January 24, 2017


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Our Neighbors to the North have such a strong young adult and children's lit game that I'm always happy to read offerings from Canadian publishers. Most of the books I find are easily accessible to American readers.

Synopsis: Jayce Loewen at sixteen is more annoyed than concerned that her four-year-old sister's care is being foisted on her - again. Her mother - who has hustled forever, working two jobs, is home from work with a nagging cough which has plagued her for weeks. Mostly, Jayce is concerned with is how often caring for Joelle makes her late for school, makes her look different from the other students in her friend group, and racks up the detention hours. But - Ellie's happy little world is rocked by angry words and impatience, so Jayce reins in her annoyance - after all, it's not Ellie's fault. It's easier for Jayce to be resentful of her mother - and her rock band father, who has popped in and out of their lives for years - and to ball up all the rest of the feelings and shove them inside.

When she discovers her mother has lung cancer, Jayce shoves down panic on top of resentment. She has to cope, obviously. Ellie needs something to be normal. But, with school pushing from one side, and the lack of funds for necessities like food shoving from the other, Jayce knows she needs real help... or a miracle. The rock star should have some answers, right? Finding her father - with a little help from a new friend - turns out to be a shock, and a disaster. Jayce realizes she and Ellie can't make it alone - and it turns out, they don't have to, if Jayce can accept a helping hand.

Observations: Though Jayce is depicted as a sixteen year old, her behavior and interests are very young for sixteen. This book may work for readers who struggle but want "older" books than many of the typical offerings for reluctant readers. This is a simple story - no romance, very little strong language - which introduces the idea of sisters experiencing tragedy, and how it brings the family closer.

As an interesting aside, this story highlights the job of caretakers to both the elderly and the ill. Very rarely do YA books depict teens as caretakers, and I found myself wishing for more of a glimpse of Kurt's daily life with his grandmother. Jayce was able to ignore the physicality of her mother's illness until it was smacked upside her head, but I found myself wanting more of her reality.

I picked this novel up because I am fond of books which are about a "family of choice." When her other bestie is too caught up in her personal drama, Jayce chooses Kurt to be her new best friend, and in essence finds Ellie a brother. Kurt, with whom Jayce is affectionate, and who kisses her on the cheek, is never anyone but a boy who once sat with her in detention, who then became a friend. It seems more than a bit disingenuous that Jayce never even thinks of Kurt at all romantically - there are a number of ways to discuss male and female friendships or even a lack of chemistry in a realistic fashion - but instead of allowing Jayce to make a thoughtful choice of how she would keep this friendship, it felt like her hormones were just erased. Romance seemed a complication the author didn't want to deal with, so it was eliminated with no discussion, which feels like an opportunity lost to me. Nevertheless, this novel will work well for older middle grade and younger YA readers as a simple tearjerker. The novel is a good jumping off point for discussions of privilege and class difference, as well as healthcare options, as the relative poverty in which the Loewen family lives affects a lot of the choices and opportunities that they make.

Conclusion: A hopeful journey from resentment and loss - Jayce begins to appreciate the choice of opening her heart to family, no matter what they've done.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publishers. After 1/28/17, you can find IF THIS IS HOME by Kristine Scarrow at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

January 23, 2017

10 Years Ago Today....

I was reading today's YA newsletter from Book Riot, which contains an article with a selection of YA titles from 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 years ago--and it was interesting to see that some of the YA books and authors I most closely related to some 25-30 years ago were actually ones published closer to when I was born, as well as the ones published while I was a tween/teen reader. It's worth taking a look at the article to see which ones you remember!

Then, that inspired me to check out THIS very blog to see what was happening 10 years ago today. Lo and behold, I posted something 10 years ago today, and it was called Obsessions, Links, and News Bits. I used to post a lot more random thoughts and "in case you missed it" links to articles and other blogs. That was before the blogosphere became akin to a rapidly expanding universe spinning endlessly off into infinity. Anyway, in that post I wrote this little tidbit--ah, the memories:
I realized that my personal book-related obsession these days is author photos and jacket bios. One of my favorite author photos is one of Carol Plum-Ucci's, which looks sort of like this only she's lounging on some stairs with a cup of coffee looking like a cranky writer up too early. I actually get sort of annoyed when there isn't an author photo or at least an informative bio. In my head I plan out what sort of author photo I'd want to have, and what I'd write in my bio; I debate whether I will keep with my current plan of having a byline of S.J. Stevenson instead of my full name, and how much information to release to my reading public. Of course, this is contingent on having something book-length actually published. I'm still working on that... 
Well, A) I actually found the author photo in question on Amazon, right here, so you can see what I was referring to, and B) heh, now that I actually HAVE an author photo and bio I'm already thinking ahead to a new one...and C) clearly I did NOT keep with my plan of being S.J. Stevenson--so much for plans! But it was almost exactly 4 years later that my first book came out, so I guess I could be thinking about positive January-related associations like that instead of...yeah.

January 19, 2017

Save the Date! Multicultural Children's Book Day is Jan 27

I'm proud to participate again this year as both a book reviewer and an author sponsor, even with a million billion other things going on! There is never a bad time, though, to promote multicultural children's books, and try to get them into the hands of readers everywhere. So come back and visit us next Friday, January 27th, for a review of a VERY fun YA paranormal-ish fantasy featuring an American Indian protagonist, and DEFINITELY go visit the Multicultural Children's Book Day website for more information and links to participating sites.

A couple more fun things for those who would like to help promote MCCBD if you aren't already doing so:
  • Mark your calendars for the #ReadYourWorld Twitter Party on 1/27 at 9:00p.m.ET. Check out this blog post with all of the details and book bundles. It promises to be a vibrant, fun and fast-paced hour of amazing conversations and tons of book giveaways!
  • Teachers, homeschoolers, librarians, etc. can download this FREE Classroom Kindness Kit, including the fab poster below, to facilitate discussion and find more resources on multicultural books. 

January 18, 2017

The TBR List in the New Year: Books Worth Reading

Wonderland Knows Stories Worth Reading!

These are a few of the stories we're looking forward to reading and reviewing in the months ahead. Not all of these are published in the calendar year - no one's TBR list is that caught up - but these are all books we've heard a bit of a buzz about -- or have been intrigued by, despite their noticeable lack of buzz, and we want to raise their profile here.

Out February 14th, 2017: AMERICAN STREET by Ibi Zoboi, Balzer + Bray - As a Haitian-born émigré to America, author Ibi Zoboi has had a front-row seat to the striking disparity between America as a concept to America as a real place. Why we think it's worth reading: Right now, a lot of people are waking up to the realization that America - its politics, policies and people - are unfamiliar. They're waking up to a reality which a lot of people of color and immigrants have already known - the American Dream, as a concept, is tarnished and false. Something new must take its place. In the novel, Fabiola Toussaint immigrating from Port-au-Prince loses her mother to the red tape of the process, and must stand alone, deciding her identity, and the price she's willing to pay for it. This is something we all need to consider.

Out January 30th: FRED KORAMATSU SPEAKS UP, by Laura Atkins & Stan Yogi, Heyday Books - This MG social studies book is well out of our usual review scope, but we're big Laura fans at the blog - full disclosure, there - and we were intrigued that after her first picture book success she sneaked in the kick-off story in the series titled Fighting For Justice. Why we think it's worth reading: How do you grow activists? By teaching them their history. This is an informative book which will be useful in a classroom, but it's also a story about a boy named Fred who was just... normal. He listened to the Top 40, he played tennis, he hung out with his friends and he had secret crushes. And suddenly, he was considered an enemy of the State. We must remember our history, or repeat it, folks, and the danger is already on the horizon. Looking forward to reading this book, and talking with the authors and the publisher about what comes next in the series.

Out March 28th, 2017: THE GAUNTLET, by Karuna Riazi, Salaaam Reads - Another MG chapter book, this has THE BEST cover, which is one of the reasons it's on our list. Why we think it's worth reading: The jacket copy says this book is like Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair. We love game books, and getting locked/lost in a game universe is a deliciously creepy idea. That a.) Middle Eastern people play games and b.) Middle Eastern people could be part of an adventure is something which seems to occur to far too few speculative fiction writers, so we're REALLY looking forward to tearing into the magic here.

Out September 12th, 2017: YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR, by Mitali Perkins, Farrar, Straus and Giroux - WHAT?? Mitali sneaked a YA novel out and nobody told us?? Well, we're telling you now: surprise! Mitali has produced a novel with a really lovely cover. Why we think it's worth reading: A novel about generations of women in a family, identity and its contemporary iterations - American identity, gender identity, ethnic identity, our identity as women of worth - these are the types of things that we think about a great deal. Who am I? Who am I supposed to be, according to you? Mitali historically has had a lot of quiet and wisdom her MG fiction, and we're looking forward to seeing how she works with a contemporary novel for young adults.

These are the stories we want to read - they're stories of people of color, living lives of richness and depty and complexity. They're stories of real people who aren't stereotypes, who live and love and hurt and struggle in ways familiar to us. These are the stories we want to tell - stories of honesty and integrity. By reading, we become better writers. So, until next time - keep reading, keep writing, keep thinking. This is the way we change the world.

January 09, 2017

Monday Review: FALLING OVER SIDEWAYS by Jordan Sonnenblick

So yeah, my goal here is to not let my normal urge to be terrifyingly exhaustive or my inexplicable desire to adhere to established organizational habits keep me from posting a book review. Therefore this is a quicker one, but it doesn't mean I liked the book less or anything of that nature. It JUST MEANS that I'm busily working on a) a novel rewrite that is kicking my butt, and b) Cybils Round 2 judging (I'm reading several excellent graphic novels that I'll post about after the winners are announced).

Summary: I read one of Jordan Sonnenblick's novels quite some time ago (long enough ago that I'm not 100% sure which one it was, but I think it was Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie) and really remember loving the sense of humor--and also hating the font in which it was typeset. Anyway, I've been meaning to pick up another one ever since, and Falling Over Sideways showed up in my 3M Cloud Library app, so I took the opportunity to read it.

Fortunately, the font is less of an issue when you're e-reading, but aside from issues that only graphic design nerds care about, I enjoyed this story as well. Again, the author brings an unexpected and poignant sense of humor to really serious family health issues--in this case, 8th grader Claire's father suffers a sudden stroke, and she is the only one at home to witness it and call in the emergency. As if the huge changes at home weren't enough, school is also providing one aggravation after another, mainly in the form of the annoying, not-quite-but-pretty-much-almost-a-bully Ryder, who competes with her in everything, including jazz band.

Observations: The two things I really enjoyed about this book: 1. The portrayal of the parents and Claire's family in general--they are sympathetic, funny, and very real. 2. The portrayal of the kids who bug Claire at school rang true for me. These aren't necessarily out-and-out bullies, but those kids who are just really, REALLY annoying and get on your last nerve. There's a lot of exploration of WHY those types of kids behave the way they do; the reader's able to have sympathy for them, too, and learn to love them and to realize that middle school kids behave like jackasses for all kinds of reasons.

Conclusion: This was a quick read and an interesting portrayal of serious family trauma that is nevertheless not too heavy for younger middle grade readers.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find FALLING OVER SIDEWAYS by Jordan Sonnenblick at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

January 05, 2017

Why I Write: Finding Joy in the New Year

The following was also cross-posted on my personal blog, Aquafortis.

We've been talking about writing goals in our WritingYA critique group this month, and I've been thinking a lot about that over the past few weeks. One of the ideas I keep coming back to is reconnecting with what brings me joy in writing.

It's a tough question, and one I find particularly difficult to consider during times when ongoing anxiety and depression issues rear their ugly Cerberus-like heads and distract me from seeing an answer. In part, I think I keep obsessing over this particular question BECAUSE it has been so hard to answer. The easy, pat response is, of course, that the writing itself, the act of crafting words and bringing stories to life is a joy in itself. That's what everyone wants to hear, right?

There's more to it. It isn't solely about the joy of putting words to page. That particular joy is something I've felt ever since I was a child, but here's an admission: it was not sufficient to tip me over the edge into wanting to make writing my life's work.

If you know me IRL or have been reading my blog and other social media for a while, you'll know that I was focused on a visual art career from about middle school onward. If anything has ever been a calling for me, that felt like it. I liked writing, but art owned my soul.

It turns out that maybe woo-woo soul searching questions—am I still an artist? Is writing my new calling? Can they both be my calling?—are sly distractions from the question of what brings me joy in writing. And once I've been distracted by those questions, I end up sliding down a rabbit hole of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.

But, as I started really focusing on the idea of what brings me joy in writing, it was much more concrete and real-world than I expected. I looked back on what caused me to make that initial decision to try writing freelance articles on the side for my then-employer, which is what led me to take that first writing class through the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. What was it that made me so happy, so elated, so motivated to write those arguably quite ridiculous pieces of writing?

Besides the fact that I got to visit weird websites and make jokes about them, got to humorously explicate pithy quotations, and got paid a teeny bonus for doing so, this was my first experience of the sense of connection that writing for a public audience can create. Not just a SENSE of connection: an actual connection, because people would email me with suggestions; they'd send me comments. I was basically blogging before there were blogging platforms, because this was 1999-ish. I was lucky to have an insta-audience (albeit a small one) because I took over someone else's columns on an already-established site, and it was an incredible feeling to get those responses to what I wrote—sometimes from the very websites I was writing about. (And I learned a lot about the fine line between jokes and gratuitous hurtfulness, because I was a very sarcastic twentysomething.)

This is interesting, because I have mixed feelings about the IDEA of connection—my social anxiety and introversion comes into play more and more the harder I think about it. I start thinking about all the blogging and writing I've done that does NOT make me feel like I've managed to connect. And the stakes feel higher, too, because I've accepted the decision to make writing a major part of my career, not just something I'm doing on the side.

So then I get lost in the thought-hole of "I'm doing this for my job, so I can't afford to think about FUN anymore." The very idea of joy seems irrelevant. This is the mire I get caught in, over and over.
Where that train of thought has gone off the rails, I believe, is that I've created a false dichotomy between work ENJOYMENT and work EFFECTIVENESS. The truth is that I'm NOT as effective a writer when I am not in touch with my reasons for doing it. When I'm distracted by extraneous worries that fool me into thinking they are the real problem.

And so that brings me back to what my intrinsic rewards are, and besides satisfaction in a piece I enjoyed writing and worked hard on, and laughing at my own jokes, I keep coming back to writing as an act of connection. Some corollary truths here: When I am more fully engaged in a piece, I think it is ultimately more effective in making me feel connected. I am engaged in this because I feel like I am talking to YOU, right now. The writing itself makes me feel connected, if I engage in it fully.

That feeling has little to do with any comments or responses the writing might generate later, but I wonder: is there a sense of disengagement in some of the posts I write that actually somehow discourages connection and leads to fewer comments? By disengagement, I don't mean a lack of honesty or an unwillingness to spill my guts (though I am definitely guilty of the latter; I'm not a person who is forward with my opinions)—rather, I wonder if I'm inadvertently creating a feeling of distance. In my magazine writing course, in graduate school, I was repeatedly pegged as sounding too academic, and I wonder if that plays into it.

So I have been thinking of ways to connect, to engage. Different ways to approach my writing on a more day-to-day level.

I'm still thinking. More on that later…

January 02, 2017

New Year's Action: Writers Resist!

I am terribly proud to be one small part of an amazing group of 30 local writers that is participating in Writers Resist: Modesto on Sunday, January 15, 2017. From the official press release:
"The flagship Writers Resist event, founded by poet Erin Bilieu and co-sponsored by PEN America, will feature famous literary figures braving January weather on the steps of the Public Library in New York City to read historic and contemporary writings on the ideals of democracy and free expression. Additional Writers Resist events, are being held in Boston, Los Angeles, Oakland, Austin, Portland, Omaha, Seattle, London, Zurich, Hong Kong, and many more cities.

Locally, the City of Modesto’s poet laureate, Stella Beratlis—along with writer Shanyn Vitti Avila and poet Elizabeth Sousa—is organizing Writers Resist: Modesto in response to concern during the recent Presidential campaign over public cynicism, disdain for truthfulness, and the unleashing of hatred and bigotry. Beratlis, a longtime member of the League of Women Voters of Stanislaus County, wanted to present an event which might galvanize Modesto audiences to become active in the civic life of the community, support nonprofits that address social justice issues, and network with like-minded people while having fun."

For more info, click to embiggen the flyer in the image at right, and to see if there's a Writers Resist event in your area, visit their main website.

With alarming racist events occurring even at our local community college campus, where my husband and I teach, I think it's incredibly important to stand up for a peaceful, thoughtful, diverse, and just society that operates on ideals of civility and values truth over small-mindedness. I come from a family that includes recent immigrants, Muslims, atheists, Latinos, South Asians, Caucasians; people of various faiths and ethnic origins who are brought together by love and care for one another--something that I hope is still possible on a nationwide level. I hope for a society where we recognize and value the diversity of our friends and neighbors, not one where I'm literally frightened that some of my family members might be targeted for reasons of faith, ethnicity, or national origin. Participating in Writers Resist is, for me, a critical part of standing up for my ideals in a way that promotes positivity and action.

And that's my two cents on it.