Review: Ghost Boys

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Review for "Ghost Boys" by Jewell Parker Rhodes (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“All children, except one, grow up.”
-Peter Pan

Jerome is a likeable 12 year old boy living in Chicago with his parents, grandmother, and sister. He is bullied at school, so a friend gives him a toy gun to brandish for protection. During a visit to a local park to play with the gun, Jerome is shot and killed by a police officer, who felt as if Jerome was a “threat” to his life.

Once dead, Jerome remains in the world of the living, watching his parents grieve and visiting places he used to go. No one sees him, until he encounters the young daughter of the police officer who killed him. They strike up an unlikely friendship. Ghost boys, we learn, are young Black boys killed by racially motivated violence. Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin all make appearances in this book. We’re told that there are hundreds of ghost boys, walking around in the world of the living, making sure we don’t forget them.

This is a sad, heartbreaking book. I will admit that I went into the reading of this book angry on the subject matter. I won’t say I liked it either, because it deals with an all-to-real horror that I, as the mother of a 14-year-old Black boy, hope to never, ever encounter. Yet mothers are still dealing with the pain of their children shot dead by police with no consequences, legal or otherwise. Ghost boys continue.

This is geared toward middle grades readers. I’d definitely use it with that age group to discuss issues of empathy and racism.

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Review: The Poet X

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Review for "The Poet X" by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a beautiful book.

Xiomara Batista is a Dominican teenager growing up in present-day Harlem, NYC. She writes poems in her notebook to express her honest thoughts, mostly on her best friend, her twin brother, her father, and her ultra-religious, overbearing mother. Outside of her brother and her best friend Xiomara does not have much of a social life, she is forced to attend church services and confirmation classes by her mother. Her life changes, however, when she falls in love with a boy from her school and is encouraged to pursue her poetry by one of her teachers.

A lot of the trophes in this book are a bit cliche: first love, parental misunderstanding, the questioning of religion, discovering one’s voice through poetry. Oddly though, while reading this I never really considered these things as ‘done before,’ I just found myself getting lost in the book and letting Xiomara’s words shine through. I loved the poetry here, I loved Xiomara.

I normally don’t care too much for novels in verse, I find most poetic narrative styles kind of stuffy and trite. Not so with this book, I could have read this for another 100 pages. Very well done, highly recommend.

Review: The Closest I’ve Come

Skipping Top Ten Tuesday (again)….hehe.

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Review for "The Closest I've Come" by Fred Aceves (2017)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This book is a giant YES. I loved everything about this book.

Marcos Rivas is a 15-year-old Latino growing up in the Maesta neighborhood of Tampa, Florida–a community riddled with crime, drugs, and few economic opportunities. His mother is present but emotionally absent from his life, either drunk on her days off or working long hours away from their apartment. For the past year, she has allowed her racist, alcoholic boyfriend Brian to live with them, who physically and verbally terrorizes Marcos on a daily basis. For all intents and purposes, his mother is aware of the abuse but does nothing to stop it. Because most of the money in the household is spent on booze, Marcos seeks out meager job opportunities to earn enough cash to be presentable for school and to his friends.

At school, Marcos spends his time hanging with friends and playing pranks on teachers. He is failing all of his classes and doesn’t see the point in doing better or thinking about his future. He has a crush on a girl named Amy and quietly begins to pursue her romantically after they are both selected to participate in a mentoring program called Future Success. Little by little, as he begins to turn his life around, he begins to realize that by getting his life together, he can be better than the circumstances that his life situation brings.

This story is told in the first person POV and had an excellent sense of the main character’s voice all throughout. There was never a time when I didn’t understand Marcos, I definitely felt his feelings and saw his world view through his eyes. Marcos’ story was compelling and powerful, and even though the ending didn’t resolve his many issues, I was ok with it. Poverty and familial dysfunction aren’t easily solvable, and in many cases, cannot be physically escaped. What is important is that Marcos develops a sense of hope, a new way of being in a world that does not intend for his success.

This is my (3rd or 4th?) foray this past month into YA books with Black and/or Latino male characters, by Black and Latinx writers. I can’t stress to you how important that I feel that diverse YA books are, particularly those that are written in the language and the contexts that minority kids are culturally familiar with. “The Closest I’ve Come” is definitely one of the books that’s re-imagining a diverse new world of literature.

4.5 stars. Loved this!

Review: Tyrell

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Review for "Tyrell" by Coe Booth (2006)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Meet Tyrell. He is a 15 year old Black kid living in a roach-infested homeless shelter in the Bronx with his cracked-out mother and little brother. To make a living and supplement his mother’s SSI checks, he scams riders at subway stations. His father is incarcerated, he has long since given up on going to school. He refuses to sell drugs and doesn’t have much but a detailed knowledge of the streets, a fierce desire to protect his brother, a girlfriend that he loves, and a plan to make a lot of money by DJing at a party to get his family out of the shelter.

What I like about this book is that Coe Booth makes Tyrell a deeply flawed, multifaceted character. I could not help but to love him despite his bad (and sometimes very violent) choices, many of which reflect a sexist attitude toward women. He gets it right and he gets it wrong–but I always understood the “why” of Tyrell, as he reflects the manifestation of a life not lived but survived, a boy grown up too fast. This novel is the thought process of a man-child with no role models or people that he trusts. The streets have nurtured him, he’s raising himself. The empathy you feel for Tyrell carries you through this novel and make his life and his motivations understandable.

This book will shock those who are not familiar with (or, who simply choose to ignore) the lives of Black and Latin urban teenagers. There’s lots of cursing here, along with casual drug use, sexual situations. There’s also non-standard English, constant use of the word “nigga.” Get over it. Although “Tyrell” is YA, this is clearly not White suburban YA. It should not be controversial, then, that a story about a Black urban teenager is appropriately written in a language that is familiar to that audience. Given the realistic subject matter here, the language simply is what it is. It fits the novel perfectly.

Needless to say, I loved this book. There’s a sequel to this, I’ll be picking that up too.

Review: Let’s Talk about Love

Hey folks!

I’m writing this from a hotel in Manhattan. I’ve been here for 5 days now for an education conference and so far I’m totally in love with the city. Anyone who would like to see my NYC adventures can follow me on my IG: kellythegreat.

Anywho, on to the review:

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Review for "Let's Talk About Love" by Claire Kann (2018)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I’m sad to say that I didn’t really like this book.

It’s disappointing because I wanted to love it, to grab it and go out and buy my own instead of a library copy. I did finish it, but honestly, after 25 pages, I knew this wasn’t the book for me.

Alice is a bi-romantic, asexual Black girl college student. As the story opens, she is being dumped by her girlfriend Margot because her gf believes that she doesn’t want to have sex with her. Heartbroken, Alice moves out of their shared space and into an apartment with another friend, Feenie, and her boyfriend. Meanwhile, she develops an intense romantic attraction for one of her co-workers, Takumi. The remainder of the book details Alice’s romance with Takumi and her struggles with her asexuality, as well how she deals with a whole host of family problems to boot.

I liked this novel because it is the first book I’ve read in which asexuality (or “ace,” as some asexual individuals call themselves) is discussed like the very real thing that it is. It is not ‘weird’ or a mental illness. Although there are a wide variety of perspectives on sexual activity within this community (some do have it, some don’t), it is widely accepted by people who identify in this manner that it is an orientation, not a “choice.” Even though they may lack interest in sex, they do indeed have romantic inclinations. Alice, the main character of this book, is featured in this way. I appreciate the fact that this book’s purpose was to allow people to understand asexuality without the long-winded explanations of an academic paper or a textbook. It’s timely and informative.

My dislike of this book, however, was in the characterization of Alice. While she’s not the worst character I’ve ever encountered, I loathed the way the author portrayed her–less like a real college student and more like a 12 year old. For example, Alice has mental categories called “Cutie Codes” to describe her attractions to people. She constantly refers to this all throughout the novel: Cutie Code Orange, Cutie Code Red, Cutie Code Yellow, all the way to Cutie Code Black (Takumi, according to Alice, is the ‘perfect’ black). She also has the nerve to refer to a tv character on pg. 48 as a ‘cutie patootie badass.’

((*eyeroll*))

Are you serious? What adult (or, as I said earlier, anyone over the age of 12) in 2018 talks this way? While I can understand making character relatable and giving the protagonist some quirks, the author was trying entirely too hard for this angle. Alice’s wide-eyed, child-like nature was problematic for me, because I don’t think real ace people go around acting like a bubbly 12 year old. It’s completely ok for an ace character to say someone’s hot or that someone they like is sexy without resorting to infantile language associations.

And the writing…while it’s not bad, it’s nothing to write home about. This book is plagued by an overuse of parentheses, usually employed between paragraphs to represent Alice’s thoughts. This is weird, because this book is written in 3rd person. If there is so much emphasis on the thoughts of the main character (which there is) why not use the 1st person and make it official? Reading this book in a 3rd person POV seemed unnecessarily awkward, because I always had the sense that it was a 1st person narrative.

Once again, I appreciate the diversity of racial representation in this book (a Black ace female, an Asian male), as well as what it attempts to do when it comes to portraying a sexual orientation that few people understand. I just wish it could have been executed better.

2 stars.

P.S. – The cover is Cutie Code Black.

Review: When My Heart Joins the Thousand

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Review for "When My Heart Joins the Thousand" by A.J. Steiger (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I really really liked this book.

Alvie Fitz is a 17-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome. When the book begins we learn that her mother has died several years before, and after a series of unsuccessful stays in residential care centers and foster family placements, Alvie now lives alone in her own apartment and works a stable job at a local zoo. She is checked on weekly by a psychologist, Dr. Bernstein, in preparation for her request to be legally emancipated. Typical of people with Asperger’s, Alvie has above-average intelligence but difficulty with the most basic of social interactions. She has an obsessive interest in animals, scientific facts, and the book Watership Down (where the title of the novel is from). She also suffers from anxiety and depression, which she copes with by turning to animals and avoiding people altogether.

At its core, this is a love story. Despite Alvie’s difficulties bonding with other people, she falls for Stanley, a very shy college student also with a disability. Life has not been kind to either of them, yet what they find together is extraordinary.

I have to admit that I struggled with Alvie through a lot of this book. During certain scenes where she attempts to interact with people I found myself shaking my head in frustration, sighing. Her difficulties interacting with people are extreme, and even though I was aware of how large her hurdles would be, I don’t think I was prepared for just how much of her motivations, reactions, and thoughts are due to Asperger’s. Stanley has an incredible amount of patience with Alvie, even though her efforts to be “normal” at times seemed like acts of self sabotage.

I think this book really challenged me to move past my ableism and develop empathy, as well as understand what life is like for people with autism. The author has incredible insight into this disability, and although I’ve read many books about people with them, this one really moved me.

Do read this book.

Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here

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Review for "Tyler Johnson Was Here" by Jay Coles (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

From the moment I saw this book I knew I had to have it. I’m always down for YA books by and about people of color that are overtly political in nature, as well as books that challenge young people to think critically social issues. And yes, THAT cover. Gor-juss…

“Tyler Johnson Was Here” is just such a book that is destined to provoke conversation, particularly on police killings and the role of Black Lives Matter movement. The novel centers on the lives of twins, Tyler and Marvin, growing up in the fictional town of Sterling Point. The twins are raised by their single mother while their father, who is incarcerated, makes frequent appearances throughout the book in the form of letters written to Marvin.

Even though this is the story of twins, the story is told through Marvin, the more grounded of the two. Marvin hangs out with his friends Guillermo and Ivy, makes decent grades, watches reruns of “A Different World” and hopes to get into MIT. Tyler is the more restless twin, directing his energies toward social pursuits and hanging with a tough crowd. Much to Marvin’s dismay, he notices a rift between him and his brother and cannot convince Tyler to stay away from trouble. One night, after a party thrown by a local drug dealer, Tyler does not return home. Several days later, he is found deceased. A leaked video reveals that Tyler was unarmed when he was shot by police. As Marvin deals with his grief and anger over his brother’s death, he turns his efforts to protest and making sure that his brother’s memory isn’t forgotten.

What’s wrong with this book? A lot. Hell, I’m just going to bullet point here:

— The pacing of this novel was a problem for me. We’re told on the front flap of the book that Tyler is going to disappear and later be discovered dead. However, the characters do not discover Tyler’s death until well over halfway into the book. I felt as if the author could have skipped the ‘missing’ part, because it slowed the pace of the novel significantly. You’re literally just sitting around waiting for the inevitable for the first 150 pages. That’s not fun.

— Characterization fell a bit flat in this book as well. Even though I felt I understood Tyler, when I finished this I realized that I really didn’t. The limitations of a single perspective (Marvin’s) is apparent here. We know he was a good kid who got mixed up in a troubled crowd, but we’re never told the exact nature of his last days, his dealings with his friends. The author spends a great deal of time making the point that although Tyler may have been troubled, this was no reason for the manner of his death. While this is true, I think this point would not have required so much emphasis with more character-building as far as Tyler was concerned.

— There’s also a side character that goes absolutely nowhere: an aunt who’s a police officer, mentioned several times in the novel, who’s “always on the phone” with Marvin and Tyler’s mom. Considering that the police are the bad guys here who murdered Tyler and all of law enforcement in this book is portrayed as the epitome of evil, a relative of Marvin’s who happens to be a cop may have added to the complexity of this book. But that’s never explored. Weird.

— Marvin meets a girl, Faith, through his attempts to discover his brother’s whereabouts after the fateful night at the party. They eventually become involved with one another, but I never got a sense of their chemistry, her relevance to the story beyond the standard YA romance requirement, or really why she is in the book at all.

— The multitude of references to the tv show “A Different World”: Marvin is obsessed with this show, viewing it as a way to “understand” diverse Black characters. I’m not sure why this is, especially when there are more modern (and diverse!) shows with Black characters that could have been referenced here. I’m an 80’s baby, so I watched “A Different World” as a teenager (it went off the air in 1993, right as I went into high school). A teenager in 2018 still fixated on characters from a show from well over 25 years ago seemed strange, kinda like a kid who watches a dated show like “Hogan’s Heroes” expecting to find enlightenment. Yikes.

Comparisons to “The Hate U Give” are inevitable (both have Black main characters, both are about the subject of police violence), and if I had to pick between the two I’d say in a heartbeat that “The Hate U Give” is the much better book. Despite my criticisms, however, I won’t go lower than 3 stars for “Tyler Johnson Was Here.” I also wholeheartedly recommend this to other people to read. Even though TJWH has problems in its execution, I respect what it does accomplish successfully, and that’s place the narrative surrounding police violence in the hands of Black youth, within the context of their own language and culture. The value of those things in and of itself is immeasurable, respectable, and deserves notice.

And yes, the cover. It’s quite beautiful.

*sigh*