Confessions & Confusions

Unreliable narrators in fiction make for some fascinating reading, and what could be more unreliable than a confession? Strangely, I happened to read two such novels recently.

The first is a teen novel that I hadn’t had on my to-read list until it won a Printz Honor: The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry. I had heard the Printz buzz around this book, but it never sounded that appealing to me.  I mean, it is set in the 1200’s and is about religion/faith/miracles. The description just never grabbed me. But once I finally gave it a chance, I was engrossed from the very beginning. The book uses many voices to tell the story, but the primary storyteller is Botille, whose confession about what happened twenty-six years ago with regard to the heretic Dolssa is full of layers as she protects the people she cares about from the Inquisitors. What really happened and what is Botille’s invention for the Inquisitor is up for debate and that is only a part of what makes this book interesting.

The second is another historical novel—published for adults—set in the 1920’s: The Other Typist. I picked up this book because of my interest in the time period, especially women’s lives at that time. I really wasn’t expecting this strange (though not necessarily in a bad way) story that left me wondering what really happened even after I finished reading. The reader knows from almost the very beginning that things don’t end well for our main character, and the story isn’t suspenseful so much as it is filled with foreboding in a way that kept me reading despite knowing that bad things were bound to happen. Don’t get me wrong, it takes a while to get there. It is a confession after all, and it takes time to get to the juicy parts of any confession, as our narrator well knows from her employment as a typist at a police station where her job is to record and type confessions.  If you can stick with the story to the end, you’ll be left fitting the pieces of Rose’s story together to determine what you think really happened.

Both of these books were engrossing in a way that surprised me. They each ended up being yet another reminder to myself to be open in my reading choices. Hey Self: Even if a book isn’t what you were expecting or if it doesn’t seem immediately appealing, give it a chance. You might be surprised.

On Wonder

I recently finished reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio aloud to my daughter, which might seem like a surprising choice to some since the book is, arguably, inspiration porn that perpetuates the idea that the people who look significantly different deserve accolades for simply existing and anyone who befriends such a person is a hero.

Frankly, that’s exactly why I chose to read it with her rather than let her find it on her own, which she likely would, considering how popular the book has become. This way we could take the story slowly to parse out what I see as the problematic elements of the story as we read. I have complicated feelings about this book as I expect that many other people in my position—people who are used to being stared at because they have a significantly different body—share. It isn’t easy to read about Auggie’s award for “bravery” at the end of the book when readers are well aware that he has done nothing to deserve it.  It really isn’t easy to watch Auggie accept the eventual popularity he gets at school, which is more condescending than it is kind. As I found reading with my daughter, these aren’t easy things to talk about either.

But in my world, it’s necessary to talk about them. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been given inordinate accolades or given apparent hero status for simply existing. Or how often my long-term partner has been seen as saintly for being with me. So when I read Wonder the first time, I read a book that portrayed ableism, especially internalized ableism, in a way that was painfully affecting and emotional. I admit, I thought it was obvious to readers that August should not have been given the award and that the mascot-like relationship he has with his peers at the end of the book was not healthy friendship. When I finished the book that first time, long before it was published, I was optimistic about the way that this book could share parts of my experience in a way that I hadn’t been able to communicate before.

Unfortunately, the book couldn’t seem to communicate it either. Or perhaps the message that I thought was there never really was. Even on re-reading it now, I’m not really sure. I still found it difficult to read at times in how realistic some of it was. The character of Miranda, in particular, felt real to me in the worst way. I have known people who feel like they deserve some sort of “credit” for befriending people who are different. I have known many, many people who feel that protecting people, the way that Miranda seeks to protect August, is love/kindness/friendship. I truly hope that no one finishes that book thinking that that’s what friendship is. That that’s what August wants from the people in his life. But I’m worried that that’s exactly what people have been getting from this book.

I love that the book has inspired so many people to Choose Kind. I only wonder if people are confusing being inspired by someone for being kind to them when the two actually have very little to do with each other. I love that the book created a place for my daughter and I to talk about healthy friendships, bravery, and other important but not often discussed topics.

I may not like the truths that this book captured about the way we treat people who are different, but that doesn’t make them any less true.  I don’t know that my thoughts about this book or about disability/ableism are fully formed or off base. Here is what I do know: one insensitive thought or action does not define you. Via isn’t a bad person for what she thinks about August. Jack isn’t evil for what he says about August. You aren’t a bad person for double-taking or staring at someone like August (or at me). You aren’t a bad person for being curious or expressing curiosity—even if you express it kind of rudely. That moment isn’t all there is. There is always more to the story. Kindness is being open to the stories you haven’t heard yet.

Choose kind, but know that sympathy isn’t kindness. Pity isn’t kindness. Special treatment isn’t kindness. Know that this book is mostly showing what not to do when it comes to kindness. For me, the book gets at a deeper truth than simply “choose kind.” It shows how the kind choice isn’t always obvious. And sometimes our instincts about kindness are wrong.

To close, here is Stella Young talking about inspiration porn:

The Names We Know (and the ones we don’t)

As I read the ARC of Untwine by Edwidge Danticat back in 2015, I found myself scribbling notes to myself. Names, mostly. The book is full of references to art, music, and history that were new to me. I had to Google Jean-Jacques Dessalines to find out that he was a leader in the Haitian Revolution. Other names dropped into the story turned out to be real contemporary artists whose work connected to the story or the characters in some way. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Frida Kahlo were the only names that I knew.  By the time I finished the book I had a list of names—all people about whom I wanted to know more.

Imagining that teen readers of Untwine might be similarly inspired to seek out the stories behind these names, I looked for biographies I might recommend as an “If you liked Untwine” kind of reading list. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be found on teen nonfiction shelves for any of these names beyond Frida Kahlo. While I highly recommend Catherine Reef’s dual biography Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life or Carmen Bernier-Grand’s poetic tribute to the artist Frida: Viva la Vida! Long Live Life! to teen readers who want to read about artists of color, two books aren’t enough to make a list or a display in a library.

It was, however, more than enough to make me think more critically about the biographies and histories I recommend for teen collections. There is power in art, music, and history that resonates with your own life, and I want those stories to be accessible to young people.

Perhaps no other book I’ve read has made the power of connecting with history more clear than Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson, which I read recently. In this book, another one I finished with a scribbled list of names to Google, Jade discovers and explores African-American history and art that inspires her own art and gives her the strength to speak out. She says after a trip to the symphony with a mentoring group for at-risk young women, “I did not know about James DePreist, and I’d never heard of Marian Anderson. But tonight I feel myself dancing with them. Feel myself traveling the world.”

An “If you liked Piecing Me Together” reading list might include biographies of Marian Anderson, Romare Bearden, and York (the enslaved African explorer who traveled with Lewis and Clark) among others if there are any. It would be a small list. Perhaps Russell Freedman’s The Voice that Challenged a Nation would be the only title on it. That isn’t enough. There isn’t nearly enough for teen readers searching for themselves, for their own histories, to connect the pieces of their lives together.

As Jade, in the book, spoke out about what she deserved, I had to consider how I might use my position to speak up. I’ll be talking about Untwine and Piecing Me Together for sure. I’ll be recommending the biographies listed above and watching upcoming publishing seasons for new teen books featuring artists and musicians of color and other little known history regarding marginalized groups.  I’ve reviewed, booktalked, and recommended books like Answering the Cry for Freedom and Rad Women Worldwide. It may never be enough, but I’ll keep speaking up because I am more convinced than ever that we need these stories.

More New Kid Stories

countingthymeOnce you start looking for something, you see it everywhere. That’s how it has been for me and books about being the new kid. I wrote about Catching a Storyfish a while ago, and since then I have been compiling a list of all the books I have come across on this topic. Just counting the 2016 pub dates, there are The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones by Wendelin Van Draanen, Wish by Barbara O’Connor, and Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin in addition to Catching a Storyfish. Has this always been a popular theme in middle grade or is it just that I am looking for it now? Either way, I suppose, I am happy to have found these books.

I particularly liked the way that Counting Thyme explored the idea that “home is more than just a place” because when you moved as often as my family did, this was a lesson you learned quite young. In the book, though, this is Thyme’s first move, and it comes with some serious complications: her little brother is sick and they have moved across the country so that he can receive some experimental cancer treatment. This isn’t an easy situation for anyone. It hasn’t been easy for anyone in Thyme’s family for a while. She says about the move,

“When someone tells you your little brother might die, you’re quick to agree to anything. You give up after-school activities because no one can take you to practice. You start eating kale chips instead of regular sour cream ‘n’ onion because your mom says kale is rich in antioxidants, which means healthy. You even agree to move across the country, if that’s what it takes.”

So that’s how Thyme found herself starting middle school again and having to explain to everyone at her new school that her name is “Thyme with an H-Y” while they look at her like a creature from another planet. She doesn’t tell them that her little brother is sick because she doesn’t want to be “cancer boy’s sister.” If she has to be in New York City, she at least wants to be her own person while she’s there.

Counting Thyme is just what I love about middle grade fiction. It’s sweet and heartfelt. There are serious themes, but it isn’t overwhelming.  In the end, I was happy to have gotten to know Thyme and her family as they made their way in a new city in a difficult situation.

Check out the trailer for more:

Monday Morning Music with Lunch Duchess

iamdrumsHow many female rock drummers can you think of? I could probably come up with five or so off the top of my head. But the girl in I am Drums by Mike Grosso doesn’t know of any other girl drummers, and other kids make fun of her for being the only girl in the percussion section of her school band. Not that she lets that stop her. She’s singularly focused and determined to play the drums no matter what. Even if her parents just think it’s an expensive hobby that they can’t afford or if her classmates say girls look stupid playing drums and have no rhythm. None of that matters to her.

Still, it’s always nice to know you’re not alone.  after an assignment from her drum teacher to listen to amazing rock drummers, she discovers that other girl drummers actually do exist, including Karen Carpenter who sang while playing the drums, which is a bit of a surprise to Sam. She makes a whole list of women rock drummers to listen to for the assignment. I loved Sam’s dedication to her instrument. She didn’t always make good choices, and yet I couldn’t help but root or her in this cute story. Recommended for similarly music obsessed kids.

Today’s music choice adds to Sam’s list of amazing girl drummers: Katherine Seggerman of Lunch Duchess. Like Karen Carpenter, she is a singer/drummer. The quirky grunge-pop might not be everyone’s taste, but it’s well worth a listen.

“This might seem rude, but…”

uglyI have talked a lot on this blog about acknowledging differences and asking questions. I was thinking about that as I read Ugly by Robert Hoge, a memoir for kids about Hoge’s experience growing up with a facial deformity. This passage, in particular, stood out to me:

“Some of the best talks I have ever had started with someone asking, ‘This might seem rude, but can I ask about your face/nose/scars/bumps?’ Wherever those conversations ended up, they started as honest exchanges. Acknowledging someone’s differences can be about saying you’re not scared to talk to someone about the things that make them who they are.”

A lot of kids have been afraid of me in my life. When I was a kid, it was confusing to have my peers be afraid of my prosthesis or of my little arm. I wasn’t scary, was I? As an adult, I understand why it might be surprising, uncomfortable, or even frightening for a kid to see someone like me. And I go out of my way to be approachable, to be unscary. I’ll never look just like everyone else, and I’m okay with that.

I promise: I’d much rather be asked a rude question than have someone be afraid of me.

Robert Hoge’s memoir shares his journey to being okay with how he looked. It can be hard to read about how his mother initially rejected him, about the taunts he received from other kids, and about being perceived as ugly, but I hope readers, young and old, come away knowing that they don’t have to be afraid of someone who looks different. They can ask honest questions. That it is possible to be comfortable with what you look like even when you stand out.

You can listen to Hoge talk more about how important it is to be comfortable with how you look in his TEDx Talk:

A Sad Story & Songs to Match

ourchemicalIf you’re looking for a happily ever after, that was my last post. This one is about Our Chemical Hearts, or to be more accurate, it was inspired by Our Chemical Hearts.

Readers know going in that Our Chemical Hearts isn’t a Happily Ever After kind of story. The marketing material that arrived with my advance reader copy listed “10 Things You Need to Know about Our Chemical Hearts” with the number one point being “The book you’re looking at is not a love story.”
This is the book for when you want to cry and remember how love can consume you completely and then spit you out. So if you’re looking for tragic romance, this is the book for you. And if you don’t fall in love with Henry Page before the book is over, you are a different person than I am. ;)  The other side of the promo piece had a playlist of break-up songs for every stage of grief from Alanis Morrisette (anger) to Gloria Gaynor (acceptance).  Honestly, when you’re through with the sad story of Henry Page and Grace Town, you’ll probably need the playlist to help you through.

suggestedtunesYou may recall  that I’ve posted about break up songs before with a rather embarrassing story about a break up from my past and my break up song of choice (Bjork). I won’t repeat that here, but I will offer a choice from the Our Chemical Hearts playlist from the “Bargaining” section. Here is “Goodbye Goodbye” by Tegan and Sara:

Happily Ever After

I read a lot of realistic teen fiction. That may sound pretty benign, but when it comes to teen fiction “realistic” can seem like code for “issues.” So many of the teen books I read are about abuse, poverty, trauma, risky behavior, and bad decisions that lead to terrible consequences. Tough Topics, I used  to call them when I worked in a library. I had a huge bibliography of these books divided by subject. It was, frankly, depressing. My reading list can really get a person down.

This summer, I took a break from serious stories. I spent my summer reading the fluffiest YA romance novels I could find. One after another. I couldn’t get enough happily ever afters. Even when the path to that HEA was completely cheesy, I would keep reading and select another silly book when I was through. Sometimes that’s what you need. Or, at least, sometimes that’s what I need.

For those of you looking for similar books, I offer you the three standout teen romances I read this past summer:

unexpectedeverything shufflerepeat Yoon_9780553496680_jkt_all_r1.indd

  • The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson – An overachiever has her summer plans disrupted and finds herself finding happiness where she least expected it. Maybe that sounds cheesy, but I really enjoyed this story that explored family and friendships in addition to having a sweet romantic story line.
  • Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein – Reluctant friends with divergent taste in music find romance in this cute story. I have a particular weakness for books that feature indie music, so this was a fun read for me. There’s even a playlist to go along with the book.
  • The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon – Yes, technically this book doesn’t even publish until November, but I read an advance reader’s copy this summer so I’m counting it. It is easily one of my favorite YA novels of 2016, and it’s a National Book Award finalist. In addition to the romantic adventure that takes place in one day, this book also takes on some serious topics like race and immigration.

An one more bonus recommendation for those of you who prefer actually-published-for-grown-ups books: Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna van Praag is a sweet, magical story about second chances. Worth reading for a bit of HEA fluff that isn’t about teenagers, if that’s your thing.

The Stories Behind the News

As I type, I have Minnesota Public Radio News playing in the background.  We usually have MPR News playing at home or in the car. And we often find ourselves discussing what we’ve heard throughout the day or read on other news outlets at dinner.  My husband and I make time for debates and for the recent political party conventions, and we talk about them and about the issues they raise.  A lot. In front of our eight-year-old daughter.*

Sometimes it’s easy to think that she probably isn’t paying attention to the radio or to the conversations we are having about politics or issues, but every once in a while, she’ll interject a question or a comment that brings us back into the smaller world of our dining room table and forces us to consider how to explain issues related to race and police brutality, terrorism and refugees, or other difficult topics to a privileged eight-year-old kid. Honestly, I don’t always want to explain any of these things to her. There is a part of me that wants to turn off the radio and keep our discussions fixed on sunshine and lollipops until after our daughter’s bedtime.

In reality, I know that keeping her disconnected from the world won’t do her anymore favors than overwhelming her with information will, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to find the appropriate balance. While my advice is probably just repeating what I’ve read or heard from others, here’s what has worked for me: Find out what your child already knows before you start explaining something. It turned out that my daughter already knew a great deal on the subject of refugees from classroom discussions at school last year, so when the subject was in the news again, she wanted to join our dinner time discussion with her own thoughts and opinions.

journeyFor parents or teachers who want to give age-appropriate context to words like “migrant” and “refugee,” I recommend The Journey by Francesca Sanna. This picture book is about an unnamed child and her family whose lives are disrupted by war. It is a powerful look at the refugee experience that came from author/illustrator Francesca Sanna’s desire to capture the stories of the people behind the news, which is important for helping kids understand and empathize. Sanna’s book doesn’t shy away from the darkness, but it still offers some sense of hope. It’s a book that will linger in your mind, as Julie Danielson put it in this Kirkus feature, and I think that’s true for both child and the adult readers.

When I read it with my daughter, we talked about the power of stories and imagination as it is portrayed in the book. We discussed the open-ended conclusion of the book and shared ideas about where a family might find safety if they needed it. No matter what you’ve gleaned from news stories about immigrants and refugees, The Journey will deepen what you know. I know it did for us.

 

*Within reason, of course. Here is a guide from PBS Parents about kids and the news that gives some good advice.

On being the new kid

catchingI started kindergarten in Kentucky and finished in Minnesota. While I don’t have a lot of clear memories from that age, I do remember with surprising clarity how it felt to be in a new school in the middle of the year where nothing seemed the same and no one seemed to want to be my friend. I’m told I had an adorable Southern accent from the relatively short time my family had lived in Kentucky, which faded as I became more and more Minnesotan throughout the school year. I remember feeling like I would never belong there, but somehow eventually I did.

Eventually my family moved so many times that it became our Thing. I attended elementary schools in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Illinois in addition to Minnesota and Kentucky. We never wanted to move, but it was never a question that we had to. We were in search of a new or better job for my dad every time we packed up to move. Not so different from Keet, in Catching a Storyfish, whose family moves from Alabama to Illinois. Why? she asks again and again. “Better job, / better pay, / better school, / away, away.”

“For all the reasons parents drone,” Keet is stuck in a place where she talks funny and nothing feels quite right. Her story is told is quiet poems and follow her through the first few weeks at her new school as she tries to find her voice. “Give it time,” everyone says, and Keet watches the clock. I know that clock.  My clock was always resetting as my family packed up yet again. It is true, though, that each and every place we lived did eventually become “home.”  I dreamed of taking every place and all its people with me when we had to leave. Keet said it better: “Give me a box, / a big box, / the right box, a heart box, / to carry everything I love / and all my friends / from far, far away.”

Now I belong to a lot of different places. I think perhaps Catching a Storyfish captures how that happens better than perhaps any other children’s novel I’ve read. I agree with Keet: “My voice is all the places I’ve been / and all the stories I’ve heard.”

Read more about Catching a Storyfish:

  • Kirkus review: “A gentle-spirited book about a black girl who almost gives up her gift but for love and friendship.”
  • School Library Journal review: “…understated, fully realized, deftly written, and utterly absorbing.”