March 30, 2018

Turning Pages Reasd: SAINTS AND MISFITS by S.K. ALI

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

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!

March 29, 2018

Cybils Review: SOUPY LEAVES HOME by Cecil Castellucci and Jose Pimienta

Synopsis: Graphic novels lend themselves to telling a wide variety of stories, and Soupy Leaves Home is one of those that helps push the boundaries of the medium, bringing us a story of intrepid, valiant underdogs and misfits made good. It's also a historical piece, set in 1932, in the heyday (if you can call it that) of the hobo lifestyle—when hobos were not just vagrants, but train-hopping rovers, down on their luck but riding the rails here and there to find work and their next meal. (Thanks, Herbert Hoover.)

Our narrator Pearl has run away from an abusive home life to try to find a new existence, and when she stumbles on a hobo camp she takes on a new identity: Soupy, a young boy new to the hobo life. An older hobo named Ramshackle takes Soupy under his wing, and they continue their journey Westward together. They might not have much food or shelter, but they share what they do have…and both have their secret hidden baggage that needs to be dealt with if they want to reach a satisfying end to their ramblings.

Observations: Running away to find yourself is a timeless topic and one that has enduring reader appeal—I was immediately drawn into the idea of Pearl leaving a difficult home life for a life on the road. Also, there is a certain romanticism to the old-style hobo way of life depicted in this book. It provides an inside look at a lesser-known cultural lifestyle of the time period (including a glossary of hobo signs!), and the difficulties of the Depression that forced so many onto the road.
Beyond the historical elements, this one is also thematically strong; themes of empowerment and redemption are woven throughout the book, focused as it is on characters who lack social and economic power for a variety of reasons. The characters are intriguing and sympathetic, particularly the Pearl, who learns the meaning of friendship and how to rely on her own wits to survive—not simply blindly believing in others' judgments.

I loved the art style and judicious use of color in this one—it manages to be both stark and whimsical in equal measure, with a lot of fun little hidden drawings that make it rewarding to explore slowly and re-read.

Conclusion: It's clear why Soupy Leaves Home ended up on the Cybils shortlist for 2017. The timeless story of journeying to find oneself, along with the intriguing historical backdrop, make for an appealing combination.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find SOUPY LEAVES HOME by Cecil Castellucci and Jose Pimienta at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 27, 2018


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

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!

March 23, 2018

Turning Pages Reads: PERIOD 8 by CHRIS CRUTCHER

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

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!

March 22, 2018

Cybils Review: PASHMINA by Nidhi Chanani

Synopsis: This was such a charming, delightful story about the many questions that come up for kids whose families have in some way crossed cultures. I found a lot to relate to personally here, as the daughter of an immigrant from India/Pakistan. I also really enjoyed the fantastical twist. From the jacket copy:
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.

Observations: Pashmina is a wonderful and colorful rendition of growing up Indian-American, with all the cultural baggage (sometimes literal baggage) that entails. Children of immigrants in particular will see a lot they recognize here, and those who aren't children of immigrants will catch a vivid glimpse of what it's like to have that relationship with the "old country," its traditions and religion and even cultural mores. The shock of what it's like to visit India for the first time is also nicely rendered.

The book is nicely pitched to appeal to a wide range of ages. The cute animal characters in the world revealed by Priyanka's shawl are adorable and mysterious, and the elements of darkness in this tale are thought-provoking without being scary. I loved the deceptively simple, appealing style of the artwork, too. The drawings of places in India contrasted well with America, and the images were easy to read.

In terms of the language used, the use of Hindi and "Hinglish" was really well done, and provides not just a particular "flavor" for non-Indian readers but is accurate and recognizable for those American-Born Confused Desis among us. The glossary is a great addition, too, although the visuals make it possible to figure out vocabulary from context.

Conclusion: This is one of those books I wanted to hug (but I couldn't, because it was a digital review copy!). There still aren't enough stories about and/or featuring 2nd-generation Indian-Americans—it's such a complex and multilayered and varied experience—so I was happy to see one that not only covers the topic an a thought-provoking and satisfying way, but also doesn't limit itself to being a particular "type" of story. (Priyanka draws comics, and has an identity that isn't just about being South Asian.) I look forward to seeing more from this author!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher for Cybils. You can find PASHMINA by Nidhi Chanani at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 20, 2018


Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

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!

March 19, 2018


Gateway to the Great Stupa at Sanchi, 1st century CE.
Synopsis: The life (well, lives) of the Buddha are almost naturally suited to graphic storytelling. After all, Buddhist jataka tales and stories of his birth and death have been illustrated in visual form on architectural monuments for centuries...even millennia. They come with their own visual conventions and pictorial traditions, so it is interesting to tackle a depiction of the Buddha's life in a contemporary comics format, taking an ancient visual language and blending it with one that current readers are familiar with.

The graphic novel Buddha: An Enlightened Life by Kieron Moore and Rajesh Nagulakonda covers the story of how the Buddha became the Buddha: how a minor noble named Prince Siddhartha experienced a great spiritual awakening, abandoned his princely life, and wandered as a pauper before reaching enlightenment and establishing one of the world's great religious traditions. This intriguing and educational book was a finalist for Cybils Young Adult Graphic Novels this past year.

Observations: This book does a great job of bringing to life the story of how Prince Siddhartha became the Buddha, animating his various trials and life events with a sense of drama and even adventure. While there is a distinct whiff of the "educational" with this one, and some young readers might simply not be interested in the topic, the story of Buddha is international and timeless, and an important part of world culture as well as the culture of many young readers.

The drawing style is beautiful and the colors ethereal, bringing a visible Asian flair into a traditional, easy-to-read comics layout. I kind of wish it hadn't followed the Victorian-era convention of making everyone fair-skinned, though; fair skin is considered a favorable trait in Indian culture, but it is also a symptom of a pernicious colorism that perpetuates the damaging class divides of the caste system. All that aside, though, the art was really quite lovely, and its delicacy fitting for a story about spiritual enlightenment.

Conclusion: I've been wanting to explore Campfire Graphic Novels for a while now, interested in what might emerge from a homegrown comics publisher in India, and the educational value and overall quality of this one has me eager to read more. I appreciate the effort being made by this Indian imprint to produce high-quality literary titles to be marketed to English-speaking audiences around the world.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher for Cybils 2017. You can find BUDDHA: AN ENLIGHTENED LIFE by Kieron Moore and Rajesh Nagulakonda at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 14, 2018

Surveying Stories: Separating Fears and Identifying Heart's Desires in T. Kingfisher's SUMMER IN ORCUS

1. Don't worry about things that you cannot fix. 2. Antelope women are not to be trusted. 3. You cannot change essential nature with magic.

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,

Let's survey a story!

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.

March 13, 2018

2♦sdays@the treehouse: Challenge the Third: March

Welcome back to our monthly Second Tuesday writing challenge!

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!

Welcome back, it's March, which brings with it, famously, National Irish American Heritage Month (WHO KNEW), Purim, and the National Bubble Week celebration, which, I'm sure, is all the rage where there's still snow and ice crystals to photograph attractively over their surfaces. This month's image comes from Flickr user Philipp Rein of Augsburg, Germany. I'm intrigued by the stories which will come from this image, so without further ado:


I'm not going to bother with Inlinkz this month; just leave your link in the comments below, and we look forward to reveling in your inspiration! Happy writing!

March 12, 2018

Cybils Review: THE BIG BAD FOX by Benjamin Renner

Synopsis: I can't really beat the flap copy for this one, in terms of plot summary, so here you go, fresh from Amazon:

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Fox? No one, it seems.

The fox dreams of being the terror of the barnyard. But no one is intimidated by him, least of all the hens―when he picks a fight with one, he always ends up on the losing end. Even the wolf, the most fearsome beast of the forest, can’t teach him how to be a proper predator. It looks like the fox will have to spend the rest of his life eating turnips.

But then the wolf comes up with the perfect scheme. If the fox steals some eggs, he could hatch the chicks himself and raise them to be a plump, juicy chicken dinner. Unfortunately, this plan falls apart when three adorable chicks hatch and call the fox Mommy.

Beautifully rendered in watercolor by Benjamin Renner, The Big Bad Fox is a hilarious and surprisingly tender parable about parenthood that's sure to be a hit with new parents (and their kids too).

Observations: Funny cartoon animals and a classic-comic vibe will make this appealing for younger readers with a sense of humor that will appeal to somewhat older readers as well. New and returning fans of classic cartoons will enjoy all the silly visual gags and Looney-Tunes-style cartoon violence. It's a fun take on the Big Bad Wolf and classic animal story tropes, turning them on their head and making kids think twice about who the real bad guy is. The fun simplicity and humor of the cast of characters is appealing, and I enjoyed the lack of panel boundaries—it had a very loose but clear and easy-to-follow style.

click to embiggen

Conclusion: Fans of Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Chicken Run, and Calvin & Hobbes should enjoy this one—the humor is fun for a wide range of ages and types of readers. Another winner from First Second!

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher for the purposes of Cybils judging. You can find THE BIG BAD FOX by Benjamin Renner at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 08, 2018

Cybils Review: SPINNING by Tillie Walden

Synopsis: First Second consistently puts out high-quality and varied graphic novels for audiences from kids to adults, and Spinning by Tillie Walden—one of our Cybils finalists for 2017 in Young Adult Graphic Novels—is a standout. It's a graphic memoir, a genre which I always find interesting (oddly enough, I'm not usually that interested in regular memoirs), and it's about (among other things) the world of figure skating, which is awfully topical with the Winter Olympics just past but is not a world I know the ins and outs of.

After reading Spinning, I have a lot better idea of what it's like to train as a competitive figure skater—and I can unequivocally say it would not have been for me. For the young Tillie, who has been a skater for ten years, figure skating is her life, her passion, her talent, and even her refuge. Until, that is, her family moves, and she starts at a new school. Not only is her environment new, she discovers she has new interests, like art. She also falls in love—with another girl. It takes some more time to realize maybe the rigid world of figure skating doesn't mean to her what it once did.

Observations: This book covers issues of growing up as a girl and coming to terms with sexuality across a wide age span, and should be accessible to a range of readers. It's easy to be flip and say it's a story about skating, but it's about so much more than that. It's also very down-to-earth both in writing/art style and in the narrator's way of looking at the world. Readers will recognize and relate to the various small and large dramas of coming of age—of friendship, competition, school, and learning who you are.
Image: Macmillan
Thematically, this one is complex—beneath the veneer of the ice-skating world, the importance of the story is really about Tillie learning who she is and learning to inhabit that self. Yet it remains easy to follow and clearly structured. As mentioned before, the style is down to earth—simple, clear, and effective—and keeps us focused on the story. The limitation to just a few colors lends atmosphere to the simplicity of the drawing.

Conclusion: This was truly deserving of being a Cybils finalist. It's wonderfully well-written, it's an intriguing glimpse into the world of professional ice skating, and it's a heartening story about the rollercoaster of coming to terms with who you are.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find SPINNING by Tillie Walden at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 06, 2018

Turning Pages Reads: FUM, by ADAM RAPP

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

NB: This is not going to be the average review; I finished this novel despite my better judgment, hoping for some twist in the narrative that I wasn't expecting, to make it work. I picked it up this book because of the title... and the fact that on the cover is a female. In fairytales, all the giants are male, and we have very few newer characterizations of tall girls in young adult literature, though the too-tall girl at the school dance was an ongoing trope for a lot of the earlier years of young adult lit. As this book was listed under fantasy, I thought it would be more of a fairytale. Last warning: It's not.

Synopsis: After a pituitary tumor changes her body at age eleven, Corinthia Bledsoe emerges as 7'4" and 287 pounds. She uses a special desk, and a special toilet, because she's broken two. Her vision of a terrible triumvirate of tornadoes - and her subsequent loud, panicked warning of the entire school - is treated as some kind of violent dysfunction worthy of her being tackled by grown men, one of whom fantasizes as he does so about her bodily strength, and the kind of impact that she'd have on the gridiron. While Corinthia is already famous for her size and special-built desk, and for having a custom-built bathroom on campus, having broken two toilets since freshman year, she becomes terrifyingly infamous when the tornadoes come.

The story spins between Corintha's increasingly disturbing relationship to the school and community to the tale of Billy Ball, who, struggling with gastrointestinal problems and reeling from the death of his father, is enacting unexplained racist cliché "red face" rituals and obsessing on Native Americans. Not fitting in at the same school, he comes up with a list of students and faculty with whom his path has crossed, and seems to be preparing himself for violence. He seems vaguely aware of Corinthia, but they only meet once, and it doesn't propel the narrative in any direction. The third subplot returns to the Bledsoe household, and to a closer focus on Corintha's mother, who believes herself to be somehow tragically martyred for being Corintha's mother, and whose adult desires seem to be more important to her than her children's struggles.

Despite being a junior, Corinthia doesn't seem to have much of a view of the future, something which her ineffectual guidance counselor tries to elicit from her constantly, though her good-natured father seems prepared to accept whatever she'd like to do. Instead of a future, Corintha is mired in the present, as her brother disappears, and her mother goes into crisis. In possibly the oddest story thread in the entire book, Corinthia takes a road trip with one of the workmen fixing the school post-tornado, a man called Lavert. Corinthia's friendship with him, a grown man with a criminal past, and her understanding of his mortality is definitely unexpected, and strains the credulity of the reader past bearing.

Observations: Grotesquerie is a 20th century literary convention which, according to Wikipedia, can be linked with sci-fi and horror. For me, this novel falls squarely under grotesquerie, simply because Adam Rapp seems to be thoroughly disgusted with everyone in the entire book, and in his disgust, renders them... disgusting. From the names of the characters and their ill-fitting, cacophonous names to the description of Corinthia herself beginning from page one - "woodsplitter's hands," and the "great caves of her nostrils." Descriptions of her menstruation and nosebleeds, and comparisons between the two are a lovingly-depicted gross-fest.

The narrative never takes off, as it is heavily weighted with an abundance of cloying description, producing a plodding plot in a claustrophobic storyline which draws in the unsuspecting reader with the idea of a real giantess and instead confronts them with body dysphoria juxtaposed with an awkwardness masquerading as intimacy. No one seems to grow or change; the bizarre incidents simply crowd together, threaded with domino-sized teeth and Together, this creates one of the most unkind and body-averse narratives I've ever read, and an alleged YA book which focuses less on the young adult, her challenges and changes than on her body, and the bodies of everyone around her.

The body-consciousness remains central to the novel. At 287 pounds, Corinthia is said to be pretty, but every other word out of the narrative disregards that, and paints her as disgusting and vile. She's said to be third in her class - but every other description has her acting in bizarre and outlandish ways designed to repel the reader. Finally, Corinthia is alleged to have destroyed two toilets, once emerging covered in toilet water and swamping the girl's restroom...which is ...ludicrous, ignorant, and insulting.

FACT: People heavier than 287 use toilets on the daily. FACT: Nothing happens. Toilets - regular old public restroom toilets, and certainly the floor-mounted, vitreous china sort used in public schools - are rated to bear the weight of a THOUSAND vertical pounds, and yes, I am the big nerd who looked that up, but this jarring falsehood stands out. 287 pounds is just a number, and anyone who weighs that is just - still - a person. These scenes felt like a badly set-up, dehumanizing fat joke rather than a story detail filling in the blanks about who Corinthia is and what she's about. Kids in high school are this weight on a regular basis, and stand to be hurt and insulted by this abhorrent characterization. Reader beware.

Corinthia - her family - her school - basically her entire corner of the State seems very white... yet the teens in the story are obsessed with people of color, to very significant degrees. Billy puts arrows in his hair and paints some racist cliche of warrior marks on his face. As her family dissolves, Corinthia begins to pal around with a grown man who is also a face-tatted, do-rag wearing cliché of a prison-release workman who, early in their relationship, refers to himself as "nigga"... For a novel which, up to that point, had displayed a casual lack of empathy for any of its characters, this white-guy-included racism wasn't entirely surprising, but still reveals very poor taste.

Conclusion: I normally consider it a waste of time to review a novel which I vehemently dislike, but I made an exception for this because I walked into it unaware of its topic, or of any reputation with regard to its author. I won't make the same mistake again. While some will assign this novel as an example of satire, or may find within it deep literary meaning, or even feel that it is merely misplaced in terms of audience, and would crossover well with adults, for me, there is too much left unexplained, and what may have been a brilliant venture does not pan out in its execution. My main thought is that it is disturbing, written with a specific distaste and aversion for the body, doesn't have a discernible story arc, and is not especially respectful of the challenges and changes of adolescents, especially female adolescents. With its comparisons to people as animals and its basic disrespect for the teen body or mind, this novel seems to be an experiment with a broad scope which failed.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After March 20, you can find FUM by Adam Rapp at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

March 01, 2018

Cybils Review: THE DAM KEEPER by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi

Synopsis: I found out during Cybils deliberations that The Dam Keeper originated as an Oscar-nominated short animation, which makes me sad that I missed it. While I was growing up, I was a big fan of the Spike and Mike Festival of Animation, which introduced me really early on to faves like Nick Park/Aardman Animation and Pixar, now a household name. I'm guessing The Dam Keeper would've been right at home in that arena—and, in fact, both of the authors have worked for Pixar, so there you go.

Pig, who lives in Sunrise Valley, has a really important job he inherited from his father: he's the Dam Keeper, and he's responsible for keeping back the deadly black fog that threatens from outside the valley's walls. Unfortunately, he's been alone for a while—ever since his father inexplicably left and walked right out into the fog. And now, there's a huge wave of black fog on the horizon, and it's up to Pig, his best friend Fox, and the bully Hippo to figure out how to stop it.

Observations: This story's very cute animal characters will appeal to younger readers, but the touch of darkness to the storyline will broaden its age range—there's a depth of emotion here that doesn't shy away from difficult challenges like the departure of a parent or, I suppose, imminent death by scary black fog. The story and setting is unique and interesting—I love the touch of steampunk-type technology with the dam and its fog-busting fans—and the characters, while young, have plenty of agency as they set off on their quite possibly dangerous adventure.

While the story and characters are fun and strange, they deal with a variety of familiar themes that are of interest to elementary-aged readers: friendship and friendship conflicts; understanding bullies (Hippo is obnoxious, but Fox is there to tamp down his bullying and bring out his better side); who is safe to trust; missing parents. The art (which is digitally done, I think) is really striking, though I'm not necessarily into this particular style of cute animals personally. The artistry in terms of panels and pages was amazing, as was the use of atmosphere in depicting the fog and the darkness.

Conclusion: I can see this appealing to a generation of readers who have grown up with the style of digital art that's everywhere now—but it definitely transcends the mass-market stuff with its sense of artistry and intriguing story.

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find THE DAM KEEPER by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!