February 20, 2017

Cybils Review: LOWRIDERS TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH

Synopsis: Time to start posting reviews of the Cybils graphic novel finalists, now that my Round 2 silence is broken--and why not start with the winning title for Elementary/Middle Grade? Lowriders to the Center of the Earth is the second in the Lowriders in Space series, starring the three friends Lupe Impala (an impala), Elirio Malaria (a mosquito), and El Chavo Flapjack the octopus in a new adventure that takes them right to the heart of the Aztec underworld to retrieve their missing gato.

Observations: This had a classic caper feel to it—a fun adventure with plenty going on to keep readers entertained. Lots of action, and appeal for readers of any gender. The 2-page spreads in particular had a lot happening in them, and reward a long perusal, kind of like Richard Scarry's books that are populated with all kinds of individual mini-scenes.

While the imagery at times got a bit "busy" and would have benefited from a little more value contrast, I really enjoyed the blend of lowrider/Chicano culture imagery with other recognizable elements from Aztec and Mexican art. It still reads seamlessly as a comic, but it has a unique feel all its own.

Also, this book was great about being educational without it detracting from the story—not just in terms of the use of Spanish language words (which was fun), but also incorporating several different mythological characters from Aztec and other traditions. The story itself was a solid quest/buddy adventure with interesting twists, and it was easy to jump in on Book 2 without having read Book 1.

click to embiggen...

Conclusion: While I think this would be particularly loved by Latinx kids, the fun and excitement here is sure to appeal to young readers of all stripes. I definitely found myself alternately amused and wowed, and as a California native, I felt at home in the Lowriders' world. However, I think the whole Round 2 group of judges was ultimately enthusiastic about this as our Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novels winner.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find LOWRIDERS TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH by Cathy Camper and Raul the Third at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 17, 2017

ICYMI: The 2016 Cybils Award Winners

While we were all celebrating Valentine's Day/not celebrating Valentine's Day/lamenting the latest political news, there was another occurrence of note on February 14th: the final announcement of Cybils winners!

Over the past month and a half, the Round 2 judges have been busily reading and pondering the shortlists and coming to a decision about the ultimate winning titles for 2016. Over in the Graphic Novels category, we had TWO shortlists--one for Elementary/Middle Grade books and one for YA titles. I'll be posting my own impressions of the GN winners and finalists over the coming weeks, but in the meantime, here's a list of all the winning books (and click here for full descriptions of each one with links to buy):
  • Audiobooks: The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz 
  • Board Books: Cityblock (Alphablock) by Christopher Franceschelli, illustrated by Peskimo 
  • Early Chapter Books: Mango & Bambang: The Not-a-Pig (Book One) by Polly Faber 
  • Easy Reader: Snail and Worm: Three Stories About Two Friends by Tina Kugler 
  • Elementary Non-Fiction: Giant Squid by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann 
  • Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novels: Lowriders to the Center of the Earth (Book 2) (Lowriders in Space) by Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third 
  • Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction: Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan 
  • Fiction Picture Books: A Hungry Lion, or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals by Lucy Ruth Cummins 
  • Juvenile Non-Fiction: Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet 
  • Middle School Fiction: Ghost (Track) by Jason Reynolds 
  • Middle Grade Non-Fiction: Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson 
  • Poetry: The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan 
  • Young Adult Fiction: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys 
  • Young Adult Graphic Novels: March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell 
  • Young Adult Non-Fiction: Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea by Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland 
  • Young Adult Speculative Fiction: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff 
Bonus: the Cybils got a wonderful mention of genre winners and finalists in Locus Magazine! We're not worthy, we're not worthy!

February 14, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: REBELS LIKE US by Liz Reinhardt

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

I'm not usually a huge fan of the traditional "South," -- as a thematic novel concept, it's got baggage so big it doesn't fit into the carry-on compartments. Reading a novel set in Georgia isn't problematic of itself - I did read GONE WITH THE WIND, after all - but it's what isn't in the novel that's sometimes at issue. This novel is matter-of-fact with its underage drinking and sex, but I picked it up because it is the rare YA narrative featuring a biracial character... turns out, there's more than that going on - a lot more. "Some things are bigger than all of us," is the tagline of the novel. Readers may find themselves coming to different conclusions as to what that "thing" might be...

Synopsis: For Agnes Murphy-Pujols - "Nes" to her friends - the obvious thing, when her boyfriend Lincoln's cheating crashes against her mother's work-related disaster - the obvious thing is to just leave Brooklyn. Her mother is taking a job in Georgia to escape the fallout of a poor decision, so resentful and rebellious and deeply homesick, Nes decides against bunking with friends or fleeing to her father and brother in Paris, and goes along with Mom for the last semester of her senior year. Unfortunately, small-town Georgia isn't quite ready for a half-Dominican smart mouth from Brooklyn - Nes doesn't know this language of "ma'am" and syrupy verbal respect for elders, and she doesn't know what to make of being estranged from both her mother - her father - and away from her bestie. Georgia - with "mudding" in a truck on the weekend and swimming in swimming holes with "gators" is nothing, nothing, nothing like Brooklyn - and while Nes is pretty slow to make friends of the female kind, she's very quickly found an admirer in Doyle Rahn - a big, gorgeous hunk of dude with a green thumb and a drawl like warmed syrup. The attraction is mutual - and headlong fast - but it runs into a wall: this is small-town Georgia, a town which has two proms, one for the white kids, and... one for the kids who look like Nes. Biracial? Dominican? Those words mean nothing in Dixieland. Nes has made it clear that she's leaving - nothing about Georgia attracts her or makes her think it's a long-term option for her life - but before she goes, she and Doyle and a few of their friends shake up their small town in a feel-good rebel triumph over racism.

Observations: This is a problematic novel for me, but readers who wish to read it solely as a romance novel may enjoy doing so if they're able to suspend their disbelief about a variety of other issues that don't matter to them. The first 135 pages or so is all about the move, Nes and her mother's relational breakdown, Nes's homesickness, etc., and her incipient romance with a hunky boy. The conflict blooms much more slowly than the feelings of attraction and romance. Readers who dislike "insta-love" will find that it's a pretty quick attraction, but the push-pull of the work needed to have a relationship happens throughout the book.

I had issues with the rest of the novel, however. Nes arrives from Brooklyn to small town Georgia with no thought at all that it will be different from New York and possibly problematic, because she has dark skin. We're constantly reminded that Nes is half-Dominican, half-Irish, and I've read the narrative which downplays that fact described as "genius," yet for me, it appeared that she was not terribly knowledgeable about her culture in addition to being unbelievably ignorant of the historical traditions and attitude of the South. Perhaps Nes's mother, as a white lady, may have had the privilege to not think about race, ethnicity, and the concerns of having dark skin - however, as a mother of a mixed-race teen in this environment when teens of color are being hassled by police, it would seem impossible to be blind to the dangers to her own child. Nes cannot ever shed her skin - in an America in which institutionalized racism is a fact of life, Nes would have experienced some level of bias against her in New York, and also would have been well aware of the issue of being someone who looked black in a small town in the South. That the narrative allows Nes only to experience racism in Georgia is surprising. It's a shortcoming for many non-minority Americans to imagine that slavery and all of its ills - like recalcitrant, Jim Crow racism - are something that is only ever and always the dominion of the South. It is not. Unless the writer set the novel entirely in some parallel universe, time out of mind -- which she does not, because she mentions Lorelei and Rory Gilmore as familiar pop-culture touchstones -- there are some day to day facts about race in America and the experience of being a dark-skinned, half-Dominican female which she either does not know, or chooses to ignore.

Ms. Lovett, who "has the same, huggable, curvy figure and soft, dark brown skin" as Nes's grandmother - is the stern English teacher who requires Nes to call her 'ma'am,' but is easily turned to Nes's team because she apparently loves her sass. Lovett veers perilously close to the Mammy trope, seemingly on hand in the novel solely for the purpose of giving Nes Life Lessons and changing her, allowing her to confide that she's "not actually African American," so she in turn can assure Nes that race is "complicated" and that she, too, is a woman of complex parts, and "half-Cherokee." Ms. Lovett teaches Nes "respect," hands Nes books by Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, essentially wipes her tears, swats her bottom, and sends her on her way to "shake the dust off this old town," just like everyone's favorite Aunt Jemima. As Nes is a high school senior of color from Brooklyn attending a top-tier high school, I find it brow-raising that Nes would have been coming to this canon of black American authors blind, having never heard of them, and only being introduced to them by the redemptive power of a black Southern teacher. While the Magical Negro trope in its typical form doesn't quite work here, I found myself wishing Lovett had been a white character, or Nes's mother, or another student -- or anything...

Conclusion: The novel attempts to delve into a big topic but for me is missing levels of nuance and an understanding of what it is to be a black woman of any ethnicity in the United States in contemporary times. The novel veered at times into slur - including against the Irish as red-headed drunks - and stereotype, which detracted from the narrative, confirming that I was not the intended audience. Regardless, for many, this novel will engage with the quick, hot flare-up of its romance, its feel-good, fairytale ending, and its myriad good intentions.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, and all quotes or references are from an uncorrected Advanced Reader Copy. After February 28, 2017, you can find REBELS LIKE US by Liz Reinhardt at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 07, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD, edited by KELLY JENSEN

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

It took me a while to get to this review, not because I didn't read the book, but because I didn't want to finish it. This anthology took forever to read, as I delayed the ending, but I knew it didn't matter - because I will be reading some of these essays and cartoons and lists gain and again.

Synopsis: To me, this book is about identity, and how we live it out in our individual ways. The book is divided into Beginning the Journey, Bodies & Minds, Gender & Sexuality, Pop Culture, Relationships, Confidence & Ambition, and finally concludes with Go Your Own Way, which touches on the many ways people can be feminists. Each section has between 8 - 15 essays, cartoons, lists, glossaries, illustrations, songs, or doodles on the subject, written by people of various identities and abilities. Readers feel welcomed into the book from any direction. I started out reading from the front cover, and then flipped to a cartoon, circled back to another essay, and then read specific essays on various topics after that. Eventually, I made my way through everything.

Observations: Feminism is a concept which, when one is familiar with a world which lacks intersectionality, one does not necessarily expect to find oneself. To be blunt: I didn't really think this book was for me. Full disclosure: I've met and quite like the editor, I've met some of the poets and artists and essayists, but... Feminism. It's not an identity I've had time to explore.

As a woman of color, feminism seemed like unto yoga: something a lot of white women get into seriously and give side-eye at other people for not quite belonging. As a person raised in faith and wrestling with relating a tradition-bound religious patriarchy to an allegedly loving and equality creating Divinity, feminism seemed like something both too deep and too complicated to add to the mix. And yet: shouldn't anyone who believes in human equality be feminist? I realized I wasn't quite sure anymore what feminism was supposed to be... and I thought this book would be perfect since it's aimed at teens, and I know that books for younger readers often help adult readers get a grip on a concept. I sat down and tried to read with an open mind.

Almost at once, I found a few favorite pieces which spoke to my heart, among them Lisa Prince's So I Guess This Is Growing Up, about her struggles with being a misogynist to becoming feminist; Kaye Mirza's Faith and the Feminist ("As long as I practice my faith, to many, I am nothing but a secondhand feminist."); the beautifully drawn, The Princess and the Witch by Wendy Xu; Ashley Hope Pérez's The "Nice Girl" Feminist, and 5 Tips for "Nice Girl" Feminists. It was like seeing a pair of signal flags waving from the runway saying, "Your Spot Right Here." There's this feeling of, "Oh! Huh," when you find your tribe and didn't expect it.

Conclusion: This book is something which should simply be experienced. I'm not big on gushing, especially about books done by friends. I try to be objective and restrained. But, I just think this book is worth buying - for anyone. For everyone. I can't be more objective than that. The little arrows on the front that say "Here We Are" are for you, too. You're Here. We all are - and it's a surprise and a hopeful little blessing.



I purchased my copy of this book. You can find HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD edited by Kelly Jensen, at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 03, 2017

Surveying Stories: Reflections on Emotional Resonance in Renée Watson's PIECING ME TOGETHER

There are so many things which have been happening in the last several years (days!?) which have deserved our emotions. As a person of color, the uptick in police slayings of African Americans indeed engaged my emotions - but sometimes those emotions are so massive they can't be expressed - and the "public" page seems not the place for something so large, unwieldy, and indiscreet. But Renée Watson has shown herself to be a woman with a dab hand at conveying complex emotional nuances in a delicate manner - not clouting the reader over the head with them, but allowing them to feel and experience them, and to puzzle them out, in their own time.

While there are a few novels out this year speaking directly to the experience of being a minority in a dominant culture world, I haven't read one which deals as well with the poignancy of the human condition of wanting acceptance and love just because -- and not wanting to be bundled with being "fixed" or "helped" in some way. Occasionally, I observe themes or topics in the zeitgeist, and try to work through these ideas in a talking-out-loud kind of way. 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!


Listening to these mentors, I feel like I can prove the negative stereotypes about girls like me wrong. That I can and will do more, be more.

But when I leave? It happens again. The shattering.

And this makes me wonder if a black girl's life is only about being stitched together and coming undone, being stitched together and coming undone.

I wonder if there's ever a way for a girl like me to feel whole.

Wonder if any of these women can answer that.

    - from PIECING ME TOGETHER, by Renée Watson, p. 86, uncorrected proof

What is emotional resonance, anyway? It's not just playing up an emotional angle within a narrative... it's allowing readers into the character's mind to understand as the character reacts, and to feel in concert with them. The emotion ...lingers, like a chord played on a piano seems to hang in the air. That this author is able to take such messy emotions dealing with race and empathy and class and create in them an entrance for the reader to access them and echo them is nothing short of amazing. This is truly some world-class writing, and while I'm not one for blethering on about awards before their season, I'd be surprised if this book didn't take home at least a few.

I was gifted to come to this book with little or no expectation, other than that it was a story about a black girl in Portland, Oregon. As Portland is historically racist and still struggling with that legacy, I expected something touching on that. Growing up on the West Coast, I've been a "model minority" in a culture which has surface expectations of us all "getting along," -- because we're not the South, after all -- but which underneath often has its own stinking brand of putrescence in the form of "genteel" racism and people able to explain away or turn a blind eye to things which don't directly impact them. (Yes, it's the same everywhere, but it is particularly interesting at times on the West Coast.) Having been that person who - of my own self - was doing pretty well, yet the color of my skin and general poverty and lack of opportunity made people want to jump in and save me, and having to negotiate my emotions surrounding my gratitude for the help and my resentment for its need, boy, do I relate to this book pretty strongly. Watson starts out with that idea of a black girl needing and getting help, and then just ....dives down deeper and deeper into it -- unpacking the ways in which black people judge each other and seem to ask each other to conform to a fracture idea of normal, as well as the ways in which "good" white people are so eager to "help" us that they are often blind to what we can give. If this sounds like it's too deep for a YA novel, though, it's not. Number one, there's really nothing too deep for a YA novel, if the writing and exposition is done well, and two, Watson has such range in terms of bringing something up and letting the character - and the reader - react to it that you find yourself with an unputdownable book.

That doesn't often happen to me. I found myself taking notes. How. Does. She. Do. That!? And I knew it had to do with how she skillfully lays out emotion.

Jade has already accepted that upward momentum in her life is going to mean getting up out of her neighborhood, but as she's already scholarshipped into a mostly-white school, she's wondering how much further "out" she's going to have to get. Her mother - her counselor at school - her teachers - all urge her to get involved in this and sign up for that, and she's constantly having Opportunity pressed on her, in the name of bettering herself -- as if she's not good enough -- and supporting her "at-risk" status, despite the fact that she makes A's and isn't at risk for much of anything - except living in her black neighborhood... and being black. Jade articulates the demeaning nature of so many of the offers and suggestions she receives -- here, honey, we don't want you to miss out on THIS thing which will take you further from your side of the city into where the other half lives obviously better lives. or Hey, Jade, why don't you sign up for THAT thing to help make you a better person, because you're obviously not enough now?

Jade's mentor is a young black woman, and even from her direction comes relentless, well-intentioned pressure. All around Jade are people who think she is a girl who needs saving, a girl in need of a lifeguard to fish her out of where she is, instead of a swimmer in need of someone swimming ahead, whose arms breaking the surf are close enough to see where to safely go. Jade does need a hand, but she's not sure she can trust her mentor's reach... not when the woman's so obviously messing up he own life. I love how Jade keeps her own counsel in this regard - she trusts whom she trusts, not who she's told has her best interests at heart.

This is for the times when York told the Native Americans that he was a negro man, a black man. they didn't believe him. They took dirt, scrubbed his skin, trying to wipe the black off. I can just hear them asking,
What are you?
Where are you from?
Why are you so dark?
What happened to you?


And he would tell them he was a black man, not dirty, not a supernatural being. A black man. But for some reason, they thought this man who had this same dark skin and big frame all his life didn't know his truth.
"You're not black," they said.
"Let me see," they said.
"Does this hurt?" they said, as they tried to scrub his very existence away, erase his experience.

    - Watson, p. 191-2, uncorrected proof

One thing I love, additionally, is that Jade finds her own exits -- she NEVER loses her friendships with her cousin and her cohort from school. Despite the fact that they don't see each other often, they text and get together and still are friends. I so appreciate that Watson didn't strip Jade of her friendships in an attempt to make her look tragic, and then give her the clichéd One White Friend so that readers could see and understand that We Can All Just Get Along. And I appreciate that Jade has a falling out with her white friend, until they learn to be friends, until the friend learns to not turn away from what she hears, and until they both understand the importance of communication and sharing and listening, if friendships across races are going to be real and deep. (I don't even have adult relationships with that much potential, and I couldn't help but write myself a little note about This Is How You Do It.)

Secondly, I love how Jade and her crew have their art - whether through words or collage or drawing, they can all do something for themselves, to express themselves, whether they are in a wealthy & well funded district with plenty of opportunities, ...or not. Jade's art centers on what she's thinking, and so we see her respond to finding out the deeper history of Lewis & Clark, and how their story intersects with the history of where Jade lives, and how it eclipses the story of the Native woman, Sacajawea, and the black slave, York, who traveled and explored with them, doing twice the work for none of the respect. When Jade turns her art from her internal landscape into the external world, I love how the author uses her small offerings, together with those of her friends and cohort, to create a gift that changes and brings together a community.

Finally, I love how Jade explores language, how she looks through a wider lens at a greater world longs to go. The Spanish vocabulary words and pronunciation at the beginning of each chapter are wonderful - language and words are a code to get her out of the world she's in and open the door to elsewhere. These are all such relatable things for anyone, and yet they're also a specific flag waving at black readers, saying, "Pssst! The world is bigger than you think. There are new experiences around the corner - and around the globe. Get up, get out, GO." It is a message of hope and of momentum which just cheers me still.

Sometimes I just want to be comfortable in this skin, this body. Want to cock my head back and laugh loud and free, all my teeth showing, and not be told I'm too rowdy, too ghetto. Sometimes I just want to go to school, wearing my hair big like cumulus clouds without getting any special attention, without having to explain why it looks different from the day before. Why it might look different tomorrow. Sometimes I just want to let my tongue speak the way it pleases, let it be untamed and not bound by rules. Want to talk without watchful ears listening to judge me. At school, I turn on a switch, make sure nothing about me is too black.

    - Watson, p. 199, uncorrected proof

This just hits me, on multiple levels of grief and longing and agreement -- and I think will hit readers of various ethnicities, sizes, and experiences as deeply and as poignantly as well. As their emotions are engaged and resonate, I expect them to spend some time thinking, and then get up, filled with these perhaps largely unarticulated, inchoate emotions, determined in some small way to do something with them, to change their world.

And that is the power of emotional resonance in an excellent novel.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After February 14, you can find PIECING ME TOGETHER by Renée Watson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

February 02, 2017

Thursday Review: MADE FOR YOU by Melissa Marr

Synopsis: I just finished reading this fast-paced suspense novel with a hint of the paranormal, and it was definitely a page-turner. I hadn't read one of this author's books in a while (not since the Wicked Lovely novels, which were tales of the dark faerie world) so it came as an unexpected but welcome diversion to be completely gripped by a thriller (as opposed to the real-life business going on at the moment). This one's got plenty of creepy psychological horror, a splash of romance, a hint of the Southern Gothic, and, of course, a few dead bodies.

It all starts when Eva Tilling-Cooper—a member of the popular crowd and veritable town royalty in Jessup, North Carolina—is struck by a car in a hit-and-run while walking along a country road. She wakes up in the hospital with a broken leg, a cut-up face, a traumatic brain injury…and a strange, unwanted new ability: when someone else touches her, she has a vision of their death. Although it starts off as a nightmarish, confusing occurrence, Eva comes to realize that her ability is real—and it might be the only way she can find out who was responsible for her injuries. Not only that, it might help her stop them from striking again.

Observations: This was one of those taut, well-paced books that increases suspense by using multiple perspectives—one of which belongs to the killer. Of course, that means the reader will, at some point, figure out who the killer is, and their relationship to Eva, but by the time you figure it out, it only ramps up the tension as you begin to wonder if the bad guy might actually be able to carry out his ultimate nefarious plans. So at that point it becomes a race against time for Eva, her best friend Grace, her former best friend/current love interest Nate, and the actual police detective (no, this isn't one of those books where the young protagonist manages all on her own—especially when she's getting around on crutches).

Besides the effective story structure, I appreciated the character development in this one. Eva is, yes, one of the popular crowd, but she's also smart, she studies, and her best friend Grace Yeung comes from "the outside"—her family moved to Jessup rather than being part of the generations-old clan mentality that generally rules the town. While Grace is Asian American, it isn't a "thing" here; and none of the main characters is a stereotype. Also, the villain is truly creepy (and thinks he is the hand of the Lord), and being inside his head every few chapters only makes your skin crawl throughout the book.

Conclusion: I highly recommend this one for fans of thrillers and crime novels. The paranormal element is enjoyable and works well but is not the dominant element here—I'd call it primarily a suspense/psychological thriller.


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