By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.
But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.
I think this one is technically an adult novel, although I didn’t realize that when I got it. I would call it New Adult with plenty of appeal for an older YA audience. I’m not sure why I decided to read it (must have gotten a good review from someone) since I tend not to be interested in adult novels, but I’m glad I did.
Hooray! This one was not about a miserable middle aged woman having a tepid affair. In fact it ends well and despite adversity and a lack of confidence, Charlie is a likable and relatable character who you’re happy to see things work out for. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on adult fiction after all. 😉
Mambo in Chinatown tackles a TON of issues, but Kwok keeps it from turning into an after school special. The struggles Charlie faces make the characters and story feel real. Actually, it’s the variety of issues and problems that could broaden the audience this book would appeal to.
Not only is dance a large part of the story but it’s shown as a path to bettering her chances in life. Charlie never considered going to college. She has some undiagnosed learning difficulties and never really did well in school. It was refreshing to read a story about someone choosing a different path that is treated as equally valid (even if it’s difficult).
Tension between traditional ways (and generations) and the younger generation is also a major theme. The immigrant experience plays into this, as well as ethnicity. Charlie has rarely been out of Chinatown and it’s a big deal when she begins to work outside. Charlie’s sister also suffers an unexplained health crisis (it is explained toward the end). Their uncle is an eastern medicine practitioner and their father tends to prefer this type of treatment and defers to his brother. Charlie is skeptical of it, especially when her sister’s health continues to spiral downward.
I was especially taken with the relationship between Charlie and her sister Lisa. They are eleven years apart and their mother died shortly after Lisa was born. With the added stress of being very poor, Charlie has had to grow up quickly and is more of a mother figure to Lisa than a sister. Charlie is wonderfully encouraging of Lisa and, because she is young and less tied to tradition, she makes a good advocate for her with their father, uncle, and larger community.
There’s been a lot of talk about NA being YA with sex and I even heard an author call Fifty Shades of Gray NA. I suppose it is in a way, but I think the idea that it has so much sex doesn’t make it NA. Sex is certainly a part of many (most?) people’s lives when they’re new adults but I think it’s rather simplistic to think that it’s the only thing that’s changed between young adulthood and new adulthood. Or the only part that new adults want to read about. Mambo in Chinatown has sex in it. One sex scene that really happens off page. It’s certainly not graphic. In fact I’ve read steamier sex scenes in YA novels. But I think the way Kwok handles this relationship in the book is how sex in a book appeals to new adults. If you want lots of graphic sex, read erotica. Read erotic NA. Here the sex is simply a part of the story, a minor but good part.
My one and only complaint about the book was that some of the metaphor gets a bit heavy-handed and obvious with big flashing red arrows pointing at them, but they were few and far between. Nor did they detract from the rest of the writing which was good.
Give this book to kids who are interested in dance, dance competition, diverse characters, tensions between tradition and modernity, and mother-daughter relationships.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This summer I read a number of graphic novels. I thought I would round my reviews of them up into one post. Since there are quite a few I’ve just linked their title to their GoodReads page if you would like to hop over and read the descriptions. As a general comment, all these graphic novels had excellent, if very different, art.
Skim / Mariko Tamaki: I loved Skim for how it nailed the angst and tension of high school. In some ways Kim could be a total cliche. She tries out religion (Wicca), has a crush on her teacher, goes on awkward dates, has a friend who isn’t such a great friend, and even finds a friend in an unexpected person. But who didn’t have all (or most) of these experiences in high school? This universality makes the story transcend cliche. I was also really impressed by the length of the book. How many times do you read a graphic novel and think “that was short”? It usually doesn’t have any bearing on liking it, but I find myself wishing the reading experience had lasted longer. The length of Skim did not leave me feeling that way. (YA)
Anya’s Ghost / Vera Brosgol: I thought this one was very atmospheric and creepy, but the ending felt a little silly to me. I think this was the combination of ghost story combined with some more serious topics like fitting in, the immigrant experience, and damaging, dysfunctional romantic relationships. Minus the final scene with the ghost I think Anya’s Ghost did something really interesting using the ghost story to frame and highlight these issues. Despite the final scene with the ghost, though, I still really enjoyed the book as a whole. Anya was a likable and realistic teenager. And I’m always a sucker for a good creepy (but not to scary!) ghost story. (YA)
Amulet: The Stonekeeper / Kazu Kibuishi: This one wasn’t short on action by any means. This was a graphic novel I wanted to last longer because it was so exciting. There was a lot of mystery and suspense to keep the pages turning and combine with the graphic novel format, makes this a good book for reluctant readers. (Kidlit, MG)
Cleopatra in Space / Mike Maihack: Why, why why were these kinds of books not around when I was growing up?! I’ve never been a huge science fiction fan, but this has some aspects of Ancient Egypt in it so I would have been all over it. Even as an adult I really loved this story. Cleopatra isn’t your traditional heroine in that she is beautiful and good at everything. In fact she isn’t really into school and isn’t all that good at academics. But when it comes to guts and bravado (and the ability to aim a gun) she dominates. She’s also fairly self confident even if she feels a bit different and lonely, which could grate, but she’s not flawless so it felt more endearing and fun. She’s the kind of kid you would want to be friends with in middle and high school. A good one to recommend to fans of Zita the Spacegirl, reluctant readers, and Egypt fans. As a related side note, I wish the cover of this didn’t look so much like Zita. I feel like it makes it look more like it’s capitalizing on Zita‘s popularity (although I’m not sure which was published first, come to think of it). (Kidlit, MG)
Zita the Spacegirl / Ben Hatke: This was a graphic novel? I came away from it feeling like it read more like a regular novel. The story had complexity, adventure, awesome characters, and good world building. I’m not really sure what else to say about this one. I enjoyed it. Zita is a plucky girl with a good heart, but the story doesn’t come across as didactic. Again, I’m not really a sci-fi fan, but the story is a lot more complex than a genre. In fact I would say it’s more about doing the right thing and about friendship (although, again, it isn’t preachy). I would give this one to any kid that likes adventure, space-related or not. It’s just an all around good book. (Kidlit, MG)
Jane, the Fox, and Me / Fanny Britt: Helene and I share a love of Jane Eyre. I think she saw herself more in the pages than I ever did (I loved the hopelessly romantic and dramatic elements of it), but that was reason I picked up this one. It turned out to be a really beautiful story about the transformative power of friendship. I think a lot of girls can relate to Helene, who you might call a late bloomer. Her old set of friends has become far too cool and are awfully mean to her, (falsely) teasing her for being overweight. Helene really takes their messages to heart, as I think many girls who are teased do. She vacillates between wanting to appear cool and retreating into an escapist world found in Jane Eyre. However, the end is hopeful. On an overnight class trip she discovers a friend and ally in a girl who breaks with the popular crowd, possibly over the treatment of Helene. Stopping wallowing in her self pity does wonders for Helene’s outlook on life and Helene comes to see that being different may not be such a bad thing. She also realizes that she’s hearing some less than positive messages about weight from her mother (as well as her former friends) and that maybe she shouldn’t let their teasing get to her as much. As a school librarian, I’ve known kids like this and the story rang very true. (MG)
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 11, Jun 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
Here I am again, hopping on the bandwagon. Good thing this is a good bandwagon to be on. Between my job I have as children’s book curator for a small company and the library world I feel like I’ve recently become a lot more aware of diversity in children’s publishing (or maybe I should say lack of diversity). I’ve been trying very hard to ensure that I am getting a selection of diverse books. I was really pleased to see the #weneeddiversebooks campaign taking off over the last month or so.
So many of the responses and ruminations on the importance of diversity in literature has focused around race and “seeing yourself” in the books you read. I could not agree more, but as a white, middle class female, raising a white middle class daughter I think the importance (for us) is different.
My daughter has an enormous library of books in our home. So enormous that we have trouble finding space for all the books. So enormous my husband may have banned me from buying more books (champagne problem! I know, I know). While many of the books we have are simply appealing stories or classics, I have also tried very, very hard to use our library (and the public one) to expose my daughter to all kinds of topics. And that includes diverse cultures and people.
I got a decent, private school education. Certainly the best education available in my hometown (thanks, Mom & Dad!). But it was still incredibly lopsided and white in scope. I had inklings, through limited and small projects that we did in high school history, of what was out there in the world, but my eyes were really opened and my curiosity became insatiable in college when I began my anthropology classes. I was exposed to fascinating cultures all around the world and I was amazed. Seriously, if I could read some of the ethnographies I read in college to my daughter now I would. Sadly, she is two and these books just don’t appeal to her yet. Instead I use as many diverse children’s books as I can to build that foundation.
This really came into focus for me the other day when I was listening to PRI’s The World, one of my favorite news shows because it focuses on places outside of the US. There was a story about ethnic tensions in western China between the Han Chinese and the Uyghur people (pronounced wee-gurr). I would have only partially listened to this story had I not recently read The Vine Basket, a middle grade novel about a Uyghur girl and her family. I was excited that I knew who they were talking about and a little bit about the tensions in the region.
But it’s about more than just people half way across the globe. I also want her to know the diversity we have her in our own city. I want her to know that there are people with mental disabilities, with mental illness, who go to bed hungry and scared and cold. I want her to see how lucky she is to have a home, two parents, (eventually) a private school education, the possibility of college. Obviously I don’t want to frighten her now and I don’t want to guilt her, but as she gets older I want her to see that these situations exist. And I think a very good way and a safe way to do this is to let her read about it in books.
So, we need diverse books so we know our world. So we can learn. So we aren’t so focused on ourselves. We need diverse books so the world doesn’t seem so foreign or frightening. We need diverse books so we don’t always see ourselves in our books.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, May 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
My reading has really lessened in the last month or so, but I did squeeze in a few really wonderful titles, including several with diverse main characters. I apologize, this is a long post. You may want to read it in parts to break it up. For brevity’s sake I linked the title of each book to the GoodReads record instead of including the plot description.
The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater: Finally! A middle book in a trilogy (series?) that doesn’t read like it’s just trying to get you to the next one. Actually that’s not fair, I’ve read a number of good middle books, but they always feel so few and far between. I picked up the first book because it was getting such good reviews, but enjoyed it so much that I decided I would keep reading the series. I find a few of the characters a bit exasperating (Blue is occasionally obtuse and Adam needs to work on that chip on his shoulder), but they are all so well drawn, so human, and just on the other side of weird that I love them. Gansey especially. I mean, I know he’s a golden boy (cool, composed, rich, well-educated, etc.) but he has this obsessive side when it comes to finding Glendower that just doesn’t fit with all that and makes him incredibly interesting. Ronan is also a favorite of mine. Truth be told if I was 16 again he would be the one I had a crush on. He’s a bit dangerous and unpredictable, but he’s had tragedy that explains a lot of that. He’s also smart, incredibly loyal, and a good friend despite his gruff exterior. Dream Thieves was primarily about Ronan which if the series continues to focus on different characters (it seems the next one will feature Blue) I like that format. It really gets you into the story in different ways and allows you to see if from fresh angles. I have to say I’m still wondering where it’s all going. I suppose there are glimpses, but I’m not sure exactly how the quest will resolve and how all the pieces will fit together. I can’t decide if this means the story feels less polished or if it makes it better that you can’t figure it all out early on.
Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow by Faize Guene: This was a quick, but really worthwhile, read. Doria lives in the projects just outside Paris and she and her mother just can’t seem to catch a break. Her father has recently left them to move back to Morocco to marry a younger woman which starts a downward spiral. Not only does this essentially leave Doria and her mother destitute, it leaves them angry and broken. Doria’s mother has never worked and can only find a job as a hotel maid where the hours are long and she is constantly put down. Both Doria and her mother struggle with their new situation and seem to sink deeper and deeper into despair. Doria is failing in school where she can’t focus and where teachers don’t seem to care, so she’s sent off to a beauty school for her final year in high school, something she is less than thrilled with. But, while Doria’s a little sad and maybe even a little self pitying, she is incredibly funny. “I saw myself more with MacGyver. A guy who can unclog a toilet with a can of Coke, fix the TV with a Bic pen, and give your hair a perfect blowout with his breath. A human Swiss Army Knife.” About her dentist, “When she was a teenager, she must have had to choose between wrestler, riot cop, and dentist. It can’t have been easy to decide, but she picked the one job out of the three that combines violence with perversity. No doubt it was more fun for a psychopath like her.” I laughed out loud so many times. And I think this sums up the book pretty well. Doria ultimately finds something to be hopeful about. Things to begin to look up. There are a couple social workers who visit regularly and they get them services they need. Doria’s mother takes classes and learns to read. She gets a better job and is actually home more with Doria. She even makes friends with the woman who taught the French classes and now has someone to talk to. Doria’s only friend from the projects cleans up his act (mostly) and begins dating the young woman who Doria babysat for. She makes peace with the beauty school and decides she can use it to get a job and as a stepping stone. And she may have even found a friend (or boyfriend?) in one of the Arab boys that lives in the projects too. Life doesn’t seem so bleak.
Tsarina by J. Nelle Patrick: I picked this one up because it was set in Russia. I’m personally interested in reading fiction set in Russia right now thanks to the Grisha trilogy. Unfortunately this one didn’t quite live up to my personal standards. I did read it all and I wouldn’t say it was bad, just not super interesting to me and I didn’t fall in love with the language of it. However, I can see it really appealing to teens because it has a lot of really great elements. It’s based in exciting historical events (the Russian revolution and downfall of the Russian monarchy), but has bits of magic woven in, primarily in the form of a magical Faberge egg. There is friendship and betrayal and secrets. There is even romance that is quiet and slow-growing but still swoon-y. Plus Natalya is surprisingly plucky and determined even if she isn’t particularly savvy or brave and despite the fact that she’s set up as a spoiled rich girl. She also doesn’t give up her beliefs just for the boy she has a crush on. So maybe this one can be chalked up as great YA, not such a great crossover?
The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas: This was an awesome book! In addition to consciously selecting books with diversity I am also trying hard this year to read genres that I don’t read much in. Fantasy is one of these, although I always enjoy the fantasy that I read so I couldn’t explain why I don’t read much of it. I think one of the reasons I really loved The Burning Sky was because it put me in mind of one of my favorite steampunk series, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. I’m pretty sure it was the convincingly cross-dressed girl combined with a prince that did that. Iolanthe is a great character although we don’t learn much about her. She herself is surprised to find she doesn’t know much about herself fairly early on. She’s reluctant to be sure, but she’s also loyal, frightened, brave even is she doesn’t know it, and a survivor. Plus she essentially makes a bunch of “your mom” jokes and is accepted into the pack of boys at Eton. Prince Titus is kind of an enigma, but I think he is also unsure of who he is. His whole life he’s been living for his mother’s prophecies, waiting for one in particular to come to pass, one that will set things in motion to free his people from the rule of Atlantis. It will also set into motion events that will ultimately kill him. That’s some weighty stuff to live under. But he is nothing if not prepared and he’s quite clever in how prepared he is. He has learned all sorts of magic, created a place for this other person who will eventually join him at Eton (that would be Iolanthe, but he doesn’t know it until “the event” has passed), learned to fight and done a fair amount of studying of history so he has tactics and information to help. He isn’t really living for himself, but for his people and the revolution that may set them free. There was plenty of adventure in the book, as well as romance, suspense, and inaction. The pacing was really good, actually, but this could be because there are supposed to be two more books. It could have felt like there was too much crammed in. I will say the world building was strong in some regards and weak in others. It was unclear to me how their kingdom/land tied in with Victorian England. I wasn’t sure if Atlantis is actually mythological Atlantis or just the name borrowed. The rest of the magic and fantasy aspects I think were either self-explanatory or quickly became obvious.
On a totally useless side note, I just saw this fire dragon/phoenix thing that’s on the front cover on the cover of another book. And now I can’t remember or find what other book. I think it was an older book, but seriously I cannot remember. I have to say I hate it when publishers reuse images (pictures, graphics, etc.), but I feel like librarians may be some of the only people who notice because we see so many books. Of course none of this has anything to do with the quality of The Burning Sky.
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich: I know Louise Erdrich is one of the premiere Native American authors, but her adult books sound way too depressing. That’s actually one of my biggest complaints about adult literature is how damn depressing it is without ever feeling hopeful and that, in turn, is why I prefer YA. The Birchbark House is actually totally appropriate for middle and lower school students and it’s a really wonderful book. I picked it up because it was recommended as an alternative to the Little House on the Prarie series by Angie Manfredi in her Circulating Ideas interview. I read the Little House books ages ago as kid and don’t really remember how I felt about them. However, Angie points out that they’re pretty problematic in their depiction of the Native Americans (the TV show apparently cleaned a lot of that up). I think if you’re reading them in a historical context and are aware of it, that’s okay, but most kids pick them up and read them as some of the first chapter books they read on their own and therein lies the problem. The Birchbark House is simply a depiction of Little Frog’s life in the same time period. It’s just a beautiful, slow story about life over one year. There is joy and tragedy, hunger and abundance. There isn’t really any adventure (unless you count Little Frog’s encounters with a playful pair of bear cubs), but there is storytelling around the fire. You see how bleak their lives could be in the deep of winter, but you also see how beautiful their connection with nature can be too. Smallpox does come to their island home and what happens is incredibly sad, but Little Frog also comes to accept and deal with the loss and sorrow. While this is easy enough for kids who read the Little House books to tackle on their own, I think it would make a really wonderful read aloud too.
The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason: I was so-so on this one. I liked that it combined a vampire hunter (Bram Stoker’s much younger sister) and a detective (Sherlock’s niece) but I wasn’t especially fond of either of them. They were both a bit petty, although the ending humbled them quite a bit and I wonder if further installments would be better. I didn’t think the steampunk was well enough explained either, but that’s probably just a personal preference. Really I picked it up because the cover is awesome and I always read things with Egyptology/Egypt themes. Even if they’re terrible. All that said I can totally see why this would appeal to the real YA audience and actually I think it would have been a good fit for me in high school. The writing was certainly fine and the story exciting and dramatic.
Delilah Dirk and Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff: This is the type of book I wish had been around when I was younger. It’s got adventure and a beautiful but smart and accomplished heroine. Delilah likes to make trouble but she’s clearly got some kind of Robin Hood style plan up her sleeve. Poor Selim, he’s a good guy and is obviously tied to being neat and tidy and in a routine, but he gets sucked into the hurricane that is Delilah. And yet, he learns to go with and actually seeks her out after some time apart. 🙂 The graphic novel format makes this one go down easy. Which isn’t to say that graphic novels are lesser than novels, just that when I wasn’t as strong of a reader I needed the picture support and visual breaks instead of so many words. My one complaint was that in the beginning Delilah looked a lot more like her Greek heritage and at some point she shifted to looking a lot more white. I was really confused by this and it took some flipping back and forth to figure it out. Still, she drives (?) a flying boat and kicks a lot of ass. How can you not love this book?
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
In the world of Sorrow’s Knot, the dead do not rest easy. Every patch of shadow might be home to something hungry and nearly invisible, something deadly. The dead can only be repelled or destroyed with magically knotted cords and yarns. The women who tie these knots are called binders.
Otter is the daughter of Willow, a binder of great power. She’s a proud and privileged girl who takes it for granted that she will be a binder some day herself. But when Willow’s power begins to turn inward and tear her apart, Otter finds herself trapped with a responsibility she’s not ready for, and a power she no longer wants.
For some reason this book was really slow going for me. I can normally finish a book in two days and because I’m trying to muscle through my TBR pile I’ve really been trying to get through the books quickly. Not so with Sorrow’s Knot, but I don’t think this was a flaw of the book. Quite the contrary. What slowed me down was the writing style, lyrical, beautiful, and cleverly crafted, and the fact that the story and story building was so incredible.
I’m rather sorry this book doesn’t seem to have gotten much fanfare. I’ll admit the slow pace of it all wouldn’t appeal to everyone (it is light on heart-pounding action), but it was such an amazing story. Bow manages to create a world in North America that is both familiar and foreign. She peoples it with all sorts of interesting native people. She even creates a storytelling tradition complete with stories for the Shadowed People, Otter’s tribe. It’s all clearly well-thought out and she gives you little glimpses here and there of the world beyond the Shadowed People and slowly you piece together how things work in this North America. You discover (approximately) where they live, what their traditions are, what their relationship is to their world and to the other people who live in it. It’s familiar enough that you don’t need an info dump, you can discover bits and pieces as the story goes along.
But it isn’t completely familiar. There are the ghosts. There are small shadowed things that suck the warmth and life from you. They aren’t especially powerful and are easy to avoid as well as fend off. These are easily dispatched with the blessed cords and knots the binders* make or by the spears of the rangers too. Then there are the White Hands, which are really the crux of the story. They are tied to the problem Otter and her mother are having with the cords and knots. And they are very dangerous. If touched by one you have nine days until it overtakes your mind. The book is, at heart, a ghost story. Something I didn’t really realize until I started reading.
This is where the stories come in. Bow created stories for the Shadowed People and they are an integral part of the book. Otter must use them to understand what is going on. She uses them to find where she needs to go and what she needs to do to help her people and her friends. Some stories are only hinted at, but others are told in full and more are revealed as the book progresses. They don’t feel like stories within a story, but they essentially are. Bow is so deft at crafting them in, that they fit within the book fluidly.
Sorrow’s Knot is also a friendship story. While the focus of the story and events are around the Shadowed People and their problems with binding and with the ghosts, it really focuses on how these things affect Otter and her two friends Cricket and Kestrel and eventually Orca. The three teens have such a strong bond and when Cricket and Kestrel fall in love and pledge themselves to each other, no love triangle appears and Otter doesn’t feel any jealousy over their relationship. That was a breath of fresh air. Otter and Kestrel also have such a strong, healthy female friendship. It was really refreshing to see them, not as rivals, but as allies and support for each other.
I would like to note I’m not wild about the cover. It certainly fits the book in that it shows elements of the story, but the glowing cords feel really out of place. Like it might be sci-fi. Just a minor complaint. At least the girl on the cover looks like she could be Native American (she does fit the description of Otter) and isn’t white. I know showing a character on the cover really bothers some people. I am not one of them, so it didn’t really matter to me. I do wish the graphic part filled the cover a little more and the title was a little better integrated? I don’t know. I’m not good at identifying what it is exactly that bothers me with graphic design.
All in all a really, really wonderful book.
*I’ll clarify here that being a binder is job. Being a binder means you weave/braid cords from various fibers. You also tie knots and patterns much like a game of cat’s cradle. Only binders have real power behind these knots although everyone can tie knots and do simple cat’s cradle figures. The knots bind the dead, they can get rid of the small ghosts, and they ward off danger. Primarily a binder’s knots deal with death and the dead.
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 09, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Lewis “Shoe” Blake is used to the joys and difficulties of life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation in 1975: the joking, the Fireball games, the snow blowing through his roof. What he’s not used to is white people being nice to him — people like George Haddonfield, whose family recently moved to town with the Air Force. As the boys connect through their mutual passion for music, especially the Beatles, Lewis has to lie more and more to hide the reality of his family’s poverty from George. He also has to deal with the vicious Evan Reininger, who makes Lewis the special target of his wrath. But when everyone else is on Evan’s side, how can he be defeated? And if George finds out the truth about Lewis’s home — will he still be his friend?
This was a rare one for me – I wanted to read it again as soon as I finished it. I like a lot of the books I read, love a lot of them even, but I rarely feel like I want to read them again. Unfortunately I did not have time to do that, but I have put the title back in my TBR pile so I will get to it again.
So this one I think is touted as a Middle Grade Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Having read Diary I get the comparison, but I’m going to be totally honest, I enjoyed Diary, but wasn’t as taken with it as I was with this one. I know that’s like YA Div-Lit blasphemy, but there it is. If I Ever Get Out of Here felt like there was more of a plot to it and the fact that Lewis was a Native American was less of the issue (which I felt was the point in Diary) than the other aspects of the book. And I felt that’s a big part of what made If I Ever so good. It gives you compassion for how Native Americans live (lived? I doubt conditions on the reservations are much better these days, but I certainly hope they are), but ensconces that in a story that is so relatable for the middle school set- embarrassment over family and where you live, parents who don’t “get” you, making friends, fitting in at school, a bully at school. Middle school kids experience all of that so seeing Lewis struggle with and overcome these things humanizes the more foreign parts of his story.
If I Ever Get Out of Here was also so well written and crafted. Lewis has a passion for music (primarily 1970s pop & the Beatles) and that was woven throughout the story and even into the structure of the novel. That was something I thought could have felt incredibly forced, like Gansworth trying to prove how much he knew about Wings, but it wasn’t at all. It was just another layer to Lewis that felt organic and relatable.
One of the things I really appreciated about the story was Lewis’ uncle. I get frustrated reading about parents who don’t care or are aloof or absent. Or parents who seem to willfully misunderstand their kids or want to mold them into someone they are not. Liz Burns recently wrote a post about why kids need to see those kinds of parents in MG and YA lit and I totally agree. But it doesn’t make me like those parental characters any more! They just make me sad and frustrated knowing that there are real people out there like that and I get tired of feeling so bad for all those kids out there. Lewis has some pretty dysfunctional parents, sadly, even though his mom tries, but he has his uncle. His uncle is a little odd, sure, but he gets Lewis, offers good advice, calls Lewis out on his shenanigans, and genuinely cares for and loves Lewis. It was so heartening to find a character like that in such a bleak situation.
I know one of the hallmarks of MG literature is that it tends to a bit more hopeful than older YA (I know this is a generalization) and that is why I often find that while I appreciate MG I don’t love it. I’m a realist at heart, what can I say? However If I Ever did something very unexpected for me. The ending while hopeful didn’t have one of those neatly wrapped up, everything worked out perfectly happily ever after endings. It’s a bittersweet ending and a little unclear if Lewis will ever get out of there. The story wraps up a little more in his head where he has had his perspective on life shift and that’s where the hope comes from. Not from getting the girl, the house, the friends, the family, the education.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Apr 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I just got through reading two awesome books that I would categorize New Adult! Although I doubt they are being marketed as such. Just to quickly rehash the discussion, New Adult seems to be primarily focused on romance or romantic novels and are of dubious quality. That’s fine, except I kind of want to read New Adult (not that I don’t love my YA) because in theory it should be pretty reflective of where I am now and was just a few short years ago. Romance, although a popular and genre, just isn’t my thing, so I was rather elated to pick up two books that were right up my alley and NA.
I love books set in Western Africa. I think it hearkens back to a sub-Saharan African cultures class I took in my undergraduate years. I was completely taken with the cultures we studied, especially the music. My professor had done her doctoral (and continued) research with the Hausa so she tended to focus on West Africa so my exposure is a little limited (Africa is a big continent!), but I found what slice we got to be incredibly beautiful and fascinating. So any opportunity I get to read authors from West Africa, I take.
I can’t remember how I came across Aya of Yop City. I know it was through one of my library blogs, but I was intrigued because it was set in Cote d’Ivoire. It was also a graphic novel, a format I like when I read, but don’t tend to specifically seek out. Win-win so far. Unfortuately I was only able to get a copy of the first volume (if you go over to Goodreads, you’ll notice the cover/edition I have shown here is actually a compilation of the first three volumes).
Interestingly this one is shelved with the teen collection in our library system and the characters are on the younger end (late teens, I believe) so I can see why. But their lives and issues seem to be more in line with the New Adult crowd. Men- good ones and bad ones. Marriage. Babies. Family. Parents. Finding yourself and what you want to do. School. While it has some unique struggles for the characters that are a function of time and place (1970s West Africa), I think there are a lot of universals here as well. So even as a white suburban woman I found the characters and situations relatable and sympathetic. I could certainly see teens liking these characters, especially those teens on the cusp of adulthood. But I also see the appeal for new adults.
The Butterfly Mosque I picked up because I realized the author had been in Cairo around the time I was. It turned out we arrived at the same time, were there at the same time and lived in the same neighborhood for the time I was living there. It was little uncanny. But what really struck me was how our experiences diverged so completely. She had the experience I thought I would (mostly).
For years (we’re talking more than a decade) I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I worked hard toward that goal in college, getting archaeology experience, getting my degree in anthropology, making friends in the field. The next logical step was to spend a semester abroad in Cairo. The program was actually a year abroad, which was fine with me. I thought I would fall in love with the country and never come home. In reality, the experience was a disaster. For the purposes of this book review I don’t need to go into details (although maybe I can share another time), but I left a semester early, decided not to pursue archaeology, didn’t accept any grad school offers, and spent the next few years anchorless, wondering what the hell I wanted to do. It was traumatic to say the least.
Willow Wilson took a job teaching English, converted to Islam, met and married an Egyptian man and went on to become a writer. It was never easy for her, but she didn’t suffer the way I did. For that alone it was comforting to read her story and know that the country I so wanted to love wasn’t in fact unlovable. It was just me.
Like Aya, The Butterfly Mosque really tackles some issues that I have seen myself and my friends struggle with despite how different her circumstances were. She examines faith and religion, obviously, however there is also the issue of marriage and falling in love. She examines what she wants to do, how she views the world, and balancing old friendships with the changes in her life. There is even a bit about finding her place in her family and in the world. She has the quirky first job, a story everyone seems to have, and she goes on to start following and discovering what it is she really finds herself called to do. Not everyone wants to write about Islam for the West, but we all have spent time finding our callings.
The only thing I wish is that she had written this a little later and been able to include more about how she and her husband faired in the States, about having their daughter (whom her next book was dedicated to), and how the Arab Spring impacted them. But maybe she’s saving up for another memoir. 🙂 I certainly hope so.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Jan 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Amir is twenty years old when she marries her husband, a boy named Karluk from a neighbouring village. Adjusting to life in a new household can be trying for any young bride, and Amira’s husband is eight years her junior. Amira was a strong, sophisticated hunter and horsewoman in her village, but though their villages were next to each other, their customs are very different. As Amira introduces Karluk to the foods and pastimes that were popular among her comrades back home, the warmth she feels for her young husband grows.
This was one of the series I read over the summer and it was so fabulous. This is what graphic novels/manga should be. The story is engaging and well written, even if it’s essentially uneventful. The art is incredible. What I wouldn’t give for an ounce of that artistic talent. *Sigh*
What really struck me about these books (especially the first two) was how it fit well within the New Adult category. I’ve talked a bit (or a lot) about how I don’t really see myself as an adult, but new adult is a category I could identify with. The story is about a girl in her early twenties who is newly married. She is finding her place both as a wife to her husband and in a new family. While we may not live in such a traditional society, it’s still awkward fitting in with your in-laws! Amir’s situation is not unfamiliar or unrelatable at its core.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to high school students based on the story alone, it’s a good introduction to the culture of Central Asia. The art really captures the clothing, housing, and art of the culture. I do think there is a segment of younger girls who would really connect with Amir. However, I think Amir’s story and position is incredibly relatable to the new adult and the new bride and while I don’t know much about the author (who is apparently a famous manga author) or her usual audience, I got the impression she is writing for a younger adult set (as opposed to a young adult set, if that makes any sense).
I enjoyed this one so much that I went on to read the rest of books available in the series. They were all equally good, although some of them are quite different. I would also note that the last couple books (volumes 4 &5) focus on much younger girls/brides. The girls are really silly and quirky, which makes them very relatable and fun despite the fact that they are getting married so young.
One of the books I read this summer was the much acclaimed, Newbery Honor book Wonder which I would like to share my impressions of, but I would also like to use that as a springboard into a discussion about book awards*. I highly recommend reading this short post over on Crossreferencing by Mark about the Morris and the Excellence in NonFiction awards. Not only is it funny, it touches on a lot of my thoughts about awards.
First Wonder. From GoodReads: August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?
It was a very enjoyable book. The story was sweet and very middle grade appropriate. But it felt, to me, like the author was trying very hard to make a bullying/tolerance book not feel like a bullying/tolerance book. Auggie was a great kid, but he was too perfect for the role. His family was just a bit too perfect and up to the challenge of raising a child with great needs. (Also they must have a ton of money because keeping him home and sending him to expensive tutors and eventually prep school couldn’t have been cheap. Not to mention the medical bills. I wonder if having a family that simply struggled more financially would have made for a more authentic and interesting story?) The kids at school felt strangely like tropes- the free-spirt non-judgmental girl who didn’t take a second look at Auggie’s deformity, the kid too easily swayed by his peers, the mean kid who has equally mean, insensitive parents, etc. Maybe these complaints are typical of middle grade novels, but the more quality middle grade I read, the less I think so. Wonder was not the Newbery winner, but bullying and tolerance are hot, hot topics right now and I wonder if they weren’t so hot would Wonder have garnered the same attention it has. As I said, it’s a good book, but I’m not convinced it was a great book or even one of the greatest books of last year.
More often than not I scratch my head over the book award winners. I suppose they are trying to find books with broad appeal, but I think that can get in the way of selecting a winner. They also often feel like they are following trends or pushing an agenda (as with Wonder and bullying). Sometimes I feel like award committees have chosen pretentious books that are not all that good and wouldn’t really appeal to their target audiences, but adults seem to like them and/or feel they are necessary for kids to read. The Excellence in Nonfiction Award has nominated a book about the Kennedy assassination this year (The President Has Been Shot by James Swanson), but the Kennedy assassination doesn’t have the same significance even to people my age, let alone current middle and high schoolers. I’m sure there are kids who are interested, but they are probably a lot more interested in the World War II titles that were nominated.
On the flip side, awards can draw the attention of adults who put books in kids hands to books that are well done but about topics kids might not pick up on their own. I’m thinking specifically here about drawing the attention of teachers who might find books like The Milk of Birds, In Darkness, Never Fall Down, and The Good Braider and use them in their classes (I discussed this a bit here). Sure these books could fall into the category of adults-think-you-must-read-this, but they are so wonderfully written and do work for their target audiences I think some of that is negated.
And maybe this is where my arguments and thoughts about awards are wrong. Maybe awards are simply for the best books of that year. Maybe they aren’t intended to take into account popularity, interest, and target audience. Maybe I need to be scratching my head over why they don’t take these things into consideration and whether they are worth taking into consideration. Who are the award lists for, the target audiences of YA, MG, and children’s literature or for the adults who curate and select that literature for students, children, and patrons?
Ultimately I wonder, should I be reading through the awards lists? Do I read the nominees, the honors and winner, or just the winners? Do kids pay attention to these lists and/or actually read these books and, more importantly, enjoy them? I honestly don’t know. I would like to use them as a convenient way to beef up my list of books I could recommend and my backlist I can draw from. But if kids don’t read them and don’t like them, it isn’t worth the time. Does anyone out there have thoughts or ideas? I am very curious to know. Mark’s thoughts, that aren’t exactly glowing recommendations for the awards lists, are the first I’ve heard expressed in that vein.
*When I say “book awards” I am primarily referring to the awards given out by ALA and most specifically by YALSA and ALSC.