Dreams Are Never Too Big for the Brave

coverWelcome to the worldview of Sonia Cunningham Leverette, author of BJ’s Big Dream, a work that more closely captures the way a child’s mind works than any I have read in a long time. That said, no doubt the writer’s insight into the young comes from more than 30 years experience in education. She is an assistant superintendent in Spartansburg, South Carolina, as well a parent. Her earlier children’s books, He Never Slumbers, about a bullied boy who seeks help from God, or What is that Stinky Winky EEEwww Smell? , which counsels against selfishness, add more to prove that Leverette earnestly wants to instill positive values and speak to the real issues that bedevil children in the early years.

Anyway, the author gave me a copy of the book for an honest review. Let’s get to it.

Bj’s Big Dream will be a hit in most story circles for early readers. The bright, colorful illustrations by artist Deanna M, blend beautifully with the narrative that on surface is about a little boy who wants dreadlocks. At first, the narrative seems a little hesitant. The author does not spend a lost of time on details or try to tie story elements together. Leverette provides an acceptable sequence of events, combined with beautiful images. That alone will rivet little eyes and minds.

Beneath the spare, straightforward paragraphs where the author blends BJ’s  actual experience with a daydream of a walk in the woods where he is threatened by three wolves and an angry bear, lies a tale that offers adults a chance to show and talk to young people about their power to make a dream come true. BJ’s Big Dream is a charming blend of fantasy and fact that urges children to strive with courage beyond what they see as their limitations. Yes, and there was that part that made me say, “Whoa! That’s how my grandson’s mind works.”

BJ, the main character, as the story is told drives a rides through the forest on an all-terrain vehicle. “BJ dreamed he was driving a four-wheeler when a huge snake fell from a tree and wrapped around his shoulders,” the book states. As I said, “Whoa!”

That small scene is the kind of fantastic story element that is likely spark in the mind of a child eight years old or less. My grandson is likely to tell me a story and have some thing like that happen, and I would be drawn aback to say, “What?”

The adult mind might find such “out of nowhere” events jar the way they see reality develop. That is the main reason most authors would have a number of steps that lead to the drop of the snake. The incident has to come together in a sequence that grownups see as “logical.” Sonia Cunningham Leverette taps into the fantastical and recreates that part of the stories and others in a child’s logic.

BJ’s Big Dream will bring great excitement when read to those whose mastery of books is about to blossom. The main character, BJ, is resourceful and quick-witted. The adults in the tale are supportive. Youngsters might gain a number of impressions from the story. Clearly, one is that daydreams happen, yet hard work – at times even a little effort and a plan – can make real desires come true.

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Not Every Sadness Yields Defeat

The discovery of a new writer is always a thrill. It is like a walk into a meadow in the midst of a thick forest. The experience brings light in unanticipated ways. You know there are more trees on the other side, and it leaves you anxious with thoughts about what comes next. That is it is like to explore Tim I. Gurung’s eighth novel, Old Men Don’t Cry!

The subtitle is A Hong Kong Tale of Sorrowyet don’t be fooled. The words are accurate. There is a great deal of sadness and disappointment in the story of Chan Hong, a Chinese kid with absentee parents who seeks to become a police officer and find fulfillment. At the same time, so many more things come from the novel, that saga is also a tale of triumph. The journey to his goals holds a number of sad twists and turns, yet what Hong traverses teaches readers a lot about what it means to be a man, to love and be hungry for achievement. That spirit is captured best in the title phrase near the novel’s end:

I had promised myself I would not cry anymore. I was too old to cry, and we all know that old men don’t cry. It was not that old men don’t feel pain, yet it is not easy for an old man to cry openly and express his feelings in public….One thing was clear: if there were a next life and I was given a choice, I wanted to repeat the same life again without any changes.

The reader might see such a sentiment and realize that what most adds fulfillment to a man’s life is to be in the sweep of change. That is the other great dimension of the novel. 
Gurung like the late U.S. Novelist James A. Michener. As Michener’s Tales of the South PacificHawaii and Alaska , Gurung’s Old Men Don’t Cry!  sketches out characters against the sweep of a history and evolution of a great society. His prose has the meticulousness of a Robert Ludlum, whose Bourne Trilogy has been the basis for a number of popular films.

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people,” Michener once said, “you might better stay home.” Like the American author, Gurung pulls readers into the  heart  of everyday life so that they experience  each moment in Hong’s life as a period of their own. He grounds the chapters with background on the political and social changes of the nation, and then they play out in the character’s  life. The emergence of China from 1980 to present is revealed in such detail at some points Hong appears to mirror his motherland’s struggles.

Gurung, who was born in Nepal, but raised in Hong Kong, walks readers through the culture and sociology of the land. The author returned to the land of his birth for a few months after he retired from the Gurkhas in 1993, yet returned to the island nation to set up a business. After age 50, he began to write as he had in his youth. He uses those funds to support an educational foundation for youth in Nepal. 

At the same time, his main character, Chan Hong, is thoroughly steeped in a discovery of Chinese culture on and off the mainland.Readers learn about the important holidays such as the celebration of the Lunar New Year, the Ghost Festival and Ching Ming from an angle not open to most Westerners.   At the same time, the author shares the political and social changes that redirects the lives of everyday people in the country.

The author unveils a sensory tour of the land in minute detail, because in some ways he was one of those everyday people. Gurung, as his real-life fathers and uncles, became a Gurkha soldier at age 17. As the novel shows, life in the British military unit was tough. The Nepalese were set into a country within a country in many respects, yet the author shows that for children such as Hong, circumstances were almost no different. His service gave the author a special opportunity to see Hong Kong   ways many of the people who lived there never could. The novel benefits from that exposure as the narrative builds a character who seeks righteousness, yet discovers that the world in which he lives offers many people little hope. He places many of those insights into the mind of the protagonist.

On his move from the small village of Kam Tin, Chan Hong goes to Tokwawan, a larger place, in pursuit of his dream to be a police officer. He meets his goal, yet is not a great success. The main character remains a street cop, because his attitude is not compatible with those who move into the higher ranks. In fact, his constant bids to try to discover, understand and help those he encounters at points diminishes his life. 

His lifelong friends, Eddie Ko and Tsang Adele have broader lives because they get to study in the United States, yet they all end up back in the circumstances they fled. Each of the players in the drama is guided by a trait, and Hong’s is self-sacrifice, which makes him vulnerable in every aspect of his life.
Advertisements on the novel say what Hong sacrifices, “will pain your soul,’ and his sorrows will, “just make you cry.” That is true. At the same time, many of those who read this book will want to cheer for the main character at the end. The novel is a classic tearjerker, but more than that it is a story of emergence for a man and his country. Readers can come away with three thoughts. First – a selfish life is a sad waste. Second, choice more than fate controls what you can do. Lastly, not every sadness yields defeat. 

A Testament to the Power and Freedom Hidden in Books

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (Author)
R. Gregory Christie (Illustrator)
Carolrhoda Books
ASIN:B013V6OF6O

Most people miss the value of people, places or things in which they see little connection to their lives.  For example, I did not know there was a Grandparents Day until time and circumstance forced me to become one. It is funny how many great things escape our notice. In that same way, award-winning author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson admits she did not realize the beauty or importance of her great uncle’s life’s work, until after he died. Yet, the light came on for her, as readers will see in the soon-to-be released nonfiction tale, The Book Itch. The writer captures an important American story about a die-hard book lover, as well as a time, place and people of which most people in the United States today missed.

The 32-page text is a simply written tribute to the importance of words, and a man who found his way to freedom and success through their embrace. Lewis Henri Michaux, the main character, is indeed an unusual figure in his devotion. The man was an evangelist for the power of the written word, because he understood the ability to read and grasp ideas was the essence of education. That fact is clearly shown in the sayings he shouted as he literally hawked titles in New York City’s Harlem, such as, “Don’t get took. Read a book,” or  “Knowledge is power. You need it every hour. Read a book.”

Those attracted to the book for a biography of a once important African American will not be disappointed. The author shares Michaux’s story in several ways. Although, the narrator is the fictional voice of her cousin, Lewis Michaux, Jr., the facts are there. At the same time, book also builds on her great uncle’s slogans to create a tableau that cleverly imparts a strong message that books are cool, even outside of school. “You are not necessarily a fool because you didn’t go to school,” was one of his father’s fondest mottoes.

Lewis Michaux had not much more than a “sharecropper’s education,” which meant the main thing black youth in his time were taught was how to work in the fields. The bookseller, who died in 1976, was born in Newport News, Virginia, during the last decades of the 19th Century, a time when it was hard for poor African Americans to go to schools. Their school years were often held captive by the needs of the harvest. They would attend classes until the season came for them to pick the crops.

Michaux rejected that fate. He fell into a life of crime as young man, yet redeemed himself, and eventually discovered a passion for words that led him to become an apostle that spread a “knowledge is power” gospel. As mentioned, when his book business began around 1932, he walked the streets with a cart and shouted lines like, “Don’t get took. Read a book.” Ultimately, the message and those efforts grew into Harlem’s African National Memorial Bookstore, a nexus for learning and free speech.

The store near 125th Street and Seventh Avenue was a magnet for readers of all ages, as well as writers, artists, musicians, scholars, and politicians, that included celebrities as diverse as boxing legend Muhammad Ali, the late trumpeter Louis Armstrong, the late Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah, the late authors James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, and civil rights leader Malcolm X. The Book Itch with its vibrant drawings by R. Gregory Christie will delight readers, even in kindergarten, as a read-aloud tale. There were times when the design and layout made the work a little hard to follow for novice readers, yet experienced readers even into middle school will be drawn to the tale’s style and message.

The takeaway from The Book Itch for many readers is a sense of empowerment. They will see in Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s nicely knit tale, that an individual can yield real power over his or her future, and knowledge fuels that potential.