By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
A disparate selection of titles I read this summer. Again, for the sake of brevity I have linked to their GoodReads page where you can read the synopsis.
Zebra Crossing / Meg Vandermerwe: I picked this one up because it had three diversity points- Zimbabwean emigrants, South African setting, and an albino. The story didn’t sound exactly upbeat, but it sounded interesting and appealing. Turns out it was downright depressing. I really liked the main character, Chipo. She had not had an easy life, but she was a friendly girl with capable of making friends and feeling deeply. She could have stood to be more assertive, but I think she always intended to be, but wasn’t given the chance. I liked the book, but it would take a special reader to really click with this one because it is so sad. (YA)
School for Good and Evil / Soman Chainani: This was a rare DNF (did not finish) for me. The premise of the book was actually very clever and I can see a lot of fairytale elements which is what attracted me to it in the first place. I just had a really hard time connecting with the characters. More often than not I found myself frustrated by Agatha’s willful blindness to the fact that Sophie is a terrible friend and Sophie’s blindness to what a good friend Agatha could be. The message that looks can be deceiving also felt heavy handed to me. Plus I got at least 100 pages in and not much had happened to really further the plot enough for my tastes. However! I think had I made it to the end, things would have worked themselves out. This felt a lot like a case of me clearly not being the target audience. I would not hesitate to recommend this book to kids who like friendship stories and fairytales. Especially fractured fairy tales. There are even a few Harry Potter elements mixed in here. (MG & younger YA)
Claire of the Sea Light / Edwidge Danticat: This is technically an adult novel and I didn’t pick it up because it was touted as a crossover, but any teen who likes literary novels and diversity could easily slip into this novel. It was not especially long either, which is often a plus with teen readers who are pressed for time. I cannot say how much I loved this novel. Danticat’s writing style is so lyrical and lovely, but not dense at all. The stories in this book, that follow a variety of people from the town Ville Rose around, felt like peeking into secret parts of people’s lives. Like when you see people driving and wonder where they are going and who they are. It was a sad novel, but not without hope. It also embraced the idea that things in life can come full circle. (YA)
The Martian / Andy Weir: This book was incredible. It was so good I made my husband read it. It was so good he, who reads a book every couple of years, finished it in two days. It was that good. It was definitely a plot driven novel, but there was enough character development to make it interesting for the people in the book. While it’s a survival story, Mark Watney is a funny guy. His quips and general attitude toward his situation make for good reading. And he is so clever in solving problems that seem insurmountable, like surviving on Mars. Interestingly, everything he talks about is technically possible and all of the equipment and technology is currently available even if it can’t quite be used to get to Mars just yet, so there is a realistic bent to a story that seems impossible. Another adult novel that I wouldn’t hesitate to give to a YA audience. I would even give it to a middle schooler who is nuts about space travel, just be aware that there is a mention of sex (although no actual sex) and several swear words. (YA)
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 25, Jun 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
I really didn’t want to comment at all on the article that recently ran in Slate about how it’s shameful for adults to read YA. I haven’t even followed any of the kerfuffle online about it really. Read what you like and don’t worry about what other people think. But the more I thought about it, the more I decided that there is an underlying issue here that needs to be addressed. I’m sure someone else has probably already said this and said it better, so I’m sorry for the repetition.
The problem I see with this article is that it puts teens down by putting down their literature. She essentially says, that garbage is good enough for teens but not real people (adults). I don’t just think it’s the author of the Slate article that holds this sentiment and it isn’t just about the books they read. You see the sentiment of hating teens all over the place. It’s in the dirty looks people give them in restaurants or in movie theaters or even the library. It’s in all the articles that decry the downfall of civilization because all teens do is text and look at Facebook. You see it in articles that say the books written for them are not high enough quality for a grown-up to deign to read. You see it in all the dehumanizing and humiliating rules we place on them at school and, often, at home.
Teens get a lot of flack for just being teens. They can be silly, obnoxious, careless, unkind, and unthinking. But they can be the opposite of all those things too and adults can also be silly, obnoxious, careless, unkind, and unthinking, so let’s not point fingers just at teens. It’s tough being a teen- I remember and I bet you do too. With all the weird and dramatic things you have to deal with as teen, things going on in your brain and body, why add a hostile world of adults to that list? I think teens need supportive adults that believe in their humanity and genuinely want to help them become successful adults. They need safe homes and schools where they can try out their new found maturity and ideas and they need a safe place to fail. A place where they’re failure isn’t going to end with derision or eye rolling from adults.
I worked with teens and you know what? I liked them. A lot. They have a lot of value as people. They’re funny and spontaneous, smart and thoughtful. So, I’m really tired of this kind of rhetoric that says, well it’s okay for teens to read this awful literature (or like these awful shows) but not adults, because it implies that teens are lesser people. And they aren’t.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Jun 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This month I decided to plug away at my list of fairy tales. I’m really glad I did, because after one or two titles that I wasn’t so fond of I hit a streak of really wonderful books. I really slowed down this month in my reading so I’m still working my way through the fairy tale TBR pile, so I may come back and add a couple titles. In an effort to keep this post shorter I have linked the titles to their GoodReads records where you can read the plot synopses.
I have three more that I’m going to read, but Andy Weir’s The Martian came in at the library for me and there’s a long list of people waiting for it so I’m shelving the last three fairy tales in order to plow through it. Not that it’s a chore, I can hardly put it down. I’ll write up the other three once I finish them.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee
This was a book I wasn’t really fond of. It was a little to precious for me. The characters, especially Ophelia, were just a little too twee and sad. The message of overcoming grief and self doubt was also a little to loud for my tastes. But I know there are kids who like these kinds of books and it got tons of starred reviews. Just another case of every reader their book and every book its reader.
It was a loose retelling of the Snow Queen tale and for that it was interesting. I was also really captivated by the museum where the majority of the book was set. It was full of amazing rooms and displays of all sorts of objects from spoons to doll houses to dinosaurs. I wished the book had been more about the museum.
The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee
I picked another book by Foxlee completely by coincidence. After slogging through Ophelia I decided I would use the 50-page rule on this one and see if it was the other book or her writing that I didn’t personally enjoy.
The Midnight Dress was incredible. The writing was so beautiful and descriptive. The structure of the story goes between four times or interconnected stories, which could have been confusing, but was handled perfectly. It had the air of a fairy tale, but under the hint of magic it was just a murder mystery.
I was especially taken with the relationships, especially the one between Edie and Rose. Rose is surly and sullen, but Edie takes it in stride and takes Rose under her wing while teaching her to sew. Rose absorbs a lot from Edie without realizing it and the stories Edie tells force Rose to live a little less in her self pity. I was unimpressed with Pearl as a person and friend, but think the friendship between her and Rose is incredibly authentic.
Rose also becomes very enamored with the surrounding environment. She hikes around the beach and up the mountain. I really loved this picture of her being outdoorsy and a bit whimsical, especially since she is normally so closed off and cynical. Again, the writing plays into the beauty of the story here. Foxlee’s descriptions of the Australian forest and coast are so descriptive and evocative. You can’t help but picture the setting and feel as if you are there with Rose, enjoying it.
I want to complain just for a moment about the dress on the cover of the book. It looks like a towel wrapped around that girl, nothing like the dress Rose creates in the story. The color is wrong too, too blue. I wish they had used the dress that’s (also inexplicably) on the cover of Hourglass.
The Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman
I need to start this one by talking about the cover (what is it with good books and terrible covers?). I’m sorry, but that girl on the cover looks waaaay too rockabilly. All that red lipstick and red nail polish. It doesn’t fit the story at all and it actually ruined the picture of Fiona in my head. And why is she all sexy with her fingers in her mouth? Also completely off and inappropriate for the story. I’m a little baffled by the title. There is a glass casket, but it only makes a very brief appearance and, unless I missed a major plot point, didn’t play a role in any of the events.
Cover aside, this was another fantastic book. Again, this one was beautifully written. The story was incredibly compelling and while it was super creepy, it wasn’t so scary that I couldn’t read it before bed (I’m a huge chicken when it comes to horror). This one felt a lot more like fantasy and fairy tale than magical realism and it is definitely dark. There is a pretty big twist toward the end, but it didn’t feel like a twist you might predict (although I’m sure it’s possible to predict it). The blurb is a little misleading or maybe confusing because the soldiers have very little to do with the story once they’re found. I don’t know if the blurb is trying to be misleading or if it was just intentionally vague about details. Either way, there’s a lot to this story that isn’t found there including a new family in town that Rowan (the MC) is forbidden to speak to by her father, some mystery surrounding the death of Rowan’s mother, a friendship that will be tested, even a little romance.
The Princess in the Opal Mask by Jenny Lundquist
I can’t say too much about the specifics of this story because there are several twists, a couple of which I found predictable, probably largely because I’ve read enough to know some of the story tropes. The writing wasn’t anything overly fabulous, the characters were deep enough, but not super complex. But the story was really exciting and enjoyable. As I’ve said many times before, I was not a strong reader or fast reader as a teen, but I wanted to be. This would have been one of those books I would have and could have devoured.
I was invested enough by the first 50 or so pages to actually get frustrated with one of the characters. Elara, one of the main characters and narrators has a male friend she’s known forever. He apparently has some feelings for her. But Elara has endured so much emotional (and physical) abuse at the hands of her adoptive “family” that she has tucked any feeling parts of herself away. Cordon, her friend, kind of upbraids her for not returning his feelings and dismisses her when she shows a tiny spark of her inner turmoil over the feelings she does have for him.
I really appreciated that Elara was a plucky character. She certainly keeps her wits about her and despite all she’s been through she isn’t completely broken. While many of her decisions are selfish, she isn’t incapable of making decisions that take others into account. I also liked that Wilha begins as such a pushover, but comes to find some inner strength. I also like that she still maintains some of her docile characteristics as I think it would be a long journey to totally overcoming a lifetime of passivity. I will definitely be reading the second book.
A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce
This one took a little over one hundred pages to really get going and suck me, but once it did I really liked it. In a lot of ways the writing reminded me of a Victorian novel. The slowness and mundane-ness of parts of the story, the way time crept along, certainly the setting. However the dialogue and syntax was modern which made it much easier to read.
I have to admit, I never found the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin especially disconcerting. I certainly didn’t like that the miller’s daughter married the king who was clearly greedy and forced her to spin gold, but I always kind of thought that was an ends to a means in the story to get her the baby Rumplestiltskin would demand. Plus she’d probably be a fool not to marry a king and the story makes no mention of love, just marriage.
Still, A Curse Dark as Gold is a brilliant retelling that gives the miller’s daughter a name and a lot of agency. As an adult I found her rather exasperating at times, but those moments were few and far between.
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
I didn’t finish this one. It read like manual for how to be a crappy parent and teacher (not really). I know there are kids with crappy parents and teachers, I’ve been one of those kids (hated by a teacher) and I know these kids need books that reflect them. But it just absolutely breaks my heart to read about them and I couldn’t do it. BUT, what I read was also incredible. Ursu is an talented writer. She really evokes the setting with such descriptive and creative turns of phrase. The characters are totally believable. Obviously, since I couldn’t get past how awful the adults were (and some of the kids). Even the plot was really fascinating and moved along at a good clip without sacrificing characters or setting or mood. Don’t let my hang ups hold you back from reading or recommending this one.
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 21, May 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
Malinda Lo recently wrote an interesting piece about white people writing about other cultures. I thought she had some really interesting things to say about it and highly recommend you read it. She also made a really great point that I just wanted to agree with, but I also thought underscored how people (not her specifically, but Americans) feel about fiction.
“Writing outside your culture is a complicated endeavor that requires extensive research, being aware of your own biases and limitations, and a commitment to delving deeply into the story. However, writing any fiction requires this. There are no shortcuts to writing fiction truthfully and well. There really aren’t. The writer must put in the time so that they become confident in their decisions, and there are a million and one decisions to make when writing a novel.”
I think it says a lot about how we undervalue what fiction can teach us when an author needs to point out that good fiction should be and is well researched. I think it really tells you how we value things like dry, heavy textbooks over well written and well crafted novels that may cover the same subjects. Sure, there is terrible, horrible, badly written fiction out there. But there are terrible, horrible, badly written textbooks and non-fiction out there. Fiction can be used to teach and you can use it to learn and go outside yourself and your culture and because of this it does need to be well written and well researched and well thought out. I guess my chip on my shoulder is that not everyone agrees that fiction can be a learning and teaching tool.
Malinda Lo notes in the same blog post that she gets thrown out of a story when there are cultural inaccuracies. I feel the same way about cultural and historical inaccuracies. I may have even complained about that in some of my book reviews. Other people writing about other cultures doesn’t bother me the way it seems to bother Malinda Lo, but I think in talking about her preferences she makes some excellent points.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 14, May 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten
The recent flurry over We Need Diverse Books campaign brought a little something to mind for me. It really came up with makerspaces, but early on in reading about the lack of diverse books I heard whispers of it. I don’t really remember where I heard the complaints and I’m not sure they would even warrant being called complaints, but it was a bit of a grumbling.
It seems that library issues come up every five to ten years. So these complaints have been that we’ve had the conversation about the lack of diverse books before. Or that we’ve been excited about makerspaces before. With the diverse books I think it was more about frustration that we still need to have this conversation. But with makerspaces it took on a more negative tone that sounded more like, why are we still discussing these and libraries invented them ages ago so let’s not talk about it anymore.
This desire to stop debating and endlessly discussing the same topics over and over seemed to be really prevalent in talking about the future of libraries and in talking about librarian stereotypes. And I understand why seeing the same issues come up again and again is irritating. On the other hand, I’m rather glad these issues come up again. If they didn’t I wouldn’t know about them. I think I missed the “real issues in librarianship” class in library school.
I don’t need to add my two cents to every issue (although I’m pretty sure I will), but I think knowing about them and understanding them is important for understanding librarianship as a profession. Knowing the issues in libraries has made me feel like I have a better handle on what I believe in and want for libraries. In reflecting on both my work in libraries and some of these issues, I feel like I have found priorities and gotten a better handle on how I feel about my profession too.
So I’m glad these things keep popping up. I’m glad we keep debating and discussing and rehashing them. And I’ll try to keep that in mind when in five years I see a new spate of blog posts bemoaning the librarian stereotype.
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.