September 09, 2009

Turning Pages: A Wide World - babies, hijabs & gender

Time now for another book recap, filling you in on what all I've been reading lately. Between working on my own stories, taking part in Writers Against Racism (along with tons of YA and children's lit illustrators and literati including Mitali Perkins, recent Vermont MFA graduate Varian Johnson, and author David Yoo), and trying to figure out how to dye the upholstery covers on my chairs (now instead of chicken-doo green, a vibrant rose and ...goldfish orange. Not quite what I had in mind -- the rose was supposed to be deep fuchsia, but I had more fabric than dye -- but what the heck, they're both on the color wheel, somewhere.), there have been BOOKS. And they've been goose-bumpingly, tear-inducingly great.

The book that arrived just this week was squeal-worthy for a number of reasons, and not just because the gorgeous author (is it the eyes? The blouse? The combination? A stunning woman, whatever your conclusion, no?) is a dear friend and Poetry Princess. Recently profiled at both the 7-Imps and with one of Jama's joy-inspiring soups, All the World is simply indescribable.

I write young adult fiction, so it's sometimes hard to talk about picture books. They're ...short. There's not this huge story arc that could be misconstrued as plot. Often, the characters don't even have names.

But picture books are vehicles. In the driver's seat is a small and unnamed You, and though the world is big, the readers are small, and the smallest stories can have a big impact. The theme of this book is connection, or indirectly, the commonality of human experience. Subtle inclusion is easily seen as brown, tan, and peach colored characters, traditional couples as well as some men with men, some women with women, are paired in groups or couples or with children, populating this gloriously illustrated landscape of beach and hills on a beautiful sun-drenched day. This is the world I know and love, a world I would want a child to know.

All the World is a parent and child two-step across hills, to the beach, and through the garden. Held close to the heart, with loving words surrounding us, we acknowledge the parts and places that make up all the world, including the rollicking sunlight, the love and the joy, the spills and the cold rain. Like the patented bouncy walk that soothes babies and is second nature to parents, this book waltzes and rocks, bounces and spins, and takes us all, beautifully, faithfully, home again, with hope and peace and love and trust.

A picture book, filled with true, deep words, and a lot of amazing pictures; even the cover is a deliciously tactile experience. It's hard to articulate, but it such a beautiful, heartfelt, astonishingly moving book, and I still can't even quite tell you why. Just know: if you're a Book Aunt like me, this is a keeper. But don't take my word for it! Check out the review from Through the Looking Glass.

I won't go into too much plot detail of Randa Abdel-Fattah's Does My Head Look Big In This? - mainly because it's not the plot that makes the novel work. It's a single thing that happens in the beginning of the novel that has its greatest impact -- a choice.

Amal, at sixteen, suddenly has The Moment when she knows what she wants to do to show her devotion to God, and her determination to live by the tenants of Islam, as she understands them. She chooses to wear the hijab full time. What others do to show their devotion and determination is of no consequence, the novel makes it VERY clear that these kinds of choices are personal. This is what Amal has chosen to do, with no bearing on anyone else, not even her parents.

That The Moment happens when Amal is watching a Friends rerun is hilarious, to say the least, but everything plays its part when you're thinking about your life. Suffice it to say that Amal's momentous decision has repercussions in all parts of her world. In some ways, wearing the hijab is The Best Thing, Ever. And in other ways... when the word "Muslim" on the radio is always paired up with the word "Insurgents," or "bombing," when she gets funny looks from her peers and even her teachers are skittish, it seems like it Really Sucks.

Living with the choices we make is never easy, any YA book can tell you that.

There are Loaners and Owners in the bookworld, and this book is an Owner, as in, it owns a part of me, and I need to own it. Even though I just read the book, I find myself wanting to read it again. I want to make sure I know the difference between Islam and Muslim, and how and when to use each word. I want to know how to pin on a hijab, and think of different ways accessorize one. I want to immerse myself in Amal's Aussie-Arabic-Muslim world where taking your faith seriously means something different to each person, and where friends can respect each other's choices. Now, here's a scary fact: I actually wish I was back teaching, because you know I'd be teaching this book for English 10, it is THAT good. Painful, funny, bravery-inspiring, and a spiritual experience in its own way, Does My Head Look Big in This opened up my world.

But don't take my word for it. Read Allison's excellent review at Color Online.

Karen Haber's Crossing Infinity was a random I'm-out-the-door library pick, but I'm glad I picked it up. Science Fiction answers the question of "What If" in so many creative ways, and this book questions what many people think of as a sure thing -- gender identity.

Jaz has a lot going on at home, and way more homework than she wants to deal with, so it's a sure bet that she's going to blow all of that off to concentrate on something else. Someone else, to be specific. The new guy, Cory, is cute, but... so weird. He acts like he's an international student, but not from any country Jaz has ever known. He's obviously lonely, and Jaz has just the cure for that, but she can't figure him out. Meanwhile, Cory's in trouble -- serious trouble. It's not working out to fit in to being human as easily as he'd thought it would. For one thing, boys and girls act differently -- and there are different rules for each. It's vital that Cory be exactly like everyone expects him to be, and nothing else. It's the only way to blend in to a high school. Unfortunately, Cory doesn't have time to learn all the rules when his planet's species survival is in his hands. He thought he'd escaped the past, but those who destroyed his family are looking to destroy him, too.

The gender issues aren't deeply explored, and there was a somewhat unrealistic skimming over the fears and questions Jaz has as she discovers that Cory is not what he seems. I expected Jaz to at least wonder about herself a bit more, as she sought to love someone who couldn't be held to one gender. However, I did appreciate the open-endedness of the question of "what if we could change genders at will?" There was no right or wrong answer to the question, more of an exploration, through story, of the possibilities, which makes for the best SFF.

You know there are always people paring books and toys, but Mitali's doing one better for those Back To School gift ideas. You MUST check out her post on pairing books with Fair Trade toys. She found a brown mermaid doll to pair with a story on Haiti. How cool is that!? I've never even SEEN a non-Eurocentric looking mermaid, and I wish I could have found it oh, some sixteen years ago when my niece was all about The Little Mermaid. Now that she's in college, I still might have to get it for her.

As of today! You can find All the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon, Does My Head Look Big in This?, and Crossing Infinity at an indie bookstore near you.


Sarah Stevenson said...

Oh, I've been wanting to read Does My Head Look Big in This. I need to check the library again. I'll be interested to compare it to Skunk Girl, not only because of the difference in the Aussie/American experience, but also the different ways Islam is practiced in different cultures--because it's quite different in India and Pakistan than in the Middle East, for sure. (I don't think anyone in my family, even the ones still in Pakistan, wears a full hijab!)

Anonymous said...

Great review. Looking forward to Does My Head Look Big in This. And ALL THE WORLD was - IS - gobsmackingly gorgeous.

jama said...

I've always wanted to read Does My Head Look Big In This? Great to hear your very positive thoughts on it.

Great description of All the World. It is hard to articulate exactly why this book is so special. Deep, true words, definitely. Like all good poetry, it can't be adequately analyzed or explained, just experienced.

Liz in Ink said...

Oh, mercy, Tanita. I'm having a hard time catching my breath. Thank you thank you for the very kind things you say about my book. And, also, isn't "Does my Head Look Big..." just about the best title EVER???

tanita✿davis said...

You guys: FIND a copy of Does My Head Look Big In This. FIND ONE. It really is a most amazing book.

Liz, every word is true! You wrote a winner.

Kelly said...

Just added "Does My Head Look Big In This" to my hold list at the library. Thanks!