By Elizabeth Wroten
On 04, Dec 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This summer I picked up two books that featured refugees from the Southern Sudanese conflict. The Good Braider is a novel in verse about Viola’s escape from South Sudan to the United States. While her life should in theory be better is is wrought with the trauma of what she lived through and the difficulty of finding a place in a new culture. The Milk of Birds is a correspondence between K.C., a girl from the US, and Nawra, a Sudanese girl who is living in a refugee camp.
Both books really shed light on a conflict that, despite Angelina Jolie’s best efforts, is not well known in the United States. When I reviewed In Darkness and Never Fall Down I talked about how important I think it is that kids have an awareness of what life is like for people who live outside the Western world and the first world. The question for me, though, is how do you get kids to read these books. All four are beautifully written with incredible stories, but how do you sell a book that is so tragic? They feel like books that a special kid would pick up, an already interested and compassionate student. While it’s great for those kids to read these books, I want others to read them too.
I could certainly see reading any of these four books in an English and/or History class. That would certainly broaden the audience…assuming the students actually read their assigned novels. In fact reading the books across disciplines and discussing both the writing, the novel format, the story, and then the history would be very powerful. But…but. How many teachers will use current YA literature in their classes? It’s not a classic so why read it in school? I don’t have an answer to this conundrum (if you do please share!). I’m simply thinking out loud here. I just really wish these beautiful, terrible novels had a bigger audience.
As a side note, while I enjoyed both The Good Braider and The Milk of Birds immensely, I thought The Milk of Birds fell a bit flat with K.C. I haven’t read a lot of books with two narrators, especially narrators that are so different, so maybe this how two-narrator books work. K.C. was a bit flighty and sounded so modern. This was compounded by the more formal tone of Nawra’s letters that alternated chapters. At one point I thought it might have worked better to not include K.C., but after finishing the book I think it wouldn’t have been as powerful. I think the fact that she has her own issues is really important. Although she has champagne problems, they are still relatable and they are still issues. Nawra, despite her incredibly difficult situation, never once belittles K.C.’s problems. She understands that they are just as real to K.C. as her own are to her. K.C.’s voice was also incredibly authentic. She sounded exactly the way I would have sounded if I were writing letters at that age. I think as an adult reading this book I was just left wanting a more mature narrator to complement Nawra. Especially since Nawra was so wise and mature beyond her years. In the end the book was so well written it didn’t matter that K.C. wasn’t the narrator I wanted.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Oct 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Marcelo Sandoval hears music no one else can hear–part of the autism-like impairment no doctor has been able to identify–and he’s always attended a special school where his differences have been protected. But the summer after his junior year, his father demands that Marcelo work in his law firm’s mailroom in order to experience “the real world.” There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm.
He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it’s a picture he finds in a file — a picture of a girl with half a face — that truly connects him with the real world: its suffering, its injustice, and what he can do to fight.
Personally: I really enjoyed this book which I was relieved about because it sat on my TBR pile for years. I had also recommended it to several people, and while I know I can recommend stuff I haven’t read, I don’t really like to. I think what appealed to me most in this book is something that’s been bothering me a lot lately in the YA I’ve been reading, and that’s crappy parents. I am so, so tired of books where the parents suck. I know that characterization frequently drives the character and it can be the reason a character has the issues and baggage they do, but I’m so tired of it. Marcelo’s parents on the other hand, are awesome and very real. His dad in particular is shown to be complex. He makes some poor decisions and can be total prick, but he’s also vulnerable and caring. I know bad parents exist, but I don’t think they are one-dimensionally bad. No one is and I love that Stork showed that people are not black and white, but gray.
I also appreciated that this turns the tables on the experienced boy-doe eyed girl schtick. Marcelo is the inexperienced and immature one. Whereas Jasmine is a bit more worldly (although not sexually experienced, that we know of). She recognizes their budding romance much sooner than Marcelo. It was refreshing to see the girl take the lead in the romance.
Target Audience: Honestly, I could see a wide range of young adults enjoying this. It’s long and well written, so it’s not for the hi-low audience necessarily, but if you like realistic fiction with a bit of romance, it’s great. Marcelo also has a sense of justice and fairness that makes him really likable and he’s kind of unintentionally funny. The sense of justice turns into a major plot point so kids who are unfailingly nice and always do the right thing will find something to connect with in the plot. Marcelo does have some form or autism and you really get into his head in this book, but it never felt like the author trying to beat you over the head with sensitivity even though you do come away feeling sympathetic.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Sep 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Twelve-year-old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Her features are African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent,” with latent magical power. Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too?
I have to admit I am a sucker for books written by Nigerian authors and/or set in Nigeria and that is the reason I picked up Akata Witch. I suppose if I had to booktalk this in a few seconds I would call it a Harry Potter read alike. But I feel kind of like I’m copping out comparing this book to Harry Potter.
It definitely shares a number of similarities. The four kids are wizards and witches. Sunny, the main character, was unaware of her abilities/ties to the magical community. There is a lot of learning about the power within yourself and your own inner strengths. There is also some good friendship material. It even kind of dragged in the same way I felt the first Harry Potter book did toward the beginning. But for some reason I just preferred these kids and this magical community to the Harry Potter one. Probably because I’m a sucker for Nigerian books.
All that aside this was a fun read. The story was pretty compelling and exciting. I loved that it felt very grounded in Nigerian culture and especially its traditional magic. I cannot speak to how closely it mirrors Nigerian magic, but it certainly feels authentic. Really this is what made Akata Witch stand out to me more than any other wizarding book (I’m looking at you again, Harry Potter). The depth of the culture really made the story more vibrant. And there was the added conflict of Sunny and Sasha feeling torn between being American and Nigerian. That just made the book feel more mature to me than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Sunny is a likable girl and she’s a pretty quick study so I never felt like shouting at her to stop being so naive or dense (I had that experience with a number of other books I read this summer). The other kids are fun too and possess enough sass and cheek to make them interesting, believable, but not exasperating.
All in all a fun book.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Jun 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
A tour-de-force by rising indy comics star Gene Yang, American Born Chinese tells the story of three apparently unrelated characters: Jin Wang, who moves to a new neighborhood with his family only to discover that he’s the only Chinese-American student at his new school; the powerful Monkey King, subject of one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables; and Chin-Kee, a personification of the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, who is ruining his cousin Danny’s life with his yearly visits. Their lives and stories come together with an unexpected twist in this action-packed modern fable. American Born Chinese is an amazing ride, all the way up to the astonishing climax.
First Impressions: All right, this one has been sitting on my TBR pile for years now and based on what the person who recommended it said and the blurb here, I was expecting a bit more of a plot twist/reveal at the end. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed to predict the ending to some extent, but my expectations set me up to be really wowed and I wasn’t especially.
That Being Said: Sometimes I think graphic novels can be a bit light on story and character development and you can breeze through them. American Born Chinese was neither, and although it was a quick read, it was still thought provoking.
On the surface the novel deals with the struggles of Jin Wang, Danny, and the Monkey King. All of them are in denial about who they are. They all also share the burden of straddling two cultures and feeling the need or desire to choose one over the other. But I think it goes beyond the conflict of Chinese and American, monkey and god. It’s a story about finding who you are and embracing that person, something that is a universal struggle for, well, everyone. You don’t need to be grappling with feeling like an outsider because of your culture or race or citizenship to appreciate the characters. To me, the power of the story was in its message that it’s okay to be different and uncomfortable with that and that it’s okay to come to terms with your differences, be they cultural or otherwise.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, May 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Growing up, Gaby Rodriguez was often told she would end up a teen mom. After all, her mother and her older sisters had gotten pregnant as teenagers; from an outsider’s perspective, it was practically a family tradition. Gaby had ambitions that didn’t include teen motherhood. But she wondered: how would she be treated if she “lived down” to others’ expectations? Would everyone ignore the years she put into being a good student and see her as just another pregnant teen statistic with no future? These questions sparked Gaby’s school project: faking her own pregnancy as a high school senior to see how her family, friends, and community would react. What she learned changed her life forever, and made international headlines in the process.
In The Pregnancy Project, Gaby details how she was able to fake her own pregnancy—hiding the truth from even her siblings and boyfriend’s parents—and reveals all that she learned from the experience. But more than that, Gaby’s story is about fighting stereotypes, and how one girl found the strength to come out from the shadow of low expectations to forge a bright future for herself.
This book would make a nice companion to Girlchild in some ways. It read a bit like the real story behind that book, minus actually living in a trailer and the sexual abuse.
I thought The Pregnancy Project had a really wonderful message about being your own person and defying stereotypes. As a librarian, I can see championing this message with patrons or students. Like Gaby says, sometimes all it takes is one person to be there for you, cheering you on. I agree with Gaby that you don’t need to be beholden to what other people think or what the statistics tell you and this is a great story for that message.
However, the book also felt very young. Or rather, Gaby sounds very young and inexperienced. She can be endearingly preachy in the way that only adolescent girls can be. I don’t think this is a bad thing, I was certainly that way in high school, as were a lot of my friends and I love her optimism. Part of my issue is just me as a reader coming to it from the other side of my twenties. I’m not exactly the targeted audience for this book.
While I found myself agreeing with her on a lot of points, such as how problematic shows like 16 and Pregnant are, I also think there is a lot more nuance to the topics she tackles. Nuance that you come to see with time, age and experience. Teen pregnancy isn’t always about simply taking a breath and not “going all the way”. There are a lot more emotions and baggage and history that can get tangled up in sex that someone in their teens (and far beyond) may not be able to disentangle. I was really glad she pointed out that abstinence is not always a realistic method of birth control.
Her brief discussions of abortion were another place I think she addressed things as too black and white. I also didn’t feel the topic was especially germane. While she may be pro-life, not everyone is. Abortion a touchy subject and I think it is also a very personal choice. Even if it wasn’t a choice she would have made, many girls do make it to avoid the gossip, lowered expectations, limitations and general disappointment she faced. I think by putting it down she detracted from her own message of being non-judgmental.
As a side note, I think this was a fabulous, if over-the-top senior project. The school where I was working does a similar project although the time allotted to it is much much shorter. Every year I found myself wishing students would choose something more than cake baking and decorating. I don’t think everyone needs to go to quite the extreme of faking a pregnancy, but I do think making a difference and really learning something would be a great goal.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book. Gaby’s perspective is something I would be very interested to hear in another 10 to 15 years and once she’s become a mother herself.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, May 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She’s not comforted by the news that she’ll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run?
As she struggles to cope with crutches and a first cyborg-like prosthetic, Jessica feels oddly both in the spotlight and invisible. People who don’t know what to say, act like she’s not there. Which she could handle better if she weren’t now keenly aware that she’d done the same thing herself to a girl with CP named Rosa. A girl who is going to tutor her through all the math she’s missed. A girl who sees right into the heart of her.
With the support of family, friends, a coach, and her track teammates, Jessica may actually be able to run again. But that’s not enough for her now. She doesn’t just want to cross finish lines herself—she wants to take Rosa with her.
This one was a light read despite the technically depressing subject. It was enjoyable, but it was a bit too upbeat for my tastes. Maybe it was realistic, but I felt like there would have been a bit more of a struggle on Jessica’s part coming to terms with the loss of her leg. Of course, that could just be the cynic in me. That being said, I think it did an admirable job dealing with a difficult subject. I also think it could be really heartening for the right reader while also having a broader appeal. As far as the writing, it took me a little while to get into it. But the short chapters and terse sentences really won me over.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
In darkness I count my blessings like Manman taught me. One: I am alive. Two: there is no two. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake a boy is trapped beneath the rubble of a ruined hospital: thirsty, terrified and alone. ‘Shorty’ is a child of the slums, a teenage boy who has seen enough violence to last a lifetime, and who has been inexorably drawn into the world of the gangsters who rule Site Soleil: men who dole out money with one hand and death with the other. But Shorty has a secret: a flame of revenge that blazes inside him and a burning wish to find the twin sister he lost five years ago. And he is marked. Marked in a way that links him with Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian rebel who two-hundred years ago led the slave revolt and faced down Napoleon to force the French out of Haiti. As he grows weaker, Shorty relives the journey that took him to the hospital, a bullet wound in his arm. In his visions and memories he hopes to find the strength to survive, and perhaps then Toussaint can find a way to be free …
I loved this book so much I’m not even really sure I can write a review that would do it enough justice. It didn’t help that I was caught totally off guard. I mean the last Nick Lake book I read was about ninja vampires. It was awesome, but it was still ninja vampires. In Darkness was so dark, brooding, sickening, saddening, and hopeful. Shorty is not a hero, he admits to doing some really awful, unforgivable things. He may have done them for the right reasons, but even he confesses that he should never have gone down that path. But all that doesn’t make him any less sympathetic or make you want him to live any less either.
This was an interesting book, for me, to read after finishing a chapter in another book about how exposure to a variety of people, cultures, and ways of living can essentially combat prejudice. I think there is a real lack of exposure in the U.S. to a mix of cultures (ancient and modern), histories, and viewpoints and this makes people blind to much of the world.
When I was in college I came to know a much broader world through my anthropology classes. I was fed a steady diet of history books and ethnographies. It was incredibly eye opening and also maddening that my friends’ worlds were not opening up in the same way. In my junior year I spent six months studying in Cairo, Egypt which was a far cry from the England and France study abroad programs my peers were doing. Those six months were pivotal for me in that I suddenly realized how lucky I was to live in the U.S.; how lucky I was to have running water and a toilet; how lucky I was to live in a real neighborhood; how lucky I was to live in a country with social services; how lucky I was to live in a country that didn’t station its military on nearly every street corner (this was pre-Arab Spring); how lucky I was to live in a country and in a society where women were, comparatively, treated equally.
I think short of having such an eye-opening experience like that young adults can read widely and read a variety. I know not everyone will and I certainly wouldn’t expect it, but I do encourage it. In Darkness gives such a vivid and heart-wrenching picture of living in absolute, abject poverty. Site Soley is hell on Earth and I can’t imagine how the people trapped there manage to get up every morning and face life. The book was also incredibly informative about the history of Haiti and how it came to be the poverty-sticken, corrupt place it is. I was unaware of Toussaint L’Ouverture but found his story to be incredibly inspiring and fascinating.
But despite being didactic In Darkness never felt like preaching. It was an exciting story laced with tension, war, voodoo, and some very interesting characters. I could really see it appealing to boys, which is another plus.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Feb 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.
But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.
Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship–one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self–even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.
In a recent interview I read on NPR with John Irving he made a comment that kept coming back to me as I read The Miseducation of Cameron Post. He noted, “…how thoroughly intimidating and confusing and conflicted the world of adult sexuality seemed when you were on the doorstep of it but still standing outside.” I suppose this is a place we’ve all found ourselves, but it was especially true of Cameron who finds herself there on the eve of her parents death. Add to that the confusion of the realization that she prefers girls, something that has never been explicitly condemned in her world, but she is sure would be.
While I wasn’t sure I loved the book, despite it’s buzz, I did find it incredibly compelling and relatable. The story is all about figuring out sexuality, love and relationships and the confusion that comes with the inexperience of the teenage years. Cameron may have the added confusion of being a lesbian in a place where homosexuality is discouraged, but I think ultimately her struggles aren’t really unique to lesbians. Like any teenager she’s trying to figure out that “world of adult sexuality”.
Despite Cam’s relative inexperience, this book isn’t for the prudish. Kissing and sex abound, as does pot smoking and language. But the struggles are so relatable and so universal that none of it seems to be gratuitous or there just for the sake of scandal. The book also seemed to move lazily through the years considering how predictably the plot unfolded. But I think that was kind of the point, or at least the explanation I was going with, because it certainly reinforced Cam’s naiveté. The rest of the characters in the book always felt authentic and never came across as two dimensional. Even though this really isn’t a book for the religious set, I thought it was very fair-handed in how it dealt with evangelicals and their teachings. I also think the well-rounded characters helped keep the plot feeling less like a vehicle for a Message than a real story.
While Cam’s situation, as an orphan and lesbian in a small conservative town, may be familiar to some, it isn’t these particulars that give the story its power. Nor was it the sex scenes that will titillate some. Had I read this book as a teenager I know I would have found it incredibly provocative. Not because I was struggling with my sexuality, but becuase, like most teens, I found sexualtiy and relationships, as John Irving said, incredibly confusing and even a bit frightening. And at heart, Miseducation is all about figuring those things out for yourself and overcoming the fear.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, Dec 2012 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Update 11/14/2016: This book is a whole lot of no. I did enjoy it, but now I see it’s problems. If you want to know more, and you should, please read Debbie Reese’s comments on it here. It is problematic for the way it portrays natives. I’m embarrassed that I liked this so much and now looking back on it it isn’t at all enjoyable. Please don’t recommend this one.
Fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings. Then she meets the alluring teenage Peter Pan in the forbidden woods of Neverland and immediately falls under his spell.
Peter is unlike anyone she’s ever known. Impetuous and brave, he both scares and enthralls her. As the leader of the Lost Boys, the most fearsome of Neverland’s inhabitants, Peter is an unthinkable match for Tiger Lily. Soon, she is risking everything—her family, her future—to be with him. When she is faced with marriage to a terrible man in her own tribe, she must choose between the life she’s always known and running away to an uncertain future with Peter.
With enemies threatening to tear them apart, the lovers seem doomed. But it’s the arrival of Wendy Darling, an English girl who’s everything Tiger Lily is not, that leads Tiger Lily to discover that the most dangerous enemies can live inside even the most loyal and loving heart.
Normally I read quite a bit of fiction to keep up on current publications and I enjoy the large majority of what I read. It isn’t what I would choose to curl up with on vacation, but I still find things to like in most of the books. I can also see how they would appeal to certain kids. However, every once in awhile I come across a book that really resonates with me. Sometimes I can just feel my high school (or middle school) self connecting with the book. Those books are like a little shot of sweet nostalgia. Sarah Dessen does that for me, as do the Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan. Sometimes I just really enjoy the story. Ship Breaker was that way. And then, occasionally, there is a book I just fall in love with. It’s frequently for a reason I can’t predict and they tend to be a disparate set of books. I always feel a little funny saying that about a novel intended for someone a good 10-15 years younger than I am, but it’s the truth.
Tiger Lily was one of these books. I am already predisposed to like new takes on familiar stories, although Tiger Lily was really more the story behind and before the tale we know of Peter Pan. But it took a story that I have always found a little ridiculous and made it so real, so realistic, and so relatable.
I think at heart Tiger Lily is someone every girl imagines herself as at some point. Awkward, not beautiful, different, independent and unhappy about that. I think every girl finds herself falling in love with someone they know they shouldn’t and yet decides to take the risk.
There are a few aspects that make it more of a fantasy or magical realism, but don’t dismiss it out of hand for that. If you suspend a tiny bit of belief, it has the very real fear of being different; the intense flush of love; the terror and exhilaration of losing oneself in a relationship; the fear of growing up and the knowledge that comes with that; the pain of loss; the shame and anger of betrayal; the hopelessness of feeling trapped by a destiny. Even all the fantastic characters- fairies, mermaids, even the pirates and lost boys to some extent- are vehicles for these emotions and feelings. The adults as well as the younger characters show a range of age-appropriate emotions and I think this is why it was appealing even to me on a personal level.
Tiger Lily was one of those books that I emerged from and wondered how life continued on so calmly and methodically around me.