Monday, December 17, 2018

Review: Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno

Just Under the CloudsJust Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old Cora knows a lot about the trees classified in her father’s field journal, now her Tree Book since he passed away six years ago. “It holds the secret for all growing things,” her mother said. Every tree Cora comes across is jotted down. With the constant moving, it helps Cora define where she is.

Cora loves climbing trees and drawing pictures on her hand to share with her mother. Her ten-year-old sister, “Adare sees things a different way,” and always looking to the sky. She also prefers being barefoot, (on the city streets!) doesn’t ask questions, and wins people over instantly with her smile. Sometimes Cora feels she has to remind her mother she’s there too.

For now, they live at the Ennis House. It’s near an oil-slicked canal in Brooklyn where Cora likes watching the floating broken rainbows no one else sees. Old Lou stands guard at Ennis House. Cora, Adare, her mother, and Snookie the cat pass over the grimy floors, a cockroach that hasn’t moved in three days, the place smells of cat pee, and they deadbolt the lock.

We’ve never lived in a shelter before, and even if we’ve never lived much of anywhere for too long, it feels like, for the first time, we don’t have a home. We’re homeless. For real.”

They’re on a list, waiting for housing Cora’s mother can afford.
Cora wishes her mother had walls to paint murals the way she used to, but she works long hours and Cora does her best to help take care of her sister. They meet daily at the nearby park after school and wait for her to pick them up because Ennis House isn’t safe.

They’re waiting longer than they ever have.
She doesn’t come.
It’s dark out.
Cora has to get back to Ennis House with her sister, though her mother said to never go there without her. But that’s where she’s headed and she takes her sister’s hand.

I loved this book, though the subject is difficult. As a child, my mother was in a similar situation, and I found this written with sensitivity and a certain dreamy quality I found comforting. The author’s vivid prose is magical, such a beautiful story of love and finding your home.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Guest post with Remy Lai, author of PIE IN THE SKY

Today we are thrilled to welcome creator Remy Lai, Author-illustrator of PIE IN THE SKY, coming from Henry Holt Books For Young Readers on May 14, 2019. Below Remy shares her thoughts on diversity, kidlit, and representation in children's literature.

Books as Mirrors 

The kids are wearing white shirts, jackets, pants, skirts. And all the kids are fair-skinned.

That’s not true. The kid on the leftmost wears a red shirt and the one in the middle wears a blue shirt. The boy at the left of the table? His jacket is yellow. And the girl to right of the table wears a green skirt, while the girl behind her wears a maroon skirt.

The boy with the yellow jacket is dark-skinned. So is that girl at the right of the table. The kids are of various races.

You ask, “How on earth are we supposed to know that? We don’t have telepathic powers to read your mind.”

I guess you have a point. Let’s make some changes.

Now look at the image below.

Can you see all the red, blue, green, yellow, light skin and dark skin I mentioned earlier?

Okay, I tricked you. These kids are actually wearing clothes of the same color since they’re in school uniforms. But now, there’s less ambiguity that some of the kids are darker-skinned and others are lighter-skinned. There’s less ambiguity that the kids are of various races.

Fewer of you would ask, “How on earth are we supposed to know that? We can’t read your mind.”

Fewer kids would ask, “Where am I in this picture?”

In an ideal world, I suppose the reader is able to imagine all the different colors on a bare-bones black and white image. But this is not an ideal world. Many kids have not had enough opportunities to see marginalized groups in visual media. When presented with an ambiguous image like the first one, many can’t help but make the default assumption that the dominant group is the one being portrayed. So it falls on authors, illustrators, colorists, editors and publishers to do better for them.

In a prose novel, depending on the story an author is trying to tell, diversity might be explicitly pointed out, or subtly pointed out by contextual cues (names, languages etc). In illustrated books and graphic novels, illustrations provide an opportunity to subtly show readers that various skin tones exist without beating you over the head with it.

With these images, I’m merely illustrating a superficial mirror, but books provide mirrors that go beyond that. In books, we see our thoughts, identities and experiences. Not only thoughts, identities and experiences that belong to us, but also those that belong to others. Which is why there is an ongoing conversation for the need for diverse books, especially in kidlit, like it’s been said so eloquently over at We Need Diverse Books.

BUT, WAIT! It’s not just about providing mirrors. Who provides those mirrors is equally important—looking beyond diverse content and focusing on diverse voices.

If you’re an author thinking about writing a marginalized protagonist, and you’re not part of that marginalized group yourself, these are the basic questions to ask yourself:

1. Why are you writing a marginalized protagonist?

2. Have you done your research?

And yet, good intentions and having done copious research and being able to write it well does not mean YES! ALL SYSTEMS GO! because . . .

3. Are you taking away the chance to tell that story from the very marginalized group you’re writing about?

But no one can tell you, “No, don’t write that.” You have to decide for yourself. For more on this topic, read what Gail D. Villanueva says.

In this essay, I’m merely skimming the surface of diversity with the topic of race and skin tone. We Need Diverse Books defines diversity as:

We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.

*We subscribe to a broad definition of disability, which includes but is not limited to physical, sensory, cognitive, intellectual, or developmental disabilities, chronic conditions, and mental illnesses (this may also include addiction). Furthermore, we subscribe to a social model of disability, which presents disability as created by barriers in the social environment, due to lack of equal access, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization.

I still have a lot a lot a lot to learn about representation in my own writing and drawing. Every day I worry that I get things wrong and might unintentionally hurt a reader. Every day I’m learning something new and feeling a little sheepish for my previous ways of thinking. And that’s OK. We learn, apologize, and do better.

I’m going to leave you with something you can do to uplift diverse voices: support their works. For starters, here are some graphic novels by diverse voices:

Remy Lai is a writer-illustrator. She was born in Indonesia, grew up in Singapore and currently lives in Australia. When she’s not writing and drawing stories for kids, she can be found exploring the woods behind her home with her two dogs. Her debut middle-grade novel, PIE IN THE SKY (Henry Holt, May 2019), is about two brothers who migrate to Australia and discover that English sounds like Martian. The image used in this article is from PIE IN THE SKY, which will be printed in two-color.

Twitter | Website | Goodreads | Pre-order

Thank you for joining us today, Remy! Here's more information on Remy's debut:

A poignant illustrated middle-grade novel about an eleven-year-old boy's immigration experience, his annoying little brother, and their cake-baking hijinks!
When Jingwen moves to a new country, he feels like he’s landed on Mars. School is torture, making friends is impossible since he doesn’t speak English, and he's often stuck looking after his (extremely irritating) little brother, Yanghao.

To distract himself from the loneliness, Jingwen daydreams about making all the cakes on the menu of Pie in the Sky, the bakery his father had planned to open before he unexpectedly passed away. The only problem is his mother has laid down one major rule: the brothers are not to use the oven while she's at work. As Jingwen and Yanghao bake elaborate cakes, they'll have to cook up elaborate excuses to keep the cake making a secret from Mama.

In her hilarious, emotional middle-grade debut, Remy Lai delivers a scrumptious combination of vibrant graphic art and pitch-perfect writing that will appeal to fans of Real Friends.

Editor's Note: The concept of books as mirrors is credited to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop. To read more about her life work, visit this page.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Review: The Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel Jose Older

Dactyl Hill SquadDactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s 1863 at the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City. Magdalys Roca is not listening to the matron who insists on caller her by the wrong name. Magdalys only answers to her real name, the way her brother said it, like a song, the brother who’s now fighting in the Union Army.

But the Triceratops is waiting to take her and the other orphan children to the Zanzibar Theater to see the only all-black Shakespearean company in New York perform the Tempest. Magdalys decides she not going to allow the matron’s stubbornness have her miss out.

“It was only a few years ago that New York passed a law granting black citizens the right to dinoride.”

Dinosaurs are everywhere. Iguanodons extinguish lanterns before the dawn. Commuter brachys. Stegosaurs lug supplies and microraptors deliver messages, while most of the trikes and raptors have been sent south to the Confederates.

“Magdalys had no idea why anyone would want to keep her from dinoriding just because of the color of her skin.”

On the way to the theater, Magdalys is surprised when she discovers the dinosaur listened to her. That it can hear her thoughts! But she’s keeping it a secret for now.

A riot breaks out and the theater is torched. Pandemonium in the streets, people are murdered, people Magdalys cares about. She narrowly escapes with her life and a few others. But there are more orphans to save before the Kidnappers Club sends south to be sold into slavery. Magdalys and the others barely escape and soon find friends in Brooklyn who will help them rescue the captured children and stop the worldwide kidnapping ring.

“They weren’t just abandoned orphans anymore — they were part of something.”

What a magnificent and wild ride! True events are written within an alternative historical setting, with maps of early New York City. A fun and absorbing way to learn about history and experience the joy of riding dinosaurs to combat evil.

View all my reviews

Monday, November 26, 2018

Review: Black Wings Beating by Alex London

Black Wings Beating (Skybound #1)Black Wings Beating by Alex London
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"No one was only the sum of broken things inside themselves. Anyway, what were breaks if not openings?"

Brysen dreams of being a falconer but lacks the focus. Kylee, his twin sister, dreams of leaving falconry and the Six Villages behind forever but harbors a secret skill. War is on the horizon and the only way out for the twins is to accomplish what their brutal father died doing -- capturing a ghost eagle.

London's Black Wings Beating is a remarkable story of contrasts. It's a heart-pounding tale of love vs. power, romantic gestures vs. calculating strategic advantage, sky vs. earth, and family vs. all. The world-building is compelling and no detail is missed. The war that threatens from the east, which is only introduced in this book, will upend it all.

While the birds are a great hook, the aspect that soars in this story is the relationship between Brysen and Kylee. Brysen fixes his sight upward at the boy he loves and his birds, and Kylee focuses on the earth's next hand-hold as she climbs the challenge in front of her. I look forward to following these two as they face the next mountain.

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Monday, November 19, 2018

Review: The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw

The Wicked DeepThe Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

1822 in the seaside town of Sparrow Oregon, three sisters arrived with hopes of making a new home. The Swan sisters were among the first to settle this seaside town. Three of the most beautiful women ever beheld. They soon became known at temptresses, too irresistible to resist. Rumors gathered that they were witches weaving spells, and a mob of townspeople stormed their perfumery shop, tied stones to the sister’s feet, and threw them into the ocean.

The Swan sisters return every summer seeking revenge, dragging unsuspecting boys back into in the sea with them before the solstice ends.

Two hundred years later, seventeen-year-old, Penny Talbot is apprehensive with another season of finding dead boys in the ocean about to begin. Even though the town celebrates the sisters return with festivals, and tourists flock to the island to witness the spectacle. It’s what the townspeople do to prepare the inevitable.

Penny wants things to be different this year when she meets Bo. He stepped in to rescue her from another boy’s abuse at one of the parties. He’s a stranger to the town just like her father was. Penny’s father disappeared three years ago and her mother suffers, watching out across the water for his return. Bo wants answers to what happened to his brother and Penny wants to protect Bo, keep him from being lured into the ocean to certain death. What will Penny do for love? How will she right the wrongs she’s made?

A beautifully written, haunting fantasy about the power of love, recommended for more mature Young Adult readers.

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Review: Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her MonsterSweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"We are saved by saving others."

Eleven-year-old Nan Sparrow is the best climber in London. She learned everything she knows from her Sweep who disappeared a few years ago. He left Nan only his hat and a strange lump of charcoal. When Nan becomes trapped in a deadly chimney fire, she finds herself unharmed in the attic, and her small, odd char has come to life. Over the next few days, her new friend grows and transforms into a golem of ash.

Auxier's Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster is a wonderfully complex story that feels as if Charles Dickens wrote a fairy tale. As a bit of historical fiction, it builds an eye-opening world in Victorian London where children experience grinding poverty and abuse. But the story balances these dark elements with the warmth of friendship, the love of found family, and the freedom education brings.

Supported by a cast of wonderful characters, Nan's fight for her own life becomes a fight for social justice. This warm-hearted novel shows us what it takes to save ourselves by saving others.

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Monday, November 5, 2018

Review: The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden

The Benefits of Being an OctopusThe Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Seventh-grader Zoey has her hands full as she takes care of her much younger siblings after school every day while her mom works her shift at the pizza parlor. Not that her mom seems to appreciate it. At least there’s Lenny, her mom’s boyfriend—they all get to live in his nice, clean trailer.

At school, Zoey tries to stay under the radar. Her only friend Fuchsia has her own issues, and since they're in an entirely different world than the rich kids, it’s best if no one notices them. Zoey thinks how much easier everything would be if she were an octopus: eight arms to do eight things at once. Incredible camouflage ability and steady, unblinking vision. Powerful protective defenses.

Unfortunately, she’s not totally invisible, and one of her teachers forces her to join the debate club. Even though Zoey resists participating, debate ultimately leads her to see things in a new way: her mom’s relationship with Lenny, Fuchsia’s situation, and her own place in this town of people who think they’re better than her. Can Zoey find the courage to speak up, even if it means risking the most stable home she’s ever had?

This was a powerful book about the effects of poverty on the life of one girl, her siblings, her mother, and her friend. There seem to be few books with main characters who live in small-town poverty, and I imagine a lot of kids will be able to see themselves in Zoey.

Zoey often imagines herself an octopus, with the ability to camouflage herself and with eight legs to care for her younger siblings and still finish her homework. Zoey carries a lot of responsibility for a twelve-year-old, which leaves her very little time to do schoolwork or even be a kid herself. But even through all of this responsibility and stress, Zoey grows braver through her membership in the school's debate club. I particularly liked the way she learned to stand up for not only herself, but for other people.

I recommend this book for readers of all stripes. It's very well-written but also fast-paced. A must for classrooms and libraries.


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