Monday, June 12, 2006


BESSIE SMITH AND THE NIGHT RIDERS by Sue Stauffacher, illustrated by John Holyfield (Putnam)

When legendary songstress Bessie Smith’s train car pulls into Emmarene’s small town, her world is filled with glamour. She peeks under the tent to see Bessie perform, but from her vantage point, she is also able to see the white-hooded Klansman sneaking up to perform a nefarious deed. When Emmarene runs in to warn Bessie, the performer’s courageous response is not what anyone expects, especially the Ku Klux Klan. Bold paintings capture both the dark night and bright spirits; there was something especially chilling in the illustration of Klansman painted on their horses. Taking a cue from Bessie, this story depicts its underlying racial theme with unusual bravery and candor for a children’s book. Being based on real events and ending relatively happily, this powerful read-aloud is all the more thrilling. (7 and up)

Incidentally, Sue Stauffacher is my new favorite writer. Maneuvering between picture books and chapter books (like her touching and humorous Donuthead) with the illusion of ease, it was her novel HARRY SUE (Knopf, 10 and up) that really blew me away. It is the story of a tough little girl who plans to get herself incarcernated in order to escape living with her negligent grandmother who runs a day care center, and in order to be in the company of her mother. Harry Sue is no felon, however; under that steely, tough-talking armour beats the heart of a booklover, and a tireless protector of small children. Though the topics touched on are tragic and raw, Harry Sue's voice soars above her circumstances with startling humor and esprit. This is a book for our time, but has elements of classics such as Frances Burnett's The Secret Garden and Katherine Paterson's The Great Gilly Hopkins, but most of all, and interwoven throughout, are direct allusions to L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the fantasy that helps Harry Sue weather--and triumph over--her harsh reality.

Fans of Gennifer Choldenko's Newbery honor-winning Al Capone Does My Shirts will appreciate the research that went into Harry Sue's authentic "Conglish," or freewheeling prison lingo. There is precious little available for the large population of children who have incarcerated parents, and in that alone, this book makes a significant contribution; but that is not this book's only contribution. I think history will be a little red in the face for failing to fully recognize this particular literary tour de force, but luckily, there's nothing this talented author can't history will likely get a second chance.

Keep an eye on this one, gang. She's a groundbreaker.

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


Kelly said...

I am so glad I have stumbled across this. I am a newly qualified primary teacher from the UK and I first read your book Educating Esme a couple of years ago while at the start of my training. It has been inspirational and I often return to pages or chapters when I have a tough day with my class. I have been an avid reader all my life, I love the thrill of discovering new books and I aim to give my children the chance to enjoy and explore all possible stories and tales. I will continue reading your suggestions with interest:) Thanks again for the inspiration.

Jone said...

I am adding books on my list to go in search for with the last of my library budget money. Thanks for the suggestions. Hope they will be in stock!!
Harry Sue sounds incredibly interesting. I can't wait to get my hands on it.

Chris Barton said...

The Bessie Smith book sounds terrific, Esme -- I'm going to try to find it next month when my seven-year-old and I tackle US history from 1900-1950.


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