By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Last month I made a point to read a bunch of books that took place either in diverse settings or had diverse main characters. I know the debate of the lack of diversity in Kid Lit and YA is exploding yet again, but it is new to me and it really got me thinking and evaluating both my personal collection and my values as a reader and potential collection developer. I value having books in my own personal collection for my daughter that show a variety of cultures and a variety of histories but there really isn’t a lot of that. Nor is there a lot that shows diverse people just being regular people. It is also incredibly easy to default to reading about white or Western European cultures and protagonists. Even the Eastern Europeans get left out (think anything Russian that doesn’t have to do with the Cold War or WWII). So in addition to limiting my reading this past month I am also going to try very hard to be sure I am selecting books to read in the future that show diversity.
So here’s the round up on what I read last month and my thoughts on them. For the sake of brevity I did not include descriptions, but if you click on the title it will take you to the GoodReads page where you can read it.
A Moment Comes / Jennifer Bradbury: I know there isn’t infinite time in history class to get through all culture and countries, but I wish there was more diversity in what we studied in history class. I don’t think I ever studied Indian history. Well, we watched the movie Gandhi, but I hardly think that should count. I was ignorant enough when I read this book to have to look up where this was taking place and I checked a few other places on the map too. I really enjoyed this novel. The three different perspectives, which were diverse in religion, ethnicity, and gender, was a really interesting way to come at this moment in history. There was a sort of love triangle, something I am beginning to find to frequently in YA and find irritating, but it wasn’t exactly the focus of the story and it doesn’t play out in the typical way. It’s been years since I’ve read it, but I was reminded of Rumer Goden’s Peacock Summer which I believe takes place a little earlier and in a different part of India, but had a similar flavor. I think A Moment Comes, without sounding like a history text, did a beautiful job of showing the history of the split between India and Pakistan and the people who were caught in the event. I would even say it could be appropriate for upper middle school, but would be equally appealing to high school.
Copper Sun / Sharon Draper: I couldn’t finish this one. It was well written, but there is only so much tragedy and violence I can take. And it just kept coming with this book. I think it was the relentlessness of the killing, beating, rape, etc. that turned me off. I know it all happened and was probably a lot worse than what this book portrays, but I just couldn’t get through it.
Liar / Justine Larbalestier: I’ve been wanting to read this one for a long time and just hadn’t gotten to it. I knew very little about it except that the narrator was unreliable which struck me as very interesting. When I finished the book all I could think was “what the did I just read?”, but in a really good way. In a way that made me think Justine Larbalestier can write and I need to read that again. It also made me think of I Am the Cheese, for the unreliable narrator, the possibility that what is going on is being shown but also being distorted by the narrator through the narration, and living in the past. Although I admit haven’t read I Am the Cheese in a long, long time. I was surprised to read the debate over Liar, about Micah being unlikable. I was rather surprised by this criticism. I don’t think I ever thought of her in the light of likable/unlikable. There wasn’t time. I was trying too hard to figure out what was going on. I mean I don’t think I’d want her as a friend, but unlikable? She’s not actually real. I’m not sure I think of any character as likable. Plus I don’t think you have to like a book character to click with them. I’m sure I would find my tween and teenage self unlikable if I met her, so I hardly think that would be a fair standard to judge book characters by.
Rain Is Not My Indian Name / Cynthia Leitich Smith: I liked that this book was about overcoming a tragedy and dealing with grief in a positive way. It was nice because the story, while it acknowledge and dealt with the fact that Rain was Native American, it wasn’t about the Native American Experience. She was proud of her heritage, but it wasn’t the story. It was also a quick read (GoodReads says 144 pages, but that would be counting the title page and stuff) which even for a good reader is sometimes a nice break. It was really well written and compelling.
A Girl Called Problem / Katie Quirk: This book was problematic for me and it called into question a white author writing from a non-white (Tanzanian) perspective and I hate that I had that thought, because I don’t think it’s especially valid. First and foremost it read like a hi/low novel, but I don’t think it was. I think I felt like this because it read a lot like a middle grade novel, but the cover and the fact that you don’t tend to study modern sub-Saharan African countries until high school or even later made it seem like it shouldn’t have been MG. If that makes any sense. There was also a huge, clunky info dump at the beginning. So I guess it was the writing in this that was the problem. It was an interesting story about a historical event I hadn’t heard of.
The Vine Basket / Josanne La Valley: This was an interesting one to compare to A Girl Called Problem as they were both written by people who were not from the culture they were writing about but had traveled to the region and were taken by the people. But the writing in this one was so polished. It was such a beautiful story that focused less on the historical event of what was going on, although it did emphasize the plight of the Uyghr people (I’m sure I spelled that incorrectly, but they are an ethnic group in Western China), and more on developing the characters, the relationships, the setting, and the story. It was a quiet story without a lot of dramatic plot points, but it was beautiful and hopeful.
Bird / Crystal Chan: I spent most of this book, a book about family and friendship, thinking how awful everyone was to each other. Not Jewel so much, although she’s pretty hard on herself. Especially John; especially him. Sure he has problems but he pretty unabashedly does some crappy things. Especially initially. I know they all have problems but, sheesh people, get some help and figure it out! That being said this was a fabulous book. It was beautifully written. Or they tried to at least. Bird was slow moving story about how a broken family and how they begin to mend. It’s also about the damage that can be done by remaining silent and never engaging with the grieving process (again, get a therapist people!). Regardless of family tragedy I think it’s easy to identify with the difficulty we can have communicating with our families and in how hard we can be on ourselves over perceived let downs. The family had an interesting mix of cultures too, in a rather white small town, which was a nice touch. I don’t think they had to be different from their neighbors, but the way the author wove in aspects of the Latin and Jamaican heritage really made the story.
The Tyrant’s Daughter / J.C. Carleson: This was a really interesting book. It was well written, if not literary and lyrical in the way that The Vine Basket was or Sorrow’s Knot, but definitely well written. We’ve all heard the news stories about the strife in the Middle East and the fall of several powerful dictators. In an interesting twist Carleson takes the perspective of the daughter of an unnamed dictator. It is never specified which country she is from and it doesn’t really matter. (In her author’s note Carleson says she drew events and ideas directly from headlines so everything has a familiar flavor.) What matters is you see everything from a very different perspective. It’s hard to think of the dictators and regimes as people, but Laila makes it clear they are. Laila is such an interesting character. She’s conflicted about everything- her father, her family’s power and money, boys, clothes, friendship, returning home, making a new home. She is horrified to discover the things her father did while in power, but on the other hand she is rather unapologetic about having benefited from their wealth and power. The year in the US brings her to some realizations and changes her in a lot of ways, but also makes her realize there are parts of herself and her culture she doesn’t want to change or to lose. She loses her naiveté and uses that to become a better person to discover what she wants going forward.
Alif the Unseen / G. Willow Wilson: This one is technically an adult novel, but I can see it appealing to older teens for sure. Wilson is an impressive author and it shows both in her writing here and the creativity of the story. She so deftly and cleverly weaves mythology and folklore with modern technology. The story of a computer hacker who creates a program that can identify individuals and is then pursued by the government and becomes entangled with jinn and magic shouldn’t work. But it does. You can really see Wilson’s reverence for the Middle East and its history and culture here, but she doesn’t shy away from computers and sex or religion. It took me awhile to get through this one, but it wasn’t a slow slog. I was enjoying her writing style and the story which gets complicated to say the least. It’s so worth the read if you can stand a story with some coding jargon.