Tag Archives: middle-grade

Book Review: New Kid is Important and Eloquent

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, audio excerpt, reviews, and author's bio.

I read an ARC of Jerry Craft’s new graphic novel, New Kid. Actually I’ve now read it twice. In the ARC, most pages were left in grayscale.  The finished novel is fully colored.

The book opens on Jordan Banks’ first day at a new school, Riverdale Academy Day School, which touts itself as a premier education, but which his father points out does not look to be a particularly diverse environment. Jordan is picked up from his Washington Heights home by his guide Liam and Liam’s father, who warns Liam to stay in the car with the doors locked when he goes to the door for Jordan.

Of every book I have ever read, this one perhaps best illustrates the harm that microagressions, even thoughtless ones, cause. There aren’t many African American students in Jordan Banks’ new school. He and other students (and staff) of color are subjected to stereotyping in a multitude of ways by their peers and the school staff, some of them acting intentionally cruelly and others not even aware of their racist acts. This comes out even in the types of books that the librarian recommends to the students of color versus the ones that she recommends to the white students. Drew in particular is forced to endure one of the teachers unable to remember that his name is not Deandre, the name of an older African American student in the school, though every African American character including one of the teachers faces this problem.

Jordan has to code-switch between his mostly white school and his Washington Heights neighborhood. This too is very elegantly and succinctly described, the nervousness of moving between the two worlds, the burden of having to do so, the exhaustion caused by such hyper-awareness of the environment.

But he wants the same intimacy with all of his friends and seeks on the advice of his grandfather to find a way to hang out with all of his friends together.

For these illustrations, the ways in which Craft captures the myriad ways that internalized racism effects his protagonist, I cannot recommend this book enough especially to white people, especially to white educators. It is such a poignant reminder of the harm that we can unknowingly or unthinkingly inflict on kids just trying to get through the day, fighting for their dreams. It’s not even a difficult or long read. I think the last time I read it, it took only a day, maybe two.

Jordan himself is such a likeable and relatable protagonist.

In the end, Jordan even takes pity upon the bully of his school year, whom earlier that year he had helped to finally get his comeuppance by standing up for a falsely accused friend.

This is the story of Jordan’s navigating this new, predominately white space, coming to figure out how he can be himself and grow in such a space, and how he can improve that space for himself and for his classmates of every color. And his confrontations with injustice are painted as not requiring a great deal of forethought or planning. There is nothing elaborate about his calls for justice. He merely speaks up for himself and his friends when he sees injustice. I think that too is important.

In sum, go read this book.

*****

Craft, Jerry. New Kid. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

This review is not endorsed by Jerry Craft or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Poor Mythological and Tired School Representation in Odd Gods

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and reviews.Spoilers have been whited out. Highlight the space between the brackets to read.

I am going to start out by saying that this book I read because work “required” it rather than because it is anything that I would have chosen. The necessity of my reading it (to be able to feel adequately prepared to lead a discussion using this book and three others as launch points) has colored my reading, and despite the event going fairly well overall, I can’t un-color my opinion.

I read an ARC of this book over two days. The ARC was missing a few illustrations, and several of the illustrations I think were unfinished, still having a more sketchy quality than others in the book.

David Slavin and Daniel Weitzman’s Odd Gods, illustrated by Adam J. B. Lane, is a middle school of cliques and stereotypes, “bathroom humor,” bad puns, and representations of mythological characters that are largely unsupported by ancient canon. Adonis and Oddonis are twin boys born to Zeus and Freya. Let’s start there. Zeus isn’t one to create a stable household. Would he have bedded a Norse goddess? Almost certainly if opportunity presented itself. Would he have stayed with her? Almost certainly not. Hera is completely absent from Slavin’s mythos here. If she hadn’t been, Freya would have been roasted, starting a war between the Vanir and the Greek gods. If Odd’s mother had been Hera and not Freya, he probably would have been cast off of Mount Olympus like her other imperfect son by Zeus. The Greek Adonis is mortal, not a god, or at least he began that way, and his death gave rise to the anemone and a festival commemorating his death. DON’T look for this to help you ace your mythology test, because it won’t. Go back to Riordan for that.

Here Adonis is a god, the Greek ideal in contrast to his odd twin brother. The gods are the cool kids of the school who bully and cheat their way to the best of everything that the middle school has to offer. The odds are the rejects of the school. It’s a tired trope that I’ve seen better done. In this school they seem to be split near 50/50, though we only get a few main characters from each pack: Adonis, Poseidon, Heracles, and Aphrodite vs. Odd, Mathena, Germes, Puneous, and Gaseous.  (Note that that’s only two girls in a horde or boys too.  I think this might pass a Bechdel test if I am correctly remembering the math teacher to be a woman, but the only interaction that I concretely remember is between any two women in the whole story is Aphrodite bullying Mathena, so if it passes, it doesn’t pass well.)

Math is singled out in this novel as a particularly abhorrent subject, and Mathena is the only god relegated to Odd’s group of outcasts.

[SPOILER] Odd ignores his classwork and study in favor of planning his campaign against his brother for class president and nearly looses by default when it is revealed that he is failing math. Despite spending his time with the goddess of math, he has failed to ask his friends for help when he needs it, or failed to see the importance of study, or both. He does apologize to his friends, and work hard to recover from the mistake, and his hard work is rewarded. [END SPOILER]  That is laudable, a good lesson: ask for help and work hard, and you might be rewarded.

Odd and the “odd gods” come to grips with their oddness by accepting and acknowledging their quirks and that the things that make them unusual make them individual.  The gods acknowledge odd quirks in themselves too (particularly fears and superstitions), and tout themselves as individual too because of them.

Personally, I’m ready to set aside this idea that this is middle school: everyone breaks off into their stereotyped roles, hangs out together in packs of like-stereotyped individuals, and the “cooler” kids bully the individualists, the “kids like me” (I think it rare that anyone sees themselves as a Heather, Plastic, or a jock from such films and books). I think it’s time we start modeling what middle school could be instead of telling kids that this is what middle school was like for me, and this is what it will be like for you. It won’t improve until we tell them that they don’t have to accept what they see. And though many of these films and books resolve by some re-balancing of power, whether the cool kids are knocked off the pedestal or the outcasts gain some power, the model, the beginning framework is still the same.  High School Musical actually resolved this well, better I think than did Odd Gods, with the breaking up of the caste system, the rejection of the “status quo,” the release of everyone to explore their own interests.  I think High School Musical surpasses Odd Gods in part because the kids are given some more control over the things that make them individual, where Odd Gods‘ quirks are inherent and innate.

In the tradition of epilogues destroying a decent ending (I’m looking at you, Rowling), [SPOILER] after Odd agrees to co-president with Adonis because he recognizes that the division between the odds and the gods is toxic, Adonis asks for a recount, undoing any character growth that he had hitherto very briefly obtained via agreeing first to yield to Oddonis and congratulating his brother as the better candidate. [END SPOILER]

Overall, there was too much that I personally didn’t like about this book for me to rate it well. My bar for books based on mythology is set awfully high, and this book took a limbo approach to this high jump competition while relying on tired tropes and negative representations of school atmosphere.

But it was all right.  The lessons of inclusivity and acceptance and equality and standing up for oneself and one’s friends, of hard work and of not being afraid to ask for help, and the forgiveness of friends were good.

**

Slavin, David and Daniel Weitzman. Odd Gods. Illus. Adam J. B. Lane. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by David Slavin, Daniel Weitzman, Adam J. B. Lane, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Rowan of Rin Confronts Fantasy Tropes

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and sample.

This little book that I took far too long to read utilized nearly every trope danger of fantasy—dragons, spiders, mountains, dark forests, swamps—all battled for the sake of a village’s necessity for water and for one boy’s love of his bukshah, maned, cow-like, herd beasts which he tends though it is usually a job for younger villagers. Rowan is considered too small, too sickly, too weak by the villagers, who look down on him. But he is forced to join a dangerous quest to scale the mountain, the rumored home of a dragon when the village Wise Woman ties him to her prophetic map when consulted before the quest.  He joins a group of the village’s strongest, bravest, most boastful adults—those that most consider him a burden and antithetical to their ideal.

I am reminded of young Bilbo Baggins the Burglar joining the quest of the twelve dwarves—who also take a difficult journey and climb inside a mountain and defeat a dragon, who also battle spiders that fear light in a dark forest.

Though Bilbo’s journey is farther, necessitating a broader world from J. R. R. Tolkien, Rowan’s world is intriguing for being only hinted towards. There are promises of a world beyond what the reader sees in Rowan of Rin in the village’s suspicion of outsiders like the Travelers who camp near the village every few years, bringing festival-like days of performances and trading fancies from outside of the valley, and in the revelation of a traditional journey undertaken by the village’s young children to learn to swim. But the world to which the reader is actually exposed, the culture that the reader gets to know in this book is very limited, to a village of perhaps less than 100.

This book had so much to recommend it to me. I find myself gravitating towards the smaller of the heroes, the ones that rely more often on kindness and friendship than on brawn. I in many ways romanticize the small village life and its smaller, more insular concerns. I use both in my own WIP. Reading so many novels where the fate of the world depends on the outcome of the novel’s story, reading a book where the larger world might continue on without dissolving into chaos even if the book’s quest is a failure can be refreshing. Rin would not survive of course without water, but the larger, only hinted at world probably would not know of any change in the valley until the Travelers came by some years later, and then only they would take the news of an abandoned village and unknown catastrophe to the world that would continue on as it had done but with a new ghost story to tell.

Yet still maybe because it was such an easy read, and its adventures seemed so episodic as the group was tested by first one and then another trope danger, the book took me too long to read; I began it first in 2017; I read 151 pages over a year and half. So I can’t say that the book grabbed and then held me. I can say that I enjoyed it whenever I returned to it, that the book was an easy book to pick up and put down. That quality is valuable too, and may make this book ideal for some lifestyles. Certainly it was a good book to carry around with me for long waits at doctors’ offices and car maintenance appointments.

I think too that because it does use so many tropes and is so short, this would be a good introduction to a young one just starting to read high fantasy.  The book avoids feeling cliche because Rowan himself is a different type of hero, and the adults, the typical heroes of the old stories, are one by one forced to confront their own insurmountable fears and weaknesses.  This book is as much about Rowan discovering himself equal to an overwhelming task as the adults realizing that they themselves are not as heroic as they tout themselves to be, that the qualities they have so valued are not enough.

I was a little off put by Emily Rodda’s occasional slip into omniscience. For the most part the story is told from the limited third of Rowan, but sometimes, especially in times when confronted by their greatest fears, the narrative slipped inside the minds of the adults. At one point, it slipped into the mind of one of the bukshah. These switches in POV were not always marked by breaks in the text, which when used I find alleviates some of my sense of being jarred.

That though again is a personal preference.

I do have to compliment Rodda’s skilled use of prophetic poetry, that ability that I so envy, to divulge and disguise the truth in that form. Her skilled use of this device rivals that of Rick Riordan. Though the map’s prophecies tell the characters and the reader how to achieve the correct outcome of each step of the journey, I was almost always surprised by what the characters needed to do to succeed, how the words needed to be interpreted.

The series continues. There are five books altogether. I’m uncertain yet whether I will continue to see how the world expands and Rowan and the villagers around him are influenced by their growing sense of a world beyond Rin. As I said, I enjoyed the hints of a larger world without seeing it, and I occasionally enjoy a more personal quest, so for me, it may be better to leave the world and the story where it is without allowing it—as I think it might—to become a greater, more world-altering story. This publication though wisely included a few pages of the next book, which I foolishly read, so I may need to continue simply to revisit the village of Rin.

****

Rodda, Emily. Rowan of Rin. New York: Greenwillow-Avon-HarperCollins, 2001. First published in Australia by Omnibus-Scholastic Australia in 1993.

Intended audience: Ages 8+.

This review is not endorsed by Emily Rodda, Greenwillow Books, Avon Books, HarperCollins Publishers, Omnibus Books, Scholastic Australia Pty Ltd.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Giver Questions a World Without Choice

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, guides, and author's and illustrator's bios.

I am reviewing this book from memory; I don’t have it in front of me as I write this review.

Spoilers.

I am the rare reader for this graphic novel adaptation, vaguely aware—it’s true—of The Giver but who has never read the novel, never seen the movie, never seen the play. I was excited to see this graphic novel adaptation and more excited for the very good excuse to take it home to read (I was to lead a book discussion on the adaptation). So I can’t talk about this adaption as an adaptation.

I can only talk about the graphic novel as a separate, standalone entity—which I realize that it is not, but I am probably one of the few to read it who can talk about its conveyance of the plot and the world’s ideas without past experiences bleeding in to color my reading of this.

In a future, highly regulated society where almost every choice is sacrificed along with feelings of desire and perceptions of color and smell that would announce difference and the necessity of choice, and everything from how to dress to when to learn to ride a bike to a martial partner to a career to children that the parents did not birth is assigned by a committee. In order to live with this regulation, the society sacrifices its history, its memories of the former world, which are thrust on a successive line of Receivers only occasionally consulted by the committee before the committee announces its decisions. Each Receiver alone holds memories of war, pain, risk, joy, love, color, difference bar the brief time when an old Receiver trains the new one. The Receiver is chosen by the committee, but it seems that there is some innate quality that makes one a more apt choice (possibly signified by blue eyes though I am inferring this from what I know of Jonas and the second book’s title, Gathering Blue) Before being chosen, the story’s child protagonist, Jonas, begins to experience the color red.

The absence and emergence for Jonas of color was particularly well-conveyed in this form. The graphic novel begins in white and gray, pale blue, and tan for shadow and minimal shading, but color bleeds into the illustrations as Jonas’ Receives more memories of the past at first palely but ultimately in a deep, livid paint of many colors, and the past is always vivid, although the Giver begins Jonas’ Receiving with a red sled on a hill in the snow, easing him into the transition from non-color to color.

I read this story in a day, and the ambiguous ending had me leaving my nest of blankets to run to my housemate to demand to know what outcome the rest of the series reveals. I have to believe that I became invested in this story then, though I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. I don’t actually think that this is a story that is meant to be enjoyed—or if it is meant to be enjoyed, then it is only in the rebellion of the protagonists against the status quo.

Jonas’ is a hard world to accept, but it is not at all difficult to see how some could laud these sacrifices, could laud this version of peace, for “the greater good,” to borrow a phrase from Grindelwald’s propaganda. The Giver and Jonas decide that the world’s way of life is not worth defending, is in fact worth destroying, bestowing pain and memory on the populace by force, and I think the story would have us support the protagonists’ decision.

But the open ending of the novel, the failure to follow up with the community after Jonas has left and his memories have been dispersed among the community members leaves open the possibility that the decision is wrong, though irreversible. And the consequences of the decision on Jonas and on the toddler Gabe, whom he has taken under his care, are also open ended. They hide and live a life on the run, stumble through exhaustion and dehydration and starvation and cold and heat. They cyclically stumble upon the sight of the first memory that Jonas Receives and Jonas takes yet one more ride on the red sled down the hill towards a village celebrating Christmas.

I think The Giver is meant as a warning. And I think that it is meant to make us question what is most important in life.

In this format, it was a quick but impactful read, raising many questions in the comparison of Jonas’ world to our current society.

What would life be like without the burden of choices? Would we need to sacrifice every choice to be content without choice?

Did Jonas and the Giver make the right choice?

****

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. Adapted by and illustrated by P. Craig Russell. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 12-16, Grades 7-12.

This review is not endorsed by Lois Lowry, P. Craig Russell, or Houghton Mifflin.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

People of Color in Books That I Read in 2018: Part 1: Novels

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February is Black History Month and a good time to review how people of color have been represented in fiction that I read in the previous year.  And February is quickly slipping away from me.  I haven’t yet finished reviewing all of the picture books that I read in 2018, but I have reviewed the novels.

Looking at this year’s numbers, 28% percent of the books that I read this year (picture books included) included a person of color in any capacity—which is 1% more than 2017’s numbers. However, only 12 books that I read in 2018 included a person of color as the protagonist, a dismal 7% of my total books read, less than half as many as in 2017. That’s terrible. That’s on me. I did not this year seek out as many picture books to read independently as I have done in other years. Only 1 of the 12 books with a POC as the protagonist was a book mandated for story time in 2018.

I want to help others find these novels with characters of color, help others to know where to look for representation.  This will be the fourth year that I am doing this.  You can find the previous years’ posts collected here as well as links to more complete Goodreads lists.

Middle-Grade Fiction or Nonfiction (Ages 8-12)

Books with a POC as a protagonist

Yes, No, Maybe So, Book 1: Tara Takes the Stage by Tasmin Lane.  2018.

In this choose your own adventure novel, Tara Singh, an Indian American struggles between choosing trying out and practicing for tryouts for the school theater production and helping her family prepare to impress a Bollywood star who might put their sweet shop on the map. Tara’s crush, Hiro, a theater boy himself, is Japanese American. But is she also developing a crush on Rohan, an Indian American who works with her parents at the shop? Her best friend Yael is Jewish. I have yet only read this through the once, with the one ending, with the one set of choices.

The Heroes of Olympus, Book 5: The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan. 2014.

A Latino American, a Chinese Canadian, an African American, and a Cherokee (all half-Greek or -Roman deity, I suppose) travel from Rome to Athens and back to Long Island to help three white kids save the world by sending the primordial deity, Gaia, back to sleep. An Italian American immigrant and a Puerto Rican (one half-Greek deity, one half-Roman deity) go on a separate quest to restore an ancient Greek artifact to the Greek demigods in America and end the feud between the Greek demigods and the Roman demigods.

A diverse cast with no protagonist

Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods (2014) & Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes (2015) by Rick Riordan and illustrated by John Rocco.

These are harder books to put into any of these categories. They are each collections of mythology, so all the protagonists in the stories—or most of them—are Greek.  There are adventures and visits to places farther afield, primarily in northern Africa or modern-day Turkey and Georgia.  In Greek Heroes, Cyrene is given a queendom in modern day Libya by Apollo in exchange for becoming his lover.  Orpheus travels to Egypt.  Hercules meets Antaeus in modern-day Tunisia on his way to the Strait of Gibraltar between modern-day Morocco and modern-day Spain before wandering Spain and Portugal in search of Geryon’s cattle.  In Greek Gods, Dionysus unsuccessfully tries to invade India with his followers. He is successful in spreading his worship into the Middle East, but the Indians repel him. Because in these Riordan is recounting existing myths from ancient texts and cultures, he is bound to an extant to remain true to the tellings as they are recorded by others, though he can choose what to include and what to exclude from the myriad and sometimes contradictory stories about these characters and narratives.

A white protagonist with a secondary character who is POC with a speaking role

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. 2005.

Charon is described as having darker skin. He’s a god, the ferryman of souls to Hades’ realm, and an employee of Hades’. Percy guesses at first that Medusa is a Middle Eastern woman because of her dress. I assume she wears a burka as that would best hide her eyes.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 3: The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan. 2018.

Piper McLean, a Cherokee, returns as a secondary character, bordering on a protagonist, but Apollo—here appearing in the mortal, pimply, gangly form of Lester Papadopoulos—and Meg McCaffrey are protagonists.

Teen Fiction (Ages 13-19)

A white protagonist with a secondary character who is POC with a speaking role

Timekeeper, Book 1 by Tara Sim. 2016.

Brandon, Danny’s assistant and friend, is dark-skinned and Daphne, a fellow clock-mechanic and Danny’s rival but later an ally of his, is half-Indian, half-British.

The Raven Cycle, Book 4: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater. 2016.

Henry Cheng, a Korean American, borders on being a protagonist for this last of The Raven Cycle. His mother, his friends in the Vancouver crowd, all are Asian American as is their landlady.  Blue’s extended family remain background characters.

White protagonists with diverse background characters

The Raven Cycle, Book 3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater. 2014.

Some of Blue’s extended family seems to be African American, though Stiefvater is never very clear about it, in fact convincing many of us before she quashed the rumor that Blue herself was written as African American. Henry Cheng is less of a prominent character here.

Adult Fiction (Ages 20+)

White protagonists with diverse background characters

Temeraire, Book 2: Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik. 2006.

Temeraire and his crew of Englishmen and at least one girl travel with a delegation of Chinese ambassadors and officials along the west African coast and then across the Indian Ocean to China where they see how dragons are treated in that country, Temeraire meets his family, and Laurence struggles with the politics of the English-Chinese relationship. I love that this book series discusses what was happening in China (albeit a China where dragons are real) during the Napoleonic Wars, China often being left out of any discussion about that conflict.  However over the course of the whole book I never really got to the point where I felt like I knew any of the many Chinese characters, so I feel like they must be background characters, characters that helped to drive plot and created tension. Perhaps I should give them more credit. Perhaps other readers felt the presence of one or more of the Chinese characters more strongly.  The Chinese culture as a whole is viewed fairly favorably by Laurence and Temeraire in this novel, though there is clearly quite a bit of palace politics and intrigue at work within the higher echelons of the Chinese government in the novel.  While traveling along the coast, Temeraire and Laurence fly over land for a while, but see mostly undeveloped wilds.  In Cape Coast, modern-day Ghana, the crew witnesses an unsuccessful slave revolt, which greatly upsets both Temeraire and Laurence, who even before visiting Cape Coast are both vociferously against slavery as an institution, though as yet neither has been particularly active in quashing the institution either.  The ship stops in Cape Town, South Africa too, but Temeraire is feeling poorly, and to the best of my recollection, neither Laurence or Temeraire much observe the city.

Do you think or know that I misrepresented or misinterpreted any of these?  Please comment below.  Let me know.

Book Review: Be Prepared Reminisces on the Trials of Sleepaway Camp and Adolescence

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

Some spoilers.

I think it speaks very well of Vera Brosgol’s autobiographical graphic novel Be Prepared that I stayed up late to finish this ARC the same night that I brought it home from the store. I think it speaks even more highly of it that more than three months later (how did I leave it for so long?) in reminding myself of the plot for this review, I ended up pretty much rereading the whole of the text without it feeling tired, even though I knew its twists and turns.

The novel plunged me into a perspective to which I really hadn’t given much thought, that of the immigrant Russian American—though the plight of the immigrant is something I think about often—especially just now. I know only a very little about any of Russian history—and what I have learnt has been more from British and Australian period dramas and Disney’s Anastasia than from classes where truth outweighed drama. Most of what I’ve learnt has been from the point too of view of the exiled aristocracy than the average Russian citizen.

But some things are universal: the desire to fit in with peers, the desire to have the best birthday party, the drama of adolescence and the struggle of adolescent friendships, particularly as teens begin to experience romantic attraction, the fear of and longing for stay-away summer camp….

Vera is the odd one out among her more affluent peers in Albany, an immigrant to America, having been born in Russia but immigrated before she turned five. Her mother’s peers are primarily Russian immigrants, fellow parishioners of their Russian Orthodox Church. Vera tries to throw a birthday party to match her classmates’, but her mother relies on gifts and help from the Church, leaving Vera with a party that is more Russian than she’d like. Her classmates leave in the night before the sleepover ends. All of her classmates head to camp during the summer, but Vera has never been allowed to go, the cost being too great. Upon discovering a Russian camp in Connecticut, a place where she won’t be the odd one out, she convinces her mother to accept the Church’s help to get Vera and her younger brother there.

But Vera still feels like the odd one out among the other campers. She is divided from her brother, put with the older of the camp groups in a cabin with two girls, five years her seniors, who have not only been going to the camp for twelve years but have shared a cabin for the whole of that time. The camp requires them to speak Russian as much as is possible, which isn’t a problem for Vera, but she does not read the language well, and she doesn’t know the camp customs.

After two weeks, the only friends that Vera feels that she has made are the chipmunks that she’s fed despite the rules—and even one of them has betrayed her by biting her.

But a chance encounter with a runaway guinea pig wins her a friend at last in Kira, a younger girl from another group. They admire one another, help one another to grow, and encourage one another. Together the two of them set out to conquer camp, to best the boys at last in the weekly capture-the-flag game.

This is a novel about being comfortable in your own skin and in the connections that you make, and about not judging on first impressions. From Vera’s belief in the true friendship of her classmates who abandon her, to her initial exile of Kira because she is younger and always crying over her missing guinea pig, to her belief that her brother is enjoying camp, initial impressions prove wrong again and again.

I enjoyed the pacing of this novel. I think Brosgol used some great tricks to keep the story going through periods of stagnation. At one point, a couple weeks of camp activities are expressed in a letter to her mother below the text of which the panels more honestly express Vera’s experiences at the camp. Moments of quiet contemplation are overlaid once by the action of swinging on a play set to give the panel some action. At others her thoughts are related to moments in Russian history, which were informative as well as informing the character.

The graphic novel is such a popular genre right now for middle grade readers, and I think readers will find this at once a relatable and unique perspective on feelings we’ve all had and experiences many of us might have shared.

****

Brosgol, Vera. Be Prepared. Color by Alec Longstreth. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Vera Brosgol, Alec Longstreth, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

LGBTQIA+ Representation in the Books That I Read in 2017

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It’s Pride Month, and I’m feeling prideful. I wrote this post ages ago and stuck it in a drawer because, frankly, I am still embarrassed for myself and for the industry by how few books including LGBTQIA+ characters I had read in 2017, but those books still deserve recognition. So:

This year I want to start something new: Already I’ve started the list on Goodreads, but I want to highlight here too the books that either include characters from the LGBTQIA+ community or which offer support to the LGBTQIA+ community (because some are more explicit than others).

I read 237 books in 2017. Of those I’m counting only 10 that include characters who are explicitly or implicitly part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Those are pretty abysmal numbers (.04%), but I’m aware of the lack now, and I’m openly seeking and celebrating books that I find that include more diverse gender identities or sexual orientations because representation matters.

Picture Books, Picture Storybooks, and Board Books (Ages 0-8)

Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Sima’s book is not explicitly about gender identity or sexual orientation. It’s about a unicorn born under the sea with a diving helmet who thinks that he is a narwhal, though he never entirely fit in. He meets unicorns later in life and realizes that he is actually a unicorn. When he returns to his narwhal friends, he takes “a deep breath” and tells his friends “the news: It turns out… I’m not a narwhal.” “Of course you aren’t.” “I’m a unicorn.” “We all knew that.” His friends take “it quite well.” This conversation is coded like a coming-out. The book later makes possibly an argument for not having to choose to be one or another, neither land-narwhal with the unicorns or sea-unicorn with the narwhals. This might be about gender-fluidity or transgender identity or nonbinary identity. Possibly it’s an argument against the segregation of groups by identity, for diversity among friends. Whatever message the takeaway, whomever finds meaning it in, it’s an absolutely adorable story about finding yourself inside of community—and making your own community.

Quackers by Liz Wong. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2016.

Wong’s book has a pretty similar message to Sima’s. Quackers thinks that he is a duck because he’s grown up among ducks by the pond—until he meets cats, and they show him the ways of cats. Quackers decides that he is both duck and cat, sometimes doing duck things, and sometimes doing cat things.

Middle Grade-Young Readers (Ages 8-12)

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 3: The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. 

Alex Fierro is gender-fluid. He/She becomes Magnus’ love interest, and the two share a kiss in the final book. Loki is also gender-fluid and bisexual, having children with men and women. In the third book, Alex brings to life a gender-fluid clay figure, Pottery Barn, who uses they/them/their pronouns. The einherjar in Valhalla are not entirely comfortable with Alex’s gender-fluidity, but that there is a Norse word for gender-fluidity undercuts the argument that gender-fluidity is a new phenomenon, and by book 3, floor 19 has pretty much accepted Alex.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 1: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 2: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. 

Apollo, the protagonist and POV character in this first person narrative is openly bisexual. In the second story, the heroes stay with two older, strong, well-rounded women who left the Hunters of Artemis and immortality to pursue their love for one another. They are raising an adopted daughter together. In the first, we also get to see Nico and Will together, and the camp seems quite accepting of their romance, though that Nico will pull out some creepy Underworld magic if separated from Will probably does help to keep people from complaining. 

Teen (Ages 13-19) 

The Raven Cycle, Book 2: Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2014. First published 2013.

The Raven Cycle, Book 3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2015. First published 2014.

The Raven Cycle, Book 4: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2016. 

Ronan Lynch and Adam Parrish are in love, and by the final book, the two are comfortable enough to come together openly, sharing a kiss at a party. I think they may already be in love with another when we meet them, though their growth as individuals certainly deepens their attraction to one another. Joseph Kavinsky, who lusts after Ronan Lynch (I wouldn’t call it love), helps Ronan come to terms with his own sexuality.

Adult (Ages 20+)

A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White. Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

This historical fiction is in part the story of Bobby Banks, a pastor’s son from Georgia, whose father turns him out when he discovers Bobby in bed with another boy. Bobby grows up in exile from his family, living with his gentler grandmother. He later escapes Georgia and moves to New York City. His time in New York coincides with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and Bobby loses his partner to the disease. His friends lose partners and friends to the disease.

Do you know or think that I misrepresented or misinterpreted any of these?  Please comment below.  Let me know. I’m hoping the list of books that I read in 2018 that include LGBTQIA+ characters grows far longer than this.

Book Review: SPOILERS: The Burning Maze Wrecked Me, and I Loved It

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order and summary.

This whole review is a spoiler. The spoilers are what I want to talk about.

 

I think I had a few days’ time at least of understanding certain friends’ reactions to Sirius Black’s death—and I’m sorry I didn’t understand then. We had Sirius for 1625 pages. We had Jason for 3029 pages. And I’m being maybe generous to Sirius and stingy to Jason, starting from the verbal revelation that Peter Pettigrew is alive and including all of The Goblet of Fire, for most of which Sirius is off-screen, and starting with The Lost Hero, including all of The Heroes of Olympus, but excluding the first two books of The Trials of Apollo and any of the books taking place simultaneously to or between the end of The Blood of Olympus and The Burning Maze (so none of the Magnus Chase books or Percy’s explanations of mythology). I’m guessing this is why this death was so much worse for me. And social media and fan culture has only got stronger and more pervasive since Sirius’ death (though I was on discussion boards before Order of the Phoenix, and I’m on none for Riordan). For a few days Pinterest was painful to visit because there was all of this fan art and discussions of future conversations between the seven, and I just kept thinking, “The poor dears. They don’t know.”

I was messed up for a few days (that reading that scene and finding out about a real-world personal tragedy coincided admittedly did not help, but the fact remains that I was messed up about Jason for a few hours before I found out about the personal tragedy). I frantically searched for anyone who had already read the story or who wouldn’t read the story so that I could spew my feelings, even going so far as to query a professional Facebook group of which I am a part (and finding my solace there in mutual feels).

Now eleven days on (six days since I finished the novel), I am ready to fully admit that I am so proud­­ of—but also angry with upset with—Rick Riordan, ready to forgive and accept. I am horribly, terribly scared that this is his Eddard Stark, that this is his declaration that no one is safe, that all rules of rewards or punishments for desert are out the window. I am as proud now as I was of George Martin—albeit really belated because I only read The Game of Thrones in 2016, and it was first published in 1996—before he started bringing his protags back as zombies.

I was so excited and proud that Riordan had decided to break up Piper and Jason. I thought that was a bold step. I didn’t realize then that it was a precursor to a bigger step away from the fandom wish-fulfillment. I really should recognize this pattern now, of distancing the character beneath the ax blade’s shadow from the others so that their death hurts just that infinitesimal bit less (to write about as much as to read about, I think). Martin remains the only author in this genre that I’ve found that does not to do this when killing off a main protagonist. Rowling certainly does. But Martin don’t care. He’ll crush us. I’m potentially comparing apples and oranges though. Martin has no pretense about writing for adults alone; Rowling and Riordan both began these series as for children.

I’m going to need to read this book again. I’m going to need to read this book knowing what’s coming. I’m going to need to reread the scenes following Jason’s death, which were raw and real, especially for Piper. I’m going to need to appreciate those more later.

There’s little else I want to talk about except for the impact of that one character and that one scene. I do want to point out that the scenes of war council at the bottom of the cistern, fueled by take-out enchiladas, were wonderfully raw too, I particularly enjoyed the first. I want to point out how much I enjoyed the idea of Incitatus playing Caligula for his own agenda, to create a world dominated by horses, how much I enjoyed him as a villain (and I’m a little upset that he won’t be our main antagonist going forward).

Everyone was less annoying, more grounded, more heroic here. Everyone.  Everyone came into their own: Grover as a Lord of the Wild and protector but also as a staple of the Percy Jackson world since page 1 as if Riordan too was remembering how much Grover has seen with us, Apollo as a hero, Meg as a daughter of Demeter and friend of the Nature.  The pacing seemed better here too than in the previous two of this series, the whole of the story more solid, more weighty. I feel like this book is where this series, these characters finally hit their stride for me, and now I’m looking forward eagerly and apprehensively to the next—especially if Reyna and/or Hylla will be there (Piper says Reyna, but I’m kind of hoping the twist will be that we really need Hylla and the Amazons); Reyna seems too obvious.

*****

Riordan, Rick.  The Trials of Apollo, Book 3: The Burning Maze.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion Books, or Disney Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A Good Cast Triumphs in Taggerung

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I can't find a link to audiobook but click to visit the Penguin Random for links to order the paperback and ebook, summary, and author's bio.

I was introduced to the world of Redwall long ago and grew up with my mouth watering for candied chestnuts and deeper ‘n ever pie and strawberry cordial. Brian Jacques (RIP) has a flare for description that I have always admired and continue to admire. No one writes a feast like Jacques, and he paints such beautiful pictures of the country in which his novels take place, pausing with his creatures beside a river to describe the flora and fauna, the flight of a dragonfly and the drape of wild strawberries down the sharp embankment into which the river cuts to create a sheltered ledge (I’m inventing my own landscape now rather than quoting or describing any of his, but you get the idea).

I’ve read and remember reading fewer of the Redwall novels than I would have thought. There are apparently 22, and I am now certain that I’ve read 5 of them, though I think I’ve read more that I’ve forgotten.

Jacques’ view of the creatures of Redwall and the surrounding country is starkly divided into good and evil. Badgers, hares, mice, otters, moles, squirrels, hedgehogs are good—just inherently, irrevocably good, as this tale proves. Rats, stoats, ferrets, weasels, foxes are irrevocably, inherently bad—cruel and viscous, the Orcs of Mossflower Country, though they are given far more personality and character than Tolkien ever gave the Orcs. I tend not to enjoy such stark divisions of good and evil (“the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters”), but I admit that rarely it is nice to escape into a world where a creature’s nature and alignment is possible to determine from a glance, to be given the excuse to think less, emphasize less, and still be able to be on the side of right.

In this novel, the otterbabe Deyna is kidnapped by the leader of a vermin clan and his father killed because Deyna is prophesied to be the Taggerung, an unmatched and unmatchable warrior, the most feared throughout all of the vermin clans known collectively as the Juska. Deyna is rechristened Taggerung and is raised as the clan chief’s son, but though he grows into an impressively strong and skilled fighter, Tagg refuses to kill. (Because of this I think too little is made of his first kill of an anthropomorphized creature later in the novel, admittedly a weasel who attacked Redwall, was hunting him with intent to kill, and hurt his own clansmen, including his chief, but early in the novel, Tagg refuses to kill one of the vermin members of the clan that raised him, beginning his banishment and his adventures, so one would think that this weasel’s death would still weigh on his conscience. Before even that he does kill an eel that is terrorizing a shrew clan, but the eel is more animalistic than humanized.)

This novel rambles more than some of the others in this series, perhaps because it has multiple protagonists in different parts of Mossflower Country as well as the regular competing plot that follows the villain. The book follows the life of Deyna, though it focues on the time after his banishment from the Juska, his long and roving return to Redwall Abbey. Having been banished from the Juska clans as a fifteen-seasons-old otter, he is hunted by his clansmen, meets a plethora of amusing families of voles and shrews and hedgehogs and one ebullient mouse named Nimbalo the Slayer, who becomes his travel companion and best friend. Meanwhile at Redwall, Deyna’s sister Mhera is trying to unravel a riddle that will determine the next abbot or abbess of Redwall. Honestly, there are several times I thought that the story ought to have come to an end (though if I’d thought about the series’ formula, I ought to have known that I would have to wait for an epilogue by the Abbey Recorder). Deyna’s story wrapped up quite well by the time that he was healed and back at the Abbey, Gruven’s story had not, and Jacques decided to end both plots and end the Juskarath before closing the novel.

The cast of this audiobook, though, sells the story, singing whenever necessary, with unique voices and accents appropriate to the character and species of each beast—and I was willing to follow them through whatever escapades Jacques had concocted. The “full cast” is not given nearly enough credit for their work—in fact, I can’t find their names anywhere on the case for this CD set—and I want to know their names. Jacques himself does the narration, which I always appreciate because you know then that you’re hearing this story as the author intended, each line precisely nuanced and inflected as he would have wanted and each word pronounced correctly.

The audio recording itself is probably a full 5 stars, but the story itself is merely a three.

****

Jacques, Brian. Taggerung. Recorded Books Productions, LLC-Haights Cross Communications Company, 2003. Audiobook, 11 CDs.  First published by Redwall Abbey Company Ltd 2001.

This review is not endorsed by Brian Jacques or any of the full cast of this audio recording, Recorded Book Productions, LLC, Haights Cross Communications Company, Redwall Abbey Company Ltd, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.