Monday, September 27, 2021

MMGM- Cuba in My Pocket, Revolution in Our Time

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday
and #IMWAYR day 

Cuevas, Andrianna. Cuba in My Pocket
September 21st 2021 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Cumba loves hanging out in his small Cuban town with his friends in 1961, although tensions have been rising ever since Fidel Castro overthrew Batista in 1959. While Batista's government cause some problems, Cumba is seeing worrying things going on in his community. His friends even play a game they call "Antes de Fidel, Despues de Fidel" where they talk about the changes in school, food, and more serious issues like soldiers on the street. Cumba's family (which includes younger brother Pepito) is especially worried, since his father had been a lawyer in the Adjutant General's Office under Batista, and his mother is a dentist. His grandparents, especially his abuelo, don't like what has happened to their country, but more than anything, want to stay safe. When the army starts to conscript young boys, sending them to Russian to train, Cumba's family uses their influence to plan to get Cumba to Florida. They obtain a fake passport from their tailor, a German Jewish man who escaped the Nazis, and get a ticket to fly out of another city. Cumba is supposed to report for duty on July 10th, so is set to fly out a few days before, but the local recruiter, Ignacio, come to take Cumba away early. The family protests, saying Cumba is ill, and luckily, he is frightened enough that he throws up on Ignacio's shoes. He does manage to make his flight, and soon is on his way to Miami with another young girl, Adelita. The two commiserate, and hope that their time in the US will pass quickly. Cumba is met by Prima Benita, but Adelita is taken away by a dour looking nun. Prima Benita has been trying to help out as many families in Cuba as she can, and she also has an older boy, Alejandro, and a young woman, Valeria. She is very kind, even though Cumba doesn't care for the oatmeal that she feeds them, and gives him a small allowance which he uses to buy hamburgers and cokes. The man at the soda fountain, Marvin, helps Cumba learn a bit more English, but it is still rough to start school. The teachers and students are mostly kind, but the halls are loud, and all the classes but math are very difficult. He makes a friend in Arnold, who is obsessed with race horses but needs Cumba's help with math, and Cumba slowly settles in to his life, writing his brother frequently and hoping for news from home. When Benita must take in more relatives, Cumba is moved to a foster home in Key Largo with the Reynolds family, and starting over again is difficult. The Reynolds are very kind, and have a young son about Pepito's age, but worries about his parents in Cuba continue. Will he be reunited with his family before he forgets more about them?
Strengths: This is a fascinating time in history, and even addresses the Bay of Pigs invasion, which I knew very little about. The depiction of every day life in Cuba, especially Cumba's experiences hanging out with friends and at school, makes the story even more poignant once things start to break down, and will help young readers to understand why coming to the US isn't Cumba's preference. Life in the US is depicted as challenging, but in some ways a relief. It was interesting that he does make friends with the other immigrants at Benitas, and even ends up in school with a former classmate in Key Largo. The story moved along at an excellent pace, and alternated nicely between Cumba's concerns for his family and his experiences navigating his new country. The fact that this is based on the author's father's life makes this really sing. 
Weaknesses: The cover is fine, but could have been absolutely amazing if it had included 1960s Miami colors and graphics. And, come on, no Belaire font for the cover? And where's Cumba's suit or Guayabera shirt? So many missed opportunies! 
What I really think: Excellent addition to a small but growing body of middle grade literature about Cuba that includes Behar's Letters from Cuba,  and Lucky Broken Girl, Gonzalez's The Red Umbrella, Flores-Galbis' 90 Miles to Havana and Ada's Island Treasures: Growing Up in Cuba. I'm always uncomfortable with Paterson's My Brigadista Year, even though it's really informative. Castro was in power for a long time, but clearly the majority of Cuban's in the US were not fans. 

Magoon, Kekla. Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party's Promise to the People
**UPDATE**23rd November 2021 by Candlewick Press
ARC provided by Young Adult Books Central

I've been looking forward to this nonfiction book since at least 2009, when The Rock and the River came out, and Fire in the Streets only made me want it more. I've helped students with National History Day projects about the Black Panthers, and when I say that this is sorely needed, believe me. There isn't even an adult book that covers this organization as comprehensively and objectively as Revolution in Our Time does. The author has been working on this since at least 2012, and the dedication to research clearly shows. 

The Black Panther movement was a turbulent organization in a turbulent time, but it's important to know a lot of Black history in order to fully understand the circumstances which led up to the 1960s. Events going back to the founding of the US to the Civil War to Separate But Equal to Northern Migration and World War II are succinctly explained, but the brevity does not lessen the impact. When even the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s failed to keep Black people from suffering from systemic racism, the Black Panthers felt that a new method of protest needed to be mounted. Since nonviolent protests were having little impact, they felt a need for an aggressive alternative. 

As Magoon says in Chapter 5 (of the ARC), "In a vacuum, it is easy to default to saying, "Violence is never the answer," and thus addresses the most difficult issues of the Black Panthers. The country, still dealing with the consequences of WWII and Korea and now heavily involved in Vietnam and protests against it, and also dealing with the Cold War and Hoover's horribly misguided attempts to deal with the threat of Communism, found it difficult to deal with Black citizens armed with legal weapons embracing Leninistic philosophies. It was an uncomfortable time, but this discomfort was crucial to seeing change made. The descriptions of why and how Panther leadership determined their mission and processes against this historical background are helpful in understanding why these extreme measures were taken.

I have always been intrigued by the amount of social improvement programs that the Panthers ran. Some of these are discussed in Williams-Garcia's 2010 One Crazy Summer, and all are discussed here. Education, both for children and for adults (I love that there was a book list in the weekly newspaper!), was very important, but there was a strong understanding that people cannot learn on empty stomachs. Free food programs were implemented on community levels, and these expanded to include clothing, shoes, and other programs for issues that were essential for survival. Since the median age of Panthers was 19, this was a movement clearly driven and forwarded by the young, so they were not forgotten. 

There were strict rules, and very clear mission statements for the organization, as well as a sort of uniform (the classic beret, black jacket, and light blue shirt), and these, along with the sense of purpose, helped engender strong feelings of community. They were also helpful when members were frequently arrested on trumped up charges, especially where weapons were concerned. 

There were some problems. Many of the leaders ran into trouble with the law, often being jailed, or were killed. These occurrences aren't downplayed, but are framed in contexts that help make sense of the impossible circumstances the Panthers found themselves fighting against. It's easy to think that those who live by guns, die by guns, but Magoon clearly describes the precipitating events that drove these actions and shows how necessary they were. 

It's hard to find information about the Civil Rights movement in the 1970s, but here we finally see the causes and societal pressures behind the winding down of the Panther, until their official disbandment in 1982. Clearly, however, the fight is not over, and we see the legacy of the movement and learn about the fates of some of the key players. 

There are biographies at the end of the book, a timeline, a helpful bibliography, and complete index, as well as plentiful period photographs and illustrations throughout. 

Search your public library for books about the Black Panther Movement. Aside from Martin's Black Against Empire (2013), Shames' and Seale's Power to the People (2016), and the Talbot's By the Light of Burning Dreams (2021), I doubt you'll find much. And those are all adult books. This is absolutely the most complete and balanced book that I have seen on a critically important but underrepresented organization in the Civil Rights movement. I cannot recommend it enough. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow. These both sounds like terrific books. I really know little about Cuba and the Bay of Pigs. I will definitely look for Cuba in My Pocket. I'm sure your students will get a lot of use from both these books. Thanks for the interesting post.