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Tuesday, June 30, 2015


It’s the end of June, and during this past week, at least in my corner of the world, high schools celebrate the jubilant passing of students moving from one stage of their lives to the next.  Most graduating seniors throw up their caps, make or listen to speeches urging them forward, and seem in the midst of graduation euphoria.  For a moment, at least, the world looks bright to many of them.  In fact, for many, this is a brief period of time when the tensions of the last few months ease, and the future, seen through tearfully blurred vision, seems set.  Not so for others. 

It is the last three months of Senior Year that John McCormack captures in his novel, Jamaal’s Journey. Throughout that short period of time, McCormack’s perceptive book delves into the growing pains, questions, happinesses and sorrows that face a primarily minority group of students.  At best the teenage years are not easy ones, but for Jamaal and his friends, the struggle is a constant.

Jamaal, an African American HS senior, is trying to find his way, and as we travel with him on his journey, he deals with all the teenage trials—how to win the girl of his dreams, how not to break a heart or to have his own heart broken, how to move ahead in a world where even his language has to be altered to avoid ostracism by his friends or ostracism by the wider world he will enter as a college freshman.  It’s a thin tightrope to walk where reaching the goal of getting to the opposite landing is fraught with anxiety and questions that are sometimes unanswerable.  Jamaal relies on his friends, many of whom cannot travel the same path as he.

Despite the underlying seriousness of his novel, John McCormack packs Jamaal’s Journey  full of humor, irony, and typical teenage gaffes.  Jamaal and his friends make real life choices, overcome obstacles, sometimes are beaten into defeat, and sometimes display strength of character and mind in admirable ways.  It’s so real that you wish you could intercede and make the road a bit smoother.  The reader cannot help but recall the universal problems teenagers face and cheers these young people on throughout the story. 

Don't think for a moment that this is a dark, dour book.  McCormack captures the cadence of  language and weaves it into Jamaal’s story, sometimes narrated by Jamaal and sometimes by someone more omniscient.  The book is full of the ironic consequences of youthful decisions and the yearnings and laughter at parties where teenagers work on perfecting their coolness in front of others.  It’s about friendship, loyalty, and resilience among peers.  It’s about love of family and friends as well as the realization that after high school, things will never be quite the way it is in this point of time. Jamaal’s Journey reflects life, and life is never all good or all bad.

Real life is full of choices, and Jamaal’s choices set him on a journey he can barely envisage.  It’s more like a dream he is chasing.  He and his friends illustrate the problems in our society when socio-economic hardships so hamper children that simply getting to school each day is a problem.  Yet, they also illustrate the intrepid spirit within that helps them deal with the problems they face and overcome.

Jamaal’s Journey might be an eye-opener into teenage culture for adults, but it is also an excellent book if you are traveling with a teenager.  There are lots of lessons to be learned as he/she is being entertained by reading a good book. 

Jamaal’s Journey has already earned several awards in its category:

“Kirkus Indie Book of the Month Selection” for April, 2014
The San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention for YA in 2015
The National Indie Excellence Finalist Award for African-American Fiction in 2015
The Award Winning Finalist in the “Fiction: African-American” category of the 2015 International Book Awards

As a disclaimer, I should reveal that I taught at Spring Valley Senior High School with John McCormack.  But I really enjoyed reading Jamaal’s Journey, and I hope you will too.  It is available through Amazon.

Saturday, June 13, 2015


At John Wayne Airport
Orange County California

June 14th is Flag Day, a day established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 
and becoming National Flag Day in 1949 when President Truman signed an Act of Congress making each June 14th NATIONAL FLAG DAY.  

While a new holiday in 1949, National Flag Day was inspired by more than six decades of state and local celebrations beginning with a teacher in Wisconsin, spreading to a kindergarten teacher in New York City, and growing in observance over the years. 

Why June 14th?  This is the day, in 1777, when the Flag Resolution was signed.

One of the most poignant quotations of a Flag Day address was delivered by Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, in 1914.  In his address, he repeated what the flag had spoken to him that morning: "I am what you make me; nothing more.  I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself."

Honor our flag.  Honor our country.  Make it always a symbol of how exceptional we are. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


Dreams of Joy is Lisa See’s sequel to Shanghai Girls, and what a sequel it is!  I didn’t even realize it was a sequel when I hastily selected the book, but I quickly caught on.  Shanghai Girls was so memorable that I was back in the story almost immediately. 

See moves us ahead many years, and the baby in Shanghai Girls is now a Los Angeles resident and a college student at the University of Chicago.  The family exists here, but China is still a part of their lives.  Much has happened in China over the years—especially the Communist Revolution led by Mao tse-tung.  The horrors caused by Japan are over, and the utopian era of communism has begun.

Or so Joy, the impressionable 19 year old college student, vaguely embarrassed by her family’s old-fashioned ways and immersed in the perfection of the communist vision through activity in the university’s Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association (and her boyfriend Joe), believes.  Additionally, as the novel opens, Joy reveals that she has just learned the truth about her mother, father, and aunt. The combination of these influences lead her to return to China—a country inviting Overseas Chinese to come back, to leave their evil capitalistic habits behind and to become a builder in the new and perfect communist world.

Every reader knows that outlook will lead to heartache, but Lisa See weaves a tale that is at once universal in nature—a young girl searching for her identity and her independence—and specific—a story that reflects the horrors of Mao’s leadership and speaks to the horrors of Mao’s Great Leap Forward where millions of Chinese starved to death.  Actual numbers of victims could not even be counted because the dead simply piled up and littered the roadsides and fields.  Cannibalism occurred especially when one family traded their baby for another.  In the end, there were simply too many to bury.  So we are also getting a chapter in China’s recent history.

With the first page of the book, Joy reveals that she has learned the truth about her lineage; her aunt is really her mother.  Her “parents” are really her aunt and her husband, Sam.  Her real father is Z.G., an artist still in China.  Sam recently committed suicide rather than face possible deportation to China.  The FBI’s interest in Sam stemmed from Joy’s involvement with the communist-leaning Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association at the University of Chicago.  Joy feels she is the cause of his death and allows the guilt to lead her back to China to try to atone.

The year is 1957.  Joy’s world is topsy turvy, and she intends to return to China to find her real father and to help build the ideal communist world—a world her American family has warned is a farce and lie time and again.

See does a wonderful job creating a narration by the two main characters, Joy and Pearl, her "mother" and original Shanghai Girl.  The reader feels the voice of each: the differences in age, experience, and aims.  Each one needs to grow in understanding not only of the world around her but also of each other.  All of that universal growth occurs within the context of a crazed, violent, repressive, and, in many cases, ignorant world that must be navigated with great care and duplicity. 

As readers, we get to see how “mother love” is not always a product of giving birth to a child, and that at its height, mother love is selfless even if the child is lost or selfish or rebellious.  We see another unfortunate example of how an entire people can be lured into submissiveness to the point of death or can be submissive enough for oppressive leadership to gain such power and control that the people lose their options and freedom. 

Dreams of Joy, obviously a title with a symbolic meaning, is rich in description of a country relatively few of us have visited and which we certainly have not seen as it is depicted here.  See’s scholarly research and journeys in today’s much more open China with people like Amy Tan give her an insider’s view that she shares with us.

Lisa See is certainly one of our great contemporary authors.  Read Shanghai Girls first, and you will want to follow up with Dreams of Joy.