April 21, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: NOTEWORTHY by RILEY REDGATE

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Junior Jordan Sun wants desperately to fit her square peg into the series of round holes that make up the Kensington-Blaine Academy for the Performing Arts -- but there seems to be no place for her, in theater, film, drama, or dance. In drama, she's not considered dramatic enough. In theater musicals, her voice is "difficult to reconcile with musical theater;" it's low for solo leads and too ...unique for chorus - second altos could quack like ducklings in a forest full of songbirds. Aside from her own insecurities as an artist was being a poor artist at a swanky school, where early admission to Julliard and spendy outfits were just an accepted norm. Jordon feels ashamed of her scrappy ambitiousness, feeling she should be home, being a helpful, useful part of her immediate family -- who really, really, really, really, really cannot afford her taking this chance. Not when her Dad's been injured. Not when her mother's having to apply for aid just to get food on the table. Not when... three years in at Kensington, and she's still not making it into any of the drama groups she's meant to join.

Jordan sees an opportunity to change her fate by auditioning to join the Sharpshooters, Kensington's premier octet. Of course, joining the Sharps means cutting some corners... and auditioning in drag. Soon, Jordon Sun, Tenor 1, is taking some chances; lying to a few people... and then a few more. It's all for a good cause, though, right...?

Observations: Diversity, creativity, ingenuity: YES. While the novel may start slowly for some -- especially those who are not vocal groupies - the novel hit its stride fairly quickly, and steadily gained tension, as so many lies piled up, and so many secrets and competitive little twists were revealed. This novel is my novel in a variety of ways: I went to a private boarding school my parents could NOT afford -- and I worried about it with a brick in my gut every single day of the two years I was there. I love that the author included and examined the difference in classes and the egregious assumptions at times made about those who are wealthy, and those who are on public assistance. Redgate hits hard at some home truths about the secrets we keep - from ourselves and from each other - and the drag that Jordan continues to wear is not the only mask the novel examines.

The voice and characterizations in this novel reeled me in. The description of singing, of what perfection in harmony feels like emotionally, were so. spot. on. Sometimes, when you're singing, it's like you're flying, and the sound buoys you up, and you never want it to stop... The boarding school vibe, a microcosmic universe where suddenly EVERYTHING is super important, and the outside world almost doesn't exist? Also spot on. Music nerds and people who like school stories will really love this. People looking for stories from new voices in the field will really enjoy a fresh take on school and life from a cross-dressing, bi-maybe, Chinese-American perspective.

Conclusion: This was a hotly anticipated novel to come out this year and is basically a love letter to music, choral groups, and high school organizations. I am a BIG OLD CHORAL NERD (and as I write this, we're two days from an a cappella performance this weekend) so this novel truly resonated for me. I am gratified that the hype didn't disappoint.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After MAY 2, 2017 - not long, now! - you can find NOTEWORTHY by Riley Redgate at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

WRITERS' RITES: Creation In Color


Things have changed, in children's literature. Historically, our posts have been alerting people to what's going on in smaller corners of a small world, and most of our time has been spent in talking about book deals, books, classroom visits, and young readers. Most of our time has been spent in earnestly seeking to understand and communicate both the trends and the ebb and flow of the market, sometimes in personal reference to us, but most often in reference to the whole world of children's lit. More personally, AF and I were both in on the big "multiculturalism" wave of the 90's. [AF: Compared to the limited range of stories available in the 80s, when we were growing up, it was a hopeful trend.] We attended conferences and listened to the talk about expanding stories and being inclusive. We hoped it meant something, that narratives about mixed kids would become more prominent, and that identity and ethnicity wouldn't stand out as hot-button "trend" books, but part of a normalized, homogenized whole. We've both listened in as the conversation has shifted to "diversity" and then away from that to the idea of "writing from the margins" and the use of "own voices" as part of the narrative.

We've mostly been pretty quiet. By nature and personality, neither Sarah nor I are scrappers and thus have been mostly observers in the growing pains of this brave new world of children's lit. But, recently I participated more directly in a Twitter conversation about being both a woman writer and a woman of color writing. A simple comment with a hashtag bloomed into a six+ hour outpouring of snark and pain and rage -- and it shocked a lot of people, galvanized others into trying to make it a "movement," offended a few, and infuriated others.


No one needs to explain to anyone (because if you have to explain it, that person to whom you're speaking likely is predisposed to disagree, and then explanations will not assist) that this country has a problem with institutionalized, ingrained, implicit bias, or more directly with racism. If you're new to this idea, welcome. The rest of us have known for some time. What might have previously been harder to see is that something ingrained infects everything, everything. EVERY. THING. Even children's lit, a place where we previously insisted all was happiness, rainbow unicorns, and fluffy bunnies. "But, it's a happy, close-knit community!" people insisted. Which it is, unless you challenge the status quo and bring in new thinking - and then you'd be surprised by the fury. I know I have been. "All this talk just stirs up bitterness," some have said in response to the conversation. Yes. Not everyone is happy, even though they are in the field, because the field of children's lit is not yet what it could be, what it needs to be. And, that unhappiness is also okay. It's all part of the process.

Stepping aside from the daily misunderstandings, slights, overlooking and misdirecting, there are those in children's lit taking on the work of changing it, and I once again have to give them respect. Reading While White is the first blog I've ever seen written by people who are doing something specific about implicit bias in the children's lit field. And it's not easy for them; there is push-back against their every blog post, even as their stated purpose is to learn for themselves how to listen and hold themselves accountable for how their privileged whiteness impacts the way they see the world. It's as if every thing they write is a personalized rebuke to someone else, and there is a lot of bitterness.

We're mostly observers here, as I've said. I have a raging anxiety which causes me hives at the thought of the constant emotional labor and combat it takes to make inroads in the conversation around visibility and authenticity. This is not work I can do. [AF: And, as a mixed person, visibility and authenticity are huge issues--sometimes, those of us of mixed descent are racially or ethnically ambiguous, and if you aren't recognized as a "something," it's easy to feel like you're a nothing. Invisible. Not enough of one, not enough of the other, and authentic enough for neither.] 

And yet, even as we don't all work directly for this change, we are a part of it. As we usher greater visibility, accommodation, accuracy and accountability into young adult and children's literature, these changes will become a part of the world for those who come after us. AF is more thoughtful and articulate, and neither of us are quick with a comeback - we both prefer to think slowly and write and the conversations have at times been boiling along furiously. We've both stepped back from those -- but yesterday, it was really nice to be heard. It was cathartic to express the stupid things which have been said. It was nice not to feel crazy, exceptional, isolated. It is validating to feel that you are not alone. [AF: It is eye-opening to see certain types of comments in a new light, too--as well as to bear witness to some of the comments that I've been fortunate enough not to experience firsthand. It enhanced MY understanding of what fellow women writers and writers of color experience.] And that's why yesterday's conversation was most important.

It is hard being a woman writing in this day and age. It is hard in different ways being a woman of color writing. In many cases, people hear these sentences and assume the voices which say them are merely angry - that these microaggressions came with rejections, and that these people saying "this is hard, this is what I hear," are just victims lashing out. Not true. Sometimes the slights are said by well-meaning people who work with the women of color in question to produce their work. This is borne out by the fact that some very successful authors popped by to bring things up in these discussions. But, again, I sense a strange, slim thread of comfort in the furor, in the stories held private, and then shared -- we are moving, slowly, a troubled industry, one step at a time, toward what it should be.
Small comfort. But as long as life remains, we are the hope.

April 14, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: VIGILANTE by KADY CROSS

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

NB: Content advisory for rape, suicide, and violence.

Synopsis: Junior year, Hadley's best friend, Magda, is assaulted at a party. Hadley doesn't understand why Magda doesn't speak up about it, retaliate against the boys who are catcalling her, and stiffen her spine. Hadley urges Magda to act, but Magda chooses not to, and Hadley is grief-stricken and enraged at the loss of her friend, and most of her rage centers on seeing the perpetrators in class every day. As her senior year goes forward, Hadley looks not to the future, but to the past, which remains to her out of balance. She sets herself as the avenger for Magda's death, encouraging girls to join a self-defense course and learn martial arts while plotting to provide the justice against the four boys that no one else has given them. Along the way, she grows closer to Magda's brother, and begins a wave of pink ski-mask vigilantism to save other women from bad situations. This is the basic narrative, without providing too much detail or spoilers.

Observations: Content advisory again: this novel is pretty violent, and some of the scenes of violence are pretty sustained, and I skipped them. Normally, I wouldn't review a novel I skipped part of, but I picked up this novel because the jacket copy said it was a "brutally honest" look at retribution - and since I'd just read a novel on someone faking being who they were, I thought "honest" was a good thing. I assumed that a female main character taking matters into her own hands would be somewhat empowering - and I know other people may come to this work with that in mind.

The biggest problem that I had with Vigilante - one of many problematic things - is how Hadley implies, in a variety of ways, that Magda is at fault for her rape. I know that's framed in their disagreement in the beginning of the novel as 'a bad thing to say' and the kickoff for the narrative arc and Hadley's vigilantism, but the same is implied elsewhere, later, and the novel doesn't really take it back. For example, as Hadley implies that is doing what Magda should have done, as she learns martial arts and physically empowers herself. Unfortunately, physical power does not guarantee that you can repel a physical attack, and the novel doesn't seem to really take much time to point this out. Hadley is very, very secure in her physical prowess, as if women who are not are somehow taking a chance with their ...safety, and thus somehow doing something wrong. Someone asks Hadley and the detective leading her self-defense course "shouldn't we be teaching men not to rape?" and Hadley says, "Yeah, good luck with that," which... yeah. I'm aware that the character is written in part to be an unreliable narrator, but unfortunately the narrative itself doesn't work through some of her unreliableness.

Early in the novel, Hadley evinces her interest in Magda's brother. Their relationship leaps into reality after Magda's death, and that didn't work as realistic entirely for me - although I do understand how loss can lead people into a physical expression of "we're still alive," but attraction and arousal was a strange third party to a novel about grief, and it seemed to float around just as awkwardly in scenes which would have otherwise been Magda centered. This seemed like the pitfall of All YA Novels Must Have Romance, and... no.

I assumed that the narrative would point out the problems inherent in that ideology. They didn't really. Instead, the novel seemed to glorify actions taken in a white-hot rage, almost identifying Hadley as a superhero, with copycats and a special name, even going so far as to contemplate sexual assault against someone (which she says there's no such thing as sexual assault against a man - oh, yes there is, and the novel doesn't correct her assumption on that, either), in the name of making right her friend's assault - an assault she's allegedly decrying by her actions. She spends inordinate amounts of time in the novel worrying about getting caught, yet her repeated behaviors almost seem as if she's hoping she does -- she wants to talk about This Elephant In The Room -- Magda, whom she feels no one cares about but her, thinks about but her, or talks about as they should - but her. This exaggeratedly centering herself in someone else's story persists throughout the novel. In the end, she's the "heroine" of the piece, which didn't work for me.

Conclusion: This book has a lot of action, a lot of roaring, feel-good kind of anger, and a righteous cause, but I feel like it has more problems than I'm comfortable recommending along with it. Readers who like a riproaring, girls-kick-butt kind of narrative, and don't worry about subtext may enjoy it.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of Harlequin Teen. You can find VIGILANTE by Kady Cross at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 10, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: TRASHED by Derf Backderf

Synopsis: This is my last Cybils 2016 graphic novel finalist review! Last but not least is Trashed by Derf "Not His Real First Name" Backderf, an edutaining chronicle of the life cycle of garbage, and the trials and tribulations of a garbageman (apparently loosely based on a job the author actually held for a while).

Observations: I enjoyed the blending in of factual sequences describing the job details of a garbage collector and the journey garbage takes from curb to landfill and into the environment. It's bound to make readers think more about the trash they produce and about garbage as a global issue. As an older reader and homeowner, it was eye-opening to see things from the garbageman's perspective, and how we might not think twice about dumping random crap in the trash but it is truly somebody's job to deal with it, and it may have ramifications beyond just the mess in your garbage can.

The comic-strip style of this one was also enjoyable--plenty of humor in both the writing and the images, distinctive character art, and easy-to-understand diagrams in the educational portions. Having said that, because it IS distinctive, it won't be to everyone's taste; I wasn't sure if I'd like it at first because the characters have a weird blockiness to them that was a little off-putting, but it grew on me. (Which, in retrospect, seems like a terrible word choice for a book about garbage...)

Conclusion: There was plenty of hilarity here, in an old-school comic strip kind of style, and it offers an intriguing, humanizing window into the life of a garbageman as well as the life of garbage itself. The combination of educational elements with slice-of-life stories about the protagonist J.B. and his buddies was well done. The characters, of course, of necessity are adult characters, so that part doesn't feel very YA, I suppose, but older young adults might enjoy this one.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find TRASHED by Derf Backderf at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 06, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: MARCH: BOOK THREE

Synopsis: I had been looking forward to reading this one for quite some time, and I was not disappointed. In my opinion, the graphic novel format really lends itself to conveying history in a lively and interesting way, and there are few socio-cultural topics more relevant to the current American psyche than the ongoing discussion of race and civil rights. March: Book Three brings Congressman John Lewis's three-volume memoir of the civil rights movement to a close, but it has opened a much broader discussion--one that will, I hope, increase our understanding of pervasive injustice and our obligation to keep working on ourselves until we get it right.

Observations: The wealth of historical detail in this book--and the entire series--is presented in a way that the reader can readily engage with on a personal level, putting our recent history into context as a country struggling with race and racial identity. It is brilliantly told, both as a memoir of Congressman John Lewis's life and career, and as a story of the broader moment in time beyond his individual experiences. Actually, the unsung heroes, in a way, have just as much of a starring role here, and we can see and marvel at the level of sacrifice and determination put into helping this country adhere to its stated ideals.

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The semi-loose drawing style and monochrome color scheme help add drama and an active feel, making this much more than a static depiction of historical events. History comes alive here, and is interwoven with occasional scenes from the Obama presidency, showing both ends of the timeline and how they relate. The choice of which scenes to depict and how was very effective.

Conclusion: Such a densely informative historical chronicle is going to appeal to some readers and not others, but it is presented in a very engaging way, with its focus on action, emotion, and the earnest dedication of the central figure, John Lewis. This book makes it easy to connect with history on a personal level and SEE why it is so important to know about the events leading up to the Voting Rights Act.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find MARCH: BOOK THREE by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

April 03, 2017

Middle Grade Monday: A Cybils 2016 Graphic Novel Roundup

As you may know, I've been reviewing Cybils graphic novel finalists that I had to remain hush-hush about during the actual judging process in January and February. I thought, since it's Monday, and since I've finished reviewing all the Elementary and Middle Grade finalists, I'd put all the links here in a roundup for your convenience, or in case you missed them!

The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper and Raul the Third

Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O'Neill

Compass South by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock

Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke

Bera the One-Headed Troll by Eric Orchard

I also read The Wolves of Currumpaw, which was also a finalist, but I felt it was much more of a picture book/illustrated book than a graphic novel, so I didn't formally review it. However, you can read about it here on Kirkus.

March 30, 2017

Cybils Finalist Review: LUCKY PENNY

Synopsis: I love getting to catch up on graphic novels during the Cybils season! This one was a finalist in the YA Graphic Novels category--a funny, surprising, heartwarming story about a young woman with the worst luck who figures out that, in the end, sometimes what seems like bad luck works out for the best after all. The cover copy:
If Penny Brighton didn't have bad luck, she'd have no luck at all. She lost her job. And her apartment. In the same day. But it's okay, her friend has a cozy storage unit she can crash in. And there's bound to be career opportunities at the neighborhood laundromat―just look how fast that 12-year-old who runs the place made it to management! Plus, there's this sweet guy at the community center, and maybe Penny can even have a conversation with him without being a total dork. Surely Penny is a capable of becoming an actual responsible adult, and if she can do that her luck’s bound to change! Right?

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Observations: I should quickly note that this one will be more interesting for the older YA set—the protagonist is 18 and working and living on her own. But Penny's general hilarious unluckiness and the obstacles she faces on the cusp of adulthood definitely are appealing—her attempts to deal with middle-school-aged bullies are weird and comical, and her awkward navigation of a new relationship is relatable. She is quirky, but so is her love interest, and their quirks complement one another.

Lucky Penny's got very well done and very funny art—it reminds me of Raina Telgemeier's work, in that the emphasis is more on action and humor in the storytelling, and things are kept generally simple, depending on what the specific scene or panel demands. The characters are the focus, of course, and they are depicted in an endearingly silly way.

Conclusion: Ultimately, this is a great story about a character who feels like an outsider—her bad luck is a good ongoing gag, but really, it's Penny's personality and heart that shine through and give the story weight. She forges ahead and doesn't give up when faced with obstacles—instead, she finds creative (if sometimes misguided) solutions. And she wins out in the end.


I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library. You can find LUCKY PENNY by Ananth Hirsh and Yuki Ota at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!