August 24, 2016


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

I taught junior high/high school in a group home, just out of college. I was a coteacher who worked in a classroom with another teacher and an aide, mostly 1:1, since my students were at wildly varying educational levels, due to housing instability and truancy. Finding books which were at the appropriate reading levels yet which held my kids' interest was a constant challenge. I read a lot of simplistic, misguided books which celebrated the dubious charms of ghetto life, and a lot of middle grade books which depicted worlds too sanitized and young to engage my older boys. I had some success with traditional books, of course, but these kids were a constant challenge. I really could have used a series like the Blacktop.

(And no, nobody is paying me to say this.)

Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Justin is a lot of things, but desperate to be seen as a baller is the least helpful of them. He just wants to be somebody in his Oakland neighborhood, somebody who's worth a nickname, who stands, hipshot, and spits, his sleeves rolled up to show his tats. Justin wants to be one of the ones who is cool enough to just jerk his chin up at girls and make them cross the blacktop to talk to him. Unfortunately, Justin's an uncoordinated stringbean, and his bball skills come and go intermittently like a dying light bulb. The one time he threw something well, it backfired badly in ways which leave him questioning his life's goals. Justin regrets everything -- except his desire to play. Somehow he's taking on the crew from Ghosttown - and the uncoordinated non-baller has to create a basketball team.

It's not enough that his Mom and stepdad just strained their slender resources to buy him a pair of the nicest kicks he's ever had. Now his Dad, who taught him to play basketball when he was five, keeps showing up in a cloud of eye-stinging stink and alcohol fumes, trying to dispense some manly Black wisdom. Nobody needs that noise, and Justin's trying to make something different of himself, if people would just give him a chance to show his stuff. What's it take to let a man catch a break?

Observations: Though this is written at a fourth grade level, readers never once get the feeling that this is the case. Unlike so many other books purportedly Hi/Lo, this first of the Blacktop books doesn't talk down to the reader. Though he cleans up his language at home, on the street, Justin throws down occasional profanity. Additionally, he and his friend, Frank, are occasionally stupid, do pointless things, and think a lot about girls. Both boys have so little game that they're amusing, but as the reader smirks, they'll have bolted through the very short narrative, and be ready for the next one, which was released concurrently.

The story isn't over when the book ends. Though there's not a sense of "cliffhanger" this is clearly a kickoff point for a series, so readers will be grateful to read the next book, which is from Janae's point of view, and the book following, which is told through the eyes of Justin's best friend, Frank. People looking for a "lesson" in these books, and for a strong moral to be preached to readers need to look elsewhere. This is simply a slice-of-life look at a kid with basically good intentions who had a silly hustle going one hot Oakland summer.

Conclusion: A realistic, conflicted voice from a boy who is a normal mix of good and ridiculous, this is a story which would have been appreciated by my students. Those who struggle with comprehension are provided a clear, important-feeling narrative arc to follow, as well as a sense of accomplishment about finishing a whole book in a short amount of time. These would be a positive addition to a school library.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publishers, Grosset & Dunlap. You can find BLACKTOP: JUSTIN by LJ Alonge at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

August 23, 2016


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

According to the PEW Research peeps, about 70% of people consider themselves religious in some fashion, whether through traditional Jewish, Muslim or Christian denominations or other neopagan practices like Wicca. For some reason, this is not readily reflected in YA lit, which poses the question, where are all the Baha'i and Baptists, the Confucianists and Catholics, the Jainists and the Jews? Where are the YA Mennonites and Muslims, the Adventists and the Anabaptists? As we see greater numbers of writers writing from their own experiences, in their own voices, it would only make sense that a diversity of faith experiences will appear as well - not in some special, segregated category, but as a normal part of the everyday experiences of some people, informing how and what they think, and in what ways they do and don't act. Though the jacket copy says Ana is "not your typical teenager," it is past time to dispense with the idea that there is one, normalized experience of adolescence, and that because this character is raised in faith, she is somehow Vastly Different. < / tinyrant>

Synopsis: A few days after an random act of violence in their village, Ana's father packs them up, and Ana and her father move from where Ana was born in Colony Felicida in Bolivia to Toronto, Canada. For some reason that's apparently to be kept secret, the tightly-knit Mennonite community which they once called home is to be forgotten. Now they're on the trail of Ana's mother who departed from the colony some years earlier.

Ana doesn't remember much about her mother, and never understood why she left them, but a good daughter, Ana's learned not to ask questions her Papa won't answer. Grappling with culture shock, at first, Ana's only able to deal with housekeeping and doing what she's told, anyway. It is a constricted, quiet life, but so far, but it doesn't last. In Toronto, there are neighbor kids who ask Ana to come outside, and at her father's urging, she goes. In Toronto, Ana discovers, fourteen year old girls have to go to school, not merely be the one who cooks the food and keeps the house. In Toronto, the girls have TV's and posters on their walls and listen to bands and wear very different clothes and ride in cars and have computers, and do myriad inexplicable things -- and in Toronto, there are posters on the street, and ribbons for a girl named Faith, who has disappeared.

Toronto is somewhat of a mystery.

In the Colony, there were mysteries things as well, Ana realizes. Not that many people disappeared, but there was the mysterious baby, the mysterious planes landing on their long driveway, and then her mother -- just gone, and Ana still doesn't know why. What Ana begins to understand, little by little, is that while there are mysteries, at some point people begin to understand them. She desperately wants to understand.

While nothing overtly dangerous occurs, Ana experiences bullying and some of the nastier elements of high school in the modern world. She begins to see that the world around her operates between what is on the surface, and darker currents beneath, currents into which it is easy to get in over her head. As Ana learns to find her own way, she's fortunate that a neighbor, Suvi and Suvi's friend, Mischa befriend her, instructing her on how to get along, and mostly accepting of her non-Canadian quirks. Their world is faster and louder and vastly different than what Ana's used to -- no one speaks Low German, or wears their waist-length, platinum blonde hair pinned in "Princess Leia" buns. No one says their mother is dead when she's really ...left their community and their family, and been gone so long you they can't remember her.

Though her mother is probably alive somewhere, in a city of several hundred thousand people, Ana isn't sure how she and her father are going to manage finding a single human being, much less someone who left them years ago, and who maybe wants to stay lost. And, now that they're in Toronto, Ana's beginning to lose her father, too. He's a man with his own secrets, his own darkness, and his silence weighs heavily. What isn't he telling Ana about her own life? Can she be an onlooker in it, and still have a life? Is now - in Toronto - the time to speak up, and try and steer her own course, in a way she did not in the Colony? This lyrically written novel is a search for identity both internally, and as citizens within the larger culture, as Ana navigates who she's been told she is, and who she decides she's going to be.

Observations: I picked up this book specifically because it is, in part, about living in, then leaving a Mennonite community. The author doesn't provide a window, particularly, into a Mennonite experience in terms of faith practices, etc., but a mirror into one young woman's path toward self-determination - through the lens of her experience as a Mennonite.

There are some very obvious pitfalls of a girl who has been raised in an insulated, sheltered way experiences when she comes into contact with the larger world. The author doesn't fall for cheap ploys to shock the reader. However, neither does she give readers as much of a viewpoint on what Ana thinks of everything, but more that she is now having to think of everything. She is described as studying faces from the sheer curiosity of seeing people who don't look like her, or don't look like relatives. She knows now that there are groups, such as the LGBTQ kids, the nerds, the cool kids, etc. She begins to understand the sociology of cultures as groups, but like an anthropologist, there isn't much emotional resonance as she becomes more aware. I found this an interesting way to experience the world with the character - and find it significant that the author studied Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, and trained in journalism as well. The novel distances the reader at times with this more "I'm just an observer of your culture" feel, yet Ana isn't an unsympathetic character. Readers will especially cheer for her, as she makes clear-eyed observations about the adults around her and relish the realization that all of the adults in Ana's life underestimate her. She is better-equipped for the modern world than she thinks she is - possibly unrealistically better - but her quiet triumphs make for satisfying reading.

Conclusion: A quiet, beautifully written, literary novel which I can see being read as part of a classroom experience for history or social studies/sociology, as well as English. Full of evocative prose while keeping a simple narrative intact, this novel is threaded through with gems, giving readers a lot to sift through and discover.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After September 6th, can find ONCE IN A TOWN CALLED MOTH by Trilby Kent at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent Canadian bookstore near you!

August 22, 2016

Flashback Monday! (AKA I Didn't Have Time to Write a New Review)

Can I blame these Cybermen for my time famine?
Photo: (C)
It's been A Summer. I know many of you would agree with me on that. The year has flown by too quickly, and the time has been eaten up by, apparently, some sort of Doctor-Who-esque monster villains who consume time and crap out additional stuff to do.

I wanted to write up a new book review for today, but it just wasn't going to happen. I had to spend all of my writing energy on work-related emails about awkward and annoying topics. Now my brain is tired.

BUT! I do have SOMETHING for you. Periodically I like to do a flashback post and look back on words I already wrote, so I don't have to write new ones. So, in shameless imitation of the Book of the Face, I present you with:

FIVE YEARS AGO TODAY! - I reviewed Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, a retelling of the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red. You can read the review here.

TEN YEARS AGO TODAY! - Can you believe we've been blogging that long? Only about a year into our blogging adventure, I posted about Maureen Johnson's 13 Little Blue Envelopes. Interestingly, in our comment conversation in response to my post, Tanita claimed that, of the two of us, *I* was the analytical reviewer... You can read that, and the review, here.

August 20, 2016


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Last November, I went to the grocery store and saw a display of Día de los Muertos - Day of the Dead - stuff on display - imported from a non-Latin American country overseas, in plastic. I was unimpressed. It's problematic when we gank cultural celebrations from multicultural groups for the purpose of selling them as something new and cool and "must have," for those seeking coolness-by-proximity-to-culture, and it's just done so frequently. So, you'll understand that when I looked at the cover of LABYRINTH LOST, I had an oh, snap! moment until I saw the author's name. And then I thought, "Oh, her background is Ecuadorian; this should be interesting!

Synopsis: Alex just wants normalcy. No smoke, no spirits, no blood, no death: just high school. Unfortunately, she's been born into a family of brujas - witches - and not getting some of the family heritage isn't possible. All the power has meant to her is loss -- her cat, her father, her favorite aunt -- all have died or disappeared. With absolute power comes absolute chaos, and Alex just wants peace - to hang out with her quirky friend Rishi, and just chill like everyone else. She can't even have a normal birthday party to which she can invite friends -- oh, no, Alex gets a deathday -- the day the family celebrates the flowering of her power. Frustrated and fearful, Alex is tempted to repudiate her magic. Nova, a gorgeous boy who is a power in his own right, has implied that Alex is so powerful that maybe she could... maybe. Regardless Alex knows that magic always has its price -- and the price Alex pays for selfishness is what she's always feared -- losing everyone. Permanently.

But with great power comes ...okay, yeah, great responsibility, but also serious potential. Alex - one of the most powerful brujas in her generation, is the only one who can even hope to undo the damage that she's done. She doesn't know what she's doing. She doesn't know who she can trust. Obviously, that means she's just going to jump in anyway.

Observations: The jacket copy says this is Beautiful Creatures meets Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I thought it was more Alice's Wonderland meets Homer's Odyssey meets Jim Henson's original Labyrinth with an Ecuadorian twist -- because there's a whole lot of color and crazy going on.

This is both a quest and adventure book. The plot is clearly the Heroine's Journey is painted in bright new colors - Alex starts oh, so reluctantly, she's dumped out into the world because the world she knew is broken, and then her journey begins in earnest... she walks it, has an "okay, you'd better accept yourself, because wreckage has already happened and will happen again" moment, and then the book concludes. It's a strong usage of an old trope.

I refuse to offer up much in the way of spoilers here, but this isn't "Sabrina, Teen Witch" with Alex's bruja tale. Through fear and selfishness, she symbolically rejects her culture without truly exploring it - contempt prior to investigation. This contempt and fear leads her to a choice the recoil and reverberations from which tear her family away from her, and tear Alex from her roots, from her foundation. Alex literally has to take this burden that she tried to throw away and accept it as a part of her, as an extension of her truest self. The novel takes this complex metaphor and stretches and molds it and shades it into a creepy story that works on multiple levels.

There is romance in the novel, which doesn't feel as necessary nor as heartfelt as I might have liked -- but it doesn't detract, as it isn't even worked out in Alex's mind quite what's going on with it. That, I found to be pretty realistic. As a reader I was more invested in the relationships between women in this story, and the depiction of women's power through matriarchy, and thought that was worth the price of admission, even without the love story.

Conclusion: A lovely addition to the YA canon, this darkly powerful adventure reveals a diversity of Latin American culture and magical realism which will have readers wishing to connect strongly with the bruja within themselves, and straighten out the maze of their own lives. It'll be interesting to see where sequels in this series lead.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After September 6th and just in time for back-to-school, you can find LABYRINTH LOST by Zoraida Cordova at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

August 18, 2016


This has been the summer of the monkeybrain - too much going on, too much we wanted to do and we're not going to get it done, because it's nearing the end of August. ::sigh:: One thing we didn't want to miss was talking about Kate Messner's latest book, THE SEVENTH WISH. We became more aware of this book when Kate blogged mid-June about a librarian who loved it, but chose not to feature it in her school library.

Kirkus calls this book "Hopeful, empathetic, and unusually enlightening." Writer Anne Ursu's jacket blurb calls THE SEVENTH WISH "An empathetic, beautiful, magical fiercely necessary book that stares unflinchingly at the the very real challenges contemporary kids face and gently assures them they are not alone. Kate Messner gives her readers a story to cherish.” We read this book together, mainly out of curiosity, but found a deeper well than expected, and we're glad we did. Just be warned, there are a few slightly spoiler-y comments herein, nothing huge, and nothing that would detract from you actually reading the book, but just be warned.

Welcome to another edition of In Tandem, the read-and-review blog series where both A.F. and I give on-the-spot commentary as we read and blog a book together. (Feel free to guess which of us is the yellow owl and which of us is purple ...we're not telling!)

We are...

Two writers,

     & Two readers,

            Exploring one book...

In Tandem.

Charlie feels like she's always coming in last. From her Mom's new job to her sister's life at college, everything seems more important than Charlie. Then one day while ice fishing, Charlie makes a discovery that will change everything . . . in the form of a floppy fish offering to grant a wish in exchange for freedom. Charlie can't believe her luck but soon realizes that this fish has a very odd way of granting wishes as even her best intentions go awry. But when her family faces a challenge bigger than any they've ever experienced, Charlie wonders if some things might be too important to risk on a wish fish.
We received copies of this book courtesy of our local library and bookstore. You can find THE SEVENTH WISH by Kate Messner at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

tanita: So, we picked up this book out of basic curiosity. There's a hashtag on social media right now #MGGetsReal which is highlighting some really great middle grade fiction just now, and I'm happy to say I think we can add this to the list.

Were we to try and list seven things we liked about this book, for me, the first one would be -- outside of the adorable cover, which Kate Messner probably had no control over -- the first thing that stood out is that it's so normal. I remember ordering this awhile back, and then I forgot the plot, so I'm zipping along, reading, and this girl's an Irish dancer, this girl's an ice fisher, and then - boom! - page 22. I thought, "Oooh!" One of the hallmarks of good speculative fiction is that it sneaks up on you. It sneaks in the magical right in the midst of the -- equally awesome (because what else is clogging if not AMAZING -- but also humanly mundane. I must remember that as a writing skill.

sarah: Yes! I'd forgotten too, and I enjoyed the sudden surprise, in the middle of a normal-seeming story. Relatively normal, that is--to me, a dyed-in-the-wool California girl, all the ice fishing and snow stuff was completely foreign to me. "What is this frozen water you speak of?" So I enjoyed the glimpse into a more northerly lifestyle, and I loved it that Charlie went ice fishing with her friend/neighbor kid Drew--and I loved it that Drew, too, had his own sort of finding-himself struggles throughout the book that echoed a more traditional middle-grade plotline.

tanita: Hah, yeah - I'll not be ice fishing anytime soon. The second thing that stood out to me was that one of the characters wrote an app - just a junior high girl, writing apps and things. As one does when one is messing around with phones and things and is cool and smart. And I thought, "Yes, please; more girls like this!" Mind you, I agree with Charlie: that's a language I don't quite speak, but it was so cool to see it presented.

sarah:That was so fun! And she was in a coding CLUB! And it also wasn't a big deal. Dasha could be a dancer, and a coder, and a second-language student all at the same time--talk about a fleshed-out side character. :)

tanita: There was a quote in a recent New Yorker essay I loved - Kathryn Schulz writing about the Underground Railroad, and how we tend to insert ourselves into history and think we would have done better with issues like slavery. Schulz says, "Lived reality is always a muddle." I thought of that, when on page 84 I read Charlie's musings on a book: "Our class had a whole discussion about what we would have done differently if we were the characters, and we were all kinds of smug about it. We would have wished so much smarter than those dumb story-people." Oh, yeah. We're ALL better on paper.

sarah: YES. I thought this was a very relatable moment, and comes back to the sort of teaching (aka moralistic) element of fairy tales and stories with wishes where the wish comes back to bite you. And of course it's foreshadowing, too, which is always a thing we like.

tanita: HUGE foreshadowing, if only I'd known it.

So, now we come to the adult themes which caused this librarian some concern. The first mention is alcoholism, at the halfway point of the book. It's already established that the people to whom and with whom Charlie is conversing are normal, good people who the reader can trust, and so there is surprise, when we hear the name of the sickness -- and then, compassion. And then immediate talk of dealing with it: "I was still sad, and I made space for that sadness, but I didn't invite it in to take over the house, you know?" - p.96

sarah: I thought that was so well done. I loved Nana McNeill. She kind of fills the role of Wise Elder Dispensing Advice, but as often happens in real life, she is a Wise Elder Not of One's Own Immediate Family, which makes the advice easier to take. I am of the firm opinion that every kid needs at least one of those. And Nana offers WISDOM, but not necessarily easy solutions. In fact, at almost every turn she reminds Charlie that with some things, there is no easy way around--unless you want to fall through the ice.

tanita: Truly, there's "nothing to it, but to go through it." Nana McNeill kind of ...embodies that. And at times, the going through it thing is exquisitely rough. Another thing I loved about this book was the emotional resonance. I was just feeling with Charlie. p - 142 "Hi Carolyn," everyone says, as if they're meeting her at a bake sale and not in a room full of liars who ruin everything for their families. And that is about all of the fakeness I can take." The feels are REAL right here.

Having loved people with addictions for much of my life, I'm not always sure that the "once an addict, always an addict"/disease model of addiction thing is true for everyone - and it's kind of a tough concept to introduce to a tween, to think that this... thing will always be there, that it's something going on the permanent record, as it were - but in another way, it's merciful to present it in this way, especially because an addiction is an insidious boomerang that returns sometimes again and again and again. And as much as we'd like to say, "Yup, that was a bad time, but that's OVER, no more, good riddance," hello, nope. Nope. SO... yeah. This wasn't actually a question of being a bad thing to me, more of being a tough thing.

sarah: I... also have a lot of thoughts about addiction and treatment, and very mixed feelings about 12-step programs (controversy: this much-debated Atlantic article, and this not-quite-rebuttal from Scientific American - just a few recent examples of the discussion). I appreciated very much that this book did not pass overt judgment, but simply presented Abby's addiction treatment as is -- Charlie voices questions and doubts, and they are valuable ones that show the reader that these types of treatments aren't perfect but in many cases, this is what people have to work with. And maybe will inspire young readers, when they get older, to try to think about what WOULD work better and keep us all working towards better solutions. Because, like you said, addiction can and sometimes does return again and again, and it changes loved ones into these desperate strangers, people who can steal from their own relatives (as in this story) or beg their own grown children for drug money (happened to a friend of ours).

tanita: All good points -- no judgment, this just IS. If we can't get over the taboo, the talking and thinking about this that innovators and pioneering young folk need to do to make changes to a system they're going to have to live with won't happen - that's really true.

Another thing I liked about this book was that "I'm sorry" was not AN ANSWER - to anything. It was something said, repeatedly, but... it wasn't all roses and unicorns afterward, and All Was Solved, The End. That is so deeply, deeply important to kids -- for anybody, really -- to know it's okay for "sorry" to not be enough. It's a kind of simplistic belief we foist off on kids, "Say you're sorry!" as if that makes it all right. For a person to know that they don't have to forgive-and-forget in a no-breaths-in-between rush, that they can just... hear the words, sit with them, and know that's forgiveness might be one of the things that they're going to have to get serenity for, because another person's actions are one of the things you can't change - that's so valuable. It's good to allow a kid (or anyone) the freedom to let time do what it does, to give you perspective, etc.

sarah: Yes. It was just so awful to kind of KNOW that wallet theft, that abandonment at the feis, was going to occur, seeing it coming and not being able to stop it. And to be Charlie, wondering if you can find the strength to forgive yet again, or if this is the last straw, something unforgivable. For kids to know that it is OKAY to feel like you just can't forgive and forget, that those feelings are legitimate. That was a recurring theme in this book that I really appreciated -- the fact that so often, kids feel as if their own needs and wishes are less important than those around them -- and sometimes that feeling is TRUE; sometimes kids and their needs are forced to take a backseat, fairly or unfairly. Whether it's due to overwhelming factors like a sibling with an addiction problem, or something more commonplace like a divorce, most if not all kids will be able to relate to that sense of powerlessness.

tanita:(Oh, crud. I have totally lost track of numbers. I like more than seven things about this book - let's just leave it at that, yes? Yes.) I agree - there's another recurring theme that whatever actions don't always equal wanted results. Charlie realizes, remembering the DARE activity, where she signed a car, that "wishing doesn't make it so," in a really real way. "You know the thing about magic, Charlie? We can wish on clovers and shooting stars and ice flowers all we want. But in the end, the only real magic is what's inside us, and the people we love." p.210 And again -- "That's what you don't understand when you take the Sharpie in hand... that addiction is a real thing that can happen. That good people make awful mistakes, and the whole name-signing-on-the car is just some goofy gimmick that gets you out of math class for the afternoon. It doesn't keep terrible things from happening." - Oof.

Which brings me back to the blog post where Kate Messner wrote about the librarian feeling like this book was TOO MUCH for a school library -- I thought it was really thoughtful of her to go deeper and post ongoing discussions with other librarians about how they manage at their schools, and how they're finding solutions to difficult topics. I'll be honest - on the jacket flap this book says it's for ages 9 and up. I am the major book-buyer for my seven-and-nine year old nephews, and I look Elf, the older one, and say, "Nope. Even if he is nine." Because he's just SO young of a nine. THAT BEING SAID: I wouldn't object to having him read this in a classroom, as part of a guided experience. Honestly, if he picked this book up alone and read through it, I would be expecting him to talk about it with someone, and I would hope the adults in his life would be available for that... so though I'm going to hold onto my copy for him for another few months, maybe, I couldn't imagine not having it in a classroom as an option. Not being anyone's mother, and not being in charge of young hearts/minds anymore in a classroom setting, I guess I can be distanced from the issue, but... that's how I feel this minute: isn't it our job as an adult to bring before kids heavy issues to think and discuss about before they get IRL exposure to them?

sarah: I am glad we got to discuss this book. And, I agree with what you said: isn't the purpose of great kids/MG/YA books, in part, to help bring up difficult or painful themes in a safe space? (Of course, part of the problem is that people don't agree on what a "safe space" IS -- to me, it doesn't mean a space where you're safe FROM hearing difficult things or criticism; it's a space where it's safe TO air difficult subjects or criticism...

tanita: ...but, everyone's mileage may vary.

sarah: Right. < / end rant> So, for readers who dare, this is an excellent, amazing book, definitely deserving of the hashtag of #MGGetsReal, and I'm glad we read it.

tanita: Me, too. Until next time we read - happy Thursday, everyone. And remember: when you wish upon a fish your dreams come true. Thank you, Kate Messner, for fulfilling a wish we didn't know we had.

August 16, 2016


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Many teens struggle with historical fiction which seems like a genre of "long ago and far away." The history of North Korea happened - and is still happening - right now. This book is a first-person bildungsroman useful for World History classes looking for an added dimension in their units on Communist governments. At times wistful and aching, this novel will give readers a tiny window into a world not their own. We need these stories, especially as the world grows more chaotic, to remember that we must have compassion for each other - we must. Or we'll doom each other to believing the worst propaganda and lies about each other.

Synopsis: Life for Sungju in Pyongyang, North Korea, meant star-gazing with his grandfather, playing army with his parents, amusement parks, and picnics on warm afternoons. A child of privilege, Sungju lived much like an American kid - he went to his school and taekwondo lessons, listened as his mother played their baby grand piano, and didn't worry much about anything. But life changed quickly, when Sunju was eleven. A "vacation" in the country from their beautiful home left them in a one-room shack in a coastal town. The prep-school where he proudly attended with good equipment and new books was exchanged for a little school with old books and students whose level he'd passed done long ago. Everyone was thin and weary looking, and suspicious. Naively, Sungju thought his classmates were lying, when they talked about eating squirrel. The money his parents had went not for private lessons or special picnics, but for simple peasant food... and soon even that wasn't available. School outings weren't museums, but executions. It was the 1990's, and the system had broken. Soon, there were no longer rations for those who worked, and everyone -- everyone -- was foraging, then stealing. Even Sungju, who had known a different world.

While joining a gang gave Sungju a measure of self-respect, there was nothing which could return to him his parents, nor his sense of the world as being a safe and understandable place. But, with his friends beside him, Sungju refused to give up hope that something would make sense. His is a story of survival.

Observations: We don't actually have as much memoir and first person creative non-fiction as we should in YA lit. Hearing voices from other communities and other countries can be so valuable to teachers trying to find a way to humanize current events. Though this novel's repeated tale of miseries, hunger, and gang battles may sometimes feel like a successful "thug life" story, the emotional resonance keeps the novel on track, and will, I think, open up a lot of thoughtful conversation afterwards, much like The Diary of Anne Frank and other such honest books. While the reader is held at somewhat a remove from the circumstances, the author still gives the narrative the feeling of "being there."

The biggest message that readers receive is that there is very little difference in our lives, except for circumstance. We are who and where we are, not because we or our country is better, or because we've somehow earned our privilege, but because we are - in this turn of Fortune's wheel, in this time and place - lucky and blessed. It is the author's point, I think, that this should remind us to be compassionate - not only with others, but with ourselves, if and when our own fortunes change.

Conclusion: While at times painful, this book had the positive of exploring life in wealth and in poverty in North Korea, and the hopes and dreams of a young man, whose understanding of the gift of democracy and freedom is its own gift to its readers.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. Afte September 13th, you can find EVERY FALLING STAR by Sungju Lee, with Susan Elizabeth McClelland at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

August 11, 2016

The Writing and Revision Cycle

The life cycle of a novel-in-progress is an interesting thing. Obviously, everybody's process is different, which is intriguing in itself--I find myself endlessly fascinated by the different ways of working that I observe in my writing group. Some write forward in linear fashion, then return for another linear pass during rewriting. Others are not linear at all, writing scenes as they are inspired to do so and putting them in place later as part of the revision process.

What interests me today is an observation about the ways in which a project contains the seeds of its own later development. We hear a bit about that in the writing-forward direction: as a writer roughs out the story initially, the way we begin the story gives us hints as to how to proceed; the more you write, the more your path narrows and your options collapse, until there seems to be a certain inevitability about how the plot unfolds.

I find there's also something similar that happens in revision--but in a mirror-image kind of way. Let's say you've completed a first (or later) draft. You're probably starting your revision with at least a few specific goals in mind: flesh out character X. Fix plot development in chapter 5. And so forth. In that sense, you're still working forward. You're zeroing in even more narrowly on Your Unique Story, and in certain ways, with each pass, the changes get more and more nit-picky, less drastic. And yet, when you get to that inevitable point of the revision where you're trying to make key, pivotal scenes work, sometimes you still find yourself making changes that reverberate. They don't just affect what happens next; you also have to fix what happens before. Obviously, you can't do that in an entirely forward-moving direction. You don't know what you need to fix in the before until you figure out what the scene itself needs. So, in that way, there's a looking-backward element to revision as well.

Forward movement: You plant a particular seed, which must inevitably unfold into a particular plant. Prune as needed.
Backward movement: You've got this gorgeous plant. Did you remember to cultivate the seed? If not, go back and put it in there.

Put another way: The beginning tells you where the end is going, if you know where to look and if you planned it right.
The end tells you what you need from your beginning and middle.

I find that I need to move in both directions to successfully craft a story. Not necessarily by jumping around in my draft--I tend to do separate rounds of forward revision on the whole novel, going back on subsequent passes to fill in earlier sections rather than jumping back to them right away and then forward again. Sometimes I'll linger on a section for multiple passes to get it right, if something is pivotal enough for me to need to perfect it before moving along.

Having said that, please note that any and all advice is entirely subjective. Your experience may vary. I also didn't mention the vast amount of fumbling that takes place. So...yeah.