History Lessons

Through the Barricades by Denise DeeganIf a book that can be described as “a history lesson” sounds as enticing to you as it does to me, you might like Through the Barricades by Denise Deegan. The story immerses readers in the world of Maggie Gilligan and Daniel Healy as they become friends and find themselves pulled in different directions through war and politics. I’ve read enough history to know a bit about world events during the years that the novel is set (1913-1916), but the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin is not a particularly well known piece of history. At least it wasn’t well known by me.

I first heard of the 1916 Easter Rising while browsing Netflix when I came upon Rebellion. The five-part mini-series follows several fictional characters through the week-long insurrection. It has been criticized for not being terribly historically accurate, but since I’ve nearly exhausted Netflix’s supply of such historical dramas (which I particularly enjoy), I took a chance on it. I was immediately swept up in the drama and curious about what was real and what was invented for the story.

Not long after watching all five episodes of Rebellion, I found Through the Barricades in the teen section of my library. The time period and the premise were enough to entice me, but the chance to see another perspective on the Easter Uprising was the real reason I added it my check outs.

The story starts in 1913 and by the time it got to the Uprising, I’d almost forgotten that that’s what I had been waiting for. At that point, our characters had been through a lot. Well, Daniel had been through a lot as a soldier fighting for the British Army in the Great War. While war stories are not usually my thing—actually I usually steer clear of them—I have to admit it was Daniel’s account of the war that kept me riveted to the pages. I read it quickly and occasionally exclaimed to whoever was nearby how stressful the story was to read. This is the kind of stress that makes me avoid war stories! But it is also the mark of an immersive story.

I added Through the Barricades to my list of YA fiction that is Based on Real People/Events. I seem to read a lot of these sorts of books.  I imagine they don’t appeal to everyone. Not everyone is reading fiction for facts, after all. And that’s probably a good thing.  Probably most fiction readers don’t want a history lesson with their story. For me, though, that is often exactly what I want. I love letting a story give me a feeling for a time period or historical event. I’ll usually look into the facts about the time period  as well, but the story creates a feeling that facts can’t quite get create. Through the Barricades is probably not going to draw in readers who aren’t interested in history, but for hardcore fans of the genre or readers interested in the time period, it’s worth a look.


If you like… Time Travel

If you follow me on Goodreads or other social media, you may have noticed a theme in my reading choices lately. You are not imagining it. I am binge reading time travel novels. This is not a new reading interest, by any means. I did a project on time travel fiction for one of my library school classes eleventy billion years ago, and I will sometimes admit that I have the beginning of a time travel novel of my own creation saved on my computer. I started it years ago, and I always say I’m going to finish it but that’s not what this post is about. Lay off!

Focusing on the matter at hand: If you like time travel fiction, what should you read next? Here are a few newish suggestions:

For Kids: The Time Museum by Matthew Loux is a fun adventure that takes readers all over time in graphic novel format. My daughter enjoyed it and is eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.

For Teens: The Passenger by Alexandra Bracken and Into the Dim by Janet Taylor are very similar stories. Both fall into the “Hey, your mom is secretly a time traveler and in serious danger from a rival faction of time travelers and you will have to rescue her somewhere in time” category. Apparently, that’s a Thing. Who knew? Anyway, both were good, but probably don’t read them back to back like I did or you’ll probably find yourself confusing the details and growing tired of the genre. Tempest by Julie Cross is slightly different in that it’s more of a spy thriller, but still has a secretive parent and possibly evil time travelers with whom the protagonist has to contend.

So which one should you read? If you want plenty of romance in your time travel story: The Passenger. If you want an action-oriented story with a male lead: Tempest. If you want a story that spends a lot of time in the distant past: Into the Dim.

For Adults: If you missed my post about The Jane Austen Project, that’s where you should probably start. That was the book that began this little genre binge of mine, and I recommend it to readers of historical fiction who want something unusual as well as those who, like me, are obsessed with time travel. If you’re more of a mystery/thriller kind of reader, try A Murder in Time by Jill McElwain. It’s the sort of book that I couldn’t put down despite feeling like it was a little bit cheesy. If I’m honest, a bit of cheesiness is part of the fun of time travel stories, at least for me.

Of course, there are as many reasons for reading a particular genre as there are readers. Some people are enamored with the idea of a do-over or want to mull over the paradoxes. For me, it’s the silly anachronisms and the fish-out-of-water elements that make it fun to read. Not to mention: star-crossed love. I can never seem to resist a love story, even if it makes me cry.

Links of interest:

Living in a Multilingual World

Every document that comes home from my daughter’s elementary school comes in three different languages: English, Spanish, and Somali.  In the hallways, you can see various languages on signs and posters.  Her school isn’t a language immersion school; it’s just a typical school in Minneapolis.  According to the school district, there are 96 languages or dialects spoken by students or their families throughout the city, and her school is only 31% white.

Our kids are growing up in a world in which you can’t count on the people around you speaking your language.  You might have to meet people somewhere between your language and theirs or listen for more than just the meaning of words.

I was thinking about this as I read Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, which is written in journal format and includes a lot of Spanish words and phrases throughout the book.  Gabi’s life is in both languages, and it feels real to have both languages represented in her journal.  I don’t speak Spanish, but I loved Gabi’s story.  I connected with her through her intimate and humorous diary entries as she sorted out big issues like cultural identity, family problems, and feminism all while discovering the power of poetry.  It’s a story that will stick with me for a long time.  Sure, I didn’t always know the Spanish words, but I did know Gabi.

At the AWP Conference in Minneapolis in 2015, I attended a session in which M. Evelina Galang spoke about her book Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, and she shared her experience that young people never seemed to question the inclusion of Tagalog in her book the way adult readers did.  The teen readers accepted that it was part of the story and created their own context around it.  Galang advises readers in a post you can download on her web site to “feel the words” they don’t understand.  In her book, Galang creates a rich world full of feeling that will give readers an opportunity to connect with Angel’s experience whether they know any Tagalog or not.

My daughter, a third-grader, is far from reading these teen novels, but she could “feel the words” in Juana & Lucas by Juana Medina, which includes lots of Spanish words in the text as the story follows a young Colombian girl as she learns English. Juana is a wonderfully likable character, and it is easy to relate to her even with a limited knowledge of Spanish.  Her story is just the thing to generate enthusiasm for learning a new language!

I also made sure to share I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien with her last year when a new student arrived in her class. The student had only recently arrived in the country from Somalia and spoke very little English, much like Fatimah in the book. I’m New Here helped us to talk about how it would feel to go to school in a different country and explore how we might connect with people when we don’t share a language. This conversation could easily be had in a classroom setting, and teachers may be interested in the resources available on O’Brien’s web site, including a community event kit and a video. Pair it with Meg Medina’s Mango, Abuela, and Me for the way the story blends English and Spanish as grandmother and granddaughter attempt to communicate despite not speaking each other’s language.

These are the books that reflect the world in which we live, and I hope to see even more cultures and languages (especially Somali!) represented on the shelves of our libraries to help us remember that there are ways to connect with people and things we share with them even when we don’t share a first language.

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.

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.

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:

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  • 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.