Monthly Archives: February 2022

Will, by Will Smith

Will Smith: rap singer, TV star, movie star, and now Man of Letters. What a life this guy has led! His father was a military man and expected rigid obedience, and his sweet grandmother called him Lover Boy. Although his dad was not always a good husband or father, he gave him discipline, while his Gigi let him know he was beloved. It was probably both of these influences together that propelled Will through his high-pressure life and allowed him to achieve great things.

I only became aware of Will Smith when he started making movies in the ‘90s, so his entire earlier life was a mystery to me. He had a hardworking mother and father, and he loved to make people laugh. He started rhyming and performing hip-hop for fun with some friends, and then they decided to make a go of it. They made some rookie mistakes, and then Will made some mistakes that only a young, suddenly rich man could make. He was climbing to the top, and the fall was a resounding crash. He was determined to regroup and succeed, and he always wanted to be the good guy. He never cursed in his songs, which is rare in the hip-hop world, and he recognized and used his gift for humor. He wanted to get married, to be a great husband and a great father. He expected a lot from the women in his life, but he wanted to give them everything he could. He also wanted to be the biggest movie star in the world. Life never turns out the way we expect, but by this point, he has been everywhere, met many amazing people, and had experiences that few people on this planet are able to enjoy.

There are passages in the book that were uncomfortable to read, because it seemed that Smith had huge blind spots when he was bragging openly about events or achievements that were not as kind or generous as they could have been. Often, however, that would be followed by a candid confession of his own faults or how his hubris caused him to fall on his face, sometimes publicly. He was, and continues to be, earnest in his pursuit of self-improvement.

Many successful people write name-dropping, tell-all memoirs, but the defining feature of this autobiography is the thoughtful consideration of lessons learned and wisdom gained. Smith works hard at learning from his mistakes, and his conclusions often have universal application, so that those who can’t spend millions of dollars on therapeutic endeavors can learn from him, instead. All of this without sacrificing the fun of reminiscing about younger days and super-cool movies. Tremendously entertaining.

This book was recommended to me as an audiobook, and I recommend it to you in this format, as well. Not only is it read by Will Smith in his own affable voice, but when he mentions a song, it is inserted into the narrative. Smith is also great with impressions, and he changes his voice for all the characters in the book, which is often hilarious. The language is blistering, especially for the parts with rappers, and many of his rapper friends from Philly stay with him his whole life as managers, producers, and bodyguards. It’s one of the best new audiobooks out there, but don’t play it in front of the kiddos.

Great fun.

Disclaimer: I listened to an advance audiobook from Volumes. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Watercress, by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin

A young girl in Ohio is embarrassed to pick watercress from the side of the road with her immigrant parents. She hopes that no one they know will drive by. Once they are home, sitting at the dinner table, she refuses to eat the watercress, saying that she only wants to eat vegetables from the grocery store. Her parents are flabbergasted that anyone would reject food that is fresh and free. Any parent reading this picture book will recognize the look on the girl’s face: it is the universal refuse-to-eat-vegetables face. Mom goes into the bedroom and retrieves a photo of her family when she was a little girl in China. During the great famine, they ate whatever they could find, but it was not enough. In the picture is a pitifully thin little boy, and the girl realizes that her uncle is not alive today.

Andrea Wang won an Asian / Pacific American Award, Boston Globe / Horn Book Award, and a Newbery honor for Watercress. The mark of a great picture book is the ability to convey great meaning and emotion in a few words while keeping the book appropriate for and appealing to children. Wang does exactly that here, in a story that she confesses in her author’s note is somewhat autobiographical. In just a small amount of text, she brings her first-person narrator from anger to understanding, and her readers will have their eyes opened to the depth of their own older relatives’ experiences. Wang encourages everyone to tell their stories to their children.

Jason Chin won a Caldecott medal for this book. In his note, he says that he used misty, soft blue, green, and ochre tones as if to evoke memories, like the ones the parents have of growing up in the Chinese countryside. With just a stroke or two, he shows the girl’s anger and disgust at living differently from all of her friends and classmates. Later, her face is a picture of shame when she comes to understand her perfectly practical parents. Chin also won awards for his previous book, Grand Canyon, and his work has a distinctive and pleasing style.

Watercress is a lovely picture book for every child that will foster understanding of different cultures as well as encouraging gratitude for their blessings and honor for older people.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Rashad left his ROTC meeting, stopping by the convenience store for some chips on his way to the party. Now, what flavor was least likely to ruin his breath, just in case he met that cute girl there? He made a selection, then went to text his friend that he was on his way, when he remembered that he had left his phone in his backpack, so he tucked the chips under his arm and knelt down on the floor to open his backpack. The lady who had been picking out beer in the refrigerator behind him took a step back and fell over him. She went flying, the chips went flying, and so did Rashad. Immediately, a young cop in the store accused him of assaulting the woman, and the store clerk accused him of stealing the chips. Before he knew what was happening, Rashad was in handcuffs on the sidewalk in front of the store being beaten almost to death. Rashad was black. The lady was white, the cop was white, and the clerk was white.

Quinn’s dad had died on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Grown-ups often spoke to Quinn in hushed tones, sure that he would live up to the hero image that his dad had left behind. Quinn was told that he was an all-American boy: clean-cut and handsome, a star on the basketball team, and an exemplary older brother. He never knew what to say to them. He and his friends were headed to a party after school, and Quinn wanted to stop by the store on the way there. They waited in the alley while he rounded the corner and stopped short. Some kid lay on the ground in handcuffs with blood all over him, while a cop was beating the snot out of him. The kid looked familiar, but Quinn recognized the cop immediately. It was Paul, his friend’s older brother, who had been like a surrogate dad to him since his father’s death.

Since All American Boys was written by two authors, the audiobook is narrated by Guy Lockard and Keith Nobbs, who do a stellar job alternating chapters between Rashad and Quinn, showing a realistic reaction to the chain of events from a black and a white high school kid’s perspective. Quinn’s English teacher has just come to the end of a unit on Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and Quinn slowly realizes that, although Rashad is on his basketball team, he hadn’t even known his name. Paul automatically expects Quinn to be on his side, since their families are so close, but once the video of the beating hits the internet and then the news, Quinn is forced to rethink a lot of things.

All American Boys was written in 2015 and won a Coretta Scott King Author Honor and the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature, so why is it being challenged today? The authors depicted a society that was already sick of these incidents, and this was five years before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Both of these boys are good kids; they are both All American Boys.

Reynolds and Kiely

Lest we think that all of racism has been dealt with, and that it’s about people “out there,” and not people near us, here’s a little, tiny incident that happened near me last week. I was in Walmart, scanning the shelves in the wine aisle, when I looked ahead and thought, “Wow, that’s a terrible label. It’s so covered with writing you can’t even tell the name of the wine.” I got up to the bottles and realized that they were turned around to the back. I picked one up and turned it to see BLACK GIRL MAGIC on the front. At first, I was disgusted to think that someone had gone to the trouble to turn the bottles around, so I started turning them back when I saw that all of the bottles, all the way to the wall, were turned around. Then, I was furious. It was either the stocker or someone who had taken a lot of time and energy to make sure that no one saw the name of the wine. How could there be so much casual racism still out there, right in my neighborhood? As I walked to the end of the aisle, I saw a young black woman across the way, choosing orange juice. I was immediately crushed in my spirit, thinking of how it would feel to be just shopping for your family and suddenly be confronted with the fact that someone found your race and gender so offensive that they felt compelled to hide the fact of your existence, as if to make you invisible.

All American Boys, like so many books these days, is being challenged because it might make someone uncomfortable. As if it’s important to make racists nice and comfortable. Book challenges are not just news stories to me; they’re personal. It’s my job to put kids’ books into libraries. I spend my days searching out great books like this one that will build children’s character, to help them to live someone else’s life for a while so that they will develop empathy and become good neighbors to one another, so that they would never, ever try to erase another human being.

This book is highly recommended, although the language is high-school-boy dreadful. Let’s get uncomfortable.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library audiobook of this title—which I put there, by the way. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Authors’ image originally appeared in the NY Times.

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