Mélina Mangal

Melina Mangal's Self on the Shelf
Méli­na Man­gal’s Self on the Shelf

I looked on my shelves, won­der­ing which books to high­light. I have sev­er­al shelves, scat­tered around the house. Though I am a school librar­i­an, my home shelves are quite flu­id, as in, they’re not strict­ly orga­nized. Books are loose­ly grouped by for­mat and size, some­times by genre. I real­ly don’t have that  many books (I love to vis­it the library!), so I love to poke around the shelves when I have a chance. I wel­come serendipity.

I can’t find some of the books I thought I still had. Did I loan that one out? Did I leave it at school for a read-aloud? Though I love dust jack­ets, many of my books are miss­ing theirs. I enjoy mak­ing posters fea­tur­ing the cov­ers of these beau­ti­ful books.

A few books leapt out at me, espe­cial­ly those that have trav­eled with me through­out the years and miles, as I’ve relo­cat­ed many times. The oth­ers were dif­fi­cult to select. How to choose only a few, when so many books hold sig­nif­i­cance or have influ­enced me in deep ways?

In the end, I chose books that res­onate the most with me, in the order in which I first obtained or read them.

Bécas­sine has been with me the longest. Writ­ten by Caumery (Mau­rice Languereau) and illus­trat­ed by J.P. Pin­chon, it was first pub­lished in 1919. I have a 1970’s edi­tion, giv­en to me by my grand­mère when I was a kid. Though I couldn’t read French for many years, I loved brows­ing the pages of one of the ear­li­est illus­trat­ed pre­cur­sors to the bande dess­inées, or com­ic style of book art. I can now read the text and still enjoy the intri­cate details of the illus­tra­tions, but what I’ve always loved best? The binding.

I could not pho­to­graph Bécas­sine in a stack with oth­er books because the title would not have been evi­dent. With a cloth bind­ing, I’ve always loved hold­ing this book. It has always felt sub­stan­tial, and spe­cial. For me, read­ing books has always been a tac­tile expe­ri­ence. No doubt Bécas­sine helped influ­ence this pref­er­ence for well made books.

Jacques Rogy and the Lit­tle Detec­tives by Pierre Lam­blin and  The Dream Keep­er and oth­er Poems by Langston Hugh­es rep­re­sent the awak­en­ing to read­ing as a ris­ing sixth-grad­er. When my fam­i­ly moved from a small town to what we con­sid­ered the big city, I didn’t yet know any oth­er kids. My sib­lings and I would walk to the library. Though I had been a fine read­er before then, it was the pub­lic library’s sum­mer read­ing pro­gram that real­ly turned into a Read­er. The Lex­ing­ton Branch library had such an array of books — books by and about peo­ple who looked like me.

That’s when I learned of Langston Hugh­es. Giv­en to me years lat­er by a fam­i­ly friend, The Dream Keep­er repro­duces the orig­i­nal 1932 edi­tion with an intro­duc­tion by leg­endary librar­i­an and sto­ry­teller Augus­ta Bak­er, who was a friend of Langston Hugh­es. I remem­ber feel­ing torn when I received the book. I love many of the poems and the fact that this was the only book of poet­ry for chil­dren writ­ten by Langston Hugh­es. But I was also struck by the illus­tra­tions of Helen Sewell. Some are beau­ti­ful and some offen­sive. I keep it as a reminder because it rep­re­sents so much — his­to­ry, poet­ry, priv­i­lege, image, and the kind­ness of a gift.

Jacques Rogy and the Lit­tle Detec­tives by Pierre Lam­blin was a book I read dur­ing that sixth grade sum­mer as well. It was full of sus­pense and adven­ture. I want­ed to be part of the band of boys that found the stolen art. I loved the set­ting in France, com­plete with sin­is­ter château, in this non-for­mu­la­ic mystery.

The Jour­ney Home by Yoshiko Uchi­da made a pow­er­ful impres­sion on me. Though I also felt strong­ly about Jour­ney to Topaz, the first book fea­tur­ing Yuki and her fam­i­ly, Jour­ney Home felt more intense. I appre­ci­at­ed the way Yoshiko Uchi­da con­front­ed the dif­fi­cult issues sur­round­ing the intern­ment of Japan­ese fam­i­lies dur­ing World War II. The Jour­ney Home deep­ened by fond­ness for his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, the best of which trans­ports you to anoth­er time and place, giv­ing lit­tle known peo­ple a face.

I loved read­ing the var­ied sto­ries in The Peo­ple Could Fly: Amer­i­can Black Folk­tales told by Vir­ginia Hamil­ton and illus­trat­ed by Leo and Diane Dil­lon. There’s such a range of sto­ries, from ani­mal tales to ghost sto­ries, and the most hard-hit­ting ones: the free­dom tales of slaves. I laughed with some of the char­ac­ters, cried with oth­ers, and cheered with the rest. These sto­ries high­light­ed our deep cul­tur­al con­nec­tions to Africa I hadn’t seen in children’s books before.

The Peo­ple Could Fly, along with Vir­ginia Hamilton’s oth­er amaz­ing books, led to my first pub­li­ca­tion. After read­ing the many books she wrote, I was sur­prised that there wasn’t a children’s book about her life. So I decid­ed to write one. Vir­ginia Hamil­ton became my first book.

Roll of Thun­der, Hear My Cry by Mil­dred Tay­lor was anoth­er his­tor­i­cal fic­tion book that touched me deeply. Cassie Logan and her fam­i­ly cap­ti­vat­ed me from the start. Details of life in small town Mis­sis­sip­pi, where my father’s fam­i­ly is from, infu­ri­at­ed me. But the depic­tion of how the Logan fam­i­ly dealt with the ter­ror and trau­ma of every day life in the depres­sion era South also filled me with a sense of pride. They mod­eled strength, courage, and com­pas­sion in the face of immense adver­si­ty, like so many of my ancestors.

Because of Mil­dred Taylor’s Mis­sis­sip­pi con­nec­tion, I felt com­pelled to find out more. Her path to pub­lish­ing intrigued me as well, and led me to write a biog­ra­phy about her for young readers.

The House on Man­go Street by San­dra Cis­neros pierced through the noise in my life when I first read it. Clear, con­cise, can­did — often beau­ti­ful and heart­break­ing at the same time. Like Vir­ginia Hamilton’s work, I mar­veled at San­dra Cis­neros’ use of lan­guage and word choic­es. Her vignettes are spare and full at the same time. I could hear and see life as Esper­an­za did, and feel the inten­si­ty of her emo­tions as if they were my own.

Talkin’ About Bessie by Nik­ki Grimes, illus­trat­ed by E.B. Lewis com­bines my favorite gen­res: poet­ry, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, and biog­ra­phy, into a beau­ti­ful pic­ture book for­mat. Pre­sent­ing mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives through peo­ple who would have known her best, Nik­ki Grimes high­lights the life of trail­blaz­ing avi­a­tor Bessie Cole­man. I love how this book shows us that for every ‘famous’ per­son, there are con­stel­la­tions of peo­ple behind them, influ­enc­ing and supporting. 

Round­ing out my choic­es with his­tor­i­cal fic­tion set in 1968 Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, One Crazy Sum­mer by Rita Williams-Gar­cia is one of my ‘new­er’ favorites. Though Rita Williams-Garcia’s ear­li­er YA books first struck a chord in me, I love Del­phine and her younger sis­ters, in this first book of the Gaither Sis­ters trilogy.

Like most of Rita Williams-Garcia’s char­ac­ters, Del­phine, Vonet­ta, and Fern, jump off the page and into your room. They are real kids, with earnest and com­plex feel­ings about all that’s hap­pen­ing in their lives. And, like kids every­where, they bring humor and joy to the adults in their lives, includ­ing their moth­er, Cecile, whom they are just get­ting to know.

I still mar­vel at Rita Williams-Garcia’s abil­i­ty to breathe life into her char­ac­ters, cre­at­ing such vivid, ful­ly-fleshed and intrigu­ing per­son­al­i­ties that I would love to meet in per­son. One Crazy Sum­mer reminds me of when I actu­al­ly met Rita Williams-Gar­cia, and had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to lis­ten and learn from her. Her sto­ries con­tin­ue to pro­pel me forward.

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David LaRochelle
2 years ago

What a great circle…an author you loved to read became the sub­ject of the first book you pub­lished! Thanks for shar­ing your list, Meli­na, and giv­ing me ideas for some new books to check out!

Reply to  David LaRochelle
2 years ago

Thanks for your response, David!