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Mama's nightingale : a story of immigration and separation
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Author Notes
Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969 and came to America at age twelve to live with her parents in Brooklyn. She studied French literature at Barnard College and received her M.F.A. from Brown University. Her work has achieved both popular and critical acclaim. Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), her first novel and master's thesis, garnered Danticat a Granta Regional Award for Best Young American Novelist and was chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection, a singular honor. Her collection of short stories Krik? Krak! (1995) was nominated for the National Book Award. <p> Along with awards for fiction from Seventeen and Essence and the 1995 Pushcart Short Story Prize, Danticat was chosen by Harper's Bazaar as "one of 20 people in their twenties who will make a difference," and by the New York Times Magazine as one of "30 Under 30" people to watch. <p> Her second novel, The Farming of Bones (1998), concerns a massacre in Haiti in 1937. <p> (Bowker Author Biography)
Fiction/Biography Profile
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  New York Times Review

PICTURE BOOKS HAVE long been concerned with helping children transition to an unfamiliar place. A child's first day in a new school or a family's move to a different neighborhood are by now classic subjects. But since the dawn of the 21st century, with the number of immigrants in the United States continuing to increase markedly, children's authors and publishers have begun to take on a far more challenging task - helping immigrant children settle into a new cultural environment, one that even their parents may find inexplicable. Since the principal obstacle to understanding a culture is, of course, the language that expresses it, language can loom large in these books; and a language divide is a concept difficult to express pictorially. Given all this, a child's experience of immigration is a subject matter that requires some inventive tactics, as four new books ably demonstrate. "Auntie used to call me Cartwheel. Then came the war," reads the opening of "My Two Blankets," written by Irena Kobald. "Auntie didn't call me Cartwheel anymore," the narrator continues. War and displacement have left a mark on Cartwheel, even to the point of losing her sense of self: "I felt like I wasn't me anymore." She speaks from her new country, and Freya Blackwood's illustrations underscore her disorientation. Small, mysterious shapes and objects representing the words of the language Cartwheel does not understand dart chaotically across the pages, and we see Cartwheel at night, hiding under an imagined "blanket" made of orderly symbols that represent her native tongue. One day in the park, a girl smiles at Cartwheel and soon begins helping her to decipher the meaning of the strange floating signs. Soon Cartwheel incorporates these symbols into her old "blanket," gradually creating an entirely new one as she steadily masters her new language. Finally, Cartwheel is comfortable "no matter which blanket I use" - she is able to speak both languages. A final page shows her cartwheeling in the park, her sense of self restored. With its bold visual metaphors, "My Two Blankets" ingeniously captures a child's efforts to weave the old with the new. THE CHILD PROTAGONIST of "Mama's Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation," written by the accomplished novelist and memoirist Edwidge Danticat, deploys the inherent power of words to pull off the near impossible: a reunion with her mother, who is in Sunshine Correctional, "a prison for women without papers." A child of Haitian immigrants, Saya soothes her misery over the separation by listening to her mother's voice on the answering machine: "Tanpri kite bon ti nouvèl pou nou!" the family's outgoing message says in Creole, which the bilingual Saya, who narrates the story, translates as "Please, leave us good news." But no good news is forthcoming. Nightly, Saya's father writes letters to public officials pleading his wife's case, but "no one ever writes him back." After a heart-wrenching prison visit, Saya's mother manages to send audiocassettes with bedtime stories that she has recorded for her daughter. Inspired, Saya writes her own story about her mother's absence, and her father mails it to a newspaper reporter. When Saya's story is published, a public outcry results in Saya's mother's release. "I like that it is our words that brought us together again," Saya concludes. Skillfully written with Creole words sprinkled into the English, "Mama's Nightingale" is richly illuminated by Leslie Staub's oil paintings evoking Haitian folk art. IN ANNE SIBLEY O'BRIEN'S "I'm New Here," three simultaneous story lines show the efforts of immigrant children named Maria, Jin and Fatimah to fit into their new schools. Their common obstacle is the language they cannot understand. Readers are placed squarely into the characters' points of view from the first page, with the children's bewilderment expressed graphically through words emanating from invisible speakers in disembodied comics-style speech balloons, or through oddly spelled English words that the native children utter at recess: "Hedz Up," "Mai Tern," "Kum Awn." Eventually, our newcomers draw on their strengths - Maria excels at soccer, Jin makes comic books, Fatimah is a good artist - to overcome the language barrier and make friends. The stories are all quite simple, but Sibley's illustrations do a good job of conveying the wall of words a child immigrant must scale in order to fit in. THE CENTRAL CHARACTER of Michael Foreman's "The Seeds of Friendship" does not struggle with a new language, but his sense of displacement still seems overwhelming. In the opening pages we see it conveyed not through words but through gestures, as he peers from the top-floor window of a nondescript apartment building at the cold, gray urban world below. Nostalgic for the "faraway place where he used to live," Adam consoles himself with colorful drawings of animals. When the window glass is frosted over, Adam scratches animal shapes into its icy patterns. After a snow-fall, Adam observes local children building a snowman and attempts to replicate one of his nostalgic drawings by building a snow elephant. It is a lovely gesture, expressing Adam's desire to establish himself in his new environment without losing emotional ties to his native land. The neighborhood children join Adam, and "by supper time, the snowman was in charge of a whole snow zoo." Later we see the gray of Adam's world become gradually more colorful, page by page, as these same children create gardens at school, at home and even on the roof of Adam's gray apartment building. These books will inspire not just empathy for the struggles of childhood immigration, but admiration for their authors' and illustrators' ingenuity as well. With all they accomplish in conveying both inexpressible emotions and linguistic barriers, they also give us new insight into the central challenge of making books for young children: telling stories through pictures. EUGENE YELCHIN is the author and illustrator of many books for children, most recently the middle-grade novel "Arcady's Goal."

  Publishers Weekly Review

Danticat tells a serious yet hopeful story about a child whose Haitian mother is in an immigration detention center. Saya, whose hair is done up in tight braids with beads, visits her mother weekly but misses her terribly; she finds comfort in the bedtime stories her mother records on cassette tapes and sends her. Staub's oil paintings temper the upsetting circumstances with bright colors and whimsical objects from the stories Saya's mother tells, including winged hearts, dolphins, and mermaids. When Saya writes her own story and her father sends it to a journalist, the resulting chain of events brings Saya's mother home. Readers similarly separated from a loved one may well find solace in Danticat's honest storytelling. Ages 5-8. Author's agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi Inc. Illustrator's agent: Rubin Pfeffer, Rubin Pfeffer Content. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

  School Library Journal Review

Gr 2-5-Brightly colored folk art with a Caribbean flair offsets the sadness of a little girl whose Haitian mother has been sent away to a prison for undocumented immigrants. Every night, Saya's father writes letters to the judges, their mayor and congresswoman, and newspapers and television stations, but no one ever writes back. During their weekly visits to the detention center, Saya's mother tells her stories of the wosiyòl, or nightingale. Soon, Saya begins to receive cassette tapes in the mail from her mother and finds hope and solace in the stories Mama has recorded for her. One night, amid a great deal of sadness and frustration, Saya writes a story of her own to ease the sadness. When Papa sends her letter to a newspaper reporter, everything changes, and Saya learns the incredible power of words and stories. Danticat, who was born in Haiti, was separated from her parents until she was 12 years old and beautifully conveys a story about loss and grief and hope and joy. Staub's oil paintings are eye-catching and will hold the interest of young readers. VERDICT This richly illustrated picture book is a first purchase, especially in communities with a large immigrant population.-Jennifer Steib Simmons, Anderson County Library, SC © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

  Booklist Review

Danticat's immigration story is compelling. Saya's mother is in a detention center because she doesn't have the right papers, and while Saya can visit her, she wants Mama HOME. Papa's letters to elected officials and news outlets get no response, but when Saya writes to the paper, amazing things happen. At times the long text seems weighty on the page (though words are minimal when good things happen). But Staub's illustrations are light, especially when Saya hears her mother's voice fly across the pages, as swirls of words and magical images come from the stories Mama has made up and taped. Many of the tales refer to a nightingale, and birds are a constant presence. Bright, comforting blues dominate the double-page spreads, and Mama floats above her worldly problems. The inclusion of Haitian phrases adds to the personal nature of the story, whose happy ending is deserved by all. Danticat's endnotes remind us that this is a story based in reality.--Ching, Edie Copyright 2015 Booklist

  Horn Book Review

When Mama first goes away, what I miss most is the sound of her voice. So begins this gentle story of Saya, a Haitian American girl whose mother is incarcerated because she has no papers. The weeks and months go by, and Sayas father does all he can to bring attention to his wifes situation by writing letters to elected officials and the press. Danticat does not shy away from the realitiesin direct, resonant prose, she tells about the loneliness of missing your mother, the trauma of saying goodbye at the immigration detention facility, and the effort that it takes to get your story heard. Occasional sprinkling of kreyol (Haitian Creole) words in the dialogue make the story specific to Saya and other Haitians, but the larger issue of the plight of refugees and immigrants makes it universal. Staubs naive-style oil paintings, filled with symbols of freedom and infused with the bright colors of Haiti, keep the focus on the child. We see Saya in her pajamas holding her mothers picture, resting on her fathers lap; visiting her mother and kicking and screaming when forced to leave. Children who know nothing about the immigration crisis in this country will have lots of questions after getting to know Saya and her family. Children of parents who are being detained will be comforted by knowing they are not the only ones facing this challenge and might even be inspired to take action the way Saya does. robin l. smith (c) Copyright 2015. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

  Kirkus Review

A tale of triumph that occurs only because a young girl picks up her pencil and writes to people who can help make change. Saya, a child of Haitian descent, and her father live together in the United States without Mama because the immigration police arrested her one night at work. For the past three months, Mama has been in the Sunshine Correctional facility, a prison for women without immigration papers. Emulating her father, who writes regularly to the media and politicians on his wife's behalf, Saya writes a letter that is published by the local paper. When the media get involved, phone calls and letters from concerned citizens result in a hearing before an African-American judge, who rules that Mama can go home with her family to await her papers. Visually unifying the story are blue and pink nightingales (a Haitian bird and Saya's nickname) and hearts with faces and wings or arms and legs. The stories Mama tells help to sustain both Saya and her father through bouts of sadness. Saya's lifelike stuffed monkey companion seems to perceive what she's feeling and also helps her to remain strong. Reflecting Danticat's own childhood, this picture book sheds light on an important reality rarely portrayed in children's books. A must-read both for children who live this life of forced separation and those who don't. (Picture book. 5-8) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
A touching tale of parent-child separation and immigration, from a National Book Award finalist After Saya's mother is sent to an immigration detention center, Saya finds comfort in listening to her mother's warm greeting on their answering machine. To ease the distance between them while she's in jail, Mama begins sending Saya bedtime stories inspired by Haitian folklore on cassette tape. Moved by her mother's tales and her father's attempts to reunite their family, Saya writes a story of her own-one that just might bring her mother home for good. With stirring illustrations, this tender tale shows the human side of immigration and imprisonment-and shows how every child has the power to make a difference.
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