Under the Radar: Lee & Low Books

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Under the Radar: Lee & Low Books

cj bott, James Bucky Carter, Sean Kottke, Jon Ostenson and Jennifer Walsh

In this installment of Under the Radar, we are pleased to feature two titles from Lee & Low Books, a family-owned publisher whose mission is “to meet the need for stories that children of color can identify with and that all children can enjoy.” Guided by the motto “About Everyone, For Everyone,” Lee & Low’s catalog has amassed hundreds of prestigious honors since the company’s first book list was published in 1993, reflecting their strong commitment to high quality literature for, by and about a diverse global community of readers and storytellers.


In this column, we focus on two recent publications that reflect this commitment to diversity in multiple unique ways. Andrea Cheng’s Etched in Clay tells the true story of Dave, an enslaved potter from South Carolina whose life encompassed much of the tumultuous history of 19th century America. Taught to read and write by one of his many masters, Dave inscribed many of his creations with poetry, and Cheng relates Dave’s story in free verse, incorporating the voices of dozens of real people from Dave’s life and including some of Dave’s own words. Set more than 350 years earlier during another critical period of American history, Shana Mlawski relates the fantastical tale of Baltasar Infante, a bookmaker’s apprentice with a mysterious background who escapes the forces of the Spanish Inquisition by joining Columbus’ first voyage across the Atlantic, in Hammer of Witches. The novel weaves together historical events with folktales and legendary creatures from multiple storytelling traditions in a tale about the forging of a New World on the diverse foundations of several Old Worlds.

This column is presented in the form of a group interview, highlighting each reviewer’s unique voice and impressions of these featured novels.


Sean: Etched in Clay is a biography in bricolage, related through a cycle of poems in the voices of multiple real-life figures from Dave’s life and a series of woodcuts illustrating critical moments in his life. What effects does this style of presentation have on the reading experience? What advantages does Etched in Clay have over a traditional biography or prose novel on the same subject?

cj: I like this book for two reasons. It is a novel-in-verse which allows the author to present other characters’ viewpoints with minimal explanation, and secondly, Cheng does amazing research.

The topic will involve boy readers perhaps even more than girl readers–a rare find in a novel-in-verse. Dave, his enslaved life, his potter’s skills and the signing of the jugs kept me interested in a way other nonfiction often does not.

Bucky: I love woodcuts and art made to look like woodcuts. Some great early 20th century “proto-” graphic novels placed a series of woodcuts in narrative sequence. However, the woodcuts in Etched in Clay act mostly as illustrations rather than means to extend the story. They’re imagetext in that they help illustrate; they enhance what’s there, but one doesn’t learn much new information from them, per se. Or does one? It’s one thing for Dave to say, “I sign my name;” it’s another for us to see a representation of the actual signature (see pages 86 and 136 to decide if the woodcut accurately mimics Dave’s writing). Generally, the images are illustrative of the text, but considering why Cheng decided to focus on certain images associated with the words could offer a deeper consideration of them. I find their stark, economical style charming and moving, emotionally evocative in their simplicity and sparseness. I don’t know if the images give the book an advantage over other biographical works, but I do like that they create a possible reality and attend to Cheng’s artful balance of fact and fiction (almost/possibly) fact. Both texts reviewed in this column play well in that space. Nonfiction is just an authoritative interpretation of what might have happened and how we might reflect on it anyway, right?

Jennifer:  I feel there are many advantages the art gives to the overall novel. First, not only are the woodcuts of important times of Dave’s life, but it also brings the historical era to life by using a somewhat archaic form of illustration, much like William Blake’s art. The Afterword, Dave’s

Inscriptions and the Author’s Note also give the reader a glimpse into the reality of Dave’s life. (This would be a great pairing with the picture book on the same subject.)  I love that his art and the art of this poetry narrative shed light on the political statement Dave is making. It’s a great juxtaposition and would be a fabulous study for students in American History classes.

Jon: I like the novel in verse format because of its economy and, as cj alluded to, the way that multiple perspectives can be integrated into the flow. At the same time, I think that verse novels are tricky because they read like poetry (which carries a stigma for some young readers) and they require significant inferential skills. In the case of this book, I think the verse format turns the reader into something of a detective, trying to piece together the whole arc of the story and how various characters are involved. It reminds me in this way of Karen Hesse’s Witness. I think the multiple perspectives provided in the text do a couple of interesting things, too. First, they allow the reader to see glimpses into the historical context (the slave trade, the use of slave labor, family relationships among slaves, and so on) as well as to get a sense of the complexity of the issue of slavery in the South. I appreciate how Cheng works in perspectives of people like slave sympathizers like The Nullifer of the Landrums alongside those of the slaves. Such a juxtaposition is made more concrete by the verse format and opens up a lot of potential for exploration of these issues.


Sean: In Hammer of Witches, Baltasar’s uncle Diego retells the biblical story of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, and afterward notes, “Maybe it is just a story. \u2026 But it is true nonetheless” (p. 62). As the first fantasy novel reviewed by Under the Radar, what power do you see in its mixing of historical fiction and fantasy conventions for engaging and enlightening young adult readers?

Bucky: I appreciated the blending in both texts. I know that many are telling teachers that they need to get away from narrative and fictional works in favor of informative and nonfiction texts, but the modes and genres of written expression are not as distinct and separate as some might think. These texts offer strong examples of how reality, possible realities, and interpretations of said realities and possible realities can coexist.

Jennifer:  I thought the historical backdrop with the fantastical characters and magical “Baba Yaga” worked quite well together. As Bucky said, there is so much pressure to read informational texts currently that this was a refreshing change to find a novel that blends both history and fantasy. It would be interesting for students to tease out the two different genres as a study.

Sean: I too was quite taken with the blend of historical fiction and fantasy in Hammer of Witches, and its melding of storytelling traditions into a propulsive narrative about the forging of the New World on the foundations of the Old makes it a uniquely American multicultural story. Mlawski weaves together Baltasar’s adventure on Columbus’ first voyage to the New World with the legends and folklore of many ancient narrative traditions, in a manner similar to the weaving of Northern European folklore in the Harry Potter novels and Lord of the Rings, and of Greco-Roman mythology in the Percy Jackson saga. The integration of the folk mythology and spiritual beliefs of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Taino culture throughout the story would make this a far more compelling vehicle for exploring the geography theme of \”Place,\” which encompasses culture, religion and folk ways, than the traditional textbook expository approach to this material. By illuminating connections between different people’s mythologies, students can more easily approach the new from the known and discover common roots of the human experience.

Jon: I agree with Bucky and Jennifer, and found the integration of historical events and figures to be a compelling feature of the book. I think the fantasy elements will likely make the book more appealing to a certain audience of readers, and I applaud Mlawski’s use of story as the main device for magic in the book. Such a choice allows for some interesting explorations of the “real” power of storytelling in our culture, and the quote used in the question prompt here is the beginning of that exploration. What is truth? Does a story have to be factual to have an impact on us? What role does imaginary or fantastical literature play in a society that seems increasingly interested in “facts” or “information”? I think exploration of those questions can enlighten young adult readers. Furthermore, I think the weaving of historical facts–in this case, the portrayal of Europeans’ early encounters with the indigenous people of the Americas–can allow young readers to consider critically these events. I appreciate the end notes that Mlawski included in the book as they shed some light both on what is historically accurate in her portrayal and in how she deliberately chose to cast Baltasar as a typical European in terms of his conflicted perspectives on the Taino people. The final chapters of the book, as well as the author’s notes, could contribute significantly to an effort in the classroom to use this book to satisfy some of the CCSS requirements that draw comparisons between and conclusions from the historical record and literary depictions of those events.


Sean: In the poem “Our Conscience,” Dave’s first owner Harvey Drake says “writing is a weapon” (p. 34). Later, in “Carving Words,” Dave declares, “when I write / I am a man” (p. 81). In Hammer of Witches, storytelling is presented as a magical power, which can be wielded for good or evil. Comment on how these themes of empowerment (or endangerment) through writing and self-expression develop throughout each book. What value might exploration of such themes hold for young readers and writers?

Bucky: The key messages of both texts are that words have power and storytelling is legacy. We can’t naturally, nor should we, break away from narrative. Storytelling/spellcasting is an important means of how we make sense of our worlds, and Cheng and Mlawski make that point compellingly. Often we encounter the stereotype of the disengaged minority child who feels oppressed by a curriculum and/or teaching style that doesn’t seem to match up with his or her lifeworld. As well, culturally-relevant pedagogists and critical literacy- and social justice activists work to change narrow definitions of texts and literacy. But, Etched in Clay reminds me that making sure students have that baseline functional literacy in terms of reading and writing IS activism, IS social justice. I can’t help but think that students, perhaps especially black students, might benefit greatly from seeing this text and texts (fiction and nonfiction and songs and film and etc., etc.) like it that illustrate the political power of literacy and writing and how keeping the ability to read and write from certain people has been an act of oppression. That Dave wants that power and sees the ability to read and write as part of what proves his equality among all men and women, that he uses reading and writing as a means to subvert power structures — well, that is powerful and a strong justification for sharing this text in K-12 classrooms. It has been a long time since I taught a class that was majority African American or had a large percentage of black students, but if I could go back and teach them again, I would use this book. That’s not to say I wouldn’t teach it with more diverse populations, as the message that literacy is political and has been used to reify political structures is important for all of us to recognize. But my hope is that this book could speak deeply to African American students –and any student, really — who might think that academic success via literacy is a means of selling out. Not when used appropriately and critically, it isn’t. I also have a strong inclination to view Hammer of Witches as a critique of the notions of reading and literacy associated with the Common Core State Standards. “CCSS” first stood for “Christopher Columbus’ Smashed Ship,” right? Every time a character brings mythical beings to life via storytelling and interpreting, I smirk. Summoning the Magna Carta just wouldn’t have been enough to defeat the Bahamut. I’m almost surprised the unicorn didn’t spear a character called the Coleman.

cj: Reading this question reminds me that there are still several places in the world where education is denied to some. I recently shared Malala’s story with my seven-year-old niece, who was stunned to hear that there was a place where girls were not allowed to read, to go to school, to be taught. Students need to bridge outside of story or history to the worldly realities so they can see that such restrictions still exist. For Malala, learning is how she has joined the world despite the very strong power working against her. Her joy in learning matches that of Dave’s pride and empowerment. Our society may believe it has advanced since the fantastical world of Hammer of Witches, but it is still well-grounded in story-telling. It is hard to imagine a day when I don’t hear a story—whether through our music, television, books, comedians, politicians—the list is endless. We just need to learn the difference between stories, fact and fiction.

Sean: Excellent connection with Malala’s story, cj. The superb new film 12 Years a Slave, while decidedly not appropriate for a young adult audience, nevertheless provides another striking reminder of the subversive power of literacy in our own nation’s history. A powerful scene in which the enslaved Solomon Northrup carves into the base of a violin the names of the children and wife from whom he’s been brutally separated resonates with parallels to Dave’s story. I’m also taken with your observation about the ubiquity of storytelling. If Jerome Bruner is right in his theory that narrative is the central organizing principle for human cognition – that the truth and tenacity of a proposition is a function of the extent to which our minds can fit it into a satisfyingly narrative construction – then Hammer of Witches and Etched in Clay would serve as ideal texts for helping readers develop an insider’s perspective on the worldviews of people across the globe and history. Hammer of Witches especially allows readers to explore diverse cultures’ responses to the social and natural world through the stories they tell about it.

Jennifer:  The story as power theme in both novels strikes me as the most crucial to teach to young people. By examining Dave’s desire to do what he has been forbidden to do (read/write) in Etched in Clay and his silent and subtle defiance of these laws, I would hope students would find the privilege in education. Too often, adolescents are so caught up in what they are “forced” to do in school that they forget, as CJ said, that school is a powerful tool not offered to everyone in every country. There is simply power in knowledge. Furthermore, in Hammer of Witches, the beauty and magic of storytelling is so strong that I would hope students would find it appealing. The mystic quality associated with story is enticing, as in forbidden fruit. One of my favorite characters in the latter novel was the Tittivillus, who played with words and made anagrams. Often, students don’t find the “fun” in words. This novel reinforces that.

Jon: In reading the historical notes at the end of Hammer of Witches in the context of this question, I’m struck by the note Mlawski makes that she found it hard to know if her depiction of the indigenous Taino people was accurate because the only descriptions she had were written by Europeans. This seems to me a powerful example of why writing matters–since the Taino had no written language, their ways of viewing the world and their side of the colonization story is difficult to know. There are two further things to consider: What happens when history is written by the conquerors or those (in this case) with the technology to make sure that their side of the story endured? And how does a culture or a way of life endure when there’s no written language to ensure that traditions and beliefs are passed on (as the written form seems primarily to do for our culture)? It’s frightening to think of how we might see slaves today if some (like Douglass) had not been able to read or write and tell their story in powerful ways. We each have a voice and ideas that deserve to be heard; mastery of the written word gives us a chance to have that voice be heard.


Sean: What textual connections did you make while reading Etched in Clay and Hammer of Witches? What do you think each would pair well with if taught?

Jon: I mentioned in an earlier response the connections in genre between Etched in Clay and Hesse’s verse novel works (such as Out of the Dust, but perhaps more fittingly, Witness). For some students/readers, comparing and contrasting the way these two authors use free verse poetry to communicate meaning would be a rewarding experience. And anything we would normally use poetry to teach (such as figurative language) could easily be taught with verse novels–and I think free verse might seem a less threatening (or less stigmatized) form of poetry for students. With Etched in Clay and Witness, particularly, there are similar themes of prejudice, fear, and injustice; since both works use the verse novel to present varied perspectives on these issues, there’s ample opportunity to explore how our ideologies might shape the way we perceive the reality around us. I also think that slave narratives could be an excellent match with this book, especially given the running theme of the power of writing in Dave’s life and work.

Sean: I also thought of Hesse’s work immediately while reading Etched in Clay, Jon. Jen Bryant’s Ringside, 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial also came to mind, as it takes a similar approach to Etched in Clay in relating a critical historical event (albeit one more widely documented) through the voices of multiple narrators in verse. As suggested earlier, I think Hammer of Witches would serve as a great introduction to the storytelling traditions of multiple cultural roots, and thus a great unifying text for a Humanities-based approach to genre studies. I’m particularly taken with golem stories (in fact, a sizable golem figure stares at me from across my office as I write), and they are abundant, from Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 novel (the basis for the 1920 classic silent film) to David Wisniewski’s Caldecott-winning 1997 picture book, Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay and 2013’s remarkable The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. From there, it’s not a far cry to braid Hammer of Witches with Frankenstein, connecting Mlawski’s Old/New World culture conflict to Shelley’s science/nature and pre-modern/modern world conflicts.

Jon: As for Hammer of Witches, I find it such an interesting exploration of the real power of storytelling that I think it might be coupled with other powerful forms of storytelling, like myths and film. When I taught in the secondary classroom, it never ceased to amaze me how inherently engaging stories from various cultures’ myths were to my students–the same could be said for more folklore-ish stories (such as urban legends). Their reactions, I think, give some credence to Mlawski’s assertion in this novel that stories have power to fascinate us as well as to educate us. I also enjoyed teaching students to be critical viewers of film, given that I think that medium is perhaps the most relevant form of storytelling for many of them. Both forms of storytelling might make good matches to this novel. Of course, the person of Columbus and the events surrounding the Europeans’ arrival in the New World are both the subject of lots of books and movies/documentaries. It might be interesting to have students look at biographies of Columbus across decades (if those texts are available) to see how perceptions of the man have become more complex as time has passed and our sensibilities have shifted. Alternatively, we could ask students to look at biographies written for different ages of readers (from picture books to early reader books to teen nonfiction) to see how portrayals of this complicated man shift with audience.


Sean: Both Etched in Clay and Hammer of Witches deal with the theme of crossing borders: physical, social, psychological, religious and even genre and text form. How do such crossings embody the essence of Lee & Low’s slogan, “About Everyone, For Everyone,” and what kinds of disciplinary border crossings could teachers make through introducing young readers to these books?

Bucky: I mentioned the concept of nepantla in our last column. Nepantla is a term for border spaces, liminal spaces. Often these spaces are thought of as bicultural, especially such that they resist the “dominant discourses,” but I feel that interpretation is a limiting type of expansion. Truly, when we think of new spaces, needed spaces, we need to think of multicultural spaces, where dominant discourses and others mingle and intertwine. We don’t need an Anglo “liminal space” here and a Spanish-Indio nepantla space there, for example. Even as the world’s population continues to brown, part of how it is doing so is through browner people marrying and mating the less brown. Maybe what we need is nepantl(a)iminality, a recognition of the border spaces between and among the border spaces. Nepantl(a)iminality shares a common ingredient from both words, with the (a) acting as a hitch which joins cab and trailer, if you will, two necessary components in transporting the good(s) across boundaries, and suggests a hybridity of hybridities where notions of oppressor and oppressed can be re-examined and redefined. I think there is some nepantl(a)iminality in Hammer of Witches, as it draws from so many cultures and traditions and has such a multicultural cast. While the book offers a strong dynamic of white, European conquerors out to destroy the peaceful worlds of people of color and also shows the soon-to-be-colonized as considering their own acts of violence (see Anacaona), it is through knowing and appreciating the myths of many cultures that Baltasar, “A converted Jew….Half-Christian…half-Moor….Spanish, but…Taino” (330), can hope to save the day.


Sean: Your concept of liminality is a fascinating framework for understanding the value and power of narrative discourses in a 21st century, minority-majority America that is more of a mosaic than a melting pot. How do you see this at work in Etched in Clay?

Bucky: While Etched in Clay’s power dynamics are mostly black and white, though we might note the gender relations in play as well, they’re universal in the sense that authority and oppression often coincide. Some sort of meeting of the minds is what Dave desires. He doesn’t want to reverse the race-based power dynamics, which, I think can be a trace assertion in nepantla; he hopes for them reconfigured altogether for greater equity and equality. Though I prefer Etched in Clay to Mlawski’s novel, Hammer of Witches offers greater gateways to multicultural considerations. Both offer interdisciplinary opportunities. I could see Hammer of Witches being a major text in a unit on “Transnational Views of the Literary and Historic Columbus,” for example, though my hunch is that Mlawski would rather see a unit focusing on “Multiple Accounts” rather than placing that man at the center of a unit. Etched in Clay might pair well with Black Boy or Invisible Man or Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. Another less-obvious but potentially fruitful pairing for Etched in Clay is Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi. Heck, bringing in Habibi could be a great way to join Etched in Clay with Hammer of Witches to form a text ladder exploring power, language, literacy, multiculturalisms, and myth. Habibi is for mature readers, though. It might be equally intriguing to pair Etched in Clay with nonfiction studies which detail trends in literacy rates and socioeconomic and racial disparities among them.


Sean: Thank you all for sharing your perspectives on these two unique publications from Lee & Low, team! We hope you readers have enjoyed sharing in our conversation and that you will keep looking under the radar for books “about everyone, for everyone” to share with your students, colleagues and loved ones. Check back with ALAN in a few months for our next column!


For more on Lee & Low’s catalog and featured publications, please visit their website at http://www.leeandlow.com

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