October 17, 2014

KidlitCon 2014: Notepad Forum, Part ii ~ The Weekend Word: "Appropriation"

This weekend's word is actually a phrase - Cultural Appropriation.

I've blogged a bit about KidLitCon over the last week, and talked about how last weekend, Charlotte Taylor, our program director, came up with a great way to keep us thoughtful during those brief moments when people were at loose ends. She started a notepad conversation which was ongoing throughout the weekend, and one of the things on the pad was the somewhat plaintive question about how to judge cultural appropriation in fantasy.

And the follow-up question someone else asked was even more direct: "Is using elements of another culture or lots of cultures always a bad thing? When does it become cultural appropriation?"

Both questions are huge and complex, and in the name of not choking on this, let's take it in small bites:

Q: What, first, IS cultural appropriation exactly?

A: By the book (in this case, my sociology book), Cultural appropriation is the taking of pieces of a minority culture by a culture in the majority, which commodifies, invalidates, homogenizes, romanticizes, or otherwise misrepresents the culture in the minority (emphasis mine).

I tried to define it with more words and fewer sociological terms... and I fell short on a slip of paper teetering on a lightweight easel with a purple marker in my hand, between meetings. This question - and that answer - needs a lot, a lot, a LOT more time and space and brain put into it (and a keyboard, thanks), to understand what it means and how to apply it to our writing and to our lives. And, before I touch on what it means to story - to my understanding, anyway, fully knowing that YOUR understanding might be different - I'm going to start somewhere else... I'm going to start with clothes.

(Two reasons for that: one, because Halloween, and WOW, let's just rename it Cultural Appropriation Night RIGHT NOW, and save the hassle, and two, because this is where it touches on my life, and where I can pull a quick and dirty illustration.)

When we lived in Scotland, I had myriad South Asian acquaintances, and a few friends. We patronized the shop of a South Asian importer who frequently went back to Mumbai and elsewhere to load up with items for resale in his spiffy little shop. Glasgow in the wintertime is cold, wet, dreich and dull and I was longing for life and sunshine. Going into his shop was like a little visit to a world nearly as bright as California. I spent a shocking amount of money there - and when we were invited to a wedding at a Hindu temple, I was thrilled to bits to wear culturally appropriate gear! In a temple! I wore my own dress, but wrapped saree fabric around my shoulders and wore a jewelry set from India. Tech Boy wore a boring old tux, because... well, cultural appropriation is a bit different for him. (More on that later.*)

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Bride and Groom at their first wedding - in lovely but familiar modern Scottish wedding garb.

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A tiny piece of Groom at the Hindu wedding - I don't have pictures not showing their faces, and they didn't ask to be featured on the blog, so...

As I put on the clothes for the wedding, wrapping the saree fabric around myself, I wondered silently, Am I appropriating South Asian culture? I took a moment to seriously think about it, because I do care about this kind of thing. I concluded: I wore unique clothing to support our friend's South Asian heritage and recognize her support of her grandparents' traditions and faith (which was why she was having a second Hindu wedding when she's fairly ambivalent about cultural things in general and her family's traditional faith in specific). I spoke to South Asian people and asked what would be worn to a wedding, and bought, from people of that culture, an appropriately celebratory purchase with the understanding that it was made specifically for being worn to a celebration. I went out of my way to know what I was doing and why, and was proud to wear my finery and be appreciated, and in turn appreciate the finery of the South Asian folk in attendance. I wore it in the correct context, for reasons I understood, and not to exoticize or make a display of myself. I felt I could say that I was not appropriating, but appreciating.

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(Note: a selfie with a MUCH taller person can make you look a bit ridiculous.

You may disagree, and feel I should not have worn what I did, but I did so deliberately. I remember being at the first wedding, the Scottish wedding, and seeing a.) people in kilts who were not Scottish, and b.) family members in South Asian wedding outfits who were stared at by other guests. I wish people hadn't stared like they'd never seen a saree before - I mean, come on. We all, in our own ways, needed to remember that we were there to support the combining of the two people and cultures represented. We were invited to the celebration, and that day we celebrated individuals AND their cultures.

This does not mean that I would EVER wear a saree for Halloween. Why? Oh, let me count the reasons: A.) Because India is a country, not a costume. B.) because Indian or South Asian-ness is not something for sale. C.) because India and its many language groups and people are alive and well; they're not some romantic and long-lost thing like unicorns that you need to bring back in costume form, or they'll be forgotten and lost in the mists of time. D.) because a girl wearing a bindi in public school might be looked at strangely or treated differently, and if you, a member of the dominant culture, in the same bindi would be thought of as cool it's NOT because you wear it better. D.) because taking items of meaning, like bindis or henna and applying them willy-nilly to your life, because you think they're cute or on-trend is NOT CUTE AT ALL. It can be deeply disrespectful of something you didn't even attempt to understand. E.) because not everyone in India wears the same thing at the same time for the same reasons. Also, keep in mind: not all South Asians share the same faith, or speak the same languages. (Imagine saying in a pub that England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland are all the same. Yeah, you can say that, but you'd better DUCK. They've got dart boards in pubs, and most are fairly handy with the darts.)

Short answer? Find a way to appreciate and celebrate not homogenize or steal bits and pieces of another culture. It is not there to decorate or embellish you.

We're clear now on one small portion of cultural appropriation, at least, right?

When it comes to fantasy fiction, there are many settings and characters who are amazing, and we often find that the writers took their backgrounds from already existing cultures. The great and bow-down-to-able Tamora Pierce uses tons of cultural details in her work. When she spoke in 2007 at SCBWI's Summer Session, she told listeners that she uses the maps from National Geographics and encyclopedias and spreads them out and examines land masses and rivers, to find a place to begin. She uses children's research books as her source books, and finds in them simplified accounts of the ancient history of various places - and inserts it into the story. She uses cookbooks, old song books, topographical maps, baby name and language phrase books to help her get a sense of a place, its language, and its people. She stockpiles fashion books to find out the sumptuary laws of various countries during various times, and buys Vogue's Spring Edition to create casting files of people with difference faces - all of which are well lit and detailed. She does all of these things because human beings thrive on detail. Detail enriches a story, and specific cultural detail enlivens a text.

This sounds like a lot of specific, careful work, this way of including cultural detail. This sounds deliberate, like it shows specifics that summarizing a culture by saying everyone was "almond-eyed" or had caramel-colored skin or whatnot isn't doing. THIS is, to my mind, the first step in how we judge when made-up cultures in fantasy are cultural appropriation - you'll know those books by seeing how little work the author actually did to use their creativity and recreate a place using historical detail as guidelines, rather than a springboard from which to reiterate pervasive cultural stereotypes and move on.

I don't want to move from clothing too deeply into literature just yet, but let me just begin dissecting the books we read and write with an easy story to pull apart in film -- Avatar.

Many people struggled to understand why Avatar was offensive to so many. It did not occur to them how ridiculous a story is told of an exceptional guy of the dominant culture basically good-guying his way into this closed society of blue people, then becoming the best of them, and, because they needed him, and could not possibly have helped themselves, eventually saving them all. The word "marginalize" means to make someone or something unimportant, and peripheral. Not only does this pervasive and long-lived narrative match stories told by members of the dominant culture since the 18th century, elevating themselves and emphasizing how lowly, useless, helpless and dorky the Native cultures are, this type of narrative carries forward the stereotypes that indigenous Americans still have to face today. That's a serious MISuse of a made-up culture in fantasy, and a clear example of marginalizing, as it makes the blue people, who kind of stand in for "natives" everywhere, not the main characters in their own story.

If you read a novel where a fantasy people need an Earthling of the dominant culture to intercede for them because they are unaware of the gold mine of, well, gold or gems or whatever resource Earth would take right off their hands, or if they need this dominant culture Earthling to become their chief because he's better at being an alien than they are, or if these fantasy people are mystical "primitives" -- really look hard at the book you're reading - or writing - and ask yourself if the little bits and pieces of the culture you're taking are yours to use in this way.

This was still a big chunk of thought, so that's enough for now! Tune in next time as I ramble further on exoticism, respect, and reading fantasy from OTHER cultures, and the fun to be had there.


(* Cultural appropriation for a person of the dominant culture, as Tech Boy is, is... well, almost more egregious. During the Raj, the time of British rule in India, which was from around 1858-1947, lots of white-skinned Britons donned South Asian clothing, emigrated to India, started sucking on opium pipes and wearing curly-toed slippers and "went native..." and yet still managed to close their society to the people of India, despite using native servants - and prostitutes - still judged and cut off those people who intermarried with South Asians, and whose children were mixed, and basically used and abused and behaved like they were morally, ethnically, ethically and otherwise in all ways superior to the people in whose land they lived. Does this mean that no white-skinned person should don South Asian clothing? No - but the run of history shows Westerners having a history of imperialism, colonialism and a lot of other hateful -isms [not the least of which is RACISM] that make it doubly problematic for a person of the dominant culture to casually assume elements of an Eastern culture. At least, that's our opinion here - your opinion may, of course, vary.
My opinion is that Tech Boy just looks cute in a tux, and should wear one as often as possible. Preferably when taking me fancy places. ☺)

[Cross-Posted at fiction, instead of lies]

October 15, 2014

KidlitCon, 2014: NOTEPAD FORUM, part i.

Charlotte Taylor, our program director, has clear Leadership Skillz, and came up with a great way to keep us thoughtful during those brief moments when people were at loose ends. She put a note pad up in the foyer space of the library, right next to one of the (oddly hidden) bathrooms, and put pens out. Just... a blank piece of paper, and some markers. And she wrote, "Ask some questions!" or something to that effect. And the weird thing is, people DID. Charlotte may have asked the first one, to get us started, but then other questions - and answers - and arrows appeared.

It was probably just as well that the pad of paper was on an easel. It made it harder to write super-long messages on. Maybe next time, we'll cover a table with butcher paper and let the pen-and-question crew go to town.

One of the questions was about how to support diversity within the kidlitosphere.

At first I thought the answer was obvious... to support diverse bloggers, follow them and comment, right? That's how we support ANY bloggers. But then I thought about it...and realized I was maybe more confused by the question. To wit: does diversity need to be supported within the kidlitosphere? Online? Do I need to follow diverse bloggers specifically? Is that the best or only way to find diverse content?

I'm a diverse blogger as is AF... and it's a weird thought to imagine that people are following this blog specifically because we're non-white bloggers. (Is anybody doing that? Nobody is doing that, are they?) Here's the thing:

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We here at Wonderland blog books. Period. If you're coming to this blog to receive the AfAm and biracial Pakistani-American perspective on books... well, good luck with that. I don't know that I give readers the African American perspective on...anything. I give visitors to the blog the Tanita perspective, which is obnoxious and opinionated and pretty much stabby sometimes. Sarah gives the knowledgeable and amusing, slightly snarky, mostly goofy, much-quieter-than-Tanita perspective, which is all her. None of that has to do with who we are by our labels, by our "groups." Know that little thing Chimamanda Adichie said about The Danger of a Single Story? Yeah. There IS no differently-abled perspective. You already know there is no one gay or trans or bi perspective. There is no Pakistani-American or African American perspective. We don't all have one diversity "experience," and no matter how many times people go on about "the Black experience," I honestly don't know what that means.

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And, the danger of a single story is not only that sometimes simplistically written books or the media portrays people with one story but that we believe -- it's that on the other side of the fence, we think we're the only ones put upon in a certain way, the only ones who understand certain things, and the only ones who feel a specific way. And pretty soon, we have lines in our heads and labels that say "Us" and "Them" and "They," and we're pulling back, just that tiny bit internally. You know what else this kind of "Us" and "Them" thing leads to? Segregation - which is just the polar opposite of the aims of true diversity. I'm not about to stay in "my" people's camp, are you? True diversity is an invitation to broaden, not an excuse to limit.

One of the things touched on briefly - really briefly - this weekend was identity struggle and imposter syndrome, how easily we feel un-genuine and how our insides don't always match our outsides, and we forget who the world perceives us to be when we speak out on various issues. It's easy to make assumptions based on stereotype and then be looked at at just some Angry Brown Person - easily dismissed because the assumption is that someone else has the shorthand explanation on our "experience." Eh, no. Let's not make that mistake here. While we have differences in where we've come from, we're all in this together - let's not assume or summarize, underestimate or dismiss.

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YES, we view life through the lens of our privilege and our background, but each of us has our own set of lenses. My privilege is not yours. My myriad hang-ups are not yours. My sense of smell, love of snakes, unwieldy hair, and clunky shoe tastes are not yours - why, then, would anyone expect our "experiences" to match? If you're not coming here for the Sarah and Tanita Find Wonderland show, you're out of luck. You can see things from the perspective of A Latina person, a biracial or transsexual or single or married or blue-shoe-loving person, but there's never ever been any one tabula rasa onto which the "experience" of your or my specific group is written... and there never will be.

So, do you need to support me in the Kidlitosphere because I'm sharing something specifically here as an African American? Not to my mind. But, you tell me. What do you think?

October 14, 2014

KidLitCon, 2014: A Retrospective, Part I

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KidLitCon: Brought to you by these fine people.
l-r: Maureen Kearney, seated. Standing, me (aka tanita), Jen Robinson, Charlotte Taylor, Melissa Fox, Reshama Deshmukh, and Sarah, aka aquafortis.

Can't remember the last time I was more excited that an event was finally here, and was so relieved to have it over. I had fun - and I'm so grateful for the co-chairs and the support of a great programming team, but planning a Con can drive you crazy, if you're a bit obsessive and a worrywart. I probably also drove Charlotte, Reshama, Melissa, Jen and Sarah equally mad, but there you have it: it's what I do, and I bow before the KidLitCon 2015 Baltimore team in advance. If you're an obsessive, begin to brainstorm now - it won't save you panic, but you'll at least know you've got everything you CAN control, controlled. (There will be technical difficulties. The room may be inaccessible for forty-five minutes, and the caterer will either screw up a delivery, be detained by security, or both. [No, seriously.] The Skype will fail and the laptop may explode. Plan now to just take a deep breath.)

There was never really anything to panic over, of course. We were a room - or, at times, two rooms - full of brilliant, zany, intense, opinionistas, just listening and thinking together. There was more we could have said, given time -- and I have some few regrets about unfinished conversations, but on the other hand, we now have a lot of fodder for the blog.

Myriad people live-tweeted this Con -- and we hope it was fun for those of you who weren't there to follow along in little bites. I feel like I took a bite the size of my head, and I'm still chewing, thus I'll be blogging about this for the next few... whatevers. I'm sure you don't mind.

One of the best things about observing and listening to the conversations around me was the feeling of watching people find their tribe. Regardless of what specifics we thought of, agreed with or disagreed with about blogging, commenting, critical analysis, or diversity, when people came into the room, the conversations buzzed, and the noise level grew higher and higher as blog names and Twitter handles became flesh-and-blood friends.

It was funny watching people come in cautiously, sort of edge around the periphery, and then be snagged by someone admiring their shoes (Not gonna lie, that was probably the first conversation Hannah Gómez had with EVERYONE), discussing the book they'd both just taken a copy of, peering at each other's name tags, and just suddenly warming up, opening up, smiling and gravitating toward the another like-minded group of people and a cup of tea. Meal times were even funnier - the minute people COULD talk, the noise level in the room trebled. The topics were wide-ranging, from serious to ridiculous, some of them spurred by Charlotte's fantastic idea of throwing them on a notepad in the entryway. Thoughts on how to write a bad review - or if anyone ever should - how to critically review a book written by someone about a culture not their own, thoughts, oddly, on Slankets, blue hair, the Maine-loathed Kokopelli (probably only That One Guy in Maine, but still), and Pam Margolis' "what's your ethnic ancestry" uncovered some fascinating answers. (I'm probably related to Leila. Just, you know, because. The Acadian-to-Creole French connection. Be afraid, Josh, I am now, like, your OTHER sister-in-law. And I'm MUCH, much more annoying.)

A number of people talked about their kids - and showed pictures - discussed their book-related shirt collections, the state of funding for school libraries, the frustrations of librarianship, and opinions about Roger Sutton and whether or not Horn Book is actually going to give self-publishers a fair shake (or whether self-publishing SHOULD be given a chance, and how they've not really thought about dipping a toe in, because "awful books"). Discussions changed some minds - and didn't others. Everyone was civil anyway. Conversations ranged through topics of racism and diversity, types of diversity, activism, social justice, and the realities of the world we live in vs. the world in the books we see -- and they were fascinating discussions, too. If we'd only had more time, we'd have plotted a way to change the world.

As it is, we simply came away with ideas on how to affect our little corner of it... which might be just enough.

I have a pad of paper on which I jotted down my thoughts and observations from the first day, in between welcoming late comers, explaining to the nice lady from the library who we were and what we were doing, and popping in/out of the other breakout sessions. Some of them are a little random -- others of them are actually things I need to think about:

  • Omnibeasts Are Beautiful, Says Charlotte. Good thing; pretty much the whole blog = Omnibeast.
  • "Don't let diffident language stop you from making strong statements about books you like or dislike. Don't be afraid of your voice."
  • Charlotte is far nicer than I, but diffidence in her would be severe disingenuousness in me. How to maneuver through that minefield?
  • Is there some way to ask authors what is useful to them in a review, like we ask each other in writing group? After the book is published, IS there any point to a critical review... it changes nothing, yes, but informs. What's my job as blogger? What would *I* need? (or, do most other authors avoid reviews like I do).
  • What's my purpose? Who are reviews for?
  • Argh, Hootsuite, TweetDeck - what? EVERYBODY and God is on Twitter, apparently.
  • Kim Baccellia's students illustrated themselves as white. Not a tragedy, in some ways (cute kid confusion) - but this is only normal if we only see the dominant culture illustrated everywhere... which is NOT NORMAL AT ALL. Okay. Got it.
  • Love Nathalie's accent.
  • "...the innocence and vulnerability of black youth... is something we never get to see." ~ Zetta Elliott
  • Must find out more: Pirate Tree, Blood Orange Press, Reflection Press and Zetta's Rosetta.
  • "If I didn't read self-published books, I would have not half of my books to read." Libertad (Twinja) Thomas
  • (People who wondered about 9th Ward:) Jewell Parker Rhodes doesn't write magical realism. Not magic. It's...belief. Oral tradition = passing forward a people's truths in narrative. Slaves were not a blank slate, imagine that.
  • "I'm always writing about these themes of spiritual awakening." ~ JPR. Apparently authors can actually do this on purpose. ...should level up.
  • "Do. See. Feel. Survive. There's a variation on that in all three of my children's books." ~ JPR
  • Miss Frizzle for another (differently privileged) age. "Take Changes! Make Mistakes! Get Messy!" is almost the equivalent of "Do. See. Feel. Survive." Almost.
  • Dear Writers, Ms. Yingling wants to know where the books about the civil rights movement/diversity/bussing/ in '60's/'70's Ohio are. They are thin on the ground... Not a topic I know zilch about!

Yep, those were my musings from THE FIRST day.

I haven't even covered how energetic and powerful Mitali's keynote was (I'd LOVE to get she and Ms. Jewell in a room together - that would be a dynamic talk to be a part of, as writer or reader) or discussed the uses of anger, some thoughts on The Floating Head of Shannon Hale, gushed about the bathtub in the hotel, the authors who showed up, the weather or anything else... and I do have more to say (of course). Until next time - keep reading, thinking, and sharing.

tl;dr: KidLitCon. ~ Here, have some pictures.

TURNING PAGES: NIGHT SKY by SUZANNE & MELANIE BROCKMANN

It's not every day you read a book that reads like... a movie. Though the book took a little more than ninety minutes to get through, from start to finish I kept muttering "movie." Even the cover has cinematic aspects (though I don't love it, and think all the people look entirely wrong. WHERE is Cal's faux-hawk, I ask you? Why does he look more ten than sixteen?); it looks like a movie poster more than a novel cover. And the novel itself? Fast-paced, action infused, with lots of running, explosions (okay, mostly hydrants and Porta-Potties - not so much the rain of fire), harrowing, high-stakes drama, and plenty of adventure. Less character development than I would have liked but plenty of plot. Most of the relationships make emotional sense, and are, if not entirely satisfying, reasonably so. The romance isn't insta-love, and if the danger sometimes seems more superhero/comic book hyped than real, that's because it's kind of a superhero-comic book kind of book...except like a movie.

How does one write a novel like that? Maybe the magic is if one writes with one's mother? Suzanne and Melanie are a mother-daughter team, and Suzanne Brockmann, occasionally writing as Anne Brock, is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling romance author, has won 2 RITA awards, numerous RT Reviewers’ Choice, and RWA’s #1 Favorite Book of the Year three years running. She has written over 50 books, and is widely recognized as a “superstar of romantic suspense” (USA Today). NIGHT SKY is Mel’s debut and Suzanne’s 55th book. Maybe Melanie is planning to follow in her footsteps. If so, this is a great start.

This novel is apparently set in the Fighting Destiny series of adult novels Suzanne writes, though the reader needn't know anything about her adult books for this one to work. At the time of this posting I've also just discovered that there's an e-prequel to the novel which I missed, which explains how Calvin and Sky meet. While it's not necessary for enjoyment of the novel, it certainly might explain some things I wondered about.

Summary: In this near future, dystopia-flavored novel, China is a corporation, not a country, the United States is not really united and parents are still hyper-worrying pains in the neck. Sixteen-year-old Skylar Reid has no license - not for lack of whining about it - a ridiculously early curfew and too far too many rules. After a terrible accident in which her best friend is almost killed, she's been hustled from Connecticut to this little poky town in Florida, and if not for her neighbor and friend, Calvin, an African American boy confined to a wheelchair, she'd be completely at sea in the small town. Her mother is acting SO weird - trying to control all of her activities, having secret meetings with her awful band teacher, and altogether being annoying. Good thing she's got Sasha - the nine year old she babysits - and her family to secretly idolize. They're the perfect, beautiful family, and Sasha is a funny, weird, precocious and completely precious kid...which makes it doubly tragic when one night, Sasha turns up missing. And, her father, Edmund's gone, too. Sky will do anything to get her little friend back - anything, including teaming up with a scary, motorcycle girl and her hot sidekick, going into the bad side of town, and finding the truth about herself. Maybe none of that will help find Sasha - but unlike the rest of the adults and the police, Sky will never, ever stop looking.

Peaks: The plot is huge and while there are a few areas that don't get quite smoothed out to my satisfaction, it's clear that this world is already built and ready for action, and that there could be any number of sequels set in it, as there seem to be any number than budding superhero "greater than" characters running around.

Sasha is my favorite character in the whole novel and though she's missing for much of the the time, the storyline about retrieving her is urgent and real and works well. While Sky is the main character, and she handles the part of a being a budding superhero well enough, with occasional bouts of disbelief and frustration, she's frequently eclipsed by the awesomeness of Cal.

Cal is the sort of over-the-top, loud-mouthed funny guy who frequently ends up being a sidekick. He's "the comic relief," and it's clear that's his purpose. Fortunately, he gets to do other things (though not be sad or too serious). There's a game Calvin plays throughout the novel called "Would You Rather." It is basically two awful scenarios and you're meant to choose the least awful. It always cheers Skyler, and it always amuses the reader as to how Cal's mind works (answer: horribly, horribly well). He's from a very well-off family, is somewhat tone deaf as to how other people live (the very first scene in the novel, he's disparaging a store and a woman slumming there because it is peopled by lower class shoppers and is dirty - and in the end, he's right, they shouldn't have been there, but not for the reasons he thought), and I wondered briefly what his parents did and how Sky, raised in equal, if not greater wealth, is written as the character who is more down-to-earth. Cal is an interesting enough character to have a book of his own.

Interestingly, the females in the novel (with the exception of the moms - maybe teen females?) are very aggressive and take-charge, and the males are the supporting cast - Cal chauffeurs Sky around, lets himself be bossed, and basically finds most of his excitement following her around - she's a trouble magnet. Eventually Cal lets Milo do the same - in return for the odd kiss. Milo - a sidekick with his own mysterious past and nascent...something... seems to do the same for Dana, and then Sky even takes responsibility for the thoughts he's having. It's an interesting switch.

Valleys: The novel starts with a very harrowing incident, then jumps back in time to the week before the harrowing incident, and then jumps forward from there to after said incident. While only slightly confusing, the timeline jumps may act to lose the momentum of the story for some readers for awhile, but eventually they will find their feet again.

Adults in the novel seem unnecessarily mysterious. Cal's mother, Stephanie, is meant to be reasonable and sweet, in contrast to Sky's worrywart parent type, but as I mentioned, Stephanie also carelessly doesn't seem to notice when she loses her wheelchair-bound son for hours and, once, days at a time. "I'll just tell Mom I'm at your house." I found that dubious -- it's as if "the worst" has already happened to her son, so she's kind of ambivalent about whatever else he gets up to? Or, is Stephanie supposed to be the cool Mom of Color who is down with anything? Or, I wondered, is that attitude because he's a boy? That casual, "he'll come home when he's hungry" thing just stood out so HUGELY for me, it pulled me out of the story with my questions. I don't know too many parents of school-aged kids, able-bodied or not, who are so disinterested in their children's whereabouts.

Meanwhile, Sky's mother seems to be a neurotic bundle of nerves wrapped in ironclad enigma and secret dating. The details of Sky's mother are never revealed. She drags Sky from Connecticut for some reason - why? She's jumpy and overly worried - and yes, partially because Sky was in an accident, but Sky wasn't driving, doesn't drive, and finds trouble when she's not even in a car... so, why the continued nerviness and attempts to enroll her in everything and manage her free time? Worse, Sky - who is confrontational and mouthy and very teen in every other way - will not talk to her mother about it. At all. Except for snarks and slamming doors, she never asks the questions she has, leaving the reader to wonder again...why? Why is her mother so weird? Why is she huddling with the band teacher? What does he know? Is he, as Sky has a horrified suspicion, her father? (If not, where IS the guy, and what's the story on that?) Why does the band teacher send Sky out to find Calvin? Is he good or bad? SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.

I found other issues with the book, but it doesn't necessarily detract from this book being good for certain audiences who enjoy fast-paced, plot-centric fantasy adventure novels. That being said:

What follows is a dissection of this novel, which may contain SPOILERS of some of the detail of the issues of a sidekick character in a wheelchair. Read at your own risk.

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Some of the characterization was problematic for me. While I loved that Cal was a character in the novel, I felt like he was a foil, in some ways, for the main characters, despite having some agency. I had a lot of questions of how he'd gotten there, and why. I wish we could see what brought an able bodied Caucasian girl to be best friends with a chair-bound African American boy. *NOT that it wouldn't happen, but I think it's important to be able to clearly identify what brings characters together at the beginning of their journey, and why they're in a story - what their purpose is. Was Cal only there to be a sidekick, the chauffeur? To be a witness to Dana and Sky's and even Milo's stories? What about his past, his history, his family? What makes Cal's mother the way she is - very easygoing, and not at all concerned that sometimes he doesn't come home, etc. (despite the fact that he's in a wheelchair). Where's his dad?

I know - inconvenient questions. But, because of how Cal was placed in the novel - obviously in the middle of things, but sort of anonymous all the same, I had even more questions. wished I understood more of the extent of Calvin's injuries. If you are differently abled, how you deal with your disability is part of you, and not something which can be left to individual readers' guesses and assumptions. Not to include spoilers, but he's lifted out of his chair at one point - sans tubes and connections. First of all - the wish-fulfillment aspect of that is disturbing, and speaks to an incomplete understanding of the freedom Cal has in his chair under his own direction. The novel makes it sound as if he would be ecstatic to have the appearance of mobility-via-magic -- and I disagree strongly -- I think he would have felt out of control and HORRIBLE in that instance, and I think it's a crock that all people in chairs want Magic Insta-Walking skills. (Honestly, I was terrified FOR him - it seemed so hideously invasive.)

Second, apparently Cal can leave the chair for toileting? He's not often seen shifting in the chair, so apparently he's not always in it, and has no issues with pressure sores, or -- ? While it's awesome, great and amazing to be inclusive in one's writing, and I can see not wanting to get mired in the details of his life, I can see the Disability in Kidlit people gently asking many pointed questions and questioning the authenticity of this character's experience in his chair. I had questions, and I'm not that knowledgeable. Authors who include differently-able people in their novels need to do a tiny bit more research - and since it's worth writing inclusively, it's worth doing it right. Even just a couple more sentences could have cleared some of this up easily.

Conclusion: When I discovered that this is the first book in a trilogy, I realized some of the "whys" will be answered later on. Readers satisfied with delayed gratification will survive the mysterious-mysteries feel of the novel and the unanswered questions. If you like movies like X-Men First Class, love comic books, wish for nascent paranormal powers, wise-cracking sidekick types and boys with ponytails, this action-filled romance is for you.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of Sourcebooks. You can find NIGHT SKY by Suzanne & Melanie Brockmann at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 13, 2014

KidLitCon 2014: Small World, Diverse Voices

In my closing comments at this past weekend's KidLitCon in Sacramento, CA, I included a few notes I jotted down over the course of the conference. These were just some insights that sprang to mind over the course of the conference, and which seemed to perfectly encapsulate how I feel about KidLitCon and why I value it so highly. Ideally, it's what most conferences do, but what I feel KidLitCon does particularly well, and that's providing a space for us--kidlit bloggers, in this case--to help each other.

On an everyday basis, blogging is a rather solitary endeavor, even when you share a blog like Tanita and I do, or contribute to a group blog. You're still writing up posts and figuring things out mostly on your own. An event like KidLitCon helps us support one other in person, reminding us that we are all real people who share a passion for reading and sharing children's and YA books. We can compare notes on what works, and what we still need to work on. We help each other improve and share tips and tricks. We talk books, writing, reviewing, technology, literacy, outreach.

And this year we talked about the hot-button topic of DIVERSITY. Diverse books as well as diverse target audiences; diversity of socioeconomic class and gender and race and sexuality and religion and physical ability; checking our biases and default assumptions; and the importance of providing both windows AND mirrors when it comes to books for young readers.

I want to do a more detailed post soon with some bullet points on what I learned, especially from our fantastic keynote speaker Mitali Perkins, but for today I'll just share one huge takeaway that really resonated with me, and that was something Shannon Hale said in her Skype presentation about why it is so incredibly important to write stories about a wide range of characters, with a diversity of protagonists.

That little girl--whoever she may be--needs a story about HER.

This resonated so strongly for me. In part, it's because of an experience I had during a school visit when I was promoting my first book, The Latte Rebellion. I did a reading and Q&A with the lunchtime book club at Balboa High School in San Francisco, which was a wonderful experience in itself because they had all read the book and had so many specific and intriguing questions to ask me. But the best comment I received--one of the best I've received, ever--came from a girl who approached me afterward to say, "Thank you for writing this book. I feel like you wrote it about ME."

Yes. That, right there, is proof that what Shannon said is so, so true. It ties in with the need for books that are mirrors and not just windows. Seeing ourselves as active protagonists in stories reassures us all that we can be active protagonists in our own stories. It provides validation and recognition and presence, which are fundamental rights, and necessary prerequisites for everyone if we want a diverse community.

More soon...

October 11, 2014

TURNING PAGES: H2O by VIRGINIA BERGIN

"Literally translated, the word apocalypse means “a revelation,” or “uncovering,” as in uncovering of the truth. (From the Greek: apo, meaning un, and calypto, meaning covering.) In fact, the title of the New Testament Doomsday guide, John of Patmos’ first century CE “Book of Revelation,” is Apokalypsis. In other words, through crisis, the End of Days reveals The Truth of the World while also revealing us to ourselves." ~ Robert Burke Warren

Why do people so love post-apocalyptic novels? Because they allow them to imagine their Real Selves, when all else is boiled away, striding through disaster and kicking its butt. Or, not, as the case may be. In Mike Mullins' ASHFALL, a supervolcano explodes and dust chokes the world. Susan Beth Pfeffer's classic LIFE AS WE KNEW IT depicts the moon nudged just a titch out of place, with tsunamis and floods and heat and disaster following. The elements are out of whack as well in this author's post-apocalyptic debut (also entitled THE RAIN in the UK) which falls a shade more on the side of fear-mongering than fact, but contains the scary-end-of-world post-apocalyptic scenario which is like catnip for some readers. Regardless of whether the facts line up, the adrenaline will be pumping in this tale, and True Selves will be revealed.

Summary: Fifteen-year-old English girl, Ruby, is at the home of the very cool Caspar, getting her first, breath-shattering kiss from them when his Dad comes barreling out of the house, shouting, and yanks them out of the hot tub. It could be because both of them are in their underwear, and the punch has gin in it, but ... nope, Caspar's parents are known in Ruby's set to be "cool," tolerant, and wealthy. Dragging people out of the hot tub doesn't fit with that, so it must be something else. Turns out, Ruby's right. They were nattering on about the rain... Unfortunately, they didn't say what was the deal with the rain -- and everyone at the party, hung-over and startled, sees its immediate effects. Caspar goes out in it, with just a towel over his head, and moments later is writhing in agony, sores appearing on his skin. Ruby leaps at the chance to go home between showers -- and is promptly locked in the den. Screaming, threatening, frothing - her blind terror at the action of her loathed stepfather borders nearly immediately on hysteria. As incidents spiral out of control, Ruby is left alone in a world which couldn't care less who is cool, what boy she loved, or who her parents were. It's about survival - and the question of whether or not arrogance, good clothes, and the "in" crowd will save you, when it all breaks down.

Peaks: Ruby is ANNOYING. However, Ruby's behavior, in many ways, is normal and natural. Reeling in panic and loss, she goes for the unnecessary. Ruby cakes on makeup, steals clothes she could never previously have afforded, constantly checks her dead cell phone, makes it her first job to head back to find her friends, tries to email, despite knowing without a doubt that the internet is down and won't be up again -- she shows instinctive behavior, instinct that the human animal in distress cannot help but show. The silent idea that "this should work," and "somebody should save me" shows her flailing repeatedly, making little or no attempt to save herself, until forced. Unfortunately, there are tons of people like this, so Ruby comes off as absolutely realistic.

While individual human behavior - with its less savory drift into viciousness - is somewhat understandable, there are a few issues which pulled me out of the story...

What follows is a dissection of this post-apocalyptic novel, which may contain SPOILERS of some of the detail of the issues of a post-apocalyptic society. Read at your own risk.

♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦♦

Valleys: "People are at their best when things are at their worst," or so the chirpy saying goes. This is definitely NOT THE TRUTH in this novel. Ruby is, within the first week of being alone, turns looter, thief, screamer, and assaults another person. While all of the things she does have reasons behind them, the unwinding of the societal framework of her world seems to go by with blistering speed.

I was critical of Mike Mullins' ASHFALL, which, after the Yellowstone super-volcano eruption, had people engaging in cannibalism within the week. While that would indeed be a terrifying and life-altering circumstance, there's a huge psychological taboo against humans eating each other, except in conditions of last resort, so the timing on that, even though the eaters were mainly escaped prisoners, seemed a little off to me. In H20, while there was no insta-cannibalism, immediately after the initial rain poisons people and causes deaths, there are gunshot deaths - in Britain, where most people don't have guns ready to hand. Granted, it rains often in the UK, and granted, myriad people had gotten caught out in it - and myriad people drank the tap water which was also infected. The initial massively high death toll made sense, but what made no sense to me is that everyone behaved like clueless fifteen-year-olds. The BBC basically told everyone to stay and shelter in place - but nothing else. This, from a news organization which had successfully piloted a country through a nightly bombing blitz, rationing, and near starvation during WWII? This, from a nation who created Land Girls, Victory Gardens and hosts sturdy walkers and campers and tons of self-sufficient farmers? This, from a nation with a close relationship to the U.S., who has protocols set out by the Centers for Disease Control? I found it hard to accept the entire world falling apart. The CDC has put out guides about contaminants which even Cub Scouts know: boil the water, treat it with iodide, chlorine tablets, alcohol... but the author set up the "bacterium from space" as this superbug which no one even thinks to try and kill by the simple expedient of boiling water. Again, I find it plausible that RUBY won't know what to do, but no one knowing what to do - or what to try, even - is suspect. Further problematic is that the only one who knows anything is a spotty, unattractive, nerd - and male, thus leaning comfortably upon a whole familiar cushion of stereotypes.

Finally, that the entire World Wide Web crashes is problematic - servers don't die in the rain. Servers don't need people to do anything with them - so why did they all go down simultaneously? Surely some sites would be up - even relics from the earliest days of the internet, like message boards and listservs. Why the simultaneous loss of cell phones and cell towers? Ruby might not be able to explain the whys to the reader - but surely someone else within the novel would have known, and been able to communicate this, or hint, or -- ? There are several interruptions of logic of this type in the novel, but the howling panic and chaos which erupts almost instantaneously seems to argue for no necessity for understanding -- as long as the author can distract the reader with a panicky response, the logic disruptions remain easier to ignore.

Conclusion: Narrated by a protagonist who seems incapable of saving herself, yet behaves realistically for a spoiled and tiresome fifteen-year-old, some science plot holes, a non-diverse group of character, and an incompletely comprehended disaster make the debut novel for what is apparently a trilogy. Fans of the scary dissolution-of-society-shows-our-true-selves post-apocalyptic novel, who are able to suspend their disbelief and/or need-to-know long enough to get to the sequels, will find this novel a fast-paced and exciting tale to add to their shelves.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of Sourcebooks. You can find H20 by Virginia Bergin at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 10, 2014

Poetry Friday/TURNING PAGES: TO THIS DAY by Shane Koyczan

because there's something in side you
that made you keep trying
despite everyone who told you to quit
you build a cast around your
broken heart
and signed it yourself
          you signed it
"THEY WERE WRONG"

...
we are graduating members from the class of
WE MADE IT
not the faded echoes of voices crying out
names will never hurt me
      of course
         they did

~ Shane Koyczan, "To This Day"

This past Monday, October 6, was World Bullying Prevention Day. If you didn't know that, that's okay - it's less known than National Pink Shirt Day in February, or STAND UP Day in November, or other anti-bullying campaigns in various schools and in various states across the country, and around the world. Monday was just another tiny stone in the edifice that bravehearts are constructing against bullying and bullies in our schools and in our society.

The book I'm sharing with you today is probably of a poem you've already heard - this spoken word performance got something like 1.4 billion hits on Youtube by its second day up in 2013. After the author performed during a TED talk - which is wrenching and gorgeous - the poem's popularity soared further.

So, you've probably heard this before. But, since July of this past summer, it's in book form, which means it's now Cybils-eligible (woot) and it's also time to share it again. Take a few minutes, and listen to his spoken word performance in its entirety, and see the work of the eighty animators with Giant Ant Studios who helped him make his TED talk video possible.

I found this poem powerfully compelling for many reasons, but especially because of the repeated phrase, "To this day." To this day, I see the faces and know the names of my tormentors, to this day, I still don't know quite what the heck happened between fifth grade and ninth - and onward - to bring my personal social real estate price to rock bottom, and raise the personal values of some of the rest of my classmates so high... To this day, I carry an abscess, a wound I keep thinking is healed, but which is so full of poison that the slightest nudge flares it into hot pain again, and the bitterness roils under the surface. To this day, I, and many others, weep with rage at remembering parts of being in junior high and high school. To. This. Day.

Conclusion: The thirty international illustrators who designed and depicted each page all drew from a place inside themselves that is common to the human condition. We've all experienced the pain, either by unwitting unkindness or deliberate cruelty, of being spotlighted for how well we don't blend with the herd. This artwork highlights the already gut-wrenching words of the poet Shane's memories of being bullied as a fat, awkward child and dips them into the blood and bones of our own experiences and paints them on the page. Despite tragedy, loss, and the lingering echoes of hatefulness, this intensely passionate book is about courage, hope, and beauty - the elements which make all of us who we are as survivors. Whether you were bullied or one of the bullies, this book speaks about hope - and the realization that no matter who we are, we are who we think, and not what anyone else says.

♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦ ♦♦♦♦

but our lives will only ever
always
continue to be
a balancing act
that has less to do with pain
and more to do with
          BEAUTY.

~ Shane Koyczan, "To This Day"


I received my copy of this gorgeous and heartfelt book courtesy of Annick Press. You can find TO THIS DAY by Shane Koyczan at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect. Pop over for more great poetry!

October 09, 2014

Thursday Review: IN REAL LIFE by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

Summary: There aren't many books, graphic novel or not, that can combine sweetness and seriousness in the way In Real Life does. Written by Cory Doctorow with art by Jen Wang, it's a deceptively simple story at first: the protagonist, Anda, is the new girl in town. She's shy, and has trouble meeting people at school, but when a young woman comes to her computer class and gives a guest talk about girl gamers, Anda is rapt. In Coarsegold Online, she's free to be herself, but also not be herself at the same time, and it's a heady combination.

Turns out Anda really is good at the online gaming thing, and she soon makes herself an invaluable part of the team, making friends with other girls in the process. Online, of course. But, as we all know about MMORPGs, she also encounters a wide range of other people from all over the world. Some of those people, though, are illicitly harvesting game items to sell online to wealthier players—gold farmers, a concept that will be familiar to anyone who read Cory Doctorow's YA novel For The Win (reviewed here). This one proves Doctorow can write girl gamers just as well as he writes about guy gamers.

One day, Anda and her team are dispatched on a raid to go bust the chops of some gold farmers. Normally this would be a straightforward task, but then one of the gold farmers' avatar…talks to Anda. He's just another kid, sitting at a computer in China, but it doesn't take a long conversation before Anda realizes there's something really wrong and exploitative about the whole gold farming business. And that's when things start to get complicated for Anda, both online and IRL.

Image acquired from Forbidden Planet blog - go
check out their awesome feature on In Real Life.

Peaks: This story was really lovely in its empowerment of girl gamers. I thought that was awesome. If you're old enough to remember video gaming BEFORE the internets connected us all, being a girl video gamer was a lonely prospect. If you owned a game console, you could play by yourself in your house, and you might have a friend or two who would play with you sometimes, and chances were pretty good those friends would be guys. If you ventured to an arcade, you were likely to be the only girl there over the age of ten. (And then you grew up to be one of the few girls working for a male-dominated video game review website. Not that this is autobiographical or anything.)

Now, being an introvert, I was totally fine with solitary hours playing Tetris or Super Mario Brothers; but things might have been very different if there had been more girl gamers around. What I love is the sense of teamwork and group accomplishment that Anda gains from being part of her raiding team—qualities that can and do apply to real-life relationships. And it's a slap in the face of everyone who assumes girl gamers don't exist. On the contrary--I can see girl gamers reading this and just glowing at the idea that, here they are, finally represented in a story about THEM. It is, as I said, lovely.

I want to talk about the artwork, too. The artwork just immediately endears you to all the characters and makes you want to hug them. It's fun, cute, colorful…In its style, it reminds me of graphic novels by Raina Telgemeier. But don't mistake me—by cute, I don't mean cutesy. It's very appealing visually, with a looseness in its drawing style that makes it feel…approachable.

Valleys: I don't think there's a single negative thing I have to say about this one, honestly.

Conclusion: One quick thing to add: If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, the authors are going to be at Mrs. Dalloway's bookstore in Berkeley NEXT THURSDAY, Oct. 16. Squee!


I received my copy of this book courtesy of First Second. You can find In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you on October 14th, 2014!