Category Archives: biography/memoir

Be Prepared written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol

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Be Prepared written and illustrated by Vera Brosgol
First Second, 2018.

Poor Vera just doesn’t fit in anywhere. In this memoir, 9-year-old Russian immigrant tries to be like her affluent American friends but her mother ruins her perfect sleepover birthday party by getting the wrong sort of cake (with Russian writing on it!) and a non-Pizza Hut, non-stuffed crust pizza. And then her friends actually all get picked up in the middle of the night because they’re scared. Vera decides she wants to go to summer camp, just like her friends, and finds a Russian one, ORRA, where she believes she won’t feel “weird and different,” so she persuades her mother to find the money for both her and her reluctant younger brother Phil to go.

Sadly, and heart-squeezingly, camp is nothing like Vera was expecting. She gets put with much older and more sophisticated girls who are not at all interested in bra-less bespectacled Vera. And the bathrooms! Meanwhile, Phil seems to be having a ball. The author does not shy away from the absolute misery of most of her time at ORRA, while still making it funny for the reader. Though things improve after Vera goes on a hiking trip and makes friend with a younger girl, her wretchedness when her mother asks her to stay another two weeks is palpable. The only pleasure Vera finds is in sketching and she uses this talent to “buy” friendship by drawing the other campers, though this backfires on her.

The illustrations, in black and shades of olive green manage to evoke all the misery and occasional bright spot of camp, as well as the explosion of happiness at leaving and never having to go back. The illustrations of the glum owl-bespectacled Vera trudging through her days at camp and comparing her suffering to that of the Russian peasants, are touching and humorous, and sharply contrast with her exuberant joy when she finds a pal.

Included at the back of the book is a genuIne letter that Vera sent her mother from camp. I cannot imagine being on the receiving end of such a misery-filled missive. My kids have had their ups and downs at camp but have at least managed a somewhat cheerful postcard.

We leave Vera about to move to London – dare we hope for further installments?

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Algeria Is Beautiful Like America by Olivia Burton; illustrated by Mahi Grand and translated by Edward Gauvin

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Algeria Is Beautiful Like America by Olivia Burton; illustrated by Mahi Grand and translated by Edward Gauvin
Lion Forge, 2018.

In this elegant graphic memoir, originally published in France in 2015, the white French author goes to Algeria to visit the places her settler family had lived in before they left in the 1960’s after the War of Independence. Olivia has her grandmother’s written memories to guide her along with a local contact called Djaffar.

The novel switches between the present day, her family’s time in Algeria, and Olivia’s and her mother’s early years in France. Olivia’s views on France’s presence in Algeria had been formed by her relatives’ rosy stories of their colonial past, but these were challenged by her school and college friends. It is only now, years later, when she is actually in the country that she can form her own perspective.

A map on the endpapers – clean at the front and marked up with the route and notes at the back – gives a guide to the trip. The detailed black and white illustrations, augmented with the occasional color “photograph” from Olivia’s trip, show the present and the past and their frequent overlap. The scenes of her quest capture the charms of the people, the buildings, and, with an occasional double page spread, the landscape of Algeria and she finally understands why her mother could never find anywhere to settle in France.

As Olivia and Djaffar drive into the Aurès mountains, they find many people who knew her family and are happy to show her their old houses. Even in Algiers, she is welcomed into the family who have lived in her grandparents’ apartment since they left.

Some of this historical background might be a bit challenging for Americans as it assumes at least a basic familiarity with France’s troubled relationship with Algeria, and though there are footnotes to help on specific points, there is no author’s note with some more general background. Nonetheless, it is an evocative memoir about uncovering the past and exploring how it has impinged on the present.

Americanized: Rebel without a Green Card by Sara Saedi

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Americanized: Rebel without a Green Card by Sara Saedi
Knopf, 2018

This breezy memoir about growing up Iranian American in Northern California is shot through with Sara’s family’s struggles to secure legal status.

Much of Sara’s teen life has the same concerns as any other American teen – why doesn’t the boy I like like not like like me in return? How come my older sister is so much cooler than me? What am I going to do with my life? Is my nose too big?

But there is a dark underside as well, as her loving parents, who left Iran and sought political asylum during the 1979 revolution, will go to any length to secure a green card, including getting divorced (and later remarrying because it proved to be unnecessary).

We are welcomed into Sara’s large extended family, getting some of the background of their lives in pre-revolutionary Iran as well as how they have integrated their culture into their Bay Area home, giving a picture of Tehran and Iranians that is far closer to Western life than the terrorists shown in the news.

Topping and tailing the memoir is a brief history of post-colonial Iran and a primer on the complexities of immigration status.

By making her background open and accessible, Sara offers both a mirror and a window for American teen readers.

Reviewed from an ARC

How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana

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How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017

10-year old Sandra and her family were in a refugee camp in Burundi when it was attacked and 166 refugees were murdered, including Sandra’s six-year old sister Deborah. Over the next ten years, as Sandra’s family moved to Rwanda and then the USA, they never discussed this loss or shared their feelings on the massacre and it was only when Sandra had a breakdown in her sophomore year at college that they finally open up.

With a brief overview of how colonialism left her tribe, the Banyamulenge, stateless and “always in limbo”, Sandra matter of factly describes her early life in the Democratic Republic of Congo where “war was part of our everyday life.” In a very tense scene, her family escapes from the DRC when ethnic conflict bubbles over, only to end up in an empty field in Gatumba in Burundi where the UNHCR builds a refugee camp. Following the massacre, the family moves to Rwanda where they live in desperate poverty until getting the “golden ticket” to go to America,

But their arrival in the USA is not the happy end of the story that the family (and possibly the reader) assumed. Though the threat of ethnic slaughter is removed, the family faces hostility and indifference to their struggles. Even Sandra’s thirst for education is dampened by the lack of understanding she faces in school. Her frustration at people’s ignorance of Africa and the plight of refugees pushes her to tell her family’s story to increasingly large and high profile meetings and conferences, and her advocacy gives her life a focus.

The workmanlike, though unsophisticated, prose conveys Sandra’s despair, confusion and outrage, and then her later passion for her cause. Sandra’s feeling of being an outsider wherever she is comes across strongly, particularly when she describes being unable to relate to her classmates in her US middle and high schools where “your skin color defines you.”

There is a small collection of photographs of survivors of the massacre and their stories, as well as some joyful family scenes of graduations, weddings, and trips back to Africa. One heartbreaking fuzzy image is the only photo left of Deborah – the family’s album was lost in Gatumba.

Sandra comes to realize that Americans are not uncaring, “they just didn’t know our story.” Her quest to show that refugees, are just like them “with hobbies and dreams and talents” is continued in this memoir, which will give teen readers a timely and accessible insight into the human face of refugees.

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

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Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman
Henry Holt, 2017

Heiligman (Charles and Emma, 2009) artfully lays out her magnificent biography of the Van Gogh brothers “as if you are walking through a museum show of their lives – a collection of paintings, drawings, and sketches.” This series of chronologically arranged vignettes, grouped into thematic “galleries,” is written in the present tense and illuminates the lives of Vincent and his younger brother Theo and their deep and intense relationship.

There are two touchstones which the author returns to several times. One is a conversation the teen brothers had on a walk together in 1872 in which they pledge that “they will be more than brothers, more than friends. They will be companions in the search for meaning in life and meaning in art.” She also uses as a central metaphor the idea of Vincent and Theo “carrying each other’s parcels.”

Drawing deeply on the plethora of letters from, to, and between the brothers (and recording this in detail in the endnotes), she follows them from their early years in rural Netherlands across Belgium, England and France, sometimes together, often apart. Echoing Vincent’s eclectic and evolving style, the author moves fluidly between sketches, impressions, and richly detailed portraits narrating the brothers’ friendships and romances, their mental and physical states, and the development of their work, showing how these are all fused together.

Theo (left) and Vincent

Though Vincent is the more famous one, she argues that without Theo’s support – financial, emotional, and professional – he would not have become the magnificent artist we know. Using black and white reproductions of ink drawings as illustrative “gallery” dividers and an insert of color prints of key paintings, the author connects Vincent’s life with his work and gives the reader an insight into his process and vision.

Ms Heiligman has succeeded in writing an intricate and layered biography that readers will enjoy both as a story of the complicated bond between two brothers and for the understanding that they gain into one of the world’s most renowned painters and his art.

Extensive backmatter also includes a list of people, a thorough timeline, sources, and index.

X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

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XX by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon
Candlewick, 2015

X is the story of Malcolm Little’s formative years, before he became Malcolm X and a renowned human rights activist. Written by his daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz (Growing Up X, One World, 2003), and Coretta Scott King honoree Kekla Magoon (How It Went Down, Holt, 2014), this captivating book captures the rhythm and the groove of early 1940’s Roxbury and Harlem, as the charismatic Malcolm hustles his way through the world, before going to jail and eventually converting to Islam.

There are twin voices in Malcolm’s head throughput this period. On the one hand, his family and particularly his father Earl Little, a civil rights activist who was murdered when Malcolm was only 6, believe in the strength, power and dignity of black people. But, in Malcolm’s mind, this conviction is countered by a teacher who casually tells him that he’s “just a nigger.” (I thought long and hard about including the word nigger here – but the importance of this phrase, used several times in the book, to Malcolm’s picture of himself is paramount and, really, the power word in the phrase is actually “just”).

Perhaps because of Earl Little’s early death, Malcolm spends many years latching on to different father figures to guide him including Shorty, a saxophone player in Boston, Sammy the Pimp in Harlem, and John Bembry in jail. Though many lead him astray, they all act as protectors and teachers.

Clearly Malcolm makes many questionable choices in his lifestyle and his activities, and these are not in any way glossed over. Rather, the authors keep bringing us back to the core beliefs of his family about the abilities and pride of black people, which Malcolm interprets in his own, somewhat twisted, way before coming full circle to accept them as intended. It seems he needed these explorations of the darker side of life to be able to truly understand what his parents felt so strongly.

The authors are clear that this is a novelization – minor characters are composites, there are some simplifications, and the dialog is invented – but it remains true to the journey that Malcolm X undertook in his early life. A timeline, notes on historical context and further reading suggestions are also included.

Though X only covers the years before Malcolm rose to prominence, it will give teen readers an enthralling picture of both the era, and the development of one of the most influential people of the 20th century.

Elena Vanishing by Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkle

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elena vanishingElena Vanishing by Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkle
Chronicle, 2015.

This grueling and intense memoir covers the many years that Elena Dunkle was treated for anorexia, and is published simultaneously with Clare B. Dunkle’s Hope and Other Luxuries, which gives her mother’s perspective. The daughter’s story is a challenging read, as for two-thirds of the book we are in the head of a young woman whose life revolves around her number – what she weighs – and who is driven by a harshly critical inner voice, goading her on all the time.

Elena is an overachieving perfectionist, and scoffs at the idea of an eating disorder: “The meal-skipping I do these days isn’t a disorder because it never lacks order.” She is a control freak, super-organized and never without a planned day. She shows the tenacity and cunning of an anorexic – perfecting the art of silent vomiting, secreting BB pellets in her bra when she goes to be weighed, buying drinks with lids so no-one can see what she is, or more likely isn’t, consuming.

As the doctors and therapists delve to find out “What Went Wrong”, the treatments Elena receives often appear cruel, and her parents, both scapegoats and martyrs, seem to be flailing in the dark. It is only after her sister has a baby, Elena herself miscarries, and finally opens the door to a memory from when she was 13, that she is at last ready to start on the road to healing. Even then, “recovery is a path not a destination,” and it takes many more months for her to feel she has begun to shake off the shackles of her addiction.

An author’s note at the end is clear that this should not be used as a blueprint for either anorexia or for treating anorexia, and gives some resources for those who are struggling with eating disorders. However, I would still be reluctant to recommend this to any teen girl, as the tone of the majority of the book is triumphant about restricting intake, purging and over-exercising. Even I, as an adult with no particular issue with food, felt quite odd about eating as I was reading this book.