MTYT: Mama’s Nightingale

This post continues June’s My Take/Your Take conversation around books that highlight multiple forms of protest and the power of voice for younger readers. This week Dorea and Lauren consider Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danticat with illustrations by Leslie Staub and how it relates to children’s perspectives of their own stories. Scroll to the bottom of this post for links to the first three posts in this conversation.

Mama's Nightingale

LAUREN: Wow! Mama’s Nightingale beautifully illustrates the power of voice, no matter how big or small the voice may be.

What first strikes me is the difference in the voice in this book from the voices in the other books we discussed. The other books in our selection feature male voices, Seeger and the Rooster–possibly the duck is male too. But this book features a young female. A young female who finds her voice because she wants to have her mom at home again.

Saya’s mama is in jail. She is in jail because she does not have the paperwork she needs to stay in the country.

Immigration. What a timely topic to discuss! Even, maybe especially, with our young children.

Every night after making dinner and helping her with her homework, Saya’s father “sits at the kitchen table and writes letters to the judges who send people without papers to jail. He also writes to our mayor and congresswoman and all the newspapers and television reporters he’s ever heard of. No one ever writes him back.”

No one ever writes him back.

Saya notices that.

But more importantly, she notices that her father writes. He writes to make his voice heard. That is the second difference I notice in this book compared to the others. Writing is the powerful voice in Mama’s Nightingale. And soon, Saya takes her father’s lead and makes her voice heard through writing.

“Papa, can I write letters, too?”
“Of course, you can write your own story.”
I take Papa’s advice, sit down, and write my own story.

Saya’s letters, her story, her voice, draws the attention of others in the community. It first catches the attention of a reporter who prints her story in the newspaper for a broader audience. That broader audience reads her story and it soon becomes a news interview. That interview reaches an even broader community, which leads to more letters and phone calls to the prison where Saya’s mama is held.

Eventually, the voice of this young girl, first written, then spoken, then spread, frees her mama from jail. I can’t think of a better example of the power of voice. And I can’t end without quoting the last line of the book, which reads, “I like that it is our words that brought us together again.”

Dorea, words bring us together. What is your take?

DOREA: While we selected this text set with young readers in mind, I, too, noticed that this is the first book in which not only a female–but a child–takes action, sending a strong and necessary message that change is not just possible through the words and voices of grown-ups (or roosters) but that the smallest of voices can also make big waves.

I was initially drawn to this book as a way of showing protest through written word, however, I think Saya, through her words and her actions, draws our attention to another dimension of our theme: the power of story.

I found myself reflecting on Kathy Short’s words in Story as World Making (2012):

“Stories are thus much more than a book or narrative—they are the way our minds make sense of our lives and world. We work at understanding events and people by constructing stories to interpret what is occurring around us. In turn, these stories create our views of the world and the lens through which we construct meaning about ourselves and others. We also tell stories to make connections, form relationships, and create community with others” (p. 9).

As the narrator, Saya draws upon many stories to make sense of her world–the familiar world that used to be, the frightening world in which she currently lives, and the unknown world of her future. Even at a young age, she recognizes the complexity of her storied life:

Sometimes the stories are as sad as melted ice cream. Other times they are as happy as a whole day at the beach.

And yet with all of these stories, the sad, happy, imaginary, real, familiar and unknown, Saya constructs meaning of her life and is able to create a story from these that ultimately brings her mother home.

Protest is story. Protest is our story. Protest is the careful listening of other’s stories. Protest is the sharing of stories. Protest is using our voice–through shouting, singing, or writing–to demand that our stories are important enough to be heard.

LAUREN: I couldn’t agree with you more, Dorea. Protest is story. I like your thought of protest as the sharing of stories. It is when our stories are shared that connections are made, dialogue is created, and visions are turned into action.

We discussed having a “way into” the protest with the previous books–that everyone needs a way, a space, a reason to join in and sing their protest song. And as you and I, both early childhood educators and moms of young boys, are thinking about how this theme applies to young children, we already know how to help them to find their “way in.” Have them tell their stories. And learn to listen to the stories of others. We need to create spaces in our classrooms and lives for children to freely express themselves through story. Whether their stories be as sad as melted ice cream or happy as a whole day at the beach, for our children to grow up willing and ready to share their stories, we need to show them the value of their stories as young children.

I have not read this book with my class of kindergartners, but I definitely will in our next school year. I’m interested to see how they react to Saya’s story and what stories it encourages them to tell. I’m curious to see if they’ve thought of stories being powerful. I hope they all have stories that are as happy as a whole day at the beach and I hope they feel safe to share stories that may be as sad as melted ice cream.

Title: Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Illustrator: Leslie Staub
Publisher: Penguin Random House
ISBN: 9780525428091
Date Published: September 1, 2015

This is the fourth installment of June 2017’s My Take/Your Take. To follow the conversation, start with The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!, move on to Stand Up and Sing!, and then Counting on Community.

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