October 13, 2015


I don't often get a chance to read a book before my librarian friends hit it. True fact: they are some voracious people with a book. I saw a couple reviews for this going by in my blog and Twitter feeds, and did my best to not see them until I had had a chance to read and digest this work for myself, and -- wow. WOW. As a writer of color, I find this book honest, tremendously brave, and cutting edge in a way that many of us don't yet have the courage to write. To me as a reader, SEE NO COLOR is a powerful, difficult book and it is beautifully painful. The novel ends with a splintered jaggedness to the protagonist's life that is a lot like the bits of glass in a kaleidoscope; constantly shifting, but coming together to create something beautiful.

Summary:Alex Kirtridge, sixteen, believes she's made for baseball. It consumes her as it consumes her father, a Minor League player whose dream of the Majors was taken from him, but which he's passed along to his kids. Alex works hard to catch hold of the dream, but a packet of letters shared by her sister, Kit, reveals a family secret. Once brought out into the open, this secret pulls other, uglier things she's been able to ignore into the limelight. Suddenly, every single incident of not blending in, fitting, or belonging to her self or her family seems enormous. Alex - neither fish nor fowl - doesn't have the language or the knowledge to help her navigate this new sense of her identity -- and neither the boy she's beginning to love, nor the family she's beginning to wonder if she really knows. The novel doesn't provide easy answers - or any answers, as readers grapple with the reality of who Alex thought she was, who she is as a transracial adoptee, and who she will become - yet still provides a achingly hopeful conclusion.

Peaks: Just. Too. Many. Good. Things. The language, the graduated awareness of the protagonist, the confusion, the longing, the realistic highs and lows of her emotional state -- this character just jumps off of the page. The father's deferred dreams. The rules of the game. The HAIR. Also very real and significant, the continual specter of the discomfort of her adoptive family -- the way they privilege their right to ignore pieces of her identity, the novel's articulation of the discomfort which people of color often encounter just by existing, and how it is shown to shape what Alex allows herself to see about herself, and how she behaves. Each of us goes through a painful tearing down and building up of our essential selves in adolescence, but possibly people lacking whatever privileged labeling do it more than once. Finding out you don't is like being knocked down to your foundations, all over again. We don't see Alex being entirely rebuilt in this novel, but we see some pretty darned strong re-bar and a sure foundation.

And while my comments on this are more from very technical perspective, I would feel comfortable handing this to a teen reader (heck, ANY reader), knowing that they would come away with a great many emotions and thoughts that would take them new places.

See also Hannah's thoughtful review.

Valleys: No valleys. I am not a baseball player, but that really is the only thing that caused me to need to read more closely, to follow baseball-ese. This did not deter me.

Conclusion: Simply a powerful narrative of identity, its loss, and the triumph of deciding who you are for yourself. While necessarily a shorter review than usual, to prevent spoilers in this very short novel, I nevertheless say this novel is worth its shiny Kirkus star, and needs to be read by and talked about by many readers.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After November 1, you can find SEE NO COLOR by Shannon Gibney at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 09, 2015


This book is both a quiet coming-of-age novel, and a suspenseful mystery, making it somewhat difficult to review without providing spoilers. In some ways, it was a fairly typical YA novel about a high school girl - yet, there was a lot else going on.

Summary: The book opens with Gabi Mallory worrying about the loudness of her pee. She's crouched on a toilet seat during a lockdown, too scared to finish up "normal" things like her bathroom break, because the siren and loudspeaker have indicated that it's a lockdown. She's supposed to stay where she is while they locate and dismantle a bomb. Eventually, busted in on by police and rescued (and, after having a teensy accident), Gabi joins her classmates on campus. She and her sister are relieved to see each other, both having been terrified. But their fear is nothing in comparison with their mother's fear, when they get home. She, a detective's wife and tired of fearing for those she loves, wants her girls out of that school, and essentially placed on a high shelf, where nothing can touch them, not even dust. If her parents knew that the bomber - who is still at large - has been leaving her notes in her locker on playing cards, Gabi knows she'd be yanked away as soon as possible -- so she tells no one, and makes it her business to stop bullying when she sees it, intervene with the depressed, and join the school peer counseling hotline. But, is any of that really going to make a difference?

Peaks: This book will keep your attention, and the writing in some places is evocative and beautiful. The journal entries from the Stranger's Manifesto, as the bomber's diary is called, would themselves make the beginnings of a whole different novel. Someone so disturbed and yet so articulate in his pain has its own kind of beauty. The sibling relationship in this novel, and the way Gabi changes - becoming less focused on perfecting herself for college and in changing the world around her, even if it meant losing a friend, spoke to a kind of determination that rarely shows up in real life. The mysterious element in the book came partially from the identity of the dangerous Stranger, yes, but also from the multiple unknowns calling the helpline. This is one of the stronger elements of the novel, and gives us a great deal of insight into Gabi, as she learns compassion, and how to truly listen, not just on the phone, but in her life. It was satisfying to find them resolve - by the end of the novel, the reader knows almost everyone who called the peer-to-peer hotline, and feels that they earned their happily ever after. So much about this novel works emotionally.

The story has two distinct plot arcs - the fraught relationship between Gabi, her mother, and her sister, and the suspenseful side with the school bomber. I loved both sides, but wasn't as satisfied with the resolution of the relationships; Gabi's mother is brittle and difficult throughout the novel until one day... she isn't. I wanted to be shown a little more the mechanics behind this, but felt the inclusion of their mother growing as a person was important.

Valleys: My overall frustration was the protagonist's inability to identify actual danger from drama in her life, which leaves the reader perhaps unclear about what real danger is... A bomber at your school presents actual danger. Getting separated from a potential boyfriend, not actual danger. Going out of her way to conceal clues from the police, break into her father's safe and handle evidence and otherwise break repeated promises to tell him if she knew anything seemed beyond foolhardy. It seemed disingenuous that the character just didn't want to change high schools, so she was willing to die and/or be responsible for her fellow schoolmates being maimed or dying if the bomber slipped past the police. That... annoyed me a great deal.

Other things left me with questions which weren't sufficiently answered in the novel. I wondered why Gabi and her fellow schoolmates would shelter in place indoors when a bomb threat had been called and why the administration of the school would allow students to work wholly unsupervised on peer-to-peer hotlines, but these are minor considerations. I was disappointed that when Gabi confronted her boyfriend about gratuitous violence and his machismo, domineering and aggressive attitude, that though she was frightened by his behavior, she stayed away from him for punitive reasons for a day, but returned. It seemed a little odd that she never once had the thought that if she displeased him, he might hit her - she seemed only disappointed in him for not being civilized, apparently?

Also, Gabi's Latino boyfriend is the son of her white family's house cleaner. Gabi, on discovering this fact called it "complicated." That single word felt like an opportunity missed, and I wished heartily that the issues of ethnicity and class and the realities of coming to grips with this and other aspects of how she personally - not her mother - dealt with this would have been further explored.

Conclusion: Despite some unevenness in the plotting, and the fact that an observant reader will figure out the bomber before Gabi does, this is an absorbing slice-of-life contemporary coming-of-age novel with a message about bullying and school violence that has a disturbing relevance to today. Readers who enjoy ripped-from-the-headlines novels will probably eat this one with a spoon.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of Albert Whitman. You can find ARE YOU STILL THERE by Sarah Lynne Scheerger at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 07, 2015


The Toymaker's Apprentice!

...which just arrived at my house via late UPS delivery. Thank you after 6 p.m. people!

Honestly? I'm not a huge fan of the whole Nutcracker thing... in part because (Shhhh!) I've never seen the ballet. I also don't really like ballet, as its history is steeped in... *cough* upper class Eurocentric elitism and all that sort of thing. I know, I know, that is its history and a lot in the field is changing, thanks to some amazing folks, and doors finally squeaking open a crack for people of color, but that's where I come from. Though I longed for the yearly traditions wealthier families shared when I was a kid, when I got older, I realized I wasn't interested anyway. HOWEVER. Despite the fact that this story is a re-imagining of the Nutcracker tale, I adore Sherri L. Smith writing ANYTHING and will read it all, forever. Also, there is so much that is completely BIZARRO about the whole Nutcracker schtick anyway. What is with the rat with all the heads? Why are inanimate Christmas decorations moving, anyway? How is such an allegedly happy holiday filled with so much vague menace? Whose fault is it? I suspect this book may have The Answers. Or, at least be really, really beautifully illustrated, have a fab cover typeface, and entertain me in some other fashion entirely. Looking forward to it.

October 06, 2015


The relationship in dysfunctional families between kids and parents isn't something often directly discussed in YA novels, but this one, from the first paragraph, is all about what happens when a kid is accustomed to taking care of a parent. Eventually, the instructions run out... and the caretaker is on their own, no one taking care of them, no one to care for, and no idea how to live.

Summary: Arlie's flushed the drugs, washed the bottoms of her mother's feet and checked that she had on underwear... and, so that's it. Mom's dead, and she's not quite sure what to do next. Eventually, she calls the police, and the world rushes in -- social services, counselors, schedules, high school, and an uncle she never even knew she had. Order is being imposed on the chaos of her world, and though not too much changes at school -- she's still the girl with the horrible burn scar on her face and only one friend -- everything else changes. Arlie's not handling things well.

Living in a retro Airstream with her Uncle Frank, who drops everything and comes to Durango to build them a house, is ...surreal. He looks like he's trying to win father of the year, and for what? He's not her father, and where has he been? Sometimes, Arlie is furious, other times, claustrophobic. Even her best friend, Mo, doesn't understand why she sometimes goes back to the run down motel where she used to live, to see the old lady who lived down the hall, who was almost like family. Even Frank doesn't understand why she goes off by herself sometimes -- and no one will understand why it's so important to her to see her mother's old boyfriend, Lloyd, whose meth cooking is responsible for the horrible scar on her face, and who just might be the one responsible for her mother's death. Arlie has handled everything herself for so long it feels perfectly normal to keep this to herself, and deal.

Peaks: This book had an absorbing, arresting storyline, and despite the emotional distance the reader has from the protagonist, her strong character draws the reader on. Arlie makes choices the reader would not, and puts herself in danger, yet the reader can't help but keep following Arlie down the rabbit hole.

Valleys: There are myriad books out on kids in the system, and it seems an easy trope to make foster families uniformly lazy, out for money, abusive and overall bad. Being in the foster care system is no picnic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is if you're in a "system" you're in a county monolith of paperwork and rules and that's impersonal at best. But, it can be livable and positive, and I wish more people would at least acknowledge this.

The romance in this story didn't ring quite true for me; for someone who had been so insecure - food insecure, physically insecure, etc., and utterly dependent on a female best friend, the almost immediate acceptance of physical intimacy and the L-word with a boy seemed to happen really quickly, especially since Mo held hands with Arlie and was comfortable hugging and kissing her, and they had been for so long two-against-the-world, it seemed improbable that anyone else would be welcomed as quickly into her charmed circle.

Conclusion: For those teens who enjoy reading the gritty, ripped-from-the-headlines types of novels depicting kids in trouble, this one is going to be catnip. A strong voice, absorbing details and a life utterly unlike the world of most will make this a good window to look through and give readers a sigh of relief at the happier ending.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find BURN GIRL by Mandy Mikulencak at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 05, 2015

Monday Review: THE SCORPION RULES by Erin Bow

Summary: While you can certainly characterize all of Erin Bow's books so far as speculative fiction, they aren't easily categorized within that, nor are they similar to one another in any way—and I like that. Her first book Plain Kate (reviewed here) was a Cybils finalist, and her second book, Sorrow's Knot (reviewed here) was equally unique and enjoyable in my opinion, working with recognizable mythology and folk tales to weave a new, relevant, and gripping story.

The newly released The Scorpion Rules, like those two, creates a world that is recognizable as based on our own, but unlike the previous two, we are plunged not into a mythical past or present but a frightening dystopian future ruled by an all-too-humanlike AI. That AI, Talis, is the voice which starts the story, in an excerpt from his "Holy Utterances" describing how he all but destroyed humanity in order to save it. In the aftermath, Talis created the Children of Peace: 400 years later, and the heirs of the remaining human nation-states are kept sequestered in safe, pastoral Preceptures—not for their own safety, but as hostages.

And if human nations are presumptuous enough to defy Talis and go to war, their hostages' lives are forfeit. Too bad the newly created nation the Cumberland Alliance, dry and desolate, is willing to start a war over water with its northern neighbor, the Pan-Polar Confederacy. Too bad, in particular, for the confederacy's Princess Greta. Greta's really only known life at the Precepture, going to school and farming for food under the AI's watchful panopticon. Until, that is, the Cumberland Alliance's hostage Elian suddenly appears and changes the way she sees her circumscribed world…

Peaks: One of the interesting things about this book is that the POV characters are not necessarily the "us" characters in the story. Elian, who we only see through the eyes of Greta, is the character "most like us," whose life and outlook is the most similar to the reader's. This keeps us fully immersed in the world setting, understanding it, at the same time as there's this little voice that keeps us (and Greta) questioning it. It's an interesting storytelling strategy, one which makes the reader question oneself and how easily we ourselves might be led into acceptance of a morally murky reality.

Another fascinating aspect of the story harkens back to older hard sci-fi of the Asimov era: the question it poses that perhaps we humans are unfit to govern ourselves and would be better governed by an emotionally impartial entity. And yet, as always, this begs the question of the extent to which such an entity, having been created by humans in the first place, will still mirror our flaws as much as we want it to mirror only our ideals. And Talis, the AI in this story, is in many ways all too human. I do love stories that are not afraid to pose difficult philosophical problems—but at the same time, The Scorpion Rules doesn't allow theoretical questions to impede the telling of a good story, about the indomitability of friendship and love and human connection, and the survival of the HUMAN spirit and self against impossible odds, even our own determination to destroy ourselves and each other.

Valleys: I won't lie; this is a pretty strange world Greta and her companions live in. Because we are told the story primarily through Greta's viewpoint, we are given an automatic entrance into her world, but it's a rather alien one in many respects. And because Greta IS a child of her world, her reasons for doing things, her emotions, reflect that recognizable-but-fundamentally-altered worldview. For me, this meant a certain automatic distance from the narrator and the story itself, because of her rarefied existence. It's extremely well done—appropriate to the story, certainly—but part of me kept wondering what the story would have been like if we'd also gotten Elian's viewpoint, if we'd gotten to be the "us" character, even if only here and there. But maybe that would have been too much telling us what to think.

I guess what I'm saying is, if you are bothered by ambiguity, whether narrative or moral, this might be a difficult one.

Conclusion: In many ways this story reminded me of some of the most thought-provoking of adult spec fic novels—the dystopian A Canticle For Leibowitz, say (reviewed here); the more recent Station Eleven; or, of course, the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey with its rogue AI Hal. It doesn't give the reader easy answers OR easy questions, but it will make you think hard, and wonder.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley; all comments are based on the advance review copy. You can find THE SCORPION RULES by Erin Bow at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 02, 2015


I review this book with mixed emotions. It touches on an important piece of history, using fictional characters to give eyewitness accounts to a fictional and nonfictional events. In many ways, it is successful; its Kirkus and Booklist stars attest to this. The voice is strong and the action riveting. In other ways, though well-intentioned, the subtext is nonetheless problematic. I've tried to avoid major spoilers, but... reader beware.

Summary:The newspaper account of the CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) ride in May 3, 1961 in The Montgomery Advertiser starts the book in such a way that readers who know a little history can't help but know what they're in for -- another Civil Rights story. This version is told from the point of view of an Alabama girl named Billie Simms, white, well-to-do, and on the cusp of womanhood; thirteen and imagining flying up past the stifling atmosphere of small-town Anniston, and seeing the world. Maybe she'll go to New York City. Maybe she'll go to space. Either way, she longs to take part in the larger world in a real way. History, however, is coming to Anniston, Alabama. Her neighbor, Grant, who always has his camera up to his face, is there to record it, while Mr. Grant is at the newspaper, writing it all down. May of 1961 is a year of changes and challenges, a year that Billie wakes up and realizes that the whole world isn't like her... it's a year she will never forget.

They were just watching. It seemed harmless, but I can see now that it was a weapon. Watching can hurt. It can be painful, even if you don't lift a finger. It has weight. I felt it now, heavy against me, pushing us back, enforcing the rules. I had used it myself without even knowing it.

The passengers watched. The little girl played. The bus rode on, bound for Birmingham.

- NIGHT ON FIRE, by Ronald Kidd, from an Advanced Reader's Copy

Peaks: This is one of the nicest covers I've seen in the past little while; I'm a big fan of silhouettes, and the stylized broken glass around the edges and fire and the bell in the middle are all drawn nicely from the text. It's ironic that such a terrible night made such a gorgeous cover.

The storytelling here is vivid, and Billie's voice is very clear, as she grapples with her blind acceptance of her world as it appears, and her slow realization that All Is Not Well With Everyone. Readers will be curious about her world and intrigued by the historical circumstances surrounding this ordinary girl from a small town. Billie is a go-getter, adventurous and headstrong, and though the reasons for her journey seem more happenstance than reasoned and heartfelt, many readers will travel happily with her.

One of my favorite parts of the story was the inclusion of Janie Forsyth McKinney, the twelve-year-old girl who in real life carried water to the victims of a firebombed bus, and defied her Klansman town (which later declared her mentally incompetent, though the story doesn't get into this). I wished very much that she had made more than a cameo appearance; how she became who she is would to me have been a deeply fascinating tale, one I think any kid would have wanted to read. How does one get that kind of courage? And, where can we all get some?

All of them had baskets. It was a way of traveling I'd never noticed or thought about - proud, self-contained, able to take care of yourself. Just add wheels. Oh, and a seat, preferably up front. The view is better. The door is closer. The bumps aren't as bad.

Valleys: This is a tightly written narrative with a strong voice but also a very strong narrative presence. In some instances, it feels as if the author is speaking for the characters, and some of their conclusions seem unusually mature and more thought out than their interaction in the text supports. For instance, Billie is brave enough to join the Freedom Riders, yet has no deep realizations about equality, though her epiphanies about the family maid, Lavender being more than her job seem genuine enough once she meets Lavender's daughter. Still, she asks no pertinent questions such as, "If the Colored folk get their way, what will change in my world?" Because people are inherently selfish, for this perky, plucky little miss to throw in her lot behind her single African American friend (not counting the maid, who is not her friend although she is confused on this issue) and follow the Freedom Riders, who were nearly burned to death in front of her, bleeding and beaten -- rang a little false for me.

The character frequently talks about her uncomfortable feelings, but they're largely glossed over in favor of action. Equally, the mixed reactions of African Americans at this time are also blended into homogeneity. It is a fact that not everyone thought the Freedom Rides should continue, especially because the riders were young and in serious danger. Many folk wanted to "go along to get along," and not make waves with the white people, but the author has created in this book an entire state full of strong civil rights supporters, which is improbable at best, as individual people of color, even within a single state, hardly constitute an African American monolith. It is implied that their pursuit of civil rights, as depicted in their positioning in the front or back of the bus, can be boiled down to "better view" and "not as many bumps." This is as disingenuous as a book I read as a child which described Rosa Parks as not giving up her seat to begin the Montgomery Bus Boycott because she was tired.

At one point, a gentle African American man on the bus to Montgomery explains that the security guard who harasses Billie and Jarmaine is "caught in a vise - heart on one side, rules on the other." Billie somehow immediately knows that her father, whose casual unkindness to Lavender has already drawn the reader's notice, and whose bystander participating in the Anniston bus firebombing shocked Billie to her core - her father obviously must just have this vise on his heart, so he's excused from being part of a mob attempting to kill people...? That and other moments of egregious oversimplification gave me pause. Although I understand wanting to let young readers feel at ease with the subject matter, the inherent unfairness of the laws reflected in Alabama in 1961 can't be understated. Yes, this is an uncomfortable subject; I believe we must let readers feel a little discomfort so that they can learn empathy. Especially since middle graders aren't babies and can understand unfairness perfectly, the depth of the wounds inflicted by one segment of the American population on another should not be muted for the sake of not upsetting anyone. As a reader hoping for a deeper look at the civil rights movement from the other side of the fence, I was really disappointed.

Conclusion:As writers, we sometimes try to put readers into the moment and our modern sensibilities - what we "should" think instead of what people truly did think back then, and what the law and social mores supported in the past - inform us so strongly that they can't let them go. Especially in books intended for middle grade readers writers seem strongly led to teach and shape opinion and sometimes this interferes with the text. In this case, a hesitance to get into the ugliness of the history doesn't detract entirely from Billie's story, and most tweens and middle graders will not notice - but adults reading this with students should take a moment and talk about some of the deeper issues of being an ally for an underrepresented group, and how important it is who gets to tell the stories of that group.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, Albert Whitman & Company. You can find NIGHT ON FIRE by Ronald Kidd at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 01, 2015

Cybils Nominations, and Are Banned Books Passé?

Are yooouuuuuu ready to NOMINATE? ...for the Cybils Awards? Nominations are officially open to the public (that means YOU, readers) for ten categories of children's and young adult books. You have between Oct. 1-15 to nominate your favorite book in each category. So GO! Do it! And if you really want to support Cybils, buy some great official swag with this year's colorful 10th birthday logo designed by yours truly.

I almost missed the fact that this week is Banned Books Week, during which we can all thank our lucky stars that very, very few books actually make it from challenged to outright banned any more (although I feel like it's sort of over the top to title one's article "Banned Books Week is a Crock" in order to make that legitimate point). It sort of feels like saying we don't need the Voting Rights Act since we don't have racist prejudice any more. But ANYWAY, enough of my snark. There's plenty of fun to be had for readers during Banned Books Week, especially for readers who like the annual reminder that we've come such a long way, and still might have a little way to go.

For one thing, you can check out the list of 2014's most challenged books, which includes (yet again) Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”), which I reviewed here. The list also includes two graphic novels: Marjane Satrapi's wonderful Persepolis and Raina Telgemaier's Drama (which I think is on my TBR pile from ages ago...oops.)

And, just for fun, check out Powell's Books' blog post on 10 Strange Reasons for Banning a Book, pulled from 35 years' worth of Oregon school and library records. True, the vast majority were not ultimately removed from the school or library in question, but the reasons for challenging the books were...well, let's just say that 50 Harlequin romances were challenged on the basis that "Teenagers already have trouble with their emotions without being stimulated by poorly written books."