August 29, 2015

Interview (Part 2) With Ashley Hope Pérez, Author of OUT OF DARKNESS

Welcome back to our conversation with author Ashley Hope Pérez, author of the forthcoming YA historical novel OUT OF DARKNESS, which is based on real-life events of the March 1937 gas leak which caused a massive explosion and killed almost 300 children and teachers at a school in New London, Texas. This is part two of our three-part interview.

OUT OF DARKNESS has been described as,“a powerful, layered tale of forbidden love in times of unrelenting racism,” while BookRiot's Kelly Jensen calls it “powerful, painful, raw, and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.”

It's always great when a book receives a lot of quiet but intensifying buzz, as people all over the blogosphere begin sharing their experiences with it. Notable for its timeliness as well as its gut-wrenching love story, you also won't want to miss:

...as well as our three-part interview here, 8/28-31.

There's a real beauty to this type of meandering blog tour, where bloggers get a real chance to actually discuss a topic in-depth. We as bloggers can take the time to do a bit more thinking so as not to trot out the same questions everyone else is asking, and this gives Ashley a larger platform for a deeper exploration of her work. There's just a lot to explore, and a lot to discuss, so on that note - on with the show.

We rejoin the conversation, musing a bit on reading tough, uncomfortable books - and what we gain from reading them. Today's conversation is both on reading -- and writing.


Sarah J. Stevenson: In my experience, teens learn a lot from challenging their comfort zones, as readers and, of course, in life. Empowering and encouraging them to examine WHY they feel a certain way and learn to articulate it, rather than avoiding uncomfortable feelings entirely—that seems like a critical life skill.

Ashley Hope Pérez: A life skill and a way of exploring the ethical implications of how and why and what we read. This subject of “difficulty” or discomfort in reading is an area of overlap between my fiction, which makes some people uncomfortable, and my academic work, which often examines how difficult topics are handled in literature. Some treatments of violence, for example, are horrifying but cathartic in a way that lets readers “move on” from the tragedy. Other treatments don’t give the reader that kind of release. It’s terribly uncomfortable to be put in that position as a reader, and yet I also think it’s important. It’s important because it shouldn’t always be easy to “read past” suffering. I’d even say that reckoning with discomfort often has an ethical dimension.

Tanita S. Davis: This kind of inescapable, you-can't-shut-your-eyes-on-it discomfort - I love how Kirkus uses "unrelenting" in this context - this is something that I think a large part of our population (READ: me) would do anything to avoid, and yet I agree with Sarah -- it tends to teach us a great deal to get out of our comfort zones. It's like taking an Implicit Bias test and realizing that we're frozen on a "right" answer -- because it's not right to us, not really. As hard as it is to learn – and it really does sometimes feel impossible, with the way we avoid, avoid, avoid any hint of "not nice" feelings – we have to pay attention to what our discomfort is telling us, as human beings, about our resistance, and about the ethics of bias and racism.

AHP: In the past ten years, I’ve seen students become increasingly receptive to this kind of work, especially around race, gender, and other forms of difference. The generation of students in my classroom now is still struggling with how to talk about these areas of life, but they get that they need talking about.

I think it helps to shift some of the focus from the “what” of the text (topics that make me uncomfortable, etc.) to the “who” of the reader. I often ask my students to register and then examine their reading responses. The sources of discomfort in reading can be hard to diagnose, but often when we really dig, we discover something about ourselves as well as the literature we’re reading.

At least that’s what I believe. And it’s an idea I encourage my students to try on.

TD: Yes. The idea of reframing a perspective as a new way into a story resonates with me. If I might bring up a book of mine, in a way, I did that with MARE'S WAR -- we've all had WWII history ad nauseum, but telling that familiar piece of history from the POV of a person of color, a runaway, an underage, cynical little soldier whose future generations in the form of grandchildren were in every way her opposite (except in cynicism, in Talia's case) - opened it up for ME to find a place in it, not to mention readers.

AHP: I find a lot of overlap between the ways of thinking and the practices that make writing possible for me on the one hand and the kinds of experiences or thought experiments that shift readers’ thinking on the author. Also, there’s such a difference between big-h history and all the smaller histories that are, fundamentally, about human experience rather than about big events.

SJS: Yes, I thought that was a really insightful comment about historical fiction, and the reason why readers always have the potential to learn something new even from fictional accounts of the same event or era.

TD: Jumping off of that, I wonder how writers can kind of take that advice, about reframing perspectives, and use it to delve into other works of historical fiction -- more specifically, I wonder if that's actually the key to working with fictional accounts of real things which happened entirely...?

I think of the incidents of racial violence in Charleston this summer and imagine how those events will be seen, seventy-eight years from now, the way we're looking at the New London explosion – and I imagine how I would tell this story which is still so, so raw, and find a new way in, find a way to make it relevant and immediate to young readers seventy-eight years in the future who might have heard of it as simply another piece of history. Just as an exercise, how would you guys frame that history, if you were finding a way to tell it to young adults in the future? Is there anything which would cause us as writers - and readers and thinkers - to dig deeper, to see more, to care more, and thus extend those emotions to others? For myself, I think I'd be... I'd be a relative of the shooter, I think. That's WELL outside my comfort zone - White, Southern, possibly public school educated to my years of private, religious education, possibly less involved in higher education -- a working class person, living comfortably in a solid community, in a smaller, and in some ways more secure and insular world. How would something like that change me, as that extended family member? How would it change my belief in myself and in my place in the world?

SJS: I agree—a relative of the shooter, or a neighbor or former classmate, would be an interesting perspective from which to approach the story. To add to what you said above, I think I gravitate toward that perspective because it would be a means to increase my own understanding of how such a tragedy could occur, what would lead someone to do that, to feel that way, and to choose to ACT that way. I guess that's the former psychology major in me, always trying to understand why people do what they do.

AHP: Or even the shooter himself. That would be the most radical—and uncomfortable—narrative space to enter for most of us. I found myself recoiling from the idea of narrating parts of Out of Darkness from the perspective of Naomi’s racist, abusive step-father, but I think I had to go there to capture the particular kind of horror that is part of her world. One of the best compliments my editor gave me about the book was that it was made more terribly by the fact that Henry (the stepfather) emerges as a deeply flawed human being rather than (just) a monster.

TD: Whoa. That's an amazing compliment. When we see even our enemies in all their humanity, we've then truly achieved something in our understanding of the world - and in our ability to forgive. ...all that being said, I definitely agree it would be a radical and uncomfortable narrative space, and take some major work to go there, and not punk out.

“...there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we look beneath the surface ...we see within our enemy-neighbor a measure of goodness and know that the viciousness and evilness of his acts not quite representative of all that he is.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., July 1963

Adorbs photo courtesy of the author.


Ashley Pérez is an enormously talented and intelligent human being as well as a brilliant writer, and we're grateful she took the time - out of caring for her two little guys, the newest of whom arrived in June - and doing all of her other teaching and writing and family stuff to speak to us.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of this conversation on Monday!



What does it take to write and to edit a book like this? If you missed Ashley's conversation with editor Andrew Karre back in May, pop over to Cynsations and give it a read.

August 27, 2015

Interview (Part 1) with Ashley Hope Perez, Author of OUT OF DARKNESS

Welcome to Part 1 of our 3-part interview (we just couldn't stop chatting!) with Ashley Hope Perez, author of the forthcoming YA historical novel Out of Darkness, which is based on real-life events (and which we reviewed here).

Not only was this a great opportunity to learn more about the story behind the story, it was also a chance to have a virtual conversation with one of our long-running blog buds and writer friends--because we DO like to put these in a less structured, more interactive form, going back and forth with the interviewee for more information and putting in a few thoughts of our own here and there. Check out the results today, tomorrow, and Monday! We were really pleased to delve into meaty topics like the difficulties of tackling such a tragic real-life event in fictional form and the challenges of writing about such events for teens (and teaching them).

With no further ado, here's Ashley. :)



Sarah J. Stevenson: How did you get interested in this particular piece of 1937 history? How is it remembered in Texas?

Ashley Hope Perez: I grew up one county over from New London, so from a pretty young age I was at least vaguely aware of the disaster and the fact that many children had died. But until about 10 years ago, the explosion was almost never discussed. I think that silence was deeply painful for survivors and their families, and I’ve heard many stories of people who believed that they’d done something to cause the explosion (kicking a pipe, telling a lie) or were otherwise responsible for someone’s death. In the novel, two children change seats, and one of them dies. That’s the kind of situation that leaves the survivor wracked with guilt. “It should have been me…” That sort of thing did happen.

SJS: Was it was difficult to find first person narrative about the New London explosion? What kind of research did you do? Did you base your characters, however loosely, on historical individuals and to what extent? Did this story start with the characters, the setting, the premise, or...?

AHP: Most of the details related to the explosion are drawn from historical accounts. There are many oral histories and other records related to the disaster, and I was fortunate to access these at the London Museum and in the Stephen F. Austin University archives. About two years after I started writing the novel, an excellent non-fiction book came out on the explosion: Gone at 3:17: The Untold Story of the Worst School Disaster in American History by David M. Brown and Michael Wereschagin. From reading the book, I learned quite a few things I hadn’t uncovered on my own, like the fact that the Texas Rangers came out to guard the houses of school board members and that they actually turned away a mob of angry men. That detail becomes important in the novel, where I imagine what would have happened if the men had sought out another scapegoat, one whom no one was protecting.

For me, character almost always comes first. But then again, characters emerge in large part from the situations we place them in. I guess I could say that I almost start by writing somewhere in the middle of the story—a story whose arc I don’t even know yet.

Tanita Davis: I’m definitely a character person too – character and connections.

SJS: I can relate to both of those, as a writer—the story starting from a character, but also from a "what-if". What if something different had happened? What if we followed the event from behind the scenes, or through the eyes of a different character? In a very fundamental way, character + what-if = STORY. 

AHP: Absolutely. The “what if” about the Texas Rangers is actually secondary to another “what if”: What if a Mexican American girl from San Antonio found herself in rural East Texas? Where would she fit? What would her life be like? I think these kinds of questions are especially important when working with a historical topic. I can lose myself in research for weeks—almost a year for this book—but at some point a writer has to turn loose from the historical record and enter the world of fiction. That happened rather quickly since, at least in New London, minority voices simply weren’t a part of the account of the New London explosion. That exclusion went beyond this particular event; for example, when a “colored” school in the nearby town of Longview burned down, it wasn't even covered in the local newspapers.

TD: Since you have a lot of background in education and are currently teaching at the Ohio State U, where would you see Out of Darkness fitting - in a history, sociology, poli-sci course? College, high school?

AHP: I’m interested in all thinking, feeling readers, but I write YA because I trust teens with even the most difficult stories. When I write, I often think of the students I taught during my three years in Houston. Whereas What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly are about (very different) contemporary Latino experiences, Out of Darkness digs into aspects of history that I felt were still relevant to the lives of my diverse but mostly Mexican American students. I wanted to write a book that would make my students think and feel, not only about the past, but also about the present.

And I certainly hope Out of Darkness has a place on high school library shelves and in high school classes. Some brave HS teachers out there will recognize what it can offer to the study of literature and history (among other subjects).

TD: In that case, how would you see teaching this book?

AHP: I’d never dare teach one of my own novels, but if I were giving advice, I’d say that certainly the historical context needs attention. For example, the novel demands that we investigate the particulars of school segregation, which was three-fold in some Texas settings like San Antonio and Houston (white, black, and “Mexican” schools). There’s also the nature of migration and the patterns that can be detected in certain kinds of racialized violence (e.g., how violence is often triggered by external pressures on a community, such as economic stress or disaster).

But there’s a lot to think about, too, in terms of the actual experience of reading the novel. Although it has its moments of bliss, I’m aware that reading can feel very much like a descent into darkness, a descent that may not be especially welcome for all readers but that is, nevertheless, important. When I task my students with intense (they would say “depressing”) works in my university classes, I begin by building a framework for what it means to encounter difficult subjects in literature. We talk about the fact that, our responses to what we read require reflection, even interpretation. We ask questions like, “why am I uncomfortable/angry/frustrated with this portion of a text? What does that emotion do to my reading? To what extent is it a product of narrative and style? To what extent does it result from a mismatch between what the text is and what I wish for it to be?



Come back tomorrow--same bat channel--for Part 2 of our interview with Ashley!

August 25, 2015

TURNING PAGES: THE STARS SEEM SO FAR AWAY, by MARGRET HELGADOTTIR

With its beautiful cover and terse writing style, THE STARS SEEM SO FAR AWAY is just the right book for August. Its tales of a slowly drying and warming world, and heading North to find water and life all seem supremely important and eerily real just now... Margrét Helgadóttir is a Norwegian-Icelandic writer whose imaginative linked short story collection hits just the right note of loss and longing. It's a story of isolation and loneliness, of losing and finding, connection and disconnection in a post-apocalyptic landscape - and ultimately, of losing the final connection to our planet.

Summary:Aida and Zaki, Nora, Bjørg, and Simik are all survivors in various ways. They are also all Northern people whose ancestors are Icelanders, Norwegians, and possibly Innuit peoples. After the melting of the polar ice caps, Earth is now a barren waste, and those choosing to stay behind - or those who were left behind - from immigration on the colony ships now face plague and disease, hostility and foods grown in artificial soil. There seems to be no animal life, no sea life, and very few plants or trees. People are starving, and all heading north, to what they hope is a "Green Land," in hopes of preserving life.

Simik is fortunate. He has a place with his people, and a purpose. Though he's told that the world has changed since the animals are gone, and there is no more wisdom, he's finding traces of a better world in all kinds of lost places. Aida and Zaki are raised in privilege, when there were still resources held in the hands of a few. Their mother, blindly privileged, watered her roses while parched refugees pressed their faces through the fence. When their mother dies, their father takes them away from the cities. Zaki, restless and anxious and seemingly angry all the time, drifts away, leaving Aida clinging to her father. When he develops the plague, he tells her to leave - and she's left with nothing. Learning to make her way - and find her courage - is her survival story. Nora has seen people turn to animals one time too many. But though she travels with her rifle loaded, she is still able to open her hands - and her heart - to other castaways. There is still safety - and maybe purpose - in numbers. Bjørg lives in the worst sort of isolation, because every human she meets, she has to kill. There is no one to give her further instructions - the Commander is gone, and so is her father - but she has her orders. But when Simik arrives, injured, on her island, she can't bring herself to let her isbos - her polar bears - attack. She's baffled by this - frightened and angry - but as much as she craves change, it terrifies her. And when Simik shows her how much her world has truly changed, she has to accept it - and the upheaval it cases her entire world.

These five characters have stories which begin on different ends of the world, and then end up together. It's sometimes surreal and sometimes shocking, but mostly, this weaving-together works.

Peaks: Probably my favorite moments in this collection is when danger is narrowly averted. Pushing back from an island filled with plump-cheeked women and children, the moment when a guest is invited aboard and given meat and drink - or when a knife is kept carefully behind one's back - those moments of high tension are sketched in plain words, leaving the reader space to fill in the blanks. While it's hard to narrow down one story in particular that I liked the best, the pathos of The Whale in Nuuk is one that stuck with me -- the horrible spectre of cages and fences and the last wild animal -- which may have been a fake. The story ends in a way that is both sad and heartening. The wild things are gone -- maybe -- but the humans are going, too. Maybe the Earth will repopulate itself. Maybe they'll find strange new wildlings. But the whales and the other animals will not be forgotten.

Valleys: I enjoyed this collection thoroughly, but I had questions about the apocalypse that remained unanswered. I wondered how ALL the sea life and fruit and veg could have died off -- it's hard for me to fathom, because the world is wide. I also wished for more detail about the governmental structure - and wondered how various government programs - especially ones that takes a lot of money and a lot of tech - survive into the future. How, when people are starving refugees, do people train for that future? Who would be fit to go, from a planet where there was disease? In this present time, we explore the idea of other worlds as a means of escape, but sending only a few away - what is the purpose? To open trade? To allow a lucky few a way out? Escape is an inherently hopeful conclusion to these often cold and desperate tales, and I was intrigued by the author's offering this out to readers and characters alike. I wanted more explanation.

Conclusion: This very literary collection feels like something I might have read for an English class and felt lucky to get away with it. Though not exactly "young adult" in feel, the young protagonists bring an innocence and optimism into some pretty dire spaces, and keep the stories moving in the direction of hope and connection.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the author, in hopes of a review. You can find THE STARS SEEM SO FAR AWAY by Margrét Helgadóttir at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

August 24, 2015

Monday Review: THE CHESS QUEEN ENIGMA by Colleen Gleason

Summary: This steampunk-paranormal mystery series is just plain fun. Three books into the Stoker and Holmes adventures and I'm still enjoying them immensely—prickly, socially awkward Mina Holmes; quick-tempered, impulsive, but brave Evaline Stoker—and this from a series that I actually wasn't initially sure I would like. The Chess Queen Enigma (love that word, enigma) is book 3, and it continues Mina and Evaline's fight against the shadowy and frightening person known only as the Ankh. Oh, and vampires. There are, of course, vampires to be vanquished, a princess to protect, and a chess piece to find, a carved queen that could determine the fate of nations. It's not out until October 6th, but I really needed to review this one before I forget the details—when I grabbed a review copy at ALA this summer, I was just too tempted to read it ASAP. And so I did.

Peaks: Much as I of course love the setting of a mysterious alternate version of Victorian London, and all the fun and imaginative steampunk gadgets, for me this book is all about the characters. Not just the mystery-solving protagonists Evaline and Mina, but the love interests like Pix and Grayling, who add spice and interest to each case—Pix through his meddling about via the London criminal underworld, and Grayling in his legitimate job as a young policeman. And of course let's not forget Dylan, a boy from (more or less) our world, who somehow ended up in Mina and Evaline's world through an accident of time travel. We get a cameo from the illustrious Uncle Sherlock, of course, and plenty of over-the-top menace from the Ankh him-or-herself.

This particular volume was another rollicking mystery with plenty of misdirection and red herrings to throw off even the most detail-oriented reader, and it nicely combined the ongoing plot arc with the case at hand—always interesting to me, since I don't write series fiction myself (or, anyway, haven't yet). And there's plenty of humor to be found as the characters end up in all sorts of outlandish, unexpected, and otherwise sticky situations.

Valleys: Besides some anachronism here and there (hard to avoid, in this type of book), I don't really have any quibbles. You'll either enjoy the Stoker and Holmes series or you won't. If you like steampunk fiction, then I definitely recommend it, because you'll already be familiar with the specific brand of suspension of disbelief that accompanies the genre.

Conclusion: As I said, this is fun stuff, and highly enjoyable. It's the perfect kind of book to curl up with and escape into when your mood needs a lift, and you'll find yourself absorbed by the mystery, the action, the brooding greyness of Victorian London, and most of all the quirky and entertaining characters.


I received my review copy of this book courtesy of the publisher at ALA; all comments are based on the ARC and not the finished version. You can find THE CHESS QUEEN ENIGMA by Colleen Gleason at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you, on October 6th!

August 21, 2015

TURNING PAGES: HUNTER, by MERCEDES LACKEY

I started my late teen entry into fantasy reading with girls who heard telepathic dragons and Heralds who rode blue-eyed telepathic horses. They whole telepathic animal thing quickly got to be a bit much, but I have to admit that I loved those books enough at the time to give any McCaffrrey or Lackey book more than half a chance -- which turns out to be a good thing. A fully realized story with no love triangle (shocking!) and a beginning, middle and END, this novel happily leaves a sliver of light at the edge of the door to enable a sequel or two to push through.

Summary: Joyeaux Charmand is a sixteen year old monster "incident" survivor, raised by Masters in a secret post-Buddhist monastery to be a Hunter. Joy loves the order and familiarity of her quiet life in the Colorado mountains, but has now been called to the Apex, the nerve center of the remaining, monster-free world, by her Uncle, the Prefect. In the twisted post-apocalyptic of Earth in which she finds herself, Joy is accustomed to using all of her skills to work alongside the "Cits," the citizen civilians who have no magic. Together with her Hounds, magical beasts who came into the world, along with the monsters, from the Otherside, Joy patrols and trains and does what she can. It's what Hunters do.

Having lived in rural and secret surroundings, Joy is an enigma to the tech-obsessed, city people of the Apex, where she has been sent to live. Though he is the Prefect of Apex, and allegedly in power, Joy's uncle is clearly wary of something, and keeps their relationship distant and cool - and Joy keeps her mouth shut, because the Masters at the monastery don't want to cede all of their secrets, magic and power to the Apex, and only sent her away to keep the whole settlement safe. They don't quite trust the government, or their intention to protect the people. Joy - and the reader - understands this only faintly at first. Joy's biggest understanding is that there are monsters to kill, people to protect, and having her own TV channel, signature color, rivalries with other Hunters, and a "trending" score for her fan following is just surreal. Especially since it seems like someone - maybe monsters working in eerie concert, maybe a political enemy of her the Prefect's? - is trying to kill her.

Peaks: Mercedes Lackey writes books of absorbing detail and drama. The class striations, the monsters, and the world of the monastery are rendered in cinematic definition. There's a great deal going on, the confrontations begin immediately, the allies are unclear, and the stakes are high. By the time Joy reaches the Apex, there's a sense of familiarity in this novel - as if we've read this book before, or seen the movie. However much an echo of the hollow pageantry of The Hunger Games the Apex seems, Joy, as the girl with all the gifts, is neither as humanly flawed nor cynically wary as the heroine of that tale. Joy's genuineness and desire for connection with people who truly see her allows readers an "in" to the story, and will have them cheering for her to change her world.

Diversity was a quiet positive in this novel, with characters varicolored and variously orientation. I was relieved to see the narrator's stated distaste for the "Christers" who allegedly kicked off the Diseray - or the Dies Irae, depending on who you ask - begin to be informed by actually meeting with and talking to a person - no matter how perfectly Joy is presented, she's still able to make assumptions and have prejudices which need confrontation with reality. This goes a ways toward making her a character readers can both admire, yet also appreciate.

Valleys: This book, as a first in a series, needs extra patience from the reader to maneuver through the densely packed first chapters, and the measured pacing to get to know the main character, find her spark, and root for her society. We have the disadvantage of only being able to see as far as the main character can see, in some cases - and then our understanding outpaces hers. While not being the sort of heroine who makes readers roll their eyes and point out the obvious clues she's missing to danger, readers may find themselves impatient with her methodical thought processes and lack of suspicion - and may find themselves guessing plot twists well before they happen.

Bluntly, the post-apocalyptic Chosen Child/Earth Savior role of the heroine is entirely overdone in YA lit. No one is perky, pretty, and competent at all times, scores all the goals and is thrifty, reverent and clean too - but it's a common YA trope to create the Perfect Girl for whom every guy in the school lusts, too. (And then comes the sparkly vampire. Fortunately, vampires are staked, in this book). Further, there is a GREAT deal of plot and detail overlap between this book and other successful YA post-apocalyptic efforts. While there's no new stories at ALL, the use of glamour and points and trending for fighters echoes the ridiculous world of The Capitol in THE HUNGER GAMES; the flying paparazzi cameras echo myriad other YA novels, including Dashner's THE MAZE RUNNER and Westerfeld's UGLIES series. The familiarity of these elements so soon after the success of the other novels allows the reader to think, "Okay, I've seen that before, I know there's no danger and that it will all be okay," which probably lowers the stakes and removes the tension in a way the author never intended.

Conclusion: Slow pacing and dense detail in world-building may challenge some readers while similarities to other recent post-apocalyptic novels may trouble others. However, if imitation is the quickest way to get readers hooked, readers seeking read-alikes may find this intriguing enough to begin, and then the original entertaining details will cement their interest.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Disney/Hyperion. After September 1, you can find HUNTER by Mercedes Lackey at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

August 19, 2015

Waiting (No More) on Wednesday: The Killer of Enemies sequel!!

The sequel to Killer of Enemies is in my hot little hands!! Unbelievably excited to read it - a little worried that it won't be as awesome as the first one, of course, but mostly trying to clear hours to read it, knowing that I'll be REALLY ANNOYED if I have to put it down. How much do I love that cover??? *Squee!* Stay tuned for a September-ish review.

August 18, 2015

TURNING PAGES: THE GREAT GOOD SUMMER, by LIZ GARTON SCANLON

Geez, louise, can we even call it summer reading anymore!? I lost July, and now The Wees and the Littles started school today, the poor things, and the cousin slouches off, pouting, on Wednesday.

I'm going to pretend that we've got at least until Labor Day. I mean, come on.

In that frame of mind, I'm reviewing a May MG novel - not common around these parts, but I will forever be enticed by a book which deals realistically and critically with faith. I read an interview with the author who felt the importance of this book lay not in the argument between science and faith which wasn't truly started nor resolved - but the idea that there are flaws in people who don't believe - and also in those who do. Too often books are unequally weighted one direction of the other.

Full disclosure: Liz is one of my poetry sisters and an in-person friend, as in, we've actually met in real life. Sometimes that means one feels one can't separate the friendship from the work, but I'm happy to give this an unbiased review.

Summary: It seemed like a good idea at the time. Twelve-year-old Ivy's mother, after a devastating, disheartening fire which incinerated a great deal of their town, and her childhood church, has left to find salvation with a man called Hallelujah Dave of The Great Good Bible Church of Panhandle Florida. No, seriously. Even Ivy can sense the faint ludicrousness of a guy with a name like that, not to mention a church both great and good -- and Panhandle is a description, not a town. Mama's apparently looking for something, so just -- up and left, and went... somewhere... because... well, Ivy would like to know why, so when the smart science guy from school, Paul, suggests they just go and look for her, it... makes sense. At the moment. As so many things do. But Mama always even said, not all ideas are good ideas.

Pretty much from the first moment, the trip to Florida by Greyhound is ill-fated - and Ivy is by turns scared, nauseated (ugh) and angry with and by herself, her fellow riders, and Paul. For a road trip, like all of them, in parts it's long, boring, and grungy, but as a journey of discovery, it turns out to be almost everything Ivy needs.

Peaks: Ivy's twangy Southern expressions, and Marla Frazee's ephemeral cover illustration make Ivy and her friend seem young twelves, but Ivy's emotions - her might-be-crushing-this-hour feelings for Paul, followed abruptly by fury - are spot on for the growing pains of middle grade. Ivy's got a simple wish, and she learns quickly that everyone's desires in this world can automatically complicate things. Her desire for simplicity - a simple faith, a simple explanation - are not realized, and the idea that her mother isn't simply and only hers is a huge, huge lesson for any adolescent. Ivy learns this in a rather dramatic way, but with her demonstrated resilience, the reader realizes she's better off for it.

Valleys: This isn't a valley, per se, but as I chose this as a faith in fiction selection, I wanted more discussion of faith in this novel. At one point, Ivy's accidental discovery, whilst she was babysitting, of a little Buddha is a really fascinating find - but while it gives her a moment's pause, she has a regrettable lack of curiosity, and doesn't follow through with her gushy-voiced teacher about her faith. I wanted to know if she thought the Buddha was an idol, if she wondered if other people in her community were doing other things, if her teacher ever showed up at her church. Of course, my curiosity may have pulled the entire plot off-course. As a "this just in, there other faiths" hint to the reader, it works, and the reader doesn't lose anything by not exploring faiths other than Evangelicalism - but I wished there were people of other cultures - possibly Latinos, who would be very obviously Catholic? - But again, any of this might have pulled the plot off-track.

Additionally, as this wasn't Ivy's Mama's story, we don't get a crystal clear picture of what she was seeking, and why she went, and - well, what happened, exactly. She tries to articulate it, but we're stuck with Ivy's point of view, and we'll never get it -- which is actually okay. She just... blew it. A good Christian Mama blew it - and that's okay, too.

Conclusion: That's the real point of the book: we all screw up - Christians, Buddhists, twelve-year-olds, the distinguished, and those who clean up as best they can. And then we all get up, and start again. A deceptively simple concept it takes the rest of us thirty, forty, fifty, sixtymumble years to learn.



I purchased my own copy of this book. You can find THE GREAT GOOD SUMMER by Liz Garton Scanlon at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!