Review: White Bird

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Review for "White Bird" by R.J. Palacio (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“White Bird” is a beautifully drawn graphic novel about Julian’s grandmother’s experience during the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. If you are familiar with the ‘Wonder’ series, then you’ll remember Julian as the not-so-nice kid at Beecher Prep that gave the main character, Auggie, such a hard time fitting in with other students. For those that didn’t like Julian at the end of that story, this novel is his redemption, a chance for him to learn empathy from his beloved grandmother, Grandmere.

As Grandmere reflects on her past to Julian, we learn that she was once a young, middle class Jewish girl named Sara growing up during the days of Nazi-occupied France. In the beginning, she lives a sheltered existence at her home with her parents, even though public disdain and discrimination against Jews is everywhere. Eventually, the Nazis take over the region and begin to arrest Jews, killing them or rounding them up and transporting them to concentration camps. Sara hides in the home of a classmate, a kind boy with a walking disability named Julien who lives with his parents. Over the next several years, Julien and Sara form a close friendship. It is so close that after the war she names her son Julien, who in turn gives that name to the main character of this story.

I am skipping parts, of course, because I do not want to ruin this beautiful story. The pictures are a plus, exquisitely drawn in pastels and neutral colors. There are also loads of resources in the back of the book with information on the Holocaust, as well as organizations that educate and teach about this tragic historical event.

Be forewarned, however: this book is definitely a tearjerker. Go into this one with a warm blanket and lots of tissues. You’ll need them.

Five stars. Excellent book.

Review: Girls Like Us

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Review for "Girls Like Us" by Randi Pink (2019)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

This YA story follows four girls dealing with pregnancy in the summer of 1972, right on the eve of the historic Roe vs. Wade decision which resulted in the decriminalization of abortion in America. To understand this story, it’s very important to take in the social climate of the time, which gave unmarried women very few choices when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Having a child out of wedlock was not socially acceptable, those who could afford to could hide out in an unwed mother’s home until the birth and then place their child up for a closed adoption. The other option was to visit a person who performed abortions using questionable and often unsafe methods. Many women died in these botched, ‘back alley’ abortion procedures from blood loss, poisoning, infection from unsterile instruments, etc. It’s a sad, horrific history that, in 2019, certain people in political power would like to see women return to. I’ll step off of my soapbox for now, however.

“Girls Like Us” first introduces us to sisters Ola and Izella, the older of which, Ola, is expecting. Their mother, Evangelist, is a religious zealot and they make a pact to not tell her about the pregnancy. Ola and Izella visits a neighbor, a conjure woman who offers a quick home remedy to get rid of the baby. Meanwhile down the street, another young girl, Missippi, is pregnant from a rape by an older relative. When her father discovers what has happened to her, he sends Missippi up north to a woman who runs a home for young unwed pregnant women. In the home for pregnant women, Missippi meets a White young woman named Susan, the free-spirited daughter of a politician. Although their lives are different, they are in many ways the same. Their stories intersect with those of Izella and Ola, later on, in a dramatic way.

Overall, I liked this story, but I wasn’t engaged with any of the characters. I understand what the author was trying to do by universalizing the stories of women pre-Roe vs. Wade, but I think the writing was rushed here and a bit bland. Also, the ending was just kinda…there. I definitely get the connection to modern day stories, but felt this could have been written better.

I give this a 3.5. I’m very interested in what this author does next.

Review: Full Disclosure

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Review for "Full Disclosure" by Camryn Garrett (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Finally, a YA book that takes on race, sexuality, and HIV infection in an educated and meaningful way. Like, finally…

Simone Garcia Hampton is an ordinary Black teenage girl growing up in San Francisco–obsessed with directing plays on Broadway, embarrassed by her parents, and totally crushing on a boy she likes. Adopted as a young child by her two gay fathers, Simone is HIV positive, passed to her in utero from her birth mother. Although Simone is outwardly healthy and successfully takes medication to keep her viral load down, she lives in constant fear of her ‘secret’ getting out. Once Simone begins to show interest in Miles, a boy in her school’s drama club, she begins to receive notes from an anonymous source, threatening to publicly reveal her HIV+ status. Not wanting to give up what she’s got with Miles and risk losing her friends, she struggles with whether or not to continue keeping her status a secret.

I really liked this book. There’s tons of recent information here about living with HIV that I was not aware of, which has the power to educate younger readers without coming off as boring or preachy. There’s also a lot of progressive, sex-positive talk that I think teens will appreciate–frank discussions about masturbation, sex toys (Simone and her friends go into a sex shop), ob/gyn visits, etc. Simone is also pretty open with her sexual desires, a pretty taboo topic in YA. This book also spot-on with various forms of racial and queer representation: Simone, Miles, and her Pops are Black, her Dad is Latinx, one of her friends is Asian and bisexual, another is a lesbian and asexual.

This book is all around pretty rad, so definitely read this one.

Review: Pet

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Review for "Pet" by Akwaeke Emezi (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I will start this review by first saying that this is not the book for everyone. It’s marketed as YA, but I don’t think its intended for a general mainstream YA audience. I certainly think that that’s perfectly fine because anyone who stumbles upon this gem of a book, whether child or adult, will definitely love it like I did.

“Pet” is a novel about evil, particularly one that silences its victims and is ‘hidden’ in plain sight. I won’t be more specific than that because I’d give the novel away. The main character is Jam, a Black trans girl who lives in a Lucille, a futuristic, utopian version of an American city in which bad things have been banished and ‘monsters’ no longer exist. Jam is accepted and loved by her parents and her best friend, Redemption, as well as Redemption’s family.

One night, while exploring one of her mother’s paintings, Jam brings a monster to life. At first she is afraid, but then the monster explains the reason for its existence: to hunt a real-life monster. The creature, which Jam calls Pet, confuses her at first, until it is revealed that the location of the monster to be hunted is within her best friend Redemption’s house.

Right at about 200 pages, this is a short book that packs a heavy punch. It has a surreal feel to it, but the deeper questions it asks are based in a gritty, everyday reality. What are monsters made of? Who or what are angels? How do you tell the difference between the two?

Earlier in this review I said that this is not a book for everyone. I say that because I think we’ve become too used to YA with “grown” teenagers (kids who are 16-18 years old who seem to know every damn thing that’s going on around them). “Pet” is not such a novel. Jam is a 15-year-old girl and her naivete about the danger around her matches every bit of her age. Perhaps some readers will find this frustrating, but I found a book that speaks to the sensibilities of an actual child refreshing. Also, this book is all about queer representation, as I said before Jam is a trans girl; Redemption’s family is portrayed as possibly polyamorous (there’s a woman, a non-gender conforming person, and a man), in addition to several aunts and uncles living with him and his brother who also function as his parents.

I could type all day about this book. Definitely read it though, 4.5 stars.

Review: Slay

And just like that…I’m back. My dissertation is finished, and I’m furiously overjoyed about it. I’ll upload a nice pic of me in my cap and gown for ya’ll in a few weeks. December 12 is my official graduation date. Yay me!!!

Anyway I’m chock full of reviews. Forgive me as I unload them upon you over the next few weeks…

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Review for "Slay" by Brittney Morris (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

When I first heard of this book being about Black girl gamers, I had to have it. It was on my TBR pile long before it was published, so my expectations were pretty high. It’s rare that a book deals with Black adolescent girls in certain intellectual contexts, even rarer for that focus to be on the world of gaming, which is, whether we like it or not, still a very strongly White male dominated culture.

Anyway, SLAY is a book that celebrates Blackness. No, really, it does. In addition to the storyline, I was pleased to find recent references from Black popular culture memes and such. At the center of the novel is Kiera, a teenage girl growing up in Seattle who is one of the few students of color at her high school. Although she is surrounded by friends and a caring boyfriend, she feels like an outsider. To pass the time, Kiera created SLAY, an MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role-playing game) for people of color to come together, collect cards, and battle for points. Black gamers come together from all over the world to play SLAY to be proud of their identities and to find a refuge against the racism that’s prevalent in the gaming world.

No one knows that Kiera is the creator of SLAY. She keeps her creation a secret from family and friends and her boyfriend Malcolm, who feels like games are a distraction and tool of the “evil White man.” All goes well until a gamer is killed as a result of a conflict related to SLAY. Suddenly SLAY is all over the news and branded as racist. Even worse, a troll with bad intentions begins to stalk Kiera online.

Overall, I had a lot of fun reading this book. There are some deep, intra-racial issues discussed here that I liked, such as what makes an authentic “Black” experience, the need for safe spaces, the ubiquity of Anglo and mainstream ideals. It’s interesting that so many games out there are based on systems of belief and characters that are Eurocentric in nature (wizards, castles, elves, and so on) and no one questions the ubiquity of it. Even sadder still are the experiences of harassment and racism by Black gamers in these White-dominated online spaces. Yet when a Black girl gamer goes to create a game based on Afro-centric standpoint, she is vilified.

The only complaint I have is that most of the side characters were a bit one-dimensional. There are also some other POVs of SLAY gamers sprinkled in at certain places that I would have personally left out. It’s forgivable though, I won’t dwell on it. This is a great book, a must read!

Review: Rani Patel in Full Effect

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Review for "Rani Patel in Full Effect" by Sonia Patel (2016)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Took it back to 2016 with this one, though I read this a little over a month ago. It’s a worthwhile but tough YA read, content warnings abound for rape and sexual abuse.

Rani is a 16 year old Indian American girl (Gujarati) living with her parents on Moloka’i, a remote island in Hawaii. Despite being a person of color, she is an outsider among the locals. She finds common ground with her peers through writing and performing raps under the alias MC Sutra in a hip hop collective about a variety of topics–racism, sexism, colonialism, female empowerment, etc. Often Rani’s raps about female empowerment are in direct conflict with her actions and decision making, which have been damaged due to her chaotic home life. Rani’s mother is emotionally absent, her father is out cheating on her mother with a much younger girl (in addition to some other foul things I won’t mention here in order to not spoil the book).

As far as the writing, this book seemed kinda thrown together. Some editing would have been nice here, at times it felt like sentences and different scenes were just strung together with no transitions at all. There’s also a lot of Gujarati and Hawaiian words that just show up organically with no translation at all. I don’t mind this (I’m in their story–remember), and the glossary at the back is a huge help. Just know that there’s a LOT of unfamiliar words here. You will work reading this.

Also, I strongly encourage you to read the author’s note in the back of the novel. The author details why Rani is so frustrating and makes unhealthy choices time and time again, despite all warnings to the contrary. It’s critical to understanding the book.

I gave this three stars–no more, no less.

Review: The Usual Suspects

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Review for "The Usual Suspects" by Maurice Broaddus (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Thelonius Caldwell is very much like many of the boys I taught in my ten years as a middle school teacher: bright, mischievous, and labeled as “special ed.” Despite his label he is very keen in his perceptions of people and aware of the reality that he is being ‘warehoused’ (i.e., placed in a self contained classroom with similar students and given sleep-inducing lessons until he either drops out or is removed via expulsion). Because the school and his teachers have low expectations of him, Thelonius and his friend Nehemiah pass the time by playing pranks on the staff, causing chaos between students, and just plain acting silly.

One day, a gun is found in a park near their school. Because Thelonius and Nehemiah have a reputation for bad behavior, the principal rounds them up and blames them for the incident. Knowing that he did nothing wrong, Thelonius begins to search for the culprit, careful not to break the code of the streets by being a ‘snitch.’ This story traces the route along his journey for answers, playing homage to the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects.” There’s even a Keyser Soze kinda figure, which is pretty brilliant for a kid’s book.

I definitely recommend this novel. Sure, it’s readable children’s book fare but there’s a sad subtext here: the reality that far too many poor children of color are placed in “special ed” classes and, once there, nobody supports or listens to them. Research shows that these are the kids who are most likely to drop out of school entirely and end up in the criminal justice system, or just to have poor outcomes in life in general. It’s a very real depiction of their lives.

4 stars.