Friday, February 29, 2008

Grab Bag Friday: Tag, You're It!

I have to admit I never really liked the game of tag. I used to hide in the tire house with a book whenever the big kids declared a school-wide game. But, this week, I got tagged by the whimsical CG ("creative genius") Amy Schimler, and this version of the game seems a *lot* more fun.

1. Once you are tagged, link back to the person who tagged you.
2. Post THE RULES on your blog.
3. Post 7 weird or random facts about yourself on your blog.
4. Tag 7 people and link to them.
5. Comment on their blog to let them know they have been tagged.

So here are 7 random facts about me that you may or may not already know:

1. I won the Lead Shoe Award in track. The award was for "determination". In other words, in 4 years, I only passed one person and she was having an asthma attack on the side (I felt bad passing her, but hey, I was beating somebody!)

2. My first goldfish was named Goldie, my first cat was Kitty, and my first bird was Tweety. It was pretty obvious I would go into a creative career.

3. I'm pretty handy with a hole saw.

4. One of my favorite things to do is hum to periwinkles. If you hum a steady hum, they come out of their shells and dance around. Honestly, they do.

5. I love to go to aquariums & pet the manta rays.

6. I'm a Rummy 500 card shark.

7. I'm also addicted to this game.

Here are my tags...some people worth checking out if you are interested in...
  1. Stunning photos
  2. Gorgeous illustration
  3. Poignant fiction
  4. Fabulous kids' music
  5. Comedic relief
  6. Multicultural kids' book reviews
This is my sister's blog on hiatus, but *worth* browsing the archives if you are interested in:
7. South America

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lester Young: Live at Birdland

Around the same time that the Billie Holiday Rare Live Recordings set came out, ESP also released Lester Young Live at Birdland, rare live 1950s radio performances broadcast from the legendary New York jazz club, Birdland.

Lester Young classics like Lester Leaps In and Three Little Words are mixed with great renditions of popular standards like These Foolish Things and my grandparents' favorite, Polkadots and Moonbeams (apparently, my grandmother was quite the "pug-nosed dream" back in the day!)

Billie Holiday often said that she tried to sing like Lester Young's horn. In an article called Lester Young: Master of Jive, Douglas Henry Daniels quotes Holiday saying:
I always try to sing like a horn--a trumpet or tenor sax, and I think Lester is just the opposite. He likes to play like a voice...Lester sings with his horn. You listen to him and you can almost hear the words.
That's definitely apparent on these live recordings. Young's smooth, sweet, lyrical sound is unmistakable. The disc is peppered with announcements encouraging listeners to invest in U.S. Savings Bonds (the radio series was sponsored by the U.S. Treasury, of all things), and the gooney announcer cuts in with his own 1950's flourishes like "Ca-rraaaa-zy!" which give the recordings a nice blast-from-the-past feel. I like imagining what it would have been like tuning in each week to Birdland on the radio. I suppose years from now people will say the same about old American Idol (or hopefully even Austin City Limits) episodes.

Here's another little taste of Lester Young. He's missing his porkpie hat in this one, but you can't miss the charming, cockeyed way he holds his sax:

Monday, February 25, 2008

Women of the Harlem Renaissance

Browsing at, I came across an interesting article by Anthony Walton titled Double Bind: Three Women of the Harlem Renaissance. When I think of poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, I almost always think of Langston Hughes or Countee Cullen. But this article brings our attention to three women poets of the Harlem Renaissance: Jessie Redmon Fauset, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Georgia Douglas Johnson.

In the decades following World War I, the double bind that Walton writes about (the fact that these poets were both black and female) made it almost impossible for them to gain "success" in their writing careers. Walton writes that the women poets of the Harlem Renaissance have,
in the history that has been written since, been relegated to the precincts of specialists in African American literature. Yet, in the face of what must have been corrosive psychic costs, in terms of the circumscription of their true ambitions and selves, the achievements of Fauset, Bennett, Johnson, the other women poets of the Harlem Renaissance stand among the most heroic in the twentieth century American poetry.
These women paved the way for great poets I've written about recently like Lucille Clifton and Elizabeth Alexander. Here are some poems from those women of the Harlem Renaissance:

Dead Fires
by Jessie Redmon Fauset

If this is peace, this dead and leaden thing,
Then better far the hateful fret, the sting.
Better the wound forever seeking balm
Than this gray calm!

Is this pain's surcease? Better far the ache,
The long-drawn dreary day, the night's white wake,
Better the choking sigh, the sobbing breath
Than passion's death!

by Gwendolyn Bennett

Brushes and paints are all I have
To speak the music in my soul—
While silently there laughs at me
A copper jar beside a pale green bowl.

How strange that grass should sing—
Grass is so still a thing ...
And strange the swift surprise of snow
So soft it falls and slow.

Black Woman

by Georgia Douglas Johnson

Don’t knock at the door, little child,
I cannot let you in,
You know not what a world this is
Of cruelty and sin.
Wait in the still eternity
Until I come to you,
The world is cruel, cruel, child,
I cannot let you in!

Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
I cannot bear the pain
Of turning deaf-ear to your call
Time and time again!
You do not know the monster men
Inhabiting the earth,
Be still, be still, my precious child,
I must not give you birth!

Here are some links to biographies and additional information:
Gwendolyn Bennett
Georgia Douglas Johnson
Jessie Redmon Fauset

Friday, February 22, 2008

Grab Bag Friday: Alan's Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

When we were kids, my brother used to make these cookies all the time (turtle bread was one of his other specialties). Since they have oatmeal, nuts, and peanut butter chips (practically just as healthy as peanut butter!) in them, my siblings and I all felt completely justified eating them for breakfast. I have to admit, I sometimes still do. :)


Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

1 c butter
1 1/2 c sugar
1 c packed light brown sugar
2 eggs
2 t vanilla
1 1/2 c flour
1/2 c powdered cocoa
1 t baking soda
3 c quick-cooking or regular rolled oats
1/2 c chopped nuts
12 oz peanut butter chips
12 oz chocolate chips

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In large bowl beat butter & sugars until light and fluffy. Blend in eggs & vanilla. In separate bowl stir together flour, cocoa, & baking soda. Gradually add to butter mixture, mixing well. Stir in oats & nuts. (Batter will be stiff.) Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake 11-12 minutes or until set. Cookies will be slightly moist in center. Do not overbake. Cool 1 minute; remove from cookie to wire rack. Cool completely. Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Billie Holiday: Rare Live Recordings 1934-1959

ESP Music recently put out a 5-disc set of Rare Live Recordings from Billie Holiday. Now, I laughed when I read the opening comment of Ted Gioia's review of the set on
"When I see the words 'Rare Live Recordings' on the cover of a jazz CD, I generally run in the other direction."
It's true. The sound is generally awful, performances sometimes subpar, and the material can be too obscure, repetitive, or just plain lame. But with these recordings, I found myself listening with rapt attention to each disc.

First off, the sound quality is great. So that worry can be relieved.

As for material, yes there are a fair number of song repeats. Fine and Mellow shows up four times. But they're repeats worth listening to. The way that Ms. Holiday sings "Fine and Mellow" when she is 22 is not the same way she sings it toward the end of her career. In one of the short interview bits included in the set, she says:
There are two kinds of blues: happy blues and sad blues....Blues is kind of a mixed up thing. You just have to feel it.
I loved hearing the differences in the song depending on how she "felt it" that day.

But I think what I enjoyed the most about this set was the *performance* aspect of the live recordings. Not just Billie Holiday's incredible voice, intense delivery, or ability to give Count Basie's band a run for their money. I loved hearing the crowd go crazy. Really crazy. Screaming, shouting out, being moved by the music. I've listened to Billie Holiday's *voice* for so long. It's easy to disconnect that voice from the real person who was up there on stage, doing a sound check, trying to keep track of the set list, and singing her heart out to try and make a connection and share something with her audience.

In one song, her voice is drowned out for a while by a plane passing overhead. It was just a short moment, but it made me stop and imagine the scene. It gave me a second to think about history not just as something that is preserved and remembered in a book or on a CD, but as a living moment that happened once to living people. That's what things like Black History Month are really supposed to be about, right?

Here's an essay by Stuart Nicholson on Billie Holiday.

And here are Stuart Nicholson's top 12 Billie Holiday recordings.

Here is another live video. This one is with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1952. It starts with Billie Holiday's own heartbreaking composition, "God Bless the Child," and moves on to the swingy "Now Baby or Never." Enjoy!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color: Elizabeth Alexander & Marilyn Nelson

I picked up Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color on the recommendation of Elaine over at Wild Rose Reader (Elaine has some *very* extensive and cool Black History Month book lists piling up over there). This one caught my eye because it was co-authored by the poet Elizabeth Alexander, who I've mentioned very briefly here. Ms. Alexander is a rigorous, well-respected poet in every right, and her 2005 book, American Sublime, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

So I know this makes three children's book reviews in a row, but hey, it's a theme month, so we might as well have a theme-within-a-theme, right?

Miss Crandall's School is based on the true story of Prudence Crandall who, in the early 1830's, opened a private finishing school for young ladies ages 8-18 in Canterbury, CT. The school was quite popular and well attended until Ms. Crandall admitted an African American student who had hopes of becoming a teacher.

When the town responded by pulling all their children out of the school and waging massive protests, Ms. Crandall did something unusual. She put an ad in an Abolitionist newspaper advertising her new school for "Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color." Students came from all over New England to receive an education that was not available for young black girls at the time. For many, it was the first time they had left home, and the opportunity seemed enormous.

The town, however, lashed back in unspeakably horrible ways. Beyond passing a "Black Law" prohibiting the education of African American children in the state, the townspeople also refused to sell food to Ms. Crandall and her students, they poisoned the well water, they left dead animals on the doorstep. Ms. Crandall, a true heroine, kept the school going as long as she could, teaching her girls reading, writing, and arithmetic until, in 1834 a mob attacked the school and set it on fire. At this point, Ms. Crandall decided that she could not ensure the safety of the young girls in her care and closed the school down. Two years later, Connecticut's Black Law was repealed, and 50 years after that, the state awarded Ms. Crandall a small teacher's pension as an acknowledgment and token of reparations for the crimes committed against the school.

In Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color, poets Elizabeth Alexander & Marilyn Nelson explore this story from different angles and different points of view. They don't try to tell the whole story in a typical linear fashion. Rather, the book is divided into 6 parts made up of 4 sonnets each, illustrated in a lovely, dreamlike fashion by Floyd Cooper. The poems give us a glimpse of what might have been going on in the minds of the students, of what the small details of their lives might have been like, what their fears and hopes may have been. In one poem, where a mother and father are sending their daughter off to the school, the second stanza begins:
Does "good-bye" mean we hope or mean we weep?
Here is one of the more striking poems from the series that blends that mix of hope and fear so well:

We (by Elizabeth Alexander)

Colored are new to these townsfolk, who say
we have come to take white husbands, but we
are young girls who do not think of such things.
They see us horned, tailed, befeathered, with
enormous bottoms and jaws that snap, red-
devil eyes that could hex a man and make him
leave home. Though the state has said no to slavery,
we know how it happens with colored girls
and white men, their red-devil eyes and tentacles.
Our mothers have taught us remarkably
to blot out these fears, black them out, and flood
our minds with light and God's great face.
We think about that which we cannot see:
something opening wide and bright, a key.
You can learn about the Prudence Crandall Museum here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Grab Bag Friday: Oral History through StoryCorps

For Christmas this year, my mom got me a copy of the StoryCorps book, Listening is an Act of Love. StoryCorps is a project to preserve the tradition of oral history, or more plainly, to keep people telling and listening to stories.

There are mobile & permanent StoryBooths all over the country...where people can walk in and record their stories. Anything they want to tell. A daughter interviewing her 96 year old mother about her first date, two sons remembering their father's baseball career, a child interviewing his mentor, Hurricane Katrina stories, 911 stories, stories about miracles, stories about love, fear, and hope. Real stories from real people.

Well, yesterday, for Valentine's Day, Amy (illustrator extraordinaire) over at Red Fish Circle sent me a note that she had posted the Danny and Annie Perasa StoryCorps segment in honor of the day. There are two short clips, one recorded in 2004, and one recorded just a few days before Danny passed away. It's just a couple of regular people talking about love, but I found it so profound and moving.

You could easily spend hours at the StoryCorps site, for exactly that reason. It's the small stories, the real stories, the everyday simple stories that are the most profound. This is real life. As the StoryCorps tagline goes, it's "the conversation of a lifetime."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Billie Holiday, Lester Young: Fine and Mellow (1957)

My favorite jazz duo of all time has to be Billie Holiday and Lester Young. I swear there was something magical in the way the mellow tone of his saxophone mixed with the melancholy in her voice. In the next couple weeks, in honor of Black History Month, I'll write a bit about some new Lester Young and Billie Holiday live and rare recordings that were released last month.

But to start things off, here's a great video of Billie Holiday singing "Fine and Mellow" in 1957. Lester Young is the second sax solo (though he's missing his signature pork pie hat). The rest of the amazing line-up of musicians includes: Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldridge, Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Danny Barker, Milt Hinton, and Mal Waldron. It doesn't really get much better than that...

Monday, February 11, 2008

Ashley Bryan: Let it Shine

Last week, I wrote about the winner of the Coretta Scott King Author Award, but have you seen the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner, Let it Shine?

Let it Shine is an illustrated collection of three popular spirituals: "This Little Light of Mine," "Oh When the Saints Go Marching In," and "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands." Each page is filled with rollicking, brightly colored construction paper cutouts that truly make the lyrics shine.

I've been using Ashely Bryan's illustrated song collections for years, and I'm so glad to see this new, gorgeous collection get some attention. Not that Mr. Bryan is any stranger to the Coretta Scott King Award. This is his third book to win the award, and five other Bryan books have won the Coretta Scott King Honor Award (which is basically runner-up).

Bryan has been illustrating poetry, African folk tales, spirituals and more since the early 1970's, and he is a great advocate for preserving traditional storytelling and song. I found this great Ashley Bryan quote in a 1998 Washington Post article:
"Be strongly rooted in who you are – your people and what they have had to offer, then reach out and draw upon the gifts of other peoples of the world."
Here are my two very favorite Ashley Bryan books:

All Night, All Day: A Child's First Book of African American Spirituals (This is where I first learned the song Great Big Stars, which is now one of my favorite songs of all time.)

What a Morning: The Christmas Story in Black Spirituals (This is where I learned Mary Had a Baby.)

Apparently, Ashley Bryan lives on an island off the coast of Maine, and this article about his storytelling performances makes me want to be sure to keep my eye out for any readings he might do in the area. "I don't just read the words, I try to roll them up to Heaven," Bryan says.

Here are some great reviews of Let it Shine:
Fuse #8
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Friday, February 8, 2008

Grab Bag Friday: The GOOD Stuff

First off, I saw a pretty cool Balkan concert this week. The band, Which Way East?, mixed traditional Balkan music with hints of US jazz/rock influences. There is a lovely, inspiring piece about it on Cynthia Lord's blog.

It's taken me a little while to get around to my GOOD Magazine this month. February was the "Food Issue," but the pieces that caught my attention had to do more with architecture and design. Particularly the piece on Publicolor, a non-profit organization whose mission is:
" use color, collaboration, design and the painting process to empower students to transform themselves, their schools, and their communities."
On the surface, it's a relatively simple thing. Publicolor teaches students from inner city schools how to paint, then helps them transform their own school with bright, vibrant colors. But then again, it's usually the simple things that end up making the biggest impact.

Painting the walls isn't going to cure all the problems in our inner city schools, but I think a program like this is important on a number of levels.

It brightens up the school. Walking into a pleasant, bright place instead of an institutionalized, hospital-style building really makes a surprising difference in your mindset for the day.

It gives students a chance to be part of something. This is huge for students who often are just trying to keep their head down and get through the day. One student, interviewed in the video linked below, said "They make us, like, feel important."

It teaches students responsibility. Older students learn the process first, then they are in charge of teaching the younger students. Putting kids in a mentor role often boosts their confidence and makes them feel that they have the ability and skills necessary to accomplish things in life.

It doesn't end when the paint dries. Publicolor has after-school programs, school-to-work apprentice programs, career and college prep programs, tutoring programs, and more. Students who thrive in the painting project can move on to other, sometimes paid, positions in these Publicolor programs designed to help students in education and preparing for the workforce.

Sometimes all you need is one small change. This type of program gives the kids who want it an opportunity to re-envision themselves. It give the kids who want change an outlet and a vehicle for that change. Of course it won't solve everything, but sometimes just that first step--the belief that things could be different, that you could be different--can be the momentum a child needs to change the direction of his or her life.

I couldn't embed this, unfortunately, but you can click here to see a short film about Publicolor.

The GOOD article isn't up online yet, but here's an article about Publicolor from the New York Times.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008 from Black Eyed Peas: Yes We Can

For Super Tuesday, I thought I'd post this great video by No matter who you are supporting, I think it's incredibly inspiring and hope that it will encourage you to take part in the primary process this year. I love the end of this video where HOPE=VOTE! Yes, we do have a voice. Please don't forget to go out and use yours!

(This video was made independently, without support of the Obama campaign. Words...pasted below the video...are from Obama's New Hampshire speech in January.)

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom.

Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballots; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.

Yes we can to justice and equality.

Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity.

Yes we can heal this nation.

Yes we can repair this world.

Yes we can.

We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics...they will only grow louder and more dissonant ........... We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.

But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

Now the hopes of the little girl who goes to a crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of LA; we will remember that there is something happening in America; that we are not as divided as our politics suggests; that we are one people; we are one nation; and together, we will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea --

Yes. We. Can.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Christopher Paul Curtis: Elijah of Buxton

It's going to be hard for me to write about this book without resorting to blatant gushing, but I'll do my best. Elijah of Buxton is one of those books that kept popping up on all the lists this year. When it won both the Newbery Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award, I thought I'd better pick it up and give it a shot.

Now I had read Christopher Paul Curtis' Bud, Not Buddy when it won the Newbery Medal in 2000, and I liked it quite a bit, but I have to admit I wasn't completely blown away. I didn't rush out and recommend it to everyone I knew. Elijah of Buxton is another story.

The book is set in the mid 1860's in Buxton, Canada--one of the early Black settlements of escaped slaves from the United States. Elijah, the book's fictional hero, is the first free-born child in the settlement.

In some ways, it's a basic coming of age story. Elijah is what his mother calls a "fra-gile" child, and he is trying very hard to learn how to become more grown-up. In other ways, it's an amazing glimpse into what life on one of these settlements could have been like. There is a poignant juxtaposition between the young children in the settlement who've known nothing but freedom, and the adults, who have each risked everything to be free and carry heavy wounds and scars that the children can't begin to comprehend.

Mostly what I loved about this book, besides the beautiful writing and engaging story, is that it is ultimately a story about community. It is about how people can come together to try to make the world a better place, not just for themselves, but for one another. When Elijah, who goes to school and can read and write, is asked to read a letter to Mrs. Holton, informing her that her husband has been whipped to death by a slave owner, the women of the settlement go with him:
Mostly I think I didn't bawl 'cause once Ma and them women bunched up 'round Mrs. Holton with their watching, waiting eyes and hands, it felt like a whole slew of soldiers was ringing that parlour with swords drawed and waren't no sorrow so powerful it could bust through.
I'll warn you, I bawled. I cried straight through the entire last three chapters. But it's not just sadness that makes you cry, it's the redemption and grace and joy mixed up in the sadness that is so affecting. This is a beautiful story and I know it won all the "literature for young people" awards, but I would recommend it to adults as well. A good story's a good story, after all.

You can visit the real Buxton Museum website here.

You can read about Christopher Paul Curtis' R.E.A.D Program and Kenya School Project here.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Grab Bag Friday: Hillary's Inner Tracy Flick

Here's a video from Slate Magazine that cracked me up this week, a parody comparing Hillary to Tracy Flick from Election.

Starting next week, my February book and music posts will deal with Black History Month. If you missed last year's Black History Month posts, you can find them here.

Have a great weekend!