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!