July 18, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: THE GLASS ARROW, by KRISTEN SIMMONS

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Aya has lived in hiding for as long as she can recall - because not to hide is to be caught by the Trackers, to be owned and bred. The census keeps track of girls, polishing and preparing them to be someone's forever wife, as fecundity is a valuable thing. Not every woman can bear children, and not every family is in favor of that kind of life, thus Aya's family are resistors. It doesn't last forever, however. One day, the hunters come and take her, and she is dragged away to the Garden, to be polished as a bride for the Magnates and Merchants. Aya continue her defiance alone -- with a ridiculous flower name the Governess gives her, with scanty outfits and with eyes always on her - weighing, judging, comparing, competing eyes. Aya's not competing to "win" a man, though - she has a sort-of maybe-kind-of friend, but the rest of the girls are sheep she wants nothing to do with. Her noncompliance gets her starved and roughly handled, left out of doors in all weather - but mostly free. She's made a real friend - a wolf pup - and has caught the attention of one of the mute beast handlers who work with the horses. He's trying to help - but Aya knows she can't depend on a man, even one outcaste and mute, even one who is all but invisible to the people at the Garden. Aya can depend on no one but herself... right?

Observations: One of this author's strengths is her worldbuilding; though there's a familiar feeling with this dystopian setting, the level of detail and ...logic in the cause and effect of the politics of the world is strongly plotted. This is one of the author's definitely strengths, and what will make this book a pulse-pounder for dystopian fans.

This book is marketed as THE HANDMAID'S TALE meets BLOOD RED ROAD, and I agree at least on the HANDMAID'S TALE portion, anyway. The commodification of women and the pitched battle of control over their bodies is something which has hovered outside the real of fiction since Margaret Atwood wrote her startling work -- and YA lit has frequently revisited the concept of a lack of control over the young female body. Simmons takes it a step further with the idea of fertility being controlled corporately, and being sold to the highest bidder.

The immediacy of the writing, and the fast pace of the scenes make it a little difficult for the reader to get a grip on details such as the size of the world or how far flung this insanity is with control over women - is it just the equivalent of North America, or the whole world? Are there other places where women have learned how to deal with this madness, or have overturned it? Because Aya grew up free, she never, ever, ever stops fighting for a return to that freedom. Sure, soft beds are nice; sure, good food you don't have to prepare is great -- but nothing extinguishes her desire to be on her own again, and one imagines that surely there are other girls who are so determined. I found myself wishing for a little more from the author on that score.

While there was subtle diversity in the novel, I wished that there could have been more - which is another question which returned me to 'where is this happening, and how widespread?' It seems this is set in a mostly white pseudo-America.

Conclusion:I found it ironic that there is a mythos in this culture that all their troubles began with a bad love triangle. I find myself wondering if the author isn't having a private laugh at the prevalence of love triangles in YA fiction, and this is a warning that they'll bring ruin upon us all! Likely not. ☺ For readers who enjoy the oft-clich├ęd "strong female character" who is digging in and being brave, finding love in unexpected places (There's no insta-love here, which readers will appreciate), and making fast-paced, life-or-death decisions, this book is for you. With strength of conviction Aya digs in to create the future she wants out of the present within her hands - something we could all learn better to do.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After August 2, you can find THE GLASS ARROW by Kristen Simmons at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 17, 2017

Monday Review: DREAMER'S POOL by Juliet Marillier

Synopsis: The Blackthorn & Grim trilogy by Juliet Marillier, which starts with the novel Dreamer's Pool, is not technically a YA trilogy, but readers who already enjoy her books that were specifically written for young adults (such as the Shadowfell trilogy, reviewed here) will definitely enjoy this one. It's got slightly more mature moments, but it makes a great crossover series. Set in a version of medieval Ireland, it's got hints of Celtic mythology and a dash of the fey—but, as always, it's the author's ability to weave a fascinating plot around compelling characters that makes these books truly shine.

When Dreamer's Pool starts, we are plunged into a rather gritty scene as we are introduced to the primary narrator: a young woman who has been imprisoned for the past year in the lockup of sadistic chieftain Mathuin of Laois. At first, we know her only as Lady—the nickname given to her by her fellow prisoner, Grim, who resides in the cell across from hers. And then something miraculous happens: the prison is destroyed, the roof partly collapsed, and she and Grim find themselves…free.

Sort of. The newly released Blackthorn—the new name she gives herself for a new life—is subject to a bargain. A mysterious fey named Conmael has decided to give her another chance, but only on the condition that she defer her desire for murderous revenge on Mathuin for at least seven years. Why, she doesn't know—and Conmael has also forbidden her to go anywhere near Mathuin. Instead, he bids her go to the settlement of Winterfalls and set herself up as a wise woman there, healing the residents, and never refusing to help anyone who asks. The first needy person who shows up in her life happens to be Grim, and so the two become somewhat reluctant companions…and soon, partners in solving the mystery of a bizarre occurrence at an uncanny spot called Dreamer's Pool.

Observations: Throughout the trilogy, we not only see the story through Blackthorn's eyes, we also get the perspective of quiet, stoic Grim, who has a traumatic past of his own. In fact, both Blackthorn and Grim are broken, recovering—something that the author not only gives due attention to but has also researched in terms of PTSD and recovery from trauma. This invests both characters with a wrenching, believable realism, and it makes the whole trilogy stand out from the "fantasy Ireland" genre.

There is also something of the detective duo about Blackthorn and Grim—in each novel, there is a mystery of sorts to be solved, one which our two narrators are uniquely able to address. And, of course, one of my favorite things about having read this trilogy in one big gulp (all three books are currently out and available!) was the ability to follow the character development of both Blackthorn and Grim throughout the three books, which reach a very satisfying conclusion in the final volume, Den of Wolves.

Conclusion: Highly recommended for fans of historical fantasy and stories about British lore—these have some violence and trauma but should be fine for more mature YA readers. Fun fact: the author is an actual member of a Druidic Order! How cool is that?


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection (book 1) and Amazon.com (books 2 and 3). You can find DREAMER'S POOL, TOWER OF THORNS, and DEN OF WOLVES by Juliet Marillier at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 10, 2017

Monday Review: THE RELUCTANT QUEEN by Sarah Beth Durst

Synopsis: Book 2 in Sarah Beth Durst's Queens of Renthia series is out--The Reluctant Queen--and it's a wonderfully bingeworthy summer read and a highly enjoyable sequel to the first book, The Queen of Blood (reviewed here). If you haven't read that yet, note that this review contains some minor spoilers…also, if you're a fantasy fan, do yourself a favor and go read it!

Okay, then. The Reluctant Queen picks up the story of Daleina after she has become queen of Aratay. Now she is the one tasked with keep the land's bloodthirsty elemental spirits under control. But there's a complication: Queen Daleina is deathly ill, and must find a successor to take her place or the spirits will go on a deadly rampage and destroy her people.

Queen Daleina sends her trusted champions out to find a likely candidate to be her heir, and after a long search they find someone powerful enough to be worthy of training. The problem is, Naelin is married, has two young children, and has NO interest in being anybody's heir or even in using her power at all…

Observations: This is a somewhat unusual and refreshing approach to a fantasy heroine: not someone who is young and untested, ready and willing to prove herself, but instead someone who is older, ornery, and has neither the need nor desire to go off questing. She has to be goaded, coerced, tricked, and even forced into taking on the role, and even when she decides to go for it, she has misgivings. I liked that about this book—it was surprising from the beginning, and there were new surprises at every turn. All of it, of course, takes place in a wondrous setting full of magic and danger of the sort that Durst is so good at.

Conclusion: I am really getting back into my fantasy reading these days, but gravitating toward books with strong, prickly heroines who know their own minds—and this is an excellent example. Highly recommended for older YA and adult readers alike.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the author/publisher (Thank you!!!). You can find THE RELUCTANT QUEEN by Sarah Beth Durst at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

July 03, 2017

Call for Presenters: KidLitCon 2017, Hershey, PA

Just popping my head up from my imminent deadline to remind you that the Kidlitosphere Conference has released its official Call for Presenters!

You don't have to put together anything too formal (unless you want to), and any topics related to children's/YA literature, and/or blogging about said literature, are welcome. From the official post:
Repeat visits to past topics are welcome alongside new ideas. A few thoughts—we’ve never talked specifically about historical fiction (is there such a thing as “getting it right?”) or religion (books written for a specific audience, books specifically addressing social and cultural topics related to religion). There’s always room for conversations about class, race, disability, sex. gender, politics, and pictures!
Contact the organizers by August 1 with your ideas, and check out this post for more details. 

Turning Pages Reads: IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS by KAREN ENGLISH

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis:Sophia's moved to Montego Drive in LA with her lawyer father and her gorgeous mother, and her elder sister, Lily, who is going to college. With Montego Drive comes a new housekeeper, the disapproving Mrs. Baylor, and her handsome and much bragged-on son, Nathan. Sophie, going on thirteen next October, is trying to clutch every last day of her and Lily's last summer at home together. Beautiful, brave Lily is going to Spelman in the fall, but before then, she's trying to find her own feet, and branch out a bit from the family. She insists that Sophie branch out, too -- after all, she's going into a new high school, and it's time for her to quit being so odd and bookish, and to get more friends than the little white girl across the street. But, Sophie's happy being Jennifer's best friend, and following where Jennifer leads. It's easier than putting herself forward - after all, there are so many tiny pitfalls to actually admitting to herself that she wants things like to play with the other girls in the neighborhood, the ones who are quick to judge her, and turn their backs, because Sophie is Colored.

This is the rockiest summer in Sophie's memory. Sophie's parents are fighting -- really fighting. Lily wants to go to UC Berkeley, even though the historically Black women's college Spelman is her mother's dream for her. Sophie wants to write a novel, or take the lead in a play, but it doesn't seem like anyone else believes that she can do these things, not even her best friend. But her parents rocky marriage and Sophie's own disappointments abruptly take a backseat to the happenings in downtown Los Angeles. An interaction with the police takes a turn for the violent, and suddenly a neighborhood called Watts is full of rioting, angry Colored people, burning trash and throwing bricks through windows. Racism has landed with an ugly growl into the American conversation, and Sophie's world is unraveling. Is this how things will be, from now on? What does it mean, to be black and American? Is it possible to be those things, and a writer, and a regular girl, too?

Karen English leaves her readers with no easy answers, but takes an honest, heartfelt look at the complex realities of blackness in America.

Observations: IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS has an old-fashioned feel to it; English comes across stylistically like the greats from YA's golden age; Paula Danziger, Norma Fox Mazer or Carson McCullers. The book is crammed with details from the time period and Sophie's familial details are also almost overwhelming - which is par for the course for a slice-of-life novel from the golden age of YA lit. Sophie is like any other straight-speaking tween from the 1960's, seriously observing her life and the lives of everyone around her, eavesdropping, listening on phone extensions, snooping through her father's desk and her mother's briefcase, and finding out waaaaay more dirt on everyone than she expected. The vaguely romanticized view of life Sophie is getting comes face to face with baseline microagressions and racism, and she is baffled and vaguely hurt and then slowly but surely learns what real hurt, institutionalized racism, and denial of basic human rights is all about. It is an awakening for both Sophie's and the neighborhoods of Los Angeles; both personal and universal, and part of growing up as a young woman, and, in a broader sense, as a country.

Conclusion: While many YA books portray the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's as a neatly monolithic lock-stepped march through history and on Washington, the reality is that it was a messy, intensely personal awakening, as black people realigned what they'd been taught about themselves and their place in American society with a new reality of greater visibility and potential equality. While for some, this brave new world seemed suffused with opportunity, for others whose greater privilege had all along afforded them broader respectability among white Americans, this "movement" seemed foolish, dangerous and disturbing. Seen through a twelve-year-old's unflinching point of view, IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS tells the story of the jagged truths which break in on one Los Angeles family's smoothly suburban existence the summer of 1965, and strip away the lies about who they believe themselves to be.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my agent, who thought I'd enjoy it. He was right. After July 11th, you can find IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS by Karen English at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 30, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECT by MIKE JUNG

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

This bright, cute cover was just one of the reasons I picked up this book; another reason is the author, who is a friend of the blog, and a pretty sterling human being. Solidly in the category of a problem/solution novel for younger middle graders, this book is one of my favorite impulse-picks so far this summer.

Synopsis: Chloe Cho has lived in a very boring small town for most of her elementary school experience. Her father's pet store and her mother's work as an astrophysicist, Chloe feels could have happened anywhere but no, they choose to live in the dullest, most white-bread town, ever. There are no other Asians in their town. Certainly, no other Koreans. It's tiresome to be the only anything - and when Chloe's school gets a new teacher whose last name is Lee, Chloe is beyond excited. Finally, another Korean! Even better, Ms. Lee is open to Chloe exploring her Korean background and doing a Model UN project about South Korea.

Unfortunately, Ms. Lee is the only one who's excited about it. Chloe's parents are not. They would really prefer she concentrate on being ...an American. It's what the Chos are now, right? Americans?

Chloe is desperate not to feel like a fish-out-of-water anymore, and does all she can to learn, on her own, about who she is... but what do you do when you really are nothing like the people around you? How do you cope?

Observations: Okay, I did not see the plot twist in this novel coming. At all. Well done to the people who did the advertising. I was reading along, and said, "Wait, what? WHAT!?" So, that was excellent. Second, I wish that I'd had this novel when I was teaching the fifth grade, because we often talked about the deeper meanings behind the friendships we had, and the identities we had as human beings: as people of color or white people, as child people who were younger or older siblings or adult teachers and friends. This is a book about multiple identities - about having and losing and choosing them. Chloe is trying very hard to align the identity she has inhabited unknowingly with the identity she discovers, and this allows readers to consider the question, how much of who we are is simply who we choose to be?

All of us, school aged or elsewhere in life, have felt stupidly out of step with our peers, but not everyone weathers the realization that they're a square peg, and still comes out a ...shape on the other side, to really drag the metaphor out. ☺ Chloe, as she comes through this difficult time, fails to do so gracefully -- arguing with teachers, feuding with her best friend, and screaming at her parents as she struggles to balance being the Only in her community, and wondering if the love and support and position she's found for herself within the community is entirely false. The very realness of her reaction makes this story relatable to everyone, but I think it's especially relatable to kids who have been adopted or who are of mixed race in an environment where they are in the minority. Sometimes a minority person can wonder, "do people like me because they think that X - whatever is different about me - is cool? or is it truly me in which they're interested?" Chloe struggles with why her best friend actually likes her -- and her best friend has to explicitly explain to her why by leading her back through the situations they've been through together. This is the proof that an unbeliever needs to see that they are loved. More than that, Chloe and Shelley also model strong communication techniques that are the basis of what keep a relationship strong.

Conclusion: There so much I can't tell you about the narrative behind this book because that takes all the fun out of reading the story and discovering it for oneself - but this quiet, snarky, fun little book is a gateway and a bridge to some deeper conversations between adults and kids that a quiet summer afternoon seems the perfect time to delve into.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECT by Mike Jung at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 27, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: HEART STONE by ELLE KATHARINE WHITE

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Spin-offs, sequels, retellings. Love it or hate it, there's never a moment when a Jane Austen novel isn't getting some play somewhere, whether with text messages, zombies, or space ships. Funnily, I don't recall who suggested this book (Book Smugglers? Smart B's?) and by the time I came to it in my TBR pile, I'd forgotten why it was suggested... I figured dragons? I was halfway through the book before I recognized it - I blame the sinus infection. If you enjoy novels of repressive Victorian society, manners, and mores; if you adore costume and courting ...if you love Our Jane, this one's for you.

Synopsis: Aliza's grief at the loss of her sister to the vicious talons of gryphons, underscores the reasons Lord Merybourne strained his slender resources to hire a troop of Riders to eradicate them. The farmers and craftspeople of Hart's Run have suffered bitter losses from the Tekari, the Oldkind which are enemies of mankind. Aliza's father's way of dealing with his grief is to immerse himself in Lord Merybourne's estates, and in their management, remaining a loving yet vague presence in the lives of his daughters. Aliza's mother's way of dealing with her grief is to get her children away from Merybourne Manor by any means necessary. The Bentaine purse doesn't stretch to sending all the girls away to finishing school and none of them show a particular bent to be apprenticed in any art, but they're girls, after all. They can marry out. Riders must have noble blood, and the ability to communicate with their Shani - or friends of mankind - Oldkind mounts - some of which are dragons - and their work pays them well and takes them far. Since they're already in Hart's Run to eradicate the nest of gryphons...

Aliza, and her older sister, Angelina, are both amused and troubled by their mother's single-mindedness in marrying off one of her daughters, but at least one of the Riders, Lord Brysney has caught Anjey's fancy. The other Riders are either indifferent or, in the case of the dragon-riding Daired Lord, horrible snobs. Aliza isn't too fussed about one distasteful man. She's a competent herbologist and healer, and there's always something going on in the garden, or with her hobgoblin friends who live there. There also was an Oldkind at Lord Merybourne's party, threatening someone... who? Brysney's sister, Lady Charis, whose loss of her wyvern mount causes her great grief, seems quite willing to be Aliza's friend... sometimes. As Anjey and Brysney become closer, it becomes clear that there is more to the Riders than meets the eye. But, all of the household drama pales in comparison to the earthquakes and oddities going on. The Tekari are rising -- something truly wicked is coming for Hart's Run... and there's nowhere to hide. The Shani, with their Riders are going to have to work their magic, supported by the commoners the Riders may have scorned for any of them to survive.

Observations: I was amused to see this book listed as an historical fantasy... and while I know that it is, and what that means, I also laugh since there's been no time in OUR history, anyway, that people have ridden dragons...! Despite sounding like its set in Victorian times, with the costumes, social stratification, and Lord-ing/Lady-ing, the decision to include green-haired hobgoblins did not extend to human author people of color in this non-noble farming and crafting community. As there were doubtless persons of Asian, South Asian and African ancestry in the Victorian England in which Austen set her original series, it is an unfortunate erasure.

The addition of dragons (and the odd wyvern and bearlike beoryn)to any Austen novel has the potential to enliven it! I won't say "improve," since Austen novels don't really need "improvement," per se. While an examination of the manners and mores of Victorian times doesn't necessarily translate into this fantasy retelling, the observant snark and humor of the narrative find their place in this novel. Aliza doesn't take her mother's machinations very seriously, nor does she suffer unduly from the dislike of the Daried lord. He's just a donkey's bum, no big deal. Mari, rather than being obnoxious, is simply introverted and much more amused by time to herself with a book than dressing and going into society - and the author makes clear that there's nothing wrong with it. Readers will appreciate Aliza's relationship with the lesser Oldkind, as it makes plain the kindness of her personality, that no Shani creature is too small for her consideration, and that muddy hems are a small price to pay for friendship. Her no nonsense dealings with the care of her sister during illness, and her bravery in turning down the offer to learn to kill more Tekari also speak to a girl who knows her own mind, and regardless of what others might believe she should be doing, or how they believe she should be reacting, she will go her own way.

Conclusion: You might indeed be well over Austen retellings, or find the original tale tedious and frustrating. And yes, Aliza's mother still needs a brisk slap, but at least the reasons for her behavior make much more sense this time, and you'll appreciate that Leyda is redeemed and doesn't have to live with her mistake for very long. This novel's brimstone of dragonfire and slash of wyvern's talons breathes adventure into a familiar story, making it more accessible to certain audiences. Magic, adventure, war, and romance, this is one to tuck into your bag to make airport delays something you don't even notice.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find HEART STONE by Ella Katharine White at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 23, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: THE WHITE ROAD OF THE MOON by RACHEL NEUMEIER

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Summer 'flu is the pits, the absolute pits, so I'm lucky that, along with my cough drops and wads of tissues, I have a stack of great books.

I was introduced to the work of Rachel Neumeier during the 2016 Cybils, where I was a first-round judge for YA speculative fiction. I was so impressed with her left-of-center tale of a hidden princess, and made a quiet note to myself to seek out more of her work. I was expecting a similar tone to this book, but the feel is entirely different. It starts quietly and then the plot thickens like a good stew. There's a lot going on, as in traditional high fantasy, a journey, a quest, a cast of characters to keep track of, but if you could come to grips with Patrick Rothfuss, Kristin Britain, Brian Sanderson, C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, you'll be in fine shape for this.

Synopsis: Meridy Turiyn was eleven when her mother took the White Road of the Moon into death, and now, at fifteen, her cold, practical Aunt Tarana has apprenticed her to a soap-making washerwoman and is happy to be rid of her. Meridy, with her dark hair and eyes, is the village outcast. Dark-eyed Southerners like Meridy can see the quick dead - ghosts who remained in the real, anchored to the living whose love or hatred keeps them close, and the small, fair and blue-eyed villagers are terrified of them. Perhaps worse, Meridy is educated. She's memorized the classic tales of the God, and poetry; her mind is stuffed with literature and art and all kinds of bits of history. Meridy has always wanted to travel, to see the world, to know, things which her practical aunt deems pointless, and her cousins mock as stupid. Staying in the tiny village where her mother is buried, where she is reviled and feared, was never going to be an option, but now that she's expected to be a washerwoman, it's impossible.

At the prompting of an storytelling ghost, Meridy leaves the tiny village and goes to seek her own way. When a ghost of a boy with a gorgeous ghost-dog directs her to an injured man, Meridy is prickly at their assumption that she can do anything for them, but she does what she can. It turns out to be just enough to embroil her in a mystery. The man and the boy need her for something - but neither will quite explain what, and Meridy doesn't have time to fuss with figuring it out. She's a girl alone on the road, and things are treacherous enough. But the mystery pursues her, putting her in the way of witch kings, ancient sorceries and a 200 year old injustice that is gathering momentum from the past. She's just an over-educated village girl with dark eyes and a tendency to collect ghosts. How is she supposed to save a kingdom?

Observations: This novel stays true to the trope of the "unexceptional loner with hidden depths." Meridy is full of unexpected depths -- really unexpected depths, but her lack of confidence and the chip on her shoulder at first hinder her from fulfilling her role in a game bigger than she can imagine, as forces from long-dead empires rise again. There are the equivalent of cryptic sages and romantically poetic knights -- and Meridy's irritation with the poetic speech and vague hints is a bit of fun. At one point she shrieks, "Can't you speak like a normal person?" Well... actually, no. Welcome to high fantasy, lovey.

High fantasy is not always terribly accessible; the worlds of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien are full of swords and sorcery, but also full of Arthurian Eurocentricism with its talk of white witches and impossibly ectomorphic fey in varying shades of blonde with violet eyes. While a reader doesn't require lookalike protagonists to enjoy a work, consistent erasure of diversity throughout the traditional high fantasy canon has created imaginary worlds which seem to murmur Whites Only. Many times nonwhite readers can feel unwelcome in high fantasy, but Neumeier invites readers to identify with the main character - a black haired, dark-skinned, dark-eyed Southerner. Slightly scrappy, not especially pretty, Meridy has wild dark curls and a vast education that I'd imagine might provoke people to exclaim, "Wow, you're so articulate! The assumption of her ignorance based on her class and coloring is just as insulting to Meridy as it is to those of us in the real world. In a subtle twist, it is only when Meridy sets aside her prickly pride and expectation of rejection and embraces her dark eyes and Southern heritage, it is only then that she can actually help anyone else.

I love the inclusion of faith in this novel. It is not a recognizable denominational faith, necessarily, but much of what Meridy accomplishes is based on faith - in herself, in the purposes of the God, and in those around her.

Conclusion: NB: This is a friendship novel, and does not contain romance.

This novel starts quietly and builds - as all quest/journey novels do. The scene is set very early in the book, with the rules of the world and its magical drawbacks in terms of ghosts, etc., and then, with those concerns taken care of, Meridy begins her evolution as a character Doing Things. Don't give up reading those quiet, detailed beginnings! Especially with this novel, you will be rewarded.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library, our greatest resource. You can find THE WHITE ROAD OF THE MOON by Rachel Neumeier at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 22, 2017

Have You Saved the Date for KidLitCon 2017?

Attention, bloggers! The 2017 Kidlitosphere Conference is going to be held November 3rd and 4th in Hershey, PA! The Land of Chocolate! Who would want to miss that? I don't want to miss it, although I might have to, due to some unforeseen travel this summer that has cleaned out my conference savings. (Don't feel too sorry for me...I'm visiting my husband while he attends a fellowship in Hawaii.)

The call for session proposals is going to be open any day now on the Kidlitosphere website, so start brainstorming. Sessions on diversity are always welcome, along with other topics of interest to kidlit bloggers and blogging writers. And, as always, we'll have some special author guests--see flyer at right!

June 20, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: THE SUPERNORMAL SLEUTHING SERVICE by GWENDA BOND & CHRISTOPHER ROWE

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Happy Summer! It's the bright, shiny time of year when you're supposed to have lots of time to do nothing but read. Bring back those lazy, hazy, crazy school vacation days, right?! Well, if you can't get time off of school - or work - the least you can do is pick up a book that brings you joy, right? This one will. Guaranteed.

Synopsis: Stephen Lawson's life isn't particularly interesting. Back home in Chicago, school, while okay, is just one of those things to put up with. Stephen's been a loner, really; his Mom left them when he was a little guy, and his Dad is a busy chef. Stephan might be alone a lot, but he isn't unloved. He and his Dad are buds, and the frequent letters from his "Chef Nana" prove that. Like most of the Lawson family, Stephen's Nana is indeed a cooking genius who works at a hotel in New York. Her entertaining letters to Stephan are filled with funny stories about the colorful "monsters" for whom she cooks and caters. When Nana dies, Stephan's life changes drastically. First, he and his father attend the service in New York... where he and his father will now be moving, now that Dad is taking over Nana's job. Next, it turns out Dad's part of some kind of knighthood...? Weirdest of all, Stephen learns that Nana hasn't just been amusing him, with her funny stories of fauns and ghouls and vampires and stuff. She's been telling him the truth. There are monsters - really "supernormals" in New York, a hotel full of them, in the New Harmonia Hotel... now Stephen's new home.

But, not everyone is happy for Stephen to settle in...

Stephen's second shock is to discover that his long-lost mother's family is also staying at the hotel. The Baroness - he's related to a baroness!! - has invited him to move in with them, but Stephen is a bit unsettled by that whole family -- and later, by the fact that they're not taking rejection well.

There's a whole lot of Stephen's life that's suddenly much more interesting than he thought!

Observations: Because this thick and juicy novel (a full 407 pages) is a beginner's mystery, I'm not going to be able to talk about it much except in the most general of terms, because readers will want to come to this spoiler-and-clue free. Like the very best of the Harry Potter novels - the first two, in my opinion - there are tons of new-things-per-page, the sorts of amazingly fun details that keep you turning pages, even when you're supposed to a.) be going to bed, b.) be going to work. And while this book is marketed to middle graders, it's an all-ages bit of fun -- great for reading aloud before bedtime, and for sharing. I can imagine the audio version of this will be a hoot as well. This is authors Bond and Rowe's first published attempt at writing together, and they have that rare magic in spades. I foresee this series really going some fun places.

Stephen Lawson is a kid who asks questions, which stands him in good stead. Instead of jumping to anger when an awkward person asks him an awkward question, he asks, "Did you just insult me?" Instead of accepting things the way they are, he asks, "How can I change this?" Stephen is always looking for loopholes, which is a great character trait for someone who is going to end up being a detective. Of course, Stephen didn't know he was going to be a detective, but his loophole sense, his friend Ivan's meticulous observations and preparedness and Sofia's knowledge of social mores and hotel etiquette area all necessary things to make them the best junior supernormal sleuths in the hotel... second only to Ivan's parents, of course. What all three of them possess is the ability to own their mistakes and keep moving. This will, in the long run, keep them friends, and help them solve the mystery.

Conclusion: With charm and humor, this sweet story of a boy embarking on a move -- and discovering some truths about the world he's never known -- begins as comfortably and familiarly as a well-loved blanket. This blanket covers some strange bedfellows, however, and readers will be pleased by the diverse and genuine friendships, odd sidekicks, and amusing inanimates discovered therein - and they'll be waiting eagerly for the additional adventures, too!



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find THE SUPERNORMAL SLEUTHING SERVICE by Gwenda Bond & Christopher Rowe at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 19, 2017

Monday Review: JOURNEY ACROSS THE HIDDEN ISLANDS by Sarah Beth Durst

Synopsis: There are stories that, when they unfold, turn out to be quite different from what you thought when you started reading. Not only does this book qualify as one of those stories—it didn't unfold in quite the way I expected—the journey that the story is about takes twin princesses Ji-Lin and Seika along a very different path than the one they thought they were setting out on.

Raised together for their first eleven years, they have been apart for the past year: Seika in the palace learning how to be the next ruler of the Hidden Islands, and Ji-Lin at the Temple of the Sun, training to be a warrior and her sister's champion. Soon after the story starts, the two sisters are tasked with undertaking the Emperor's Journey in order to renew the bargain between the islanders and their dragon guardian. If they don't, the magical barrier hiding the islands will fail, and they'll be beset by monsters.

When they set off on their flying lion, Alejan, at first everything seems to be going according to plan. They're met by celebratory villagers, and they witness the wonders of their kingdom for the first time ever. But, not long afterward, things start to go awry, and the two-hundred-year-old traditions of their people might not be enough to save them…

Observations: The characters in this are charming, funny, and most of all, they kick butt—especially the princesses. (That's the kind of princess I prefer!) Seika and Ji-Lin each have their own set of distinct strengths—which means they complement one another when they work together, but after a year apart, working together is something they have to work at. I love it that there's room for both swashbuckling and clever diplomacy in this story; what's more, I love it that there are flying lions. Alejan is a character in his own right, and adds a lot of humor, bravery, and delight to their adventure. As always, Durst is amazing at creating unique settings populated by creatures that go beyond the usual fantasy suspects, infused with both whimsy and darkness.

Conclusion: This was a fast-paced adventure that I had trouble putting down—I'm consistently impressed at how well Durst writes for a wide range of ages.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the author (Thanks, Sarah!!). You can find JOURNEY ACROSS THE HIDDEN ISLANDS by Sarah Beth Durst at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 16, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: PROMISE OF SHADOWS by Justina Ireland

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

It's weird to come cold to a book written by someone you know, but this one has been on my list for a long time, and I decided to stop waiting for my turn with the library copy. It's difficult to detail too much about this novel without including spoilers, so this is a bit... vague in some spots, but hopefully this will just encourage you to pick up and give this underrated novel a read.

Synopsis: Zephyr is vaettir - a half-godling, and used to being on the fringes of things. She's not quite human and not quite Harpy. She's familiar enough with the mortal realm to like TV and snacks, and is awful at wielding aether magic and doing any kind of fierce fighting, like a real Aethereal. A total disappointment to her mother, Zephyr has long relied on beloved sister, Whisper to make things work out but that reliance has had its consequences -- for one, their mother's anger, and for another, the disgust of the Harpy Matriarch, who, once Zephyr has failed her Harpy trials once and for all, has no further use for her in the Aerie. Zephry is fine playing human until she finds Whisper dead at the hands of one of the Hera's minor god minions. Whisper dared to love the high Aethereal god, Hermes, and has died for it -- and now Zephry is nearly murdered as well. Instead, she draws on an unknown power to kill... but, how? She's barely a Harpy, and no mere mortal can kill the gods. Though some of the bright gods cried for her immediate death, Zephyr is instead cast down to the Underworld, under the limited "protection" of Hermes, who has sent her to a ditch-digging detail in "crap" weather, while the gods above in the Aethereal High Council plot and stew ...and worry.

Tartarus isn't bad... for an Underworld prison guarded by trigger-happy minotaurs and filled with round-the-clock, pointless ditch-digging and daily literal showers of crap. Worse, even in the pits of Tartarus, Zephyr isn't safe. She's been wise to keep mum about how she pulled off the murder - especially since it was mostly an accident - but an opportunity to escape leads her to more difficult questions: questions as to why a childhood friend has appeared to help her, why some of the major players in the panoply of the gods are interested her, and finally, questions as to why Whisper isn't peacefully waiting for Zephyr in the Elysian Fields as she expected. Even her sister's Afterlife is being manipulated by the gods, and Zephyr is over it. She's is determined to set things right, to save the sister in Afterlife which she could not in mortal life. This, Zephyr feels, will give her life some purpose.

But, Zephyr soon discovers that her life has more purpose than she could have imagined. She's part of a prophesy, the hope of millions... and is meant to save the world.

Observations: As a vaettir outsider, Zephyr contains contradictions. Harpy and human, god and mortal. She both wants, and does not want anything to do with the bright Aethereal high gods; she both wants and doesn't really want the moral life which seems the only course open to her. When she finds out that she has a connection to other power, she both longs to use it, to settle scores and become feared, and she prefers not to use it, because who really wants to sign up to be the hope of the world? What makes Zephyr the most interesting is that she's not all one thing. She's both snarky and sweet, trying desperately to be an ideal Harpy while being a fairly good example of a normal human teen.

In the real world, you can just be how you are. But in the vaettir world you are what your lineage says you are. Gorgon? Well, then you must have snakes for hair and a quick temper. Harpy? You must love killing and hate men. There really isn't a whole lot of room for the truth, just stereotypes.

It's exhausting, always caring about that kind of thing.

And this is probably the most telling bit of inner mind we get from Zephyr which explains the drawbacks of her world. She's a brown-skinned, blue-haired winged beast, which means her limitations and label is shown on her body. But, that's not all there is to Zephyr, to the hated "shadow vaettir" and that's not all there is to anyone. This makes Zephyr such a relatable character, this underrated little moment which looks out at the reader and says, "Yes, I see the world has labelled and underestimated you, too. Zephyr has to change her understanding of who she sees herself to be, as she declares herself the hero her sister needs, and her vaettir need to save them. That kind of image shift doesn't come without work and pain.

There's romance in this novel, but it doesn't overwhelm the storyline by any means. For me, Tallon was someone I wanted to kick a great deal, and amusingly, so does Zephyr. Her hormones are there, but she doesn't let them lead her into stupidity, and it's nice to find a character with a relationship that can wait for better timing.

Conclusion: Fans of Xena and warrior princesses/Wonder Woman in general will find this underrated YA fantasy truly enjoyable. Even if you're not really in the know on Greek mythology - and I am not, thanks to a parochial education - you'll find the action, drama, and emotional development of the characters a fun ride.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of my own purchase. You can find PROMISE OF SHADOWS by Justina Ireland at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 15, 2017

Thursday Review: ROLLER GIRL by Victoria Jamieson

Synopsis: As Tanita and I have observed on multiple occasions, it's hard to write up a review of a book knowing that all you want to do is gush about it. That's how I feel having (finally) read Roller Girl, a delightful middle grade graphic novel by Victoria Jamieson. Not only was it a Newbery Honor Book, it was also a 2015 Cybils Award Winner, so I knew I had a good chance of enjoying it. Turns out I also want to hug it. Also, how much do I wish roller derby had been a thing (or, anyway, a reasonably popular thing) while I was growing up? It would've been better than hanging out at the roller rink, skating in circles, and hoping cute guys from my school would randomly talk to me.

My parents would almost certainly have put the kibosh on it, though—unlike Astrid's mom, who is the one to suggest they check out a derby bout in the first place. The amazing jammer Rainbow Bite (I LOVE EVERYONE'S DERBY NAMES) quickly becomes Astrid's hero, so when her mom suggests summer roller derby camp, Astrid is so there. Unfortunately, there's just one thing making it less awesome than she'd hoped—the fact that she's a total beginner and can barely skate. Okay, maybe two things—her best friend Nicole, instead of going to derby camp with her, wants to go to ballet camp instead…with her new friend Rachel, who Astrid can't stand.

Observations: Astrid is twelve, and this book is a perfect portrayal of the changes and realizations that happen when you're twelve. Astrid is figuring out who she is, and so is Nicole, but that also involves coming to terms with the fact that you aren't exactly alike and might have different interests. Whether or not that's a deal-breaker for the entire friendship is something that has to be muddled through sometimes. Astrid's story shows the ups and downs of friendship—and of learning a new sport—with humor, heart, and pitch-perfect art. If and when I ever write and illustrate my own graphic novel, this is one I'd love to emulate and learn from.

click to embiggen

I also got a kick out of the inside look at roller derby in Portland. I have friends who have done roller derby (props to Malice Sanchez of the DC Rollergirls' Majority Whips!), and I even have a friend who is IN OREGON (not Portland, though) who is a derby referee. Thanks to this book, though, I have a much better understanding of what is actually happening, not to mention a realization that I probably wouldn't be able to channel sufficient aggro to ever be good at it. Plus our local derby team wears way too much pink. But it sure was fun to read about.

Conclusion: I can't resist saying that this is one "jammin'" adventure that will "roll" right into your heart. (Derby puns! You're welcome.)


I received my copy of this book thanks to a kindly gift. You can find ROLLER GIRL by Victoria Jamieson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 13, 2017

SURVEYING STORIES: Historical Without History, in REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale

While May is indeed National Mental Health month, I'm... behind. I'm choosing to ignore that and the fact that Sarah did the actual review of this book weeks ago. Part of good mental health is accepting our... limitations.

*cough*

This book is actually a 'twofer' for things I don't see often in MG lit: one, it's an American narrative memoir, and two, it's a graphic novel which has a clear depiction of a mental health issue, in this case, anxiety. This is an occasional series which proposes to study elements of children and young adult fiction from a writer's perspective.

Let's survey a story!


Shannon and Adrienne have been best friends ever since they were little. But, on day, Adrienne starts hanging out with Jen, the most popular girl in class, and the leader of a circle of friends called The Group. Everyone in it wants to be Jen's #1, and some girls would do anything to stay on top... even if it means bullying the others.

Now every day is like a roller coaster for Shannon. Will she and Adrienne stay friends? Can she stand up for herself? And is she in The Group - or out?

There's been a lot of praise for this books already, so I'll spare you my recap of the storyline - and how much I cried reading it. (Plus, Sarah already did that. Not the crying, the recap.) Instead, I want to focus on genre.

Memoir can be tricky. In this day and age, we're all amateur memoirists, constantly Instagramming and Pintersting our lives into scrapbooks of who we are, and what we did and what we wanted in our life and times. When a writer doesn't have a historical incident or a larger-than-life world to outline, memoir can seem self-involved and narcissistic. At least, that's how the New York Times criticizes most memoirists. However, memoir is actually a really good way to write for middle grade readers. It's a fun way to come to grips with the talking points of history, and I know that I read a metric TON of memoir in elementary school, as "acceptable" reading in the eyes of my parents. Told generally in the first person, memoir is truthful, without being totally factual. It takes giant bites of history and masticates them into digestible slivers, often taking readers back to a child's-eye-view of incidents, including historical incidents. The fact that memoir is more about episodes in someone's life than the day-to-day details of it make it good for younger readers as well, to read an episode, and set the book aside and think about it, or react to it. There are plenty of middle grade memoir books, but very few of them are quite so painfully personal, wherein the failures of parents, teachers, family, and friends are so clearly displayed. Rather than that casting shadow on the main character, however, or making her the most important character, it sheds life on how other people are living within the moment the main character feels is of utmost importance. More importantly, it turns the question around to the reader: Has this ever happened to you? What would YOU do? These are relatable questions, especially to younger folk.

As I've mentioned, memoir for me meant capital-H-history. It does seem like most of the memoir I've read for middle graders is from both the past, and is international. I've read books about growing up with rice paddies, the Communist Revolution, and the Holocaust. American memoir hasn't had too many huge historical incidents to grapple with in the past seventy years (although I distinctly remember reading We Were There books about the Normandy invasion in the fifth grade). Hale's book is rare in that it's recent history - just a slice-of-life from 1980's Utah. No big historical incidents happened there during that time: just life in elementary and middle school.

And, especially because both the writing and illustrations are brilliant? That's enough.

That's enough to let a kid know that their life has historical context. That's enough to remind them that "now" is not all there is, that someday, they will be 'looking back.'

The best memoir holds, once again, two ideas in tension. One, that life is a big-picture forest, and two, that this one, tiny ant is toiling along through this forest, trying to hang onto its load and keep in line behind its fellows. This keeps the characterization vivid. While this is both a story about one version of ant-Shannon growing up with anxiety and loneliness, it is also a story about the forest of imagination, and how ant-Shannon's lonesomeness was both cause and fuel for her imagination. Would she have had one without the other?

It's something to consider, while you're, as Dame Yolen puts it, telling your true.

Kelly Jensen put together a list of YA/MG non-fiction titles during the Cybils last year, of excellent narrative non-fiction. There's more great memoir out there, writers and readers.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale & LeUyen Pham at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 09, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI, Sandhya Menon

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

It's hard to critically review a book when you want to gush about it, but I'm going to make an effort. If you need a feel-good, Happily Ever After, this book is one you'll want to tuck into your carry-on bag. With your iced coffee in hand, board your plane, knowing you've got the perfect vacation read. You'll want to hug this book, too.

Synopsis: Dimple Shah would like her mother, please, to STEP BACK UP OFF OF HER a little. Just... a little. If she hears one more nattering bit of gossip about who's getting married, about wearing eyeliner and looking more attractive so she can land the Ideal Indian Husband, or growing out her hair, beti, it's beautiful, why don't you do something with it, she. is. going. to. SNAP. It's a miracle and amazing that her very protective mother and soft-spoken father have finally been talked into letting her go to Stanford. She's earned that, and they're proud of her, yay. But, that they are letting her go to SFSU for a summer program for up-and-coming web developers -- is unprecedented! There HAS to be a catch??? Her mother cannot possibly be suddenly behind her coding and computer engineering dreams, can she??? Well... actually... yes? And no.

Rishi Patel is the serious-minded, loving son of two amazing people whose love is the type sung about in Bollywood films. He wants that -- badly. He wants what they have, wants that harmony, that purpose, that ...support. He believes in love, believes in family and tradition. So, when his parents suggest that he go to SFSU's summer coders program and check out the daughter of his parents' very dear friends, he thinks, "Why not?"

The agony, the ecstasy, and the expectations of love are all the things that make us play the game. Dimple and Rishi and their friends just have yet to figure out the score... but, they will.

Observations: This novel brings the funny: we all cheesed at the front cover, but my people, look at the back!! Two steps forward... two steps back...

Yes, I am channeling junior high and Janet Jackson, because we all THINK we love romances with the idea of "opposites attract," but when it comes down to it, often, it feels like if characters are TOO opposite, they're unevenly matched, and SOMEONE will have to make a 180° change in who they are... Things like compromise are too often something that's considered boring and too real life for the fantasy of romance. One thing I adored about this was how hostile Dimple was to the idea of romance - because of that reason. Because there's an expectation that if someone is going to change, it' going to be the woman, and if someone has to sacrifice, society is looking at her expectantly again. It makes her ANGRY - with a baffled fury which she struggles to express. She WANTS the dream. She WANTS the gooey HEA. But, real life doesn't provide a place for anyone to have it all, man or woman. If you want to be in love AND have a career where you kick butt and take names... well... you're going to have to work for it like nothing before. And, we don't see, in Western society, enough of that work in action to believe in it.

I love that Rishi is so... wonderful. He's almost too good, and I feared for him, until he started to act like a butthead, and then I was like, "Oh, good. That Mature And Amazing thing only goes so far. Human nature and emotions cloud his head, too. I love the exploration of his relationship with his brother - *sibling magic!* - and I love that guys can care about each other in tender ways... even while giving THE WORST ADVICE EVER. I love that both Rishi and Dimple were sometimes beyond brave. Their romance felt real and long-lasting, and the type of thing you knew they could look back and tell their grandkids. Too often, teen romances have an element of "we won't tell our parents" and the fact that this is ABOUT their families and their futures, is, in a way, such a great twist. I'd love to see more novels where the parents aren't just invisible.

Conclusion: I generally don't read YA romances, because they disappointed me when I was a teen too much. Romances can leave you feeling a little wistful and lonely, as if you can never have what you've just read about, and that goes double if you've only ever read about majority Western families non-Indian families who don't have parents - or parental expectations - or skin-and-hair and lives like you do. But, this romance is a big-hearted, hilarious, tear-inducing -- wonderful-fest, which can be read by everyone, guys and girls, Hindu and Christians - it's inclusive, yet it's very special in that it's going to be extra special for the South Asian teens who identify with the snacks and the songs and the aunties. I love it like watermelon mint iced tea. (Sorry; cannot DO the iced coffee, people.) I just have an extra-special warmth in my heart to think teen readers LOL-ing at this, and I'm betting someone needs to make it a movie, STAT.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI by Sandhya Menon at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 08, 2017

Thursday Review: GIRL, STOLEN by April Henry

Synopsis: Every so often, I really want to go back to the reading tastes of my tween/teen years and pick up something that's a manically fast, suspenseful read with a strong girl protagonist a la Lois Duncan or Joan Lowery Nixon, whose books I used to devour. (I'd walk into the library's YA section—which, in the mid-late 1980s, was not very big—and head straight for the D's and the N's. I have a vivid memory of doing this.)

Girl, Stolen by April Henry (and it's got a sequel, Count All Her Bones) reminds me of those times, and I know I would have loved it. The protagonist, 16-year-old Cheyenne Wilder, is blind, but while her blindness is a critical part of the plot, it isn't used as a gimmick. It is, however, important to the setup. At the beginning of the story, Cheyenne is waiting in the car for her mother to pick up her prescription from the pharmacy: Cheyenne has pneumonia, so, feeling ill, she lies down in the back seat of the car. The next thing she knows, the car is being stolen with her inside of it. The thief, Griffin, didn't mean to kidnap anyone, just to steal a car, but when his dad finds out who Cheyenne is—she's the daughter of a wealthy executive—he decides to take advantage of the situation.

Observations: Cheyenne's blindness is not simply present as a plot device, and I appreciated that. She is a fully rounded character (as she should be) with the skills and smarts to outwit her opponents, and she needs every bit of her moxie in order to succeed against some truly scary baddies. It's also refreshing to have a protagonist with a disability who is placed into an exciting genre plot, rather than a problem novel or issue book or whatever you want to call it. And the sequel was just as exciting as the first book, with a plausible reason for Cheyenne to end up in trouble once again.

Conclusion: Fans of Caroline Cooney will enjoy these, too—you don't have to be someone who was a young adult in the bygone era of the last millennium. I promise.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find GIRL, STOLEN and COUNT ALL HER BONES by April Henry at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 07, 2017

SURVEYING STORIES: The Personal & Political in Rita Williams-Garcia's ONE CRAZY SUMMER trilogy

Middle grade books can run a broad gamut from stories of dead dogs to bridesmaids to adventures on scouting trips. There can be romances, or not, ghosts or not, fear of the dark, braces, or spiders - or not. Middle grade is a great, transitional time. In recent years, there have been a few books about voting for class presidents and such, as tween transition into older, more political thinkers, but I haven't seen as much writing about politics outside of the classroom. In these very odd times, however, I can imagine that's coming. Ask the kid who refused the photo-op with Paul Ryan. "We're not brainwashed," said Jordan McCray-Robinson. "We live in the real world." And indeed, she and her fellow classmates may not know all the issues, but they're old enough to have the outline. Old enough, when paying attention, to have an opinion.

Eleven year old Delphine, at the beginning of this series, is fairly indifferent to the news - it's something Big Ma watches, it's part of the stream-of-consciousness "fussing" with which Big Ma fills the air - with her opinions, prayers, and criticism of the world at large. The personal in this book is immediate -- there are details real and specific only to black people, black girls, black families, in the 1960's or otherwise. Williams-Garcia does not include a glossary, nor does she explain them all. These things are personal to her, as a writer, as a woman who grew up in a black family, and personal to some black people. However, unlike the personal issues of "country" relatives, hot combs, and free breakfast, there are universal themes, too, like bickering siblings, a critical grandparent, and a missing parents. Both the personal and the political stand tall in all three of Rita Williams-Garcia's books, giving writers and readers alike the vocabulary and the scope to enable them to look at their world against a push and pull of different background. This is an occasional series which proposes to study these elements in children and young adult fiction from a writer's perspective.

Let's survey a story!


    "Does anyone know another word for the earth's constant spinning?"

    That was how I knew Sister Mukumbu was a real teacher, aside from her welcoming smile and her blackboard penmanship.She asked a teacher's type of question. The kind that says: Join in.

    Thanks to my time spent with Merriam Webster, I had a few words in mind. Rotating. Orbiting. Turning. Circling. I wanted to join in, but I felt silly, being one of the older kids. Not as silly as Hirohito spinning around, but too old to wave my hand frantically as all the younger kids around me were doing...

    When one of the kids called out "Revolving," Sister Mukumbu clapped her hands. Her bangles jingled. "Yes! All of your words are right, but 'revolving' is right on!"

    ...Sister Mukumbu said, "Revolving. Revolution. Revolutionary. Constant turning. Making things change." - ONE CRAZY SUMMER, Williams-Garcia, p. 71-2

It's hard to think of politics, for some, in terms of children. It's harder for some with privilege to imagine the worlds of childhood as a microcosm of the larger world, but in many ways, it is. What kids hear at home plays out, full script, at times on the playground. The power dynamics, and the beliefs which parents might never have articulated are observed and displayed. The issues which with we grapple (or don't) at home are largely the issues which we explore or neglect in the public sphere. ONE CRAZY SUMMER introduces us to Delphine, Vonetta and Fern, and tells the story of the summer they spent in Oakland with their poet mother, who didn't want to be a parent, hadn't sent for them, and wasn't fussed about feeding them or keeping much track of them, really. Through trial and error - and a whole lot of bossiness on Delphine's part, the girls are herded through the summer, and develop the sprouts of a relationship with their mother. This book was praised for showing a particular facet of a lived experience of some black children in the sixties, contrasted against the swirling of political unrest, the Black Power movement, and the larger story of the Black Panthers of the 1960's. In this first of the trilogy, black families are revealed as both familiar and new, dimensional, and real, and the Panthers are seen less as solely paramilitary protestors, but as teachers and social workers, reminding some of a forgotten piece of their history.

P.S. BE ELEVEN might have seemed, on the surface, less political. After the girls return home for the school year, they're immersed in the business of school, and home. Delphine faces major changes in her classroom, but learns the worth of a "Malcolm X Muslim" student in her classroom. The girls bear up under more of their endless grandmother's fussing, and must make peace with their father getting a girlfriend, and marrying her. Delphine's letters to her mother are filled, not with a little girl's thoughts, but with a growing young woman's questions. I love that her mother's constant refrain is Be Eleven. Be who you are, and where you are, right now. This is, of course, hard for an eleven-year-old to hear.

A more personal political exploration came from Uncle Darnell's storyline. Uncle Darnell, who, since being back from Vietnam, was sleepy-eyed and always sniffling. Uncle Darnell, whose dimpled never showed anymore, and whose protective, uncle ways changed dramatically. Though my story was ten years after this one - the war lasted so long - I was Fern's age with a beloved uncle home from Vietnam, and I remember vast and bitter disappointments of broken promises and zoo trips that never happened. I suspect that children in this generation who are losing beloved family to alcohol and opiates and PTSD in this endless state of war that we're in, might weep in recognition. Though many people expect a second book in a trilogy to be a place-holder or filler, P.S. BE ELEVEN, with its secondary theme of enabling and independence, has a poignancy that once again brought the struggles of families of color - and really, families of any kind - who have stepmothers, on-again-off-again best friends, and the vicious claws of addiction dug into them into painful clarity.

    Turning eight hadn't grown Fern any taller. It had just made her mouthy.

    "Where's my watch?" she repeated.

    "Safe in my drawer, where you won't lose it."

    "Well, I want it," Fern said. "And you can't keep it from me. If you don't cough it up, I'll tell Mrs."

    I shrugged. "Tell Mrs."

    "I'll tell her, and she'll tell you --"

    Then Vonetta, her ally, cleared her throat, fluttered her eyelashes, and finished ina voice as close to our stepmother's as she could mimic, "Delphine. Your sister is capable of wearing a watch." Capable was one of Mrs.'s words. She used it against me to make me stop helping my sisters. Vonetta is capable of doing her own hair Then Vonetta burned her ears with the hot comb, and who had to rub Vaseline on burned ears and finish pulling the hot comb through Vonetta's thick, thick head? Not Mrs.

    "Fine," I told them both. "And when you lose your watch, don't come crying to me."- GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA, Williams-Garcia, p. 4

As the little sisters grow up, they begin to slip from Delphine's grip. Naturally, Delphine has gotten tired of gripping them - she expressed this in ONE CRAZY SUMMER, when she doesn't break up a fight between her sisters, preferring instead to take the tongue-lashing when her mother has to leave the sanctuary of the kitchen to deal with it, but once you become accustomed to being the one in charge, that position of First has a little you-shaped divot. Now that her father has married Mrs., Delphine is being required to walk back the need to finish all the sentences, do for three little girls and learn to worry about just herself - otherwise she's finding herself cast in the role of the oppressor, trying to keep her sisters down, in Mrs.'s way of thinking. Since Big Ma has moved back to Alabama, and they're spending the summer with she, and Ma Charles and Ma Charles' sister across the creek, Delphine, Vonnetta, and Fern are also having to come to grips with Uncle Darnnell - and Delphine tries to force forgiveness from her sister. As the personal moves to the political, Delphine's eyes are opened to the difference between Oakland, Brooklyn, and small-town Alabama when the Sheriff is both a cousin and a white man, and when an emergency and a hospital stay brings up that "same old story" that both Papa and their cousin JimmyTrotter are familiar with - boundaries, walls, and obstacles put in the road these characters must walk. Racial prejudice, which itself accompanies each book, takes a new form as the girls learn versions of their family history, and how knots in the ties that bind them have also served as ropes keeping her great-grandmother and her sister apart. The history explored in this novel will likely encourage readers to dig into their own pasts for weird little quirks, big family secrets, and places where history intersected with lived experiences.

Multiple layers of emotively personal and political history combine to braid together a narrative that is satisfyingly broad, yet very individually real. I cried tears of rage, grief, and laughter reading these books. Rita Williams-Garcia is a masterful storyteller.



I received my copies of these book courtesy of the Benicia Public Library. You can find ONE CRAZY SUMMER, P.S. BE ELEVEN, and GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA, by the inestimable Rita Williams-Garcia at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

June 01, 2017

Thursday Review: AS BRAVE AS YOU by Jason Reynolds

Synopsis: This Coretta Scott King Honor Book is the first one I've read by Jason Reynolds. I've been wanting to read one of his for a while now—he is someone who is clearly well regarded by other authors online. Now I can safely say that, if he's anything like his narrator Genie, he's full of character, curiosity, humor, and heart.

In this middle-grade novel about family, brotherhood, and what it means to be a man, the story is told through the eyes of eleven-year-old Genie. Genie's dominant personality trait is inquisitiveness: he is constantly asking (often inadvertently hilarious) questions, and when he can't ask them or Google them, he writes them down in his notebook for later. These days he has to write down a lot of his questions because his fourteen-year-old brother Ernie has no patience for them, and mom and dad are arguing all the time. And now, while their parents work out their troubles, Genie and Ernie have been sent from their home in Brooklyn to their grandparents' place in rural Virginia for the summer—where there's NO INTERNET.

Of course, a new environment means a whole new set of questions for Genie—questions like, why is Grandpop blind, and how does he navigate the house so well when he can't see? Even more confusing to Genie is, why does Grandpop never leave the house? And why, if he can't see, does he have a gun?

Observations: Of all the questions Genie asks, the meaning of manhood is really the central Big Question in this book. Genie really looks up to his older brother, which is why, when the time comes for Ernie to "be a man" and learn to shoot, he can't understand why Ernie is so reluctant. When Genie looks at the men in his life—his dad, his Grandpop—he realizes that manhood is a lot more complicated than he first thought. And, as Genie himself learns to deal with the problems of his own making, and figures out how to own up and solve them, he gets a few more clues about what it means to be a man and an adult.

Something I really liked about this book is that the problems and obstacles are all realistic and believable, and the issues Genie is faced with are things he can face down because they're…not so much that they're kid-sized problems, but they are issues that any reader can relate to: what to do if you break something with sentimental value to someone else; whether or not to keep a secret. At the same time, these more everyday-sized problems are stand-ins for real, adult-level issues that are being dealt with by the grown-ups in the picture, and so Genie's questions—and his solutions—have weight.

Conclusion: Genie is such an earnest, busy, lively guy, and he's easy to root for (and cringe for, too). This is an outstanding addition to the realm of MG novels about family and trust, as well as MG literature by and about people of color.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find AS BRAVE AS YOU by Jason Reynolds at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

May 25, 2017

Shelf Help: Are You Organized?

I found this delightful post via Scholastic talking about where and how their bloggers organize their bookshelves: alphabetically, by color (!!!), in a bookcase, in the nightstand, etc. That inspired me to take a picture of one of my bookcases and think about how I generally "organize" (ha ha) my book collection.

When I'm NOT otherwise too swamped to organize (and to be honest, most of the time I'm too swamped to organize--not pictured are the ancillary book piles on the floor), I seem to have come up with a system where I first group the books by overarching category, then within that category I alphabetize them. I have category groups for literary stuff, poetry, plays, old textbooks, children's/MG/YA (all one group), grown-up fiction, nonfiction, writing books, language books, and graphic novels. Within each of those, I usually try to keep them alphabetized by author's last name.

Oh, and I have one special stash of books right by my desk which are Frequently Used Titles such as the AP Stylebook and a Welsh dictionary.

Unfortunately (well, not for me, but unfortunately for anyone else), the groups themselves aren't in any particular order--but I did try to group together categories that make sense together. The children's/MG/YA books are in the same bookcase as the grown-up fiction books. Literary, poetry, and plays are in the same bookcase. And graphic novels and nonfiction are in the same case. Buuuut...old textbooks are crammed in with all the fiction, and writing books actually live in a couple of different spots. And then there's the pile of Books What People Done Lent Me That I Haven't Read Yet and the pile of Review Copies I Was Supposed to Read An Embarrassingly Long Time Ago and the box of Stuff to Donate.

And that's just the stuff in my office. Elsewhere in the house are other groupings for art books and travel books and random crap like old high school yearbooks, and stacks of books my husband bought for the purposes of prepping classes or going to seminars. We're definitely book people!

May 22, 2017

Monday Review: DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham

Synopsis: I haven't read Jennifer Latham's first book Scarlett Undercover, about a teen Muslim girl detective, but after reading and enjoying Dreamland Burning, I plan to look for it. Dreamland Burning is really two parallel intertwining stories, one in the past and one in the present (a device which, I'll admit, I tend to really gravitate towards).

The historical narrative in this book concerns the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, a tragic and horrifying incident which I freely admit I hadn't really known about before in which the prosperous, bustling black side of Tulsa—Greenwood—was burned, its residents rounded up by a white mob, many of them killed. Caught up in the violence is a young man named Will Tillman, trying to figure out right and wrong in a Jim Crow world that largely teaches him black people are to be feared and resented.

In the present, the story is told by teenage mixed-race girl Rowan Chase, who lives in present-day Tulsa. When a building crew doing renovations on their guest house discovers a skeleton under the floor, Rowan launches herself into solving the mystery of the body and how it got there. In the process, she realizes the extent to which the troubled racial history of Tulsa is still an ongoing legacy—one that intertwines with her own family's history.

Observations: With alternating chapters between past and present, both in first person, this is a fast-moving page turner. The often stomach-turning realities of being a black person in the 1920s South are juxtaposed with the still-problematic experience of being mixed race in the present day, with plenty of food for thought as a result. While I thought that part of the story could have been pushed a bit more, the focus on the mystery plot kept things moving forward and probably also kept the book from being obviously didactic. In fact, there were plenty of seeds planted here for readers to think about in terms of social and racial justice, from Rowan's best friend James's tutoring English to immigrants at the library, to the uneasy facts of Rowan's own racial identity and history.

Because so much conversation has been going on about Own Voices, I feel compelled to point out that this is not (to my knowledge) an Own Voices book, but from my personal perspective, it was sensitively written and focused on characters of color and the history of people of color in this country. It's a book that received a lot of positive reviews and starred reviews, and one can only hope that doesn't occur at the cost of any equally well written and researched Own Voices narratives. If you follow our blog, you already know we try to read and review as widely as possible within our areas of interest, so in our little corner of the blogosphere I don't think we're ignoring or slighting Own Voices—in fact, it's always been a focus of ours even before there was a hashtag. So. There you go. Disclaimer-y thing over.

Conclusion: If you enjoyed Ashley Hope Perez's Out of Darkness and other gripping novels that bring to life some of our most troubling historical moments—and leave you with hope as well as the desire to change our world for the better—check this one out.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!