to embrace discomfort, limited their food, weighed them after meals and sent them hiking in the snow in tennis shoes. Although there are numerous memoirs about growing up in religious cults, Dowd’s unique spin and reflective voice elevate her story.
Forager is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, especially in the way that Dowd used her innate curiosity and thirst for education as a means to eventually break free. As a child, she began devouring the Bible—the only thing she had to read—taking secret notes on the many things she found puzzling or contradictory, “as if constructing a map for a prison escape.” Often she joined other cult members on long cross-country trips to raise money by performing in circuslike road shows. Dowd learned to endure her father’s frequent “rage and random violence” but never stopped yearning for her mother’s love and approval. Her mother was often absent, hugs weren’t allowed, and little if any nurturing was provided.
The one thing Dowd’s mother did provide was an exceptional naturalist’s education, which serves as the book’s framework. Since the apocalypse was believed to be imminent, Dowd and others were expertly trained in survival skills. Each chapter begins with an illustration and short discussion of a plant that might provide sustenance, such as chokeberry, yucca or Jeffrey pine. Dowd’s survival skills, which have long provided her with a life raft, both mentally and physically, are not only admirable but fascinating.
Although Forager chronicles a horrific upbringing, Dowd’s narration is ultimately hopeful, uplifting and always appreciative of our intimate, fragile dependence on our planet. As she so beautifully concludes, “The sustenance I rely on is from the Mountain, which has made my mind large, open, like the night sky, where there is room for paradox.”
Although there are numerous memoirs about growing up in religious cults, Michelle Dowd's reflective voice and unique connection to nature elevate her story.
Acclaimed children’s author Aida Salazar tells the story of Jovita Valdovinos, a revolutionary figure to whom she is distantly related and who is sometimes described as “Mexico’s Joan of Arc,” in Jovita Wore Pants. Molly Mendoza’s dazzling art enhances this thrilling picture book biography, which transports readers to early 20th-century Mexico as Valdovinos transforms from an adventurous girl to a daring, clever leader.
The book opens as young Valdovinos, wearing a dress and braids, gazes out the window and dreams of wearing pants so she can join her older brothers’ outdoor fun. Soon, she begins to do just this, sneaking out of the house and tucking her skirts into her bloomers. Salazar’s exquisite prose shows how these clandestine escapades enriched and strengthened Valdovinos: “Jovita discovered the way the leaves rustle when rain is coming, where healing plants grow, the shape of every cave, and what might lurk inside.”
Valdovinos later uses these childhood lessons as she follows in her father’s and brothers’ footsteps and joins the Catholic Cristero forces in their rebellion against the secular Federales. After Federales kill her father and brothers, the grief-stricken Valdovinos dons pants, cuts her hair, calls herself “Juan” and continues the crusade her family members gave their lives for. The book deftly captures Valdovinos’ dynamic metamorphosis into a warrior in a series of stunning spreads. We see her engulfed in a torrent of tears after learning of her family’s brutal deaths, watch her slash through her braids with a large knife and witness the avenging heroine on horseback as she commands a company of 80 soldiers.
Mendoza’s illustrations are a whirlwind of color and energy. Her curved, fluid lines (the bend of a river, the rise of a hillside, the wind-whipped tail of a rambunctious stallion) create a sense of action and excitement. Every inch of these spreads is filled with motion as we see, for instance, 15-year-old Valdovinos leaping over a brick wall “with the stealth of a fox” to escape government soldiers. Mendoza brilliantly uses color to convey mood, from the predominantly turquoise, yellow and orange scenes of Valdovinos’ carefree childhood, to the brooding purples, blues and dark reds of the tumultuous revolution.
A five-page essay, accompanied by photos, adds informative details about Valdovinos’ long life after her peaceful surrender to the Mexican government. With frank mentions of the realities of war, including violence, torture and death, Jovita Wore Pants is best suited for elementary-age readers who will appreciate this stirring biography of a woman “who defiantly turned her country’s cultural patriarchy on its head.”
This stirring biography captures the daring life of “Mexico’s Joan of Arc,” a revolutionary woman who defied expectations and fought for her beliefs.
Early in Cathleen Schine’s poignant, very funny novel, effervescent 93-year-old Mamie Künstler demands that her grandson, Julian, drag himself away from the screen of his phone. “I want your attention,” she announces. “I mean here you are.” And boy, is he. The 24-year-old has just broken up with his girlfriend, can no longer afford his rent in Brooklyn and has been sent by his parents to Venice Beach, California, to look after Mamie, who has fractured her wrist. Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic arrives, trapping the pair together indefinitely in Künstlers in Paradise.
As a diversion from endless hours of watching MSNBC “like hollow-eyed drug addicts,” Mamie begins to tell Julian stories of her life, beginning with her emigration from Vienna at age 12 with her parents and grandfather in 1939. The family delayed their departure for as long as possible, rarely leaving the house during that time. As Mamie explains, storytelling is “what Grandfather and I did to amuse each other. We told stories when we were stuck in the house.” Once the family began their journey “off to a land of make-believe,” Mamie says, “I was amazed, enchanted! I was like Odysseus on Calypso’s island!”
Mamie’s tales of her adopted country read like a who’s-who of old Hollywood: repeated encounters with Greta Garbo (who becomes an important person in Mamie’s life), tennis lessons with composer Arnold Schoenberg and Thanksgiving dinner with Aldous Huxley, actor Anita Loos and Adele Astaire (Fred’s older sister). Schine’s sharp wit is constantly on display, as when Mamie interrupts her narration to comment on Julian’s lack of familiarity with many of these celebrities: “We will have an intermission while you google.”
Few authors could pull off the storytelling format of Künstlers in Paradise, but Schine does so seamlessly and marvelously, creating a multilayered saga about family dynamics and relationships, immigration, the early days of Hollywood and the often disturbingly cyclical nature of history. In addition to a cavalcade of humor, there is great and sobering substance amid the stark contrasts, conveyed in the slightest touch of Schine’s well-crafted prose: “The physical beauty of Venice and the moral ugliness of America were more difficult for Julian to reconcile. On the day George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a police officer kneeling on his neck, the jacaranda trees burst into bloom, canopies of unnatural color, a spectacular purple, blossoms lush and bizarre.”
As story after story unfolds, Julian and Mamie are transformed. After Julian hears Mamie describe a Künstler family photo taken back in Vienna, he notes, “She didn’t skip a beat at the mention of Dachau. . . . Or of her cousin who perished there. What an intricate, convoluted bundle of emotional strands she must carry around inside that heart.”
As Mamie concludes in her own delightful way, “I do not believe in life after death. . . . I sometimes have trouble believing in life before death: it is all so improbable.” Künstlers in Paradise is truly a trove of unexpected rewards.
Few authors could pull off what Cathleen Schine does in Künstlers in Paradise: creating a seamless, multilayered saga about family dynamics and relationships, immigration, the early days of Hollywood and the often disturbingly cyclical nature of history.
Pakistani American author Reem Faruqi tells the fascinating story of her late grandmother’s life in Milloo’s Mind: The Story of Maryam Faruqi, Trailblazer for Women’s Education.
Faruqi, who was born in 1920 in Poona, India, was given the nickname “Milloo” by her father. Milloo loved learning from an early age: “When she read, her thoughts danced, her mind breathed, and her heart hummed.” Although girls were not expected to continue their education past the fifth grade, Milloo fought for her right to learn and, eventually, for the rights of others as well. When she grew up, she founded schools in Pakistan that have educated thousands of children.
Faruqi’s lively prose brings her grandmother’s inspiring story to life with lyrical flair, transforming, for example, Milloo’s walk to school into a celebration: “Milloo snaked past the sabzi wala, cha-chaed past the chai wala, danced through the dusty alleys, all the way to school.” (A glossary provides explanations of vocabulary that may be unfamiliar.)
Iranian illustrator Hoda Hadadi’s paper-collage spreads are a symphony of color, texture and depth. Hadadi embues objects as simple as the curtains in Milloo’s home and classroom with diaphanous layering and intricate patterns, and the same is true of the vibrant clothing worn by many characters.
After Milloo married and was expected to take over household duties, Faruqi explains that Milloo found herself ill-suited for a domestic life: “When Milloo cooked, her head stewed, and when she sewed, her mind got tangled.” Although this is a challenging point in Milloo’s life, Hadadi still fills her illustration with engaging colors, from the bright pinks and oranges of Milloo’s clothes to her rainbow of thread spools, as well as a multicolored clothesline that stretches across the spread.
The book ends with a lovely full-circle moment as Faruqi notes how today, students in the schools opened by her grandmother stay up at night reading, just like Milloo. “Their thoughts danced, their minds breathed, and their hearts hummed,” she writes. Bursting with energy, Milloo’s Mind is a joyful ode to education and empowerment.
This lively picture book about Maryam Faruqi, who founded schools in Pakistan, is a colorful and joyful ode to education and empowerment.
Twelve-year-old Lawrence and his family have had “a double dose of hard lately.” His dad left his mom and has been in and out of prison ever since, and Lawrence, his mom and little sister have recently moved from Charlotte to “the middle of Nowhere, North Carolina,” to live with Lawrence’s no-nonsense grandmother. When Lawrence is expelled from his new, mostly white middle school for fighting, Granny is quick to quash his plan to stay home and watch TV.
When Mr. Dennis, who lives nearby, spots Lawrence walking aimlessly around the neighborhood, he invites the boy to join him at the local rec center, where he teaches Lawrence to play competitive chess. “Chess is a game for thinkers,” Mr. Dennis explains, and through the game, Lawrence learns lessons that apply to both chess and life, such as the importance of seeing the big picture and how to plan ahead and avoid falling into enemy traps. He also connects with other kids at the rec center, including brilliant Twyla, who captures his heart, and combative Deuce, who turns out to share something important in common with Lawrence.
In Not an Easy Win, author Chrystal D. Giles turns chess into a drama-filled endeavor that reaches its peak when Lawrence returns to Charlotte to compete in a junior chess tournament. These scenes are filled with all the tension and thrill of a high-stakes athletic final, and even readers with little or no knowledge of chess will be lured in.
Lawrence makes an appealing narrator, and his honesty will quickly win readers over. Giles has a knack for believable turns of phrase that memorably convey Lawrence’s emotions. For instance, when Lawrence recalls the day he was expelled, he observes, “There’s something about being constantly reminded that I’m different that makes me extra edgy, like a revved-up engine ready to spin out.”
Giles explains in an author’s note that, like Lawrence, she grew up in “a multigenerational home . . . with a parent who was absent and often incarcerated,” which led to “moments of embarrassment and shame.” Lawrence’s father doesn’t appear in the novel, but his son maintains a significant, supportive connection with him through an old iPod filled with his favorite songs.
As Lawrence thinks back to how he felt when he first moved to his new home, he recalls wishing that his family could be “a normal family. I’d already figured out normal wasn’t real. Still, that didn’t stop anyone from wanting it.” With understanding and authenticity, Giles captures Lawrence’s feelings of confusion, displacement, anger, sadness and, eventually, hope. Not an Easy Win is a meaningful, moving read, especially for those who feel misunderstood or out of place.
Chrystal D. Giles turns chess into a drama-filled endeavor in this empathetic novel with special appeal for anyone who feels misunderstood or out of place.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cathleen Schine sat lounging in her glorious, sweet-smelling Los Angeles garden, feeling miserably stuck. She knew she wanted to write about Jewish German exiles in Hollywood during World War II but feared that a strictly historical novel might become “a pit of phony insertions of detail,” a quagmire-ridden quest for historical accuracy.
Make no mistake, Schine’s novels are always fine-tuned, fascinating and funny. She’s been compared to Nora Ephron and Jane Austen. Her books include Alice in Bed, about a suburban teenager with a mysterious disease (inspired by Schine’s own strange illness as a young woman), and more recently, The Grammarians, about identical twin girls obsessed with language and battling for custody of their family dictionary.
Thankfully, revelation struck and opened the creative floodgates Schine needed to pen her latest novel, Kϋnstlers in Paradise. Speaking by phone, she recalls, “I was sitting there with my notebook closed and the cap on my pen, staring at all this beautiful jasmine, unable to go anywhere or do anything. And I thought, ‘This is a kind of exile, too, because I’m sitting here in all this beauty, and all my friends are back in New York, locked in, terrified.’” Her friends’ parents were dying, and Schine’s own mother, in her 90s, was also housebound, sick and, as it turns out, nearing the end of her life. “At that moment,” the author says, “New York was a horrible, terrifying nightmare, and here I was in this beautiful garden, basically in paradise.”
The result of Schine’s magical moment is a multigenerational family drama about exile, guilt, aging, storytelling and love, all told with a hefty helping of humor. Ninety-three-year-old Mamie Kϋnstler has lived in Venice Beach, California, since emigrating as a girl from Vienna, Austria, in 1939 with her parents and grandfather. After Mamie fractures her wrist, her grandson Julian, a wannabe screenwriter who can no longer afford his rent in New York City, arrives to help out.
Then COVID-19 strikes, and Julian is less than thrilled to find himself quarantined with his grandmother, her housekeeper and a Saint Bernard named Prince Jan. Julian might not love it, but readers absolutely will. Imagine, for instance: “Julian and his grandmother were stretched out in two chaise longues, side by side like an old couple by a Miami pool.”
Eventually, however, Julian finds himself intrigued and even transformed by Mamie’s marvelous tales of Vienna and old Hollywood. Their time together reads like a love letter to not only Los Angeles but also the relationship between grandparent and grandchild—a theme further echoed in Mamie’s tender relationship with her own grandfather.
Schine initially became intrigued by these Hollywood exiles (many of whom called themselves émigrés, she explains, “as if they weren’t ‘regular’ immigrants like the Russian Jews”) after reading a biography about composer and socialite Alma Mahler, and another about actor, screenwriter and activist Salka Viertel. Schine even named Mamie after Viertel; both women share the given name “Salomea.” Viertel appears in the novel, along with many other well-known figures, including writers Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann; composer Arnold Schoenberg, who teaches Mamie to play tennis; and actor Greta Garbo, who is a major character.
“I just became obsessed with these people,” Schine admits. “I read a million memoirs of the period. And by a million, I mean a million.” She wondered what it would be like to be a high-cultured person who suddenly found themselves in LA in 1939, a time when the city was culturally barren in comparison to, say, Vienna. “They came over here and had to exist in this beautiful place while their world was being completely destroyed, and that whole notion really captured my imagination,” Schine says.
Although Kϋnstlers in Paradise is far from autobiographical (Schine says her own immigrant ancestors were far less “exalted” than these characters), she notes that “almost all of my older women characters are modeled to some extent on my mother, and also my grandmother,” both of whom had great senses of humor. Like Schine’s mother did, Mamie dyes her hair “a much brighter red than nature could have provided,” although Schine notes that Mamie is still “really very much her own person.”
In contrast to Mamie’s swift development, Schine says, “It took a long time for Julian . . . to become a real character, not just a name that I kept putting in so that Mamie could say something. . . . I wanted him to be in some ways innocent and in some ways entitled. He hasn’t really done anything with his life yet, but on the other hand, he isn’t a complete narcissistic dumbbell. He’s just a kid. Getting that right was very difficult.”
Like Julian, Schine was just getting to know Los Angeles during the pandemic—even though she’s lived there for over 10 years. COVID-19 put a stop to Schine’s monthly visits to New York City to see her mother, giving her more time in LA “to walk around and get accustomed to the neighborhood and the way the light changes and the seasons, which exist, but they’re so different,” she says. “I was a real New York snob.” She had lived in New York for decades, raising her two sons there with New Yorker film critic David Denby. After their divorce, she moved to California with her wife, filmmaker Janet Meyers. “I realized that the part of New York that I had come to love the most was Central Park,” she says, “and I thought, ‘If New York for you is Central Park, then you could live in Los Angeles.’ I just got to the point where I wanted a quiet, peaceful place to live.”
Another trait that Schine shares with Julian is the fact that her own career emerged, shall we say, slowly. She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College, hoping to become a poet. “I’d never been to a place like that, where everyone was dressed in such a fabulous, interesting way and was so smart and charismatic. And I thought, ‘I am not letting these people read my poems. Are you kidding?’” She quickly transferred to Barnard College, changed her major to medieval studies and then went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, only to become “a failed medievalist.” Next, she landed a job at TheVillage Voice with help from her mother’s best friend, who later encouraged Schine to transform one of her articles into a novel.
During this time, Schine felt like “a depressed lump,” living with her mother and sleeping on top of her bed so that when her mother walked in, “I could just sit up and the bed was made.” She eventually began writing a novel secretly, “pretending like I was making a shoe,” which allowed her to avoid the “baggage that it had to be the great American novel.”
Looking back, Schine recognizes that her success was “a combination of great luck, connections and, I have to think, some talent. When that happens, and the luck is there, it’s amazing.” In contrast to writers who begin with outlines, Schine experiences her own writing process like “being en plein air in a city, strolling through your book, observing things as you go.” She tends to structure a novel after most of it has been written; in the case of Kϋnstlers in Paradise, because it is full of Mamie’s stories, it ended up being “about stories and what they mean, and where they fit into your own life—and into the lives of the people you tell them to. And how stories change, and also change people.”
Schine has previously said that she doesn’t want to write her own life story, but today she says, “You know what? I think I want to, actually.” However, as she begins to discuss the genre, she quickly backtracks. “It’s funny. I want to write a memoir, but I don’t really want it to be very personal,” she says. “Somehow writing about myself seems so self-indulgent without the protection of a novel to make it more interesting and, in some ways, more real for other people. On the other hand, I love reading memoirs. Go figure.”
Photo of Schine by Karen Tapia.
Kϋnstlers in Paradise chronicles a grandmother and grandson facing COVID-19 lockdown together. Hilarity ensues, as well as revelations.
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