October 20, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: CALLING MY NAME by LIARA TAMANI

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Synopsis: Taja Brown lives to the left of the buckle of the Bible Belt with her parents, annoying little sister, and vexing older brother, and from early days, she knows what's expected from a good Southern Baptist black girl: be good, keep up your grades, get to church, and don't shame your family. God - the Almighty - is faceless but speaks in the voice of her mother and father, so Taja also knows his requirements - stay out of other people's beds until you're married. But Taja as a budding young woman isn't the same as Taja as a parent-mimicking child. She's watching her athletic sister take her place on the track team, and feeling loss. She's watching her older brother swan off to college, and freedom, and feeling a loss there. She's sensing the wider world, and wondering about what she's been taught -- does church attendance really equal goodness, and planting begonias on a Sunday morning really mean hell? For everyone? Who is really "good?" Taja wrestles with these disquieting voices while still trash-talking the "hos" at church, openly, righteously critical of unmarried girls with babies and classmates who let more than one by kiss them... but after finding out for herself that kisses can take her brain to a faraway place, Taja is beginning to doubt that she's so immune. Her older brother, Damon, has been around the block a time or two, and the way he deals with the girls he's done with is scandalous. Taja hates how he uses and discards sexual partners. She doesn't want to be the girl who's discarded, but she wants... so much of everything. There's life out there, color and wildness and experiences outside of their straitlaced life in Houston. All Taja wants is to read it, write it, drink it down, and take a big bite. Can't she have what she wants, and still keep what God wants, too? And then, she meets the gorgeous Andre, and ... all questions become moot.

Taja's parents have she and Andre sign purity pledges, and though she wears the tiny ring, Taja knows it ought to tarnish on her. God, whom she's never heard from before, surely cannot be listening to her now. Can he...? Or, does it matter?

Observations: Probably the best description of the writing in this novel is 'dreamy.' There are eloquent phrases and sometimes it slows the narrative pace, but it's also reminiscent of the classic styling of memoir narrative, so patient readers will read on and become hooked.

Taja's world is narrow - and the overwhelming questions for her are regarding heterosexual intimate experiences - which reads as authentic, because many conservative Christian kids never meet anyone of another faith or another gender expression until they go away to college, and in the 90's, there was less sexual freedom for non-cis-gendered teens.

Because the novel is historical - set in the 90's - early '00's - there are musical references which may go over some teens' heads. The main thrust of the novel is dealing with the pressures of growing up within a conservative religious home, and straying from one's parents' values, and while this is touched on beautifully, I wished for more. While the reader spends the majority of the novel seeing Taja's frustration with the double standard between her brother and herself, I wished she would have gone deeper and named that hypocrisy for what it is within religious communities: women are policed one, because a baby is tangible shame, and two, because men often seek to control women. The license Taja's brother had to do just whatever was annoying.

This novel has a feel of looking back, begins slowly, but speeds up as Taja matures to the point of standing between two roads: the life she wants to lead, and the life her parents believe is best. There is explicit intimacy in the novel, so it would work better for more mature teens, or potentially 14+ instead of younger readers.

Conclusion: With lyrical language and one of the prettiest covers in YA this year, this time-capsule of a black Christian girl coming of age in the 90's evokes the quiet moments of bildungsroman spiced with the headiness of a teen's first explorations of sexuality, life, and independent thought. This one may work better with adults looking back, but will likely be passed from hand-to-hand in some teen circles.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find CALLING MY NAME by Liara Tamani at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 17, 2017

Cybils SpecFic Bookmark: DREADNOUGHT by APRIL DANIELS

The Cybils Speculative Fiction Bookmark:

As a panelist for Cybils YA Speculative Fiction, Round 1, I'm going to be briefly writing up some of the hundreds of book I read as part of the award. As panelist conclusions are not for public consumption, the purpose of these write-ups is to keep track of what I'm reading, and will mostly touch on plot synopsis, with minimal comments on thematic tropes.


Synopsis: A quiet kid and longtime recipient of the grade school bullying, even in high school Danny doesn't feel safe without an empty corridor and a wall at her back. Faced with impossible pressures - her own inner identity as a girl and her father's testosterone poisoned insistence that Danny be "the man" her father raised her to be, Danny finds relief - and a little rebellion - with a downtown New Port City nail polish purchase. But a covert pedicure puts Danny in the unenviable position of witnessing a superhero fight - and seeing a white cape go down. Dreadnought has been one of The Good Guys forever, and when Danny sees him crash and burn, her heart is broken... but then her heart is reformed... along with her body. Now Danny-the-boy is good for good. Taking on the mantle of Dreadnought's powers means that Danny has a new power: the power to truly be Danielle. Everything is going to be awesome now, right?

Ri... No. First of all, there's the white capes - Danny is a minor, and can't officially join Legion Pacifica. Second, there's Danny's best friend, a loner like Danny who desperately just wants a chance with a girl - and thinks the new and improved Danielle is now his chance... and that Danny, like, owes him that chance. What? Third, there's Danny's Dad... and his belief that Danny is a disease to be cured. All this plus battling a malicious flying cyborg...? Means Danny's life just got a lot more complicated.

“I see a world that is terrified of me. Terrified of someone who would reject manhood. Terrified of a girl who knows who she is and what she’s capable of. They are small, and they are weak, and they will not hurt me ever again. My name is Danielle Tozer. I am a girl. No one is strong enough to take that from me anymore.”

Reader's Advisory: In looking at this book for accurate representation, the obviously fictional nature of a presto-change-o gender transition can be overlooked in favor of the realities the author puts forth in other areas. The focus Danny's father had on "curing" her seems accurate to the way many people view transgender people, that they have some sort of a mental instability that needs to be fixed. Danny seems to believe that most of her issues stem from her a mismatch of body and brain. However, in the "right" body she discovers that she nevertheless has to experience being female in all its aspects, positive and negative, (and I can attest that it sucks sometimes), that other people's experiences of gender and their understanding of yours can be the single most frustration barricade to happiness, and, finally, that choosing to be yourself in all your authenticity has less to do with your genetics and everything to do with your choices. I feel this book will read well with older teens who are interested in trans issues or who don't know much about them and just want to read an adventure.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find DREADNOUGHT by April Daniels at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 13, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: ARROW OF LIGHTNING by JOSEPH BRUCHAC

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

A funny thing happened on the way to reading a book, way back in 2013, that I didn't think I'd enjoy... I fell in love with a world, a character, and an entire series.

"Fast-paced, action-packed, and easy to get into, KILLER OF ENEMIES is a dystopian fantasy that flat-out erases the stereotypical "simple Native" tale in favor of a cold-eyed, sharp-shooting monster-killing menace, whose powers are freaking her out, but who is nonetheless DETERMINED to save her little corner of the world, and those she loves." - my original review.

I eagerly swallowed down ROSE EAGLE, the much-too-short prequel to KILLER that I wasn't aware I was jonesing for, with a character who is NOT superhuman, and who, in fact, falls down, gets dirty, and screws things up. She wins anyway, because she knows how to accept help. I whined until -- finally -- TRAIL OF THE DEAD was released, showing us a different side of the derring-do super heroine main character from KILLERS than we'd known before, as she struggles with being in charge, and mastering herself.

And then, we moved. And I MISSED being part of everything - I missed doing the cover reveal and reviewing ARROW OF LIGHTNING the day it came out. I saw it on Edelweiss and gasped out loud. HOW did I miss it!?! And, as always, I feared, What if it isn't as good??!

Silly me.

Synopsis: As the book begins, Rose and her band are heading out, ranging wider and further from the Valley Where First Light Paints the Cliffs in their quest to find and gather more people who are under the tyrannical control of the Ones and their last henchmen. Just when she feels a little less wobbly on her feet, Lozen's on her own again. Unfortunately, her Power is still... unsettled. Surely all is well now, and all real enemies slain? Nope. And the trouble is not the massive genmod river dweller that she and Hussein discover -- and which her surprising new Power helps dispatch. Her Power shows her something much less reassuring - that her archnemesis Luther Four Deaths is still ... living. And, the Jester and Lady Time are sending him after her. Again. What's it going to take to make this dude finally have to die!? Lozen is frustrated - and afraid. She realizes that the way she's been stomping out fires wherever she finds them isn't going to work anymore. She's made a promise to herself to take no more human life, and so... she must leave her band of family and friends, and stake out herself as bait, in hopes of bringing the fight to herself. She doesn't quite know what she'll do, then. She'll have Hussein with her - and hopefully, between the two of them, they'll come up with... something.

Of course, no plan works that smoothly. Before she can even get away to begin hunting Luther, a plague of locus and some of the Ones' henchmen reappear, and the entire encampment, in their safe, fire-proof, cliff-dwellings are suddenly threatened. Lozen has to make some choices - hard choices - and walk away from the people she believed it was her responsibility to safeguard. She wants a happily-ever-after with Hussein and with her people, she might even want a family, like Rose is carrying for a few more months -- but to get all of that, those hunting her have to go. Lozen, for the first time, is truly overwhelmed. Even Hussein can't calm or cure her - and he doesn't try. Lozen walks her path alone but for the wisdom of Coyote in the stories from her father and Uncle Chato, and from the Horse People, who lend their calm and support. And, putting one foot in front of the other, with no superior wisdom, and with a new Power that seems unreliable and shaky at best, Lozen does what must be done, one more time.

The theme of this novel is change, and who changes, and why, and how may surprise you.

Observations: Of all of the exhausting battles, cleverly unique monsters, diabolical shenanigans of the Ones and hard grind of living with a heightened sense of danger and survival at all times, the one thing that separates the KILLER OF ENEMIES series from other post-apocalyptic/survivalist narratives is that these books are wise... and hopeful. Wise, because Lozen may carry the burden of being the one with the plots and the plans, to keep the life and limb of her ragtag community together, she is but the namesake of another Lozen of long ago, who, too, held the torch for her people, and helped them to overcome. Thus, she is never alone with the burden. There is a Bedu story, to help her remember what to do. There is a Coyote tale, or a visitation from the ever-annoying Halley. There are sparks of skill from her younger siblings, and surprising contributions from the older generation. Lozen is surrounded by stories, wrapped in wisdom, and carried on the shoulders of her people as a leader - they lend her their minds, and they collaborate together to survive.

Readers encountering Lozen's community can't help but wonder how to draw some of that wisdom and hope into their own communities... and therein is woven the magic of a brilliant story. Monsters? Yes. Great evil? Yes. Unbeatable odds? Yes. But community and survival, and a "we'll do it anyway" attitude? Also yes - and that gives me life.

Conclusion: There is nothing on earth as satisfying as an excellent conclusion. I really kind of hate leaving Lozen's beautiful, sere landscape, filled with things which want to strip the flesh from my bones. How Bruchac made this place seem like home, I don't really know... except that he made the Spirits whisper in the wind, and shine down from the stars. No empty landscape filled with enemies here; this place is inhabited, and its heart beats. I want to go back... so it's time to re-read the first one again. You're welcome to join me.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of Lee & Low Publishing. You can find ARROW OF LIGHTNING by Joseph Bruchac at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 10, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: I AM ALFONSO JONES by TONY MEDINA, ill. JOHN EDWARD JENNINGS & STACY ROBINSON

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

Usually A.F. is the one with the graphic novels, but I was given the opportunity for an early peek at this one - thanks, Lee & Low! Lee & Low is coming up with a new vibe in terms of their offerings; this is the first graphic of theirs that I know of, and the another book for older teens that isn't from their Tu Books imprint. This novel is both awful and gorgeous, horrifying and heroic in its execution, and will strike readers in the heart. I appreciate that it's not played for entertainment - this isn't about pain for the drama and entertainment value, but a conversation about the reality of what's going on in our world - and hopefully it will bring those more flexible, intelligent minds of younger readers to lean on the question of what it's going to take to stop this.

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Synopsis: I AM ALFONSO JONES opens with anticipation of a joyful event. Fifteen-year-old high school student and bike messenger Alfonso has just learned that his father’s fifteen-year prison term has ended, and with DNA evidence, his name has been cleared. The ensuing celebration promises to be epic, and Alfonso and his crush, Danetta, are in the mall buying Alfonso’s first suit when an off-duty policeman mistakes the hanger Alfonso is holding for a gun. Alfonso dies of multiple gunshot wounds, but his story doesn’t end there. Alfonso’s class has been studying Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, and to bear witness to how his story evolved, Alfonso too becomes a ghost, one riding the ghostly subway back through time, to revisit the history of his neighborhood, his people, and himself.

Observations: The tragedy of Hamlet is an appropriate vehicle for the contemporary tragedy of Alfonso Jones. Betrayed by those who should have loved and cared for him, Prince Hamlet’s rage and confusion mirrors that of Alfonso and his classmates. King Hamlet, as Ghost, does not help his son to solve his murder, but bears witness to the inevitable reverberations from his death, and brings up questions for Prince Hamlet to consider. Likewise, Ghost Alfonso, as he bears witness to the others on the Ghost subway, reverberates these question from the other side of the veil: When did black males become public enemy number one? When did children stop being seen as innocent, and become thugs? When did the color of one’s skin become cause for fear, and anticipated violence? When will this war on black lives cease?

This story of love and rage is conveyed with a surreal cast of characters. Alfonso’s story, and the stories of the others on the ghost subway will both grieve and inform, allowing readers to access the language to talk about class and race discrimination, and the very real fact of the propensity for violence by police against people of minority race and class. Despite the grim topic, there are sparks of light in Alfonso’s family relationships, his classmates’ clowning, and the love his community shows him, which will enable readers to consider parallels within their own lives. There is no solution to Alfonso’s murder, no tidy wrap-up of his death in which the rest of his community lives happily ever after, but they do live, as we do – in love and defiance, never forgetting that justice has not been served.

Conclusion: There are always some people who can say, "But he shouldn't have been --" or, "If she hadn't --" to blame the victims, excuse the racist reflexes, and justify the injustice on the part of our nation's police force. This is a painful, yet cathartic read as the author provides new ways to look at the situation, and new ways to keep it before our eyes -- so that we never can not see, and so that we never forget.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of Lee & Low. October 2017 and beyond, you can find I AM ALFONSO JONES by Tony Medina, illustrated by J.E. Jennings & Stacy Robinson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 09, 2017

Monday Miscellanea: A Blog Tour, the Cybils, and More...

...not MUCH more. But more!

First of all, today is the second day of the blog tour for Sara Lewis Holmes' newest book The Wolf Hour--go check out her guest post/interview at Charlotte's Library for a peek at some favorite quotes from the book. Edited to add: Also don't miss Maureen Eicher's post at By Singing Light - reposted today - as well! (And if you missed our interview with Sara, you can read it right here.)

Next, if you haven't nominated books for the Cybils Awards yet, there's still plenty of time! Nominations are open through the 15th for the general public, and after that there's a submission window Oct. 16-25 for authors, publishers, and publicists--check out the info on that here.

Lastly, have you registered for Kidlitcon yet? I'll be on vacation with my mom, but YOU could be there--and the program is amazing with a stellar lineup of authors and bloggers, and panels on topics as diverse as Children's Books for Reading Development, Sports Books for the Unathletic, and Immigrants and Refugees in Kids' and YA Books. 

That's it for this fall Monday...and fall is definitely in the air, bringing cooler breezes and wafting pollen into my sinuses. But it's still my fave season, sneezes and all.

October 03, 2017

Turning Pages Reads: MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY by JOHN DAVID ANDERSON

Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!

While I love John David Anderson's books, I was scared to read this one, because "last" is a word for me that contains expectations of OTT emotion and pathos. But, then, I remembered who I was dealing with. John David Anderson writes books with heart, but they are always, always, always, in tiny, screwball ways, or in ridiculous, massive, exploding building fashion - funny. So, content commentary for this book: Some may need tissues, others might only feel heart pinches and not need them. Most young readers I would expect will come away feeling a bit melancholy, but Anderson artfully ends the novel with its beginning, to help keep the focus on the theme of the story, and to bring the question back to the reader: what would make for your perfect last day?

"We all have moments when we think nobody really sees us. When we feel like we have to act out or be somebody else just to get noticed. But somebody notices, Topher. Somebody sees. Somebody out there probably thinks you're the greatest thing in the whole world. Don't ever think you're not good enough."

MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY, pp. 232-3

Synopsis: Topher, Steve and Brand are sixth graders in Ms. Bixby's class at Fox Ridge Elementary. They're thoroughly different - Steve is Japanese American and the genius of the group, with his eidetic memory and a head full of stats and detail. Brand is the biggest - calm, serious, full of smart, made-up words, and could probably beat up Trevor Cowly, or even a seventh grader, if he put his mind to it. Topher is the artistic one - full of wild stories and amazing drawings. On the surface, the three of them don't have that much in common, except pizza, video games... and Ms. Bixby. But, a look beneath, and Steve, wilting under the sky-high expectations of his parents is a lot like Topher, withering under the busybusybusy-lack-of-attention from his, who is just like Brand, who is struggling with a father who fell down, but lost the heart to get up again.

When their favorite teacher lets the class know that she's withdrawing from school to fight the cancer she's just been diagnosed with, the three boys - so different, and so much the same - don't know how to manage. To each of them individually, Ms. Bixby has been Their Person - the one who sees something good in them, cheers them on, only minimally rolls her eyes when they're being doofusy, and who never gives up on them. Without her, who are they? When on the day of the planned class farewell party, they arrive at school to find a substitute teacher, they embark on The Plan - a plan to bring the party to her, to make it a perfect last day of school with three of her favorite students. They plot to cut school - which makes Steve's knees shake - and go see her in the hospital. Topher's already imagining chases with police and truant officers. Brand is making detailed lists. The genius is that The Plan will to give Ms. Bixby back everything that she's given to them.

It's ...a disaster.

It's also, perfect.

Observations: I can't say much about The Plan without ruining the story, but I think the genius here lies in the character shading. Anderson takes the time to explain why Brand would pick Steve's nose for him - (it made sense at the time. Kind of) that gives us insight into the rigid rules that Brand is locking himself into. That, in turn, explains at least in part why Steve kind of couldn't stand Brand for a long, long time, and there's another part of Steve that isn't all the way filled yet, at least not by Steve. Topher, whose easy acceptance of Brand is hard for his best friend Steve to accept, likes lots of people and lots of different things, and has a running screenplay in his head that makes him imagine himself to be a lot of other people, all the time. Who wants to be just himself, when he could contain multitudes? All three of these aspects of the boys' characters enlarge the story and help make it memorable.

Conclusion: There really are no perfect books, but this book has both wit and emotional resonance. The imperfection of its characters - and even of Ms. Bixby - step it back from being a overly-sweet paean of tribute to being a slice-of-life-ordinary, rare-and-extraordinary love story between a group of students, and one of The Good Ones; an excellent teacher.



I received my copy of this book courtesy of my personal library. You can find MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY by John David Anderson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

October 02, 2017

Cybils Nominations Are Open!


Book lovers! It is that time of year! The time when we all hustle over to the Cybils website to nominate our favorite children's and YA publications of the past year for the 2017 Awards!

If you're new to the Cybils Awards, here's a brief intro:
The Cybils Awards aims to recognize the children’s and young adult authors and illustrators whose books combine the highest literary merit and popular appeal. If some la-di-dah awards can be compared to brussels sprouts, and other, more populist ones to gummy bears, we’re thinking more like organic chicken nuggets. We’re yummy and nutritious.
The nominations are OPEN TO THE PUBLIC (that's YOU!) from October 1-15, and you can nominate one title for each category. There are lots of categories and we really want to be able to recognize and plug the best books of the year for ALL genres and age ranges. Unfortunately, Audiobooks is on hiatus this year, and you'll find a couple of other minor changes, but with more than 10 categories, there are plenty of opportunities to send worthy book suggestions to our Round 1 judging panels. You can get all the relevant information right here.