It’s Poetry Friday!
I have been featuring Asian American authors on my blog as part of the annual #AuthorsTakeAction initiative. In each post, I’ll share a recommended middle grade or YA novel by an Asian American author and a read-alongside poem.
Before we get to today’s featured book, though–a quick announcement.
This month, on May 18-19, author and poet Padma Venkatraman is offering “Poetry as Inspiration: A Two Part Mini Course” through Highlights. Padma has invited me and verse novelist Aida Salazar to guest teach with her! If you’d like more information, please click here.
On to today’s book and poem pairing…
This week’s featured book is Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park.
According to Goodreads:
Prairie Lotus is a book about a girl determined to fit in and realize her dreams: getting an education, becoming a dressmaker in her father’s shop, and making at least one friend. Hanna, a half-Asian girl in a small town in America’s heartland, lives in 1880. Hanna’s adjustment to her new surroundings, and the townspeople’s prejudice against Asians, is at the heart of the story.
This was one of my favorite middle grade novels of 2020. I love stories about bicultural kids, because of my own history as a first generation American. In Prairie Lotus, Linda Sue Park shows how racism — whether it’s ugly and overt or communicated through a small gesture of exclusion — can undermine a young person’s self-confidence. Hanna’s story is rich, detailed, and powerful.
But it’s not just the story that stays with me. In the backmatter, the author openly shares how setting out to write a diverse novel inspired (in part) by Little House on the Prairie led to her own learning, especially about indigenous cultures in the Midwest. As authors’ notes go, this one is truly brilliant.
I could do an entire post on dressmaking as a theme in fiction! As I have learned from my collaboration with Saadia Faruqi (my co-author for A Place at the Table), when women and girls move to a new country or even a new community they often rely on soft skills for survival. Even those with advanced degrees (which aren’t always honored in their new home) might turn to cooking, cleaning, and sewing to make ends meet.
If this theme appeals to you, read Ruth Behar’s middle grade novel Letters from Cuba after Prairie Lotus. It’s about a young Jewish refugee whose dressmaking skills help her family adjust to their new life in Cuba. Or check out the play (for adults) Intimate Apparel, by Lynn Nottage. The play is about an African American seamstress who makes intimate apparel for wealthy white women. It is set at the turn of the last century. You can view an introduction to the play here.
Dressmaking, women, and survival. There’s a poem for that. I hope you enjoy, “Dressmakers,” by UK poet Jennie Carr.
By Jennie Carr
I think of her dresses: cream sateen with beige flower print,
wide-collared, three-quarter cuffed sleeves, full skirt –
rainbow-striped silk, straight and sleeveless, thin belted.
As a girl, she told me, she stood still while her grandmother
wielded the scissors to cut neckline and armholes freely.
Her mother, more the designer, added hand-crocheted
trimmings, buttons or a tassel, so when it came to the thrifty
years on the farm, just the three of them and the evacuees,
they were adept at a tuck and a turn, adapting the pattern
to make do and mend – something that never really left her…
Read the rest at The Poetry Society (UK).
Next week, we’ll head to outer space with Jack Cheng’s middle grade novel See You in the Cosmos.
I love this post…mostly because I loved the book Prarie Lotus so much! I listened to the audible version….just wonderful And, the dressmaking details were wonderful. Hanna is such a likeable character. She teaches us so much about herself and what it must have felt like to be of two worlds at this time in history. Thanks for the great review and pairing.
I read the ARC but since you recommend the audiobook, I am putting that on my wish list!
I have had Prairie Lotus for so long & just started it this week, Laura. I’m sure it will be wonderful. Your poem & words about those who used their ‘soft skills’ to make do after moving to this country is a loving memory, “adept at a tuck and a turn”, but it also reminds me of the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where all those young women, working so hard to take care of their families died. Stories of immigrants should fill us all with admiration. Thanks!
As someone who grew up with the Little House books — and having learned to look at ways that they perpetuate negative stereotype — I appreciated Linda Sue’s author’s note a great deal. And what an engaging story!
Robert Pinsky has a long, powerful poem about the Triangle Factory fire. I need to reread that. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47696/shirt
I’m definitely going to get a copy of Prairie Lotus, Laura. I think it will resonate with my eldest daughter (though she’s a young adult now) who is Asian but was obsessed with the Little House series when she was little when we lived in the Midwest. And I, too, have a soft spot for dressmakers. My grandma was a dressmaker who kept my mom’s family afloat during the Depression. 🙂
Thanks, Bridget. It is so well written. The dressmaking thread resonates with many families who were in survival mode.
Prairie Lotus is on my holds list so I hope to read it soon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about it. You have me even more anxious to read the novel as well as the Author’s Note! Love the dressmaking poem too :).
Thanks for stopping by, Jama. You’re going to love this novel!
What a collection of treasures in this post! Prairie Lotus sounds wonderful. I will add it to my list.
Thanks, Ruth! It’s a must for those of us who grew up with the Little House series and are rethinking our relationships with those books.
I’m inspired in so many ways by this post. I’ve been struggling/pondering what my role as a blogger will be when I become a retired teacher. You’re showing me a way in with books+poetry+activism.
I loved PRAIRIE LOTUS and your focus on dressmaking!
Thanks, Mary Lee. I know you will find a theme that words well for you. Books+poetry+activism — absolutely!
I was in a workshop about this time last year with Linda Sue Park, I’m very taken with her work and have just pulled out her book “Wing and Claw,” which has been waiting for me to read. I remember her mentioning “Prairie Lotus” last year.
Dress Makers is wonderful, I like her line
“they were adept at a tuck and a turn, adapting the pattern
to make do and mend – something that never really left her… ” and its multiple layers.
Thanks also for the link to The Poetry Society site—rich post!
Thank you, Michelle. I haven’t tried Linda Sue’s fantasy books yet!
I love the idea of a post on dressmaking as a theme in fiction. Linda Sue Park is such a talented writer. I heard her give a presentation where she talked about her process in researching and writing this book. It was very inspiring!
Thank you for stopping by, Elisabeth. I wish I could have been at that presentation! Linda Sue is an amazing speaker.