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Meanwhile, read your hearts out.
If you are writing books for teens and kids, it is usually a good idea to actually care about teens and kids.— Carrie Jones (@carriejonesbook) June 19, 2018
Not just some kids and teens.
All kids and teens.
|Source: Mental Health America|
It's another E.E. Kelly book, which means there's going to be a lot of heart, and a lot of funny. Erin Entrada Kelly is a Filipino writer, so include this book in your list of titles for the Asian American Heritage Month celebration this May.
Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Charlotte has something important to say, only, right now, it's sticking in her throat. Her best friend, Bridget, knows. Her mother knows. The teacher and the school counselor knows... but Charlotte, who is brilliant and articulate and knows the name of more rocks than you do; Charlotte can hardly say it out loud. Her father, who had a stent put into his heart, whose difficulties sent Charlotte down the rabbit hole of open-heart surgeries and knowing more about hearts than probably any other kid in junior high, Charlotte's father has had a heart attack. And it feels like the end of the world.
What's worse is that, in a way, it's only the beginning of the end. If nothing else, at least Charlotte can distract herself playing a good word on her online Scrabble game.
Ben wishes that people would take recycling more seriously. He wishes that people knew the impact of all of the plastic and paper that gets into the ocean, and harms dolphins, turtles, and fish. He wishes that people really cared about how species evolved, and he also wishes he weren't so furious with his father. If he'd paid attention to his life - and not spent so much time in his head - maybe he'd have friends. Maybe he'd be better equipped to survive middle school. Maybe all of his current difficulties wouldn't be so hard to get through.
But, right now, Ben can't even think of who he'd call if he won the lottery.
It's a good thing he plays online Scrabble with a girl called Lottie. At least he knows he can call her.
Observations: Two gifted and talented kids with the tiny bit of myopia all kids have, Ben and Charlotte are only able to see the world right in front of them, in terms of their friends, their concerns, their hobbies. Their bright minds only make their socializing challenges all the more difficult, and when there's a challenge to their families and home lives they are abruptly forced out of their unseeing days into a confusing, painful world where they question not only what they're looking at, but how they could have missed so much. Charlotte, through her father, is realizing her mortality -- and HIS. Now the times she's brushed him aside rise up, and she feels so guilty she's paralyzed - and later, as she questions her social behavior, she's paralyzed by horror and shame. Ben is furiously ignoring the chaos outside his bedroom, and is determined to evolve past the quiet, inward-turning boy who drifted along through elementary school. However, with the active pushback of some of his classmates, it seems that it may be too late for him to turn into a different kind of bird than he's always been. It's a troubling, difficult time for both tweens. Told in alternating voices, we see where both Charlotte and Ben use words to conceal and reveal the ragged edges of honesty and pain now informing both of their lives. There's a lot of emotion, a little humor, and a few hard knocks, but in the end, readers will be relieved as both Ben and Charlotte find a tiny bit of land under their flailing feet, and begin the long process of standing tall.
Conclusion: Middle school is an intense time of transition, and this seems to be one of Erin Entrada Kelly's "big idea" truths. I appreciate the realism that Ben and Charlotte do not confide in each other; they're virtual strangers, literally. While we trust each other with playing a game online, and while Charlotte and Ben share the occasional brief phone conversation, they're not emotionally equipped to use each other to lean on in the traditional sense of friendship. However, their isolation allows them to be helpful to each other at key points. This book will resonate with the emotionally intelligent tween who is looking for the truth in the statement that we're all alike, under the skin, and no one suffers alone.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of my public library. You can find YOU GO FIRST by Erin Entrada Kelly at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
From January - June, every second Tuesday of the month, we're going to post an image here on Wonderland of a Creative Commons licensed Flickr picture to which you can respond - with poetic, prose, or whatever kind of writing - and hopefully, you'll share a link in the comments below, so that we can visit your site, read your work and respond. No genre or style limit - just come and join the fun!
I think we're over it with the May showers, but we're just getting started with Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and Mental Health Awareness Month. This month, it's time to celebrate National Salad Month, which, likely, features women laughing. Alone. With Salad. As they so often do. Additionally, May is National Bike and Barbecue Month as well, and extra points if you can celebrate these holidays simultaneously. This month's image comes from Flickr user Stefano Arteconi of Bologna, Italy:
I have... so many questions, don't you? Just leave your link in the comments below, and we look forward to reveling in your inspiration! Happy writing!
Synopsis: Earthsinger Jasminda ul-Sarifor has always wished she things were diferent - that she had greater magic, a better relationship with the xenophobic Elsiran village in which she lives, and fewer Lagrimaran features than her father's ancestry has left her. But, alas, things are as they are, and she stubbornly persists in ekeing out a living on the side of the magical barrier that separates these two very different kingdoms, in a place that doesn't love her... until one day, a beaten scrap of a man falls into her path, and everything changes.
It's easy to want to trust Jack, because he's clearly honest - he's in dire straits, and not afraid to say so. It would be stupid to help Jack -- he's an Elsiran spy who was dropped into the midst of Lagrimaran soldiers. There's no real reason for Jasminda to help him - it looks better if she doesn't, after all - but what Jasminda sees of his treatment, and later, what Jack has to say about his mission leaves Jasminda horrified. The barrier - the wall that keeps the kingdoms apart - is about to fall. And when it does, the Lagrimaran religious zealot called True-Father who began the violence between these two countries will come roaring through, in full power, and begin a 'cleansing' of Elsira, and millions of innocent will die...
Jasminda doesn't want to believe this - doesn't want to change her whole world... but it's already changing. Refugees are flooding through in places where the barrier is thin, and it is clear that there is nowhere for them to go -- there's destruction and murder on both sides. Jasminda can't just sit around wishing things were different and better anymore - things aren't, they won't be, and she cannot simply hide. Furthermore, Jack is becoming way too important to her, and Jasminda is beginning to have a fearfully important reason ti want the world to continue...
Observations: Isn't this a beautiful cover?
It's always delightful when a self-pubbed book is picked up by a traditional publishing house. (Or, it's delightful to me, anyway; it might be really fraught and scary for the author, but my joy is more readers for that book.) L. Penelope is a black writer who majored in film AND computer science and who first published this book in 2015.
This book was described in marketing materials as "Romeo & Juliet meets The Return of the King," which is an awkward juxtaposition, to my mind (it read more like a rewritten piece of Greek mythology to me), but it is very high fantasy, with the romance of danger and heightened everything - and also features star-crossed lovers, insofar as Jack and Jasminda are from warring countries and do not share a skin color. Readers will enjoy this novel not because of the love story - which I didn't entirely need, but they will enjoy that this is "just" a fantasy story, of the sort which has a big, sweeping cinematic drama between warring nations, and doesn't attempt to parallel any true history, or anything else. It's actually a bit of a quiet story, for all of its scope, and readers who go in looking for a major war or magic being thrown around will at first have to adjust their expectations.
This is a new volume in the Heroine's Journey, and while the path is somewhat familiar, this is such a beloved tale that many readers will be sucked right in. The first volume in L. Penelope's duology is mostly scene-setting and lining up allies v. enemies. I look forward to how it all ends.
Conclusion: A sweeping romance of warring nations, a mysterious Queen Who Sleeps, and a black girl poised to save the world through her personal brand of magic - which she believes to be insufficient and unimportant. A good starter book for young fantasy readers who aren't as familiar with the genre, the writing is clear, and the pacing is at times a little slow, but engaging.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. As of TODAY, May 1, 2018, you can find SONG OF BLOOD AND BONE by L. Penelope at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
What? I haven't done one of these Friday roundups since, like, 2015? Yeah, I know. Mainly it was because I felt like I was rounding things up everyone already knew, but the more I'm on Twitter (which, granted, is not very much) the more I realize that there's a LOT of things announced and discussed, which, with the firehose stream of information pelting us, are missed by quite a few folk, thanks to social media algorithms... so here I am again, talking about what was significant this week to me, if no one else... So, without further ado:
Okay, wait, Taco Bell, what? - Travis side-eyes a questionable read-aloud choice. Who knew, librarians have a panic room. Apparently.
Duologies are the new trilogies, and that is all things wonderful.
Lee Wind has finished serializing QUEER AS A FIVE DOLLAR BILL, which I still cannot believe did not find a traditional publisher out of the gate, but ANYWAY - and now he's doing behind-the-scenes on the research and inspiration for it. If you haven't had a chance to read this book, do.
Meanwhile, some are still not sure quite what sensitivity readers are supposed to do for them... while others love having them, so they feel justified with whatever they do. Hm.
A lot of people didn't understand when the mother of the little boy who modeled the "Coolest Monkey in the Jungle" shirt didn't get what the drama was with H&M. However, she's Kenyan, and lives in Sweden. Edi highlights the problematic in BABY MONKEY, PRIVATE EYE, while walking us through the historical ties of anthropomorphism and black people in America. Art is never apolitical, is it?
Randomly: Ladies and gents, origami pasta that folds itself.
The Edge of the Forest, back in the day was one of the kidlit blogosphere's earliest academic-style journal for readers and creators, about readers and books. I'm grateful The Book Smugglers has taken up the gauntlet and fulfilled the idea's promise with their Quarterly Almanac. Last September's piece by Mimi Mondal on the poor apology that Hermione Grainger's sudden blackness is for the ingrained racism that infests the Potter books (something which is still being discussed,, now that "Cursed Child" is on Broadway) is both a boldly unpopular opinion and a brilliant essay, giving readers something to chew on. DO read it if you've not seen it (especially if you're asking yourself, "Wait, what racism!?).
I'm thrilled when children's lit rises above the level of fangirling and gushing (although that definitely has its place) to really engaging deeper with literature, tropes, and representation. I'm sad to say I've not been very timely about reading the Almanac, but after seeing the discussion springboarding from Zetta Elliot's essay, Minstrelsy is the New Black in Volume 3, I'm definitely intrigued. Zetta takes on book packaging as cosmetically "correcting" books by black people into something more "acceptable" - another wildly unpopular take, but again, well-written and thought-provoking. These are the discussions we should be having.
|Click to embiggen. Also, check out a chapter preview|
at Comics Alliance.
From January - June, every second Tuesday of the month, we're going to post an image here on Wonderland of a Creative Commons licensed Flickr picture to which you can respond - with poetic, prose, or whatever kind of writing - and hopefully, you'll share a link in the comments below, so that we can visit your site, read your work and respond. No genre or style limit - just come and join the fun!
April brings with it, famously, showers and May flowers, but also National Poetry Month, as well as the National Welding Month celebration, which, I'm sure, is all the rage wherever it is. Additionally, there's National Pecan Month to celebrate as well. This month's image comes from Flickr user Claus Rebler of Korneuburg, Austria:
I've already got stories simmering, don't you? Just leave your link in the comments below, and we look forward to reveling in your inspiration! Happy writing!
Content commentary: This novel contains a physical assault, which is processed throughout the book, and may be unsettling to some readers. It is nothing younger readers can't read, and it is powerfully done, but FYI.
Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Janna Yusef is smart and snarky, kind, and ...conflicted. She's navigating a new world, one where her father has married his administrative assistant and lives in a massive eight-bedroom house across town, one where her brother has changed his major and moved home from college for a year, and one where she's suddenly being inundated with the perfectly poised Saint Sarah, her brother Muhammad's fiancée - and organizer of the Fun Fun Fun Islamic Quiz Game. Janna isn't sure that this new world is all it's cracked up to be - she's wearing hijabi like her mother, but her father hates it. She's supportive of her brother changing his major at college, but she doesn't want him to move home, because sharing a room with her mother means no more privacy, ever. And Janna needs her privacy, especially as she fiddles with her graphic novel about the Prophet, daydreams a little about her non-Muslim crush, and seriously tries to figure out how to deal with the monster who has blighted her life ... and is circling, stalking her like prey.
Janna's keeping her head down, studying advanced math as hard as she can, but the sexist comments from the boys in the class against the only two girls, and the ways some students at her high school treat others, because of a birthmark or how quiet they are, just doesn't add up to the world the way it should be. At least Janna has Mr. Ram, the elderly man she walks to the Senior Center. He's always got wisdom about the world - even if Janna doesn't always have time to listen to it. And Tatyana listens - mostly, when she's not trying to Make Sure Janna gets what she wants out of life, which, Tats thinks, is her crush.
All Janna wants to do - sometimes - is run along under the radar, just keeping out of trouble, hanging with her friends, and admiring her crush on the sly. But lately, that hasn't seemed possible. Now, just when she needs her, Janna's best Muslim friend seems less friend and more faith, and her best non-Muslim friend is bent on managing her relationship with her crush's perfect forehead, and a mean girl named Sausun is friendlier than she thought possible. And now, Jeremy, the non-Muslim boy whose forehead she's been crushing on likes her back, and Janna realizes she hadn't thought things through beyond his perfect head. Muslim girls don't date... but maybe she's not as much of a saint as she ought to be? And, if she's not a saint, how can she figure out how to deal with the monster everyone calls a saint? If she calls him out, won't everyone look from him, to... her? And see how ashamed she is?
Conflicted, distracted, and nearly destroyed, Janna is a contemporary girl cherishing a traditional faith, and struggling to make sense of growing up, change, and a messy world.
Observations: Rudine Sims Bishop's "mirror books and window books" description is relevant to this novel, as non-Muslim readers will find both contemporary mirrors of their own life experiences inside, as well as mirrors into Janna's Indian-Egyptian culture, her modest clothing, and her faith practices, from the washing before prayer, to the right thing to say when someone dies. As Janna is fifteen, this book also falls into that little not-quite-middle-grade/not-quite-teen wasteland into which many books fall which are difficult for some publishers to characterize. Janna's story falls into YA because of her experience of assault, but she is otherwise a classic fifteen year old - full of weird impulses and funny thoughts; not too old, and not too young.
Janna has friends who are non-Muslim, but also people of faith. Hindu, like Mr. Ram, or open to anything, like her bestie, Tatyana, or even Christian, like Mr. Khoury. No one gets to swan through the world surrounded solely by Their People, even if they come from a fairly tightly-knit community. Janna, as her Amu - her uncle the iman - describes it, bobs through the seas of life with other souls, and the books spends time allowing her to have a critical perspective on people from other walks of life, sometimes complimenting her own, at other times, challenging it.
I was very impressed with Janna's explanation of wearing hijab, and exploration of niqab. No one's faith observance is going to be a cookie cutter same-as-hers experience, and Janna's observance is unlike her friend Fizz's, unlike her frenemy Sausan's, and also unlike her brother and mother's. Throughout the book, Janna is herself, imperfect, impatient, wrestling with her own impulses while contrasting them against what is against her personal rules and her parent's expectations.
S.K. Ali also gives readers the most horrifyingly accurate picture of the internal silencing which occurs after an assault that I've ever read. After the incident, the cognitive dissonance just swallows Janna, and she's frozen still in a moment that has long passed. This mirror resonated really strongly with me, and will with other readers who have experienced something horrible, and have struggled to move past the moment and go on. Other mirrors include Janna's crushes, her scholastic successes - and bombs - and the push-back she receives from racist teachers and sexist fellow students as she changes and grows organically throughout the story arc. A lot of this is part and parcel of the fabric of living life in contemporary times, and I think how Janna deals with them - how she thinks things through - is very appealing.
Conclusion: Goth-emo girls, fluffy floral girls, average, low-maintenance girls - all the girls are here, and quite a few of them are wearing hijab or niqab. SAINTS AND MISFITS shows that not every follower of Islam is perfect or some kind of misfit - that Muslims are real people, with real struggles, and though their communities are not perfect, neither are they the breeding grounds for insanity that some people seem to think they are. Full of wisdom, snark, and genuine emotion, this book deals with heavy, thoughtful topics in a way that is neither facile or heavy-handed, imparting a solid story with a big heart. Bring your tissues.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Overdrive at the public library. You can find SAINTS AND MISFITS by S.K. Ali at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
Synopsis: Jules, a senior, lives with her librarian mother, who is, by Jules' lights, not much of one of mother. She dislikes her job at the library, cares indifferently for Jules, but she lives and breathes painting. And she's got talent, too - but her humanity as a mother and her humanity as an artist seem to be two wildly different things, in Jules' opinion. Sometimes she vanishes into her art and doesn't surface for days. Jules is grateful for the roof over her head, but longs for the kind of mother who asks about her, is interested in her day to day, and who is more like her friends Leila and Gab's mothers - women who show their love by cooking and providing a beautiful home, where nothing is taped together, or cracked. Unlike her mother, who is thrifty and tidy to the point of throwing away even memorabilia, Jules loves antiques, is fascinated by how the world was in days gone by -- but with no grandparents, no antecedents, and no connections, she feels cast adrift in a world full of odds and ends - nothing with real value, nothing anyone would keep, or put in a museum.
Jules - on yearbook staff - has been asking for a baby picture for yearbook for weeks, and now that the deadline has passed, she finally goes into her mother's room to find one... but discovers that there's a nineteen month gap from her newborn photograph to when she's almost two years old. Why aren't there any good, real baby pictures? And, why's there an envelope of paperwork from the Department of Children and Families? What happened in her and her mother's lives? When Jules discovers the answer, her world tilts off its axis. She's always wanted more of what she had - more family, more connection, more life, more love -- and now she realizes that somewhere, she might have had it. Pursuing the connection she finds on the other end the love she feels she's been denied. But, is it really all for her? Does she have the right to it? And, if she tries to grab all of that love with both hands... what happens to everything else? Wanting more can lead to having more, true - and some of the chances Jules takes have panned out into a past and a history she could never have dreamed existed. But, Jules is unable to let go of the temptation to have it all... with predictable results. After Jules is left with her hands empty, she has to learn to accept that you can't have it all in life -- but appreciating what you have is the key to everything.
"It didn't escape me, despite all my angst about family, about finding family and having family and missing out on family that this was a very real thing I had: friends I would drop anything for. Friends I'd take a bullet for. Friends I'd handle dead rats for.
There is more than one kind of family."
- RELATIVE STRANGERS, unfinished copy
Observations: This book will resonate with anyone who has had an unsatisfying relationship with their family, who ever dreamed of having been adopted, or who always wished they could be part of a huge, amazing family, or closer friends with the people with whom they hang out... which means that this book will resonate almost every teen at some time or another. There is such a huge well of wanting in Jules that her desires slip into the heart like a little hook. Is there anything so wrong with wanting more love? More family? More people to pay attention and SEE you? The desires seem innocent - and they are - but the narrative shows how easily pandering to the desire for more than what you have can ultimately overwhelm you.
I don't think I've ever read a YA book quite like this before, which deals with the ignorance immaturity and privilege provides, convincing us to believe the convincing narratives others present to the world, and to envy them in a destructive way in response. Most people can pull back from that brink, identify that the lives we encounter - whether at work or school or digitally curated on Instagram - are airbrushed and carefully displayed for maximum affect. Most of us know that when people are out in public, they wear a public mask... however, this is a book about someone who believed the hype so thoroughly that she allowed herself to wallow in that envy, and made selfish choices based on what she believed she saw, what she believed people had that they could stand to share, and the luxuries of family and affection which she felt she needed but which she hadn't been given.
Garner is a practiced write, and Jules' voice is confident and assured - but there are other YA novels with that confident, wry, snarky voice. What sets this novel apart is that most of us aren't able to articulate the dangers of ...unexamined neediness, maybe let's call it. Jules grieves for what she doesn't have in such a realistic way - and the repeated lashings of grief, the haunting, nostalgic longing, the sadness and the hope blends together to make a truly beautiful, quiet, thoughtful, emotional read. (I teared up repeatedly through the entire last half, surprising myself.) This was an unusual book topically, and I can't imagine how many fewer mistakes I might have made as a teen and nascent adult had I had this book then.
While there isn't a lot of ethnic diversity necessarily, this book has titanium strong male and female friendships and a realistic depiction of the judgment and confusion surrounding understanding friends and a burgeoning sexuality.
Conclusion: A quiet, thoughtful book with humor and insight, and a HUGE miscalculation, which may catch some readers off guard, but to others may be perfectly understandable, if still cringeworthy. A very real book about fumbling our way to a very real understanding and acceptance of who we are, and what we truly need.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After April 10th, you can find RELATIVE STRANGERS by Paula Garner at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
It's another Crutcher book! And I can't really tell you much of the plot without ruining the story! Come along and read about it anyway.
Synopsis: Period 8 lunch at Heller High school is where they've always met, just to hang out. Paulie, Justin, Hannah, Josh, and the rest have always felt comfortable with Mr. Logsdon, their government teacher. Some of them have been coming to his lunchtime salons since they were sophomores and juniors, and others are new. Since this is their senior year, and Logs' last year teaching, the meetings feel necessary. Logs always says that leaving school without any clue about what's really out there is what messes people up, so they meet at Period 8 to be honest, to talk about what's really on their minds, to purge their family griefs, and to just ...make it through. Period 8 is honesty - and confidentiality. What's said in Period 8 stays in Period 8.
It was supposed to be a safe place for everyone. And it is, mostly, except if student body president Arney's doing his usual politician schtick. Lately Paulie's made it a little less safe for himself, since he cheated on Hannah - and she needs to talk about betrayals and guys and their stupidity. Paulie needs to talk about it, too... because he's still not quite sure what happened. He's terrified he's turning out to be like his philandering father -- but there was just something weird about the whole thing. Mary Wells, the girl they call "the Virgin Mary" came on to him, hardcore. What was that about? And, why is Arney, his supposed friend so... smug about it? And lying to him? And, worse, making time with Hannah? What kind of friend does that? Certainly not a real one.
At least there's truth to be found in open water. Paulie and Logs have been swimming as a year-round workout for a long, long time, and as things unspool, Paulie discovers more lies, and Mary continues to fling herself at him. Everything is unclear - people he thought he knew are wearing masks more than at any point in his life, but there are answers. Until he finds them, Paulie pushes himself harder and harder in the water. When no where else is safe, it will be his salvation.
Observations: Wonderland loves Chris Crutcher. I may have even stalked him at Conferences (Tanita style, which is, showing up where he was speaking, but not looking at/speaking to him), and AF and I interviewed him back in 2006. Which made discovering I'd missed the release of one of his books a bit bittersweet. On one hand, the field has changed immensely since I first started reading Crutcher; there are more honest, diverse voices speaking louder in the field, so his books maybe don't stand alone on a solitary plane anymore. That's all to the good -- but I'm a little sad I missed this release, yet grateful he's still writing and that I eventually discovered this book, though I must admit, it's slightly different from Crutcher's usual fare.
The realistic male voices and the immense athletic focus usually found in Crutcher books is present - swimming again - but this time it's sport unrelated to school, but to a personal challenge, which I loved. There is ethnic and gender diversity, the usual wry send-up of the "thumpers" - the Bible-reading religious kids -- but with a sense of humor this time, giving them the grace of allowing them to be characters with their own thoughts, and lessening, a bit, their usual roles as narrow-minded idiots, which was LOVELY. Also, as expected in a Crutcher book, there's the great discussions of values and ethics, and the sympathetic, wise adult figure - in this case, he's nearly retired, so has a lot less to lose than many adults within a school system, thus the conversations really go deep. Finally, there's the group of kids who are, on the surface, average teens, wrestling with issues of life and love. This time, there are real stakes -- real losses, and real pains which don't come up in the presence of the honest, wise adult mentor, or even the values-clarifying classmates. This time, the secrets stay hidden until it's nearly too late, and everything is destroyed. Without telling too many details, when all is said and done, it's a helluva way to end a senior year.
Conclusion: I wanted to put this book down - repeatedly - and spent time screaming pointlessly at the characters "Nooooooooo!" Readers will anguish as characters are manipulated and make Really Bad Choices, but there is within the human psyche the inability to look away from a train wreck for very long. Suspenseful, unnerving, and a subtle, nuanced discussion of whether we really know each other, and what we owe each other, this fast-paced book will reverberate with readers for days.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the bookstore. You can find PERIOD 8 by Chris Crutcher at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
Priyanka Das has so many unanswered questions: Why did her mother abandon her home in India years ago? What was it like there? And most importantly, who is her father, and why did her mom leave him behind? But Pri’s mom avoids these questions―the topic of India is permanently closed.
For Pri, her mother's homeland can only exist in her imagination. That is, until she find a mysterious pashmina tucked away in a forgotten suitcase. When she wraps herself in it, she is transported to a place more vivid and colorful than any guidebook or Bollywood film. But is this the real India? And what is that shadow lurking in the background? To learn the truth, Pri must travel farther than she’s ever dared and find the family she never knew.
NB: Readers will be glad to know that this is a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, but be aware that said ending has left a clearly marked door open for a sequel. This is a duology, so weather this battle, and keep your powder dry/your scythes sharp to win the war.
While it can be difficult to present an unbiased review of the work of an acquaintance whose intellect the reader deeply respects, I believe I have achieved it; your opinion may vary.
Synopsis: The Battle of Gettysburg has had a vastly different conclusion than any battle before; the dead have risen and... are eating both friends and foes. Two days later, Jane McKeen is born on the plantation at Rose Hill, as the North and South join forces to combat the newest threat to the States. The Native and Negro Reeducation Act, which forces African American and Native children to enroll and learn to fight, is at the forefront of protecting the world. However, in Baltimore, it is believed that the threat is receding. Jane, who was taken from Rose Hill to be trained to fight zombies at Miss Preston's school, is almost ready to graduate into being an Attendant, but for her sharp tongue and quick temper - and who can blame her, really? Katherine Devereaux is entirely too light-skinned, snotty and pretty for her own good. So, Jane's not so much what you'd call a model student. She's wanted to leave Miss Preston's school pretty much for the moment she arrived. Other than goading Katherine, and wandering around outside at night, there have been...a few other, er, missteps... one of whom is called Jackson Keats.
No matter that Jackson a.) doesn't love Jane and b.) is a low-down, fast-talking, redbone con man, c. and is too pretty by half, Jane remains a loyal and faithful ...frenemy. No matter that her head tells her that the world is harsh and bitter and full of awful people, her heart remains curiously, humanly, tender. When Jack's sister, Lily, vanishes, along with the white family with whom she lives, Jane's curiosity - and loyalty to Lily - urges her to look into some of the oddities at the Mayor's house. Predictably, Jane's prying gets her in trouble - and sent to a shockingly bleak Survialist colony in Kansas called Summerland. Now on essentially the very front lines of the war against the undead, Jane has new obstacles between herself and Rose Hill. She'll have to dodge zombies and Survivalists and all kinds of insanity -- as well as find new allies and combat her own tender heart to see herself back where she belongs.
"It's a cruel, cruel world. And the people are the worst part."
Observations: I grew up with family from near New Orleans, consequently, I grew up with a childhood of tales associated with 'haints, Marie Laveau, and a distorted depiction of "voodoo." Zombie books, for me, are generally a very hard pass -- but the truthful voice and keen gaze of Jane McKeen, and the determination and fury which drives her survival will hook even zombie-averse readers and draw them in for the, um, kill.
The pettiness of shade-ism and class at Jane's school where she's learning to be a zombie-killing Attendant to white ladies is emphasized by the (mostly) well-meaning teachers whose insistence on manners and appearance at a school where they do scythe drills are amusingly reminiscent of the oddly misplaced pride Victorian ladies held for their finishing schools. Readers meet Jane's classmates, and judge her education, manner, bearing, and her teachers, while childhood memories of Rose Hill are revealed. When they finally arrive, the zombies loom large, but after the other monsters which readers encounter, they become almost background characters.
Primarily, DREAD NATION is a Reconstruction-era zombie novel, but merely skim the story's surface, and readers will discover that it is equally about the true costs of and the inhumanity and injustice of racism. The narrative grapples with the idea of who owns the rights to The Good Life, and at what cost we sell each other into the fell dark for a chance to reach it. Significantly, in DREAD NATION, former Confederates twist their poisonous ideology into a new belief system. "Survivalist" beliefs twist older Manifest Destiny ideas with Latter Day Saints theology about black and brown people to create a new horror. In Biblical literature, Noah's son, Ham, was cursed, and 18th century reasoning used this to explain why Africans are dark - because they were "blackened" by their sins, and by distant being relatives of Ham. This sin/salvation framework for race "allows" the Negro and Native peoples the "opportunity" of propitiation for their sins by giving their lives in the service of fighting zombies for their "betters." Readers will shudder at the Preacher, the single most creepy character in the Survivalist's colony for me, as I am well versed in religious ideology, and throughout World History (not to mention American) it is very clear how the devious and morally bankrupt can twist religious ideology and belief to suit their needs.
Conclusion: Star-studded reviews of this book use the word "subversive" to describe it, as well as "suspenseful" and "sinister." This novel is all of that, plus lively storytelling, as well as sharp-edged and clear-sighted critique of inequality and injustice. All of this is folded into a fast-paced, exciting, and (somewhat) fictional package. There are more monsters in this narrative than those shuffling along the Kansas prairies - and readers will be drawn to reevaluate the presence of the monsters lurking in their own society.
The best truths are wrapped in parable - Ireland takes the bitter pill of racist reality and wraps it into a blood-tingingly exciting adventure. It's better than I could have even hoped, and there are cinematic elements lying around all over the place. Dare we hope the novel gets a film treatment? For this reader, hope springs eternal...
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After April 3 - less than fifteen days! - you can find DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!
|Gateway to the Great Stupa at Sanchi, 1st century CE.|
In the stressful days of last summer, Ursula Vernon, through the pen of T. Kingfisher, started a twice-weekly fantasy serial about an eleven-year-old girl. It was not, she informed her Patreons, for middle graders, despite the title character's age.
In time, the series became the highlight of a rather lackluster few months, and patrons hugely supported a Kickstarter to have it printed in hardback with illustrations by Lauren "Luve" Henderson. I chose to wait for the bound book to arrive, instead of finishing the serial, and frequently wondered exactly what in the conclusion of the book would prove it wasn't for middle graders... would it be Baba Yaga, and her scary dual nature as cranky grandmother type and periodic sales person carnivore? Would it be tragic Donkeyskin, or the frog tree? Could it be the deceit of Antelope Women everywhere? Or, the warlike legacy of Zultan Houndbreaker and the Queen-in-Chains? No - as Tech Boy and I read the finished copy, I reconfirmed that these are deliciously scary and delightfully fanciful elements which are a hook, drawing the reader onward.
So, where might the problem lie? In the journey.
As we've discussed before, middle school is an immense time of change and pressure, and in Summer's case, her main adversary in her journey to maturation is not her peers - they barely cause a blip in Summer's mind. It is instead her mother who is her adversary, jealous of her personal thoughts, encroaching on her personal space, and unable to allow her daughter a moment's peace without her smothering hopes and terrors, all in the name of love. Like a too-small pot causing roots to be knotted and unable to take in sufficient nutrients, Summer's mother isn't allowing her to grow.
Very few contemporary middle grade novels tackle the grinding, long-term phenomenon of the parental bullying/emotionally diminishing parent and the caretaker child (maybe the last one I read was by Cynthia Ryland in the 90's). This subject seems limited to YA readership, but for many children fulfilling the complex needs of a damaged parent begins in elementary school and morphs into something burdensome and strange well before high school. Summer's needy, hyperprotective mother and the journey which Summer undertakes into another world to find a similar issue isn't something every middle grader will be able to relate to, but the way the novel is written, with excitement and danger and wry humor, I believe that plenty of tweens will relate well enough not to be bored by Summer's fear, or the lack of major battle scene. SUMMER IN ORCUS is an excellent older middle grade novel with familiar tropes and portal novel elements. Summer's quest was to find her heart's desire... and in her search, we discover the desire of the hearts of most of us. With all that being said,
When the witch Baba Yaga walks her house into the backyard, eleven-year-old Summer enters into a bargain for her heart’s desire. Her search will take her to the strange, surreal world of Orcus, where birds talk, women change their shape, and frogs sometimes grow on trees. But underneath the whimsy of Orcus lies a persistent darkness, and Summer finds herself hunted by the monstrous Houndbreaker, who serves the distant, mysterious Queen-in-Chains…
From the Hugo and Nebula award winning author of "Digger" and "Jackalope Wives" comes a story of adventure, betrayal, and heart's desire. T. Kingfisher, who writes for children as Ursula Vernon, weaves together a story of darkness, whimsy, hope and growing things, for all the adults still looking for a door to someplace else.
Baba Yaga is as ambiguous as she is terrifying. In Slavic folklore, she's almost seen as a trickster, at times being revered as a Crone of great wisdom and insight, and in other moments, an antagonistic threat parents use to frighten their children into submission. Baba Yaga might eat you. She might beat you about the head with her pestle. She might just pat you on the head, and go away. Really, you never know. The day Summer meets Baba Yaga is one of Baba's good days, according to the skull door knocker on her chicken-legged house...which speaks to anyone unwise enough to encounter Baba Yaga's door. Summer wisely checks the lay of the land via the skull - which proves to stand her in good stead later on.
Beginning a portal fantasy with the entrance of Baba Yaga is a clear signal to readers that chancy times are ahead - things could go perfectly well, and the story wind up with a significant HEA, or ... it could all go straight down the loo pretty much immediately, with lots of lumps and bruises from a well-wielded stone mortar. I loved that Baba Yaga both begins and ends this novel, which provides a perfectly satisfying story arc, and informs us that LIFE in the real world is just as chancy as a summer's day in Orcus... Baba Yaga introduces herself to Summer for the sole purpose, she says, of offering Summer her heart's desire. Summer doesn't go looking for this boon, nor does she ask for it, nor does she know what that could possibly be. And yet, when Baba Yaga offers you something... well, if you don't know if she'll suck your marrow or send you on your way, you take it... right? Or don't you? Summer's first lesson is quickly apparent, and repeats itself through the many traveling days, Be careful what you wish for.
Through the machinations of a lit candle and an opened door, Summer is plopped into another world without a map or much of a guide but a weasel in her pocket. Surprisingly, she does have instructions of a sort - three, guiding principles by which she must view life in Orcus... and possibly elsewhere. In the real world, we often encounter guiding principles framed by persons or institutions like churches, and if we're wise, we can understand and apply them. More often, in the high chaos and noise of the world we cannot and they're true things we remember after the fact, or which echo upon reading, but are soon forgotten. Summer mainly holds onto one of the rules, 1. Don't worry about things that you cannot fix. This serves her well both in Orcus and will when she's back home again.
As Summer is ostensibly in Orcus to locate her heart's desire, she is soon confused about why she has been sent to a land which has been once torn by war, and is now not quite healed and in so much need. How is it that human hearts are meant to find their truest voice in a world so filled with other things which are broken and leaking chaos and dying? With the addition of a nattily dressed gent called Reginald (of the Almondsgrove Hoopoes) and a splendid cottage wolf to their party, readers are reminded that the world isn't all bad, and that company along the road can make most things bearable.
The world is still broken, and grows darker - and this is where Kingfisher's novel may speak more to adults. Summer is still, in spite of everything, meant to be finding her heart's desire, as we often are called on to carry on with fixing things while on a personal level we're trying hard to shut out the noise and listen for ourselves. While it might be difficult for a tween to articulate, what we want, and who we want to be is at the beating centers of all of our hearts. The worst thing about having a mother like Summer's is that Summer cannot hear her own heart - she hears her mother's. She feels her mother's worries and frequent weeping fears. She bears her mother's burdens, and her grief. Summer has to deny her own self in favor of her mother, and it is a burden both unfair, unjust, and unwieldy. What Baba Yaga does for Summer in giving her Orcus, more than anything, is give her a time away from everything she has had to carry for so long, and lets her know that it has strengthened her enough to carry a cheese knife for someone else's sake. This resonated strongly with me.
This is where the magic lies -- in T. Kingfisher's book, and in all books which carry us away, in portal fantasy in particular, which allows us to believe that things could be different, if we opened the correct wardrobe, and in Orcus in specific, where Summer finally discovers that she can be all she thought she might be when she isn't bent double under an inheritance of anxiety and depression that isn't hers to own. Summer is, by Baba Yaga's observation, "dangerously ignorant," and it's not just of the world outside of her backgarden gate -- Summer is dangerously ignorant of herself. But, it's not wholly her fault - unless she refuses to do the work of looking within to know herself. This is subtly conveyed throughout the story - Summer makes several mistakes from sheer innocence, and it nearly costs her her life in the end - but after every flub, she learns to listen to herself, to hear, and to act on her own advice. At journey's end, you cannot imagine that Summer is still the same innocent, "sweet summer child," as it were. She Knows Things. She knows herself a little better. And that cannot help but change her, for the better.
In the larger world, family is imperfect - and entangled familial relationships often a burden, to be blunt. Our world is messy, dying, and packed full of the deceitful and unkind. And yet, the journey to find one's heart's desire can still be an adventure worth taking. The act of saving one tiny part of the dying world is still an action worth taking. One frog tree, alive and well, is worth all the bruises and terror, and deceptive antelope women in the world.
Afterward, when all has been said and done, Baba Yaga is there to grant you entrance back into the world from which you came - with its insults and burdens, and deceptions and degenerations. You are home. You may not have your cheese knife, but you can manage the battles in the real world, the battles between someone else's concerns, and the ones which concern you. And knowing that, more than anything, is the summation of any heart's desire, middle grader or adult.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of a Kickstarter purchase. You can find T. Kingfisher's SUMMER IN ORCUS in ebook form on Amazon, possibly in print via Sofawolf Press or as a freebie read on the Red Wombat Studio website. Enjoy.