Punching the Air

by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
First sentence: “Umi gave birth to me”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Amal Shamal was growing up in New York City, attending a school specializing in art. He had friends. And, yes, he had a temper. But, one fateful night, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ended up starting a fight with a white boy. A fight that ended — Amal didn’t end it — with the white boy in a coma in the hospital. And Amal ended up in prison for something he didn’t do.

It’s a quick(ish) read, but a heavy one. Based somewhat on Salaam’s experience (he was part of the Exonerated 5), this is mostly a story of how Shamal gets through the hell that is prison. He’s technically in juvenile prison, but even in there it’s a lot less hope and a lot more despair. The book is Amal fighting against the expectations of the (white) world, trying to find a space for himself and his art. Trying to find hope and a will to go on in the face of oppressive and systemic racism.

If you think that prison is a good thing, that it keeps criminals and “thugs” off the street, this is a book you need to read. It drives home that the prison system (and by extension, the justice system) is not only flawed, it’s racist and corrupt. And it’s erasing futures.

Definitely a must-read.

Swamp Thing

by Maggie Stiefvater and Morgan Beem
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some swearing, including a couple f-bombs. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Alec Holland is awkward socially, unlike his twin, Walker. He’d rather just spend his time in his lab, working on isolating plant’s memories and putting them in other plants. And when an unfortunate incident at home sends the twins to their cousin’s house in rural Virginia, Alec figures that’s how he’s going to spend his summer: with his plans, in a lab.

It doesn’t work out that way, though. It didn’t take long for Walker to fit in with the local teenagers, and get into trouble. And no one really takes Alec’s work seriously. So when things get a little out of hand, who’s to blame?

I know nothing about DC’s Swamp Thing, so I went in completely blank to this origin story. But, I loved it. Maggie has a way of capturing inner conflict — can Alec just fit in? Can he figure out his plants? Why is he doing this anyway? — and the super natural. And Beem is a perfect fit for this: she embodies Maggie’s descriptive qualities and brings them to life: the art is lush and dark and beautiful. It’s a gorgeous book.

And while the ending felt a little rushed, I think it worked. It definitely left some room open for us to see where Alec will go from here. A really good graphic novel. Hopefully, Beem and Stiefvater will team up again!

Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some use of the n-word. It’s in the Biography section of the bookstore.

This is one of Baldwin’s earliest books, a series of essays reflecting on his life, thus far. I was published in the 1950s, and is really a product of its time, with the use of Negro and just the language in general.

Which means, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I think the two best essays in the book are “The Harlem Getto”, a series of reflections after Baldwin’s father passed away, and “Equal in Paris” which is Baldwin’s experience on being arrested in Paris (for being an accomplice to steeling a sheet). Both are introspective and interesting. The rest, if I’m completely honest, I mostly skimmed.

Read The Fire Next Time. It’s the better book.

Riot Baby

by Tochi Onebuchi
First sentence: “Before her Thing begins.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is violence, and a lot of swearing including multiple f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

Kev was born during the LA Riots into a family where his older sister, Ella, has telekinetic powers. She can see people’s pasts, has visions of the future, and can move (and blow things up) with her mind. For most of their childhood, it’s Kev who’s interacting with the real world, while Ella stays hidden away. But then Kev is arrested in a failed robbery and incarcerated at Rikers. And so Ella has to learn how to interact with the real world.

That’s not even the plot, really. I think the plot is immaterial to the book. It’s really about Rage. Black Rage about systemic racism — Onyebuchi pushes police violence and over-policing to the extreme; in one scene Ella’s house is in a neighborhood where they are monitored 24/7 by drones and tankes, and so she transports to a race track in a white part of the state where they have many, many more freedoms. It’s a condemnation of systemic racism and I felt like I was just bearing witness to Black Rage.

In fact, I’m not entirely sure what I think about this one. I know I didn’t get everything that Onyebuchi meant to portray (not the first time I will have missed things in a book). I think I need to read this in a book club, just so someone can explain the nuance to me, because all I got was Rage.

I’m not sorry I read it, though.

Class Act

by Jerry Craft
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: New Kid
Content: There is talk of crushes. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

It’s the start of eighth grade at Riverdale Academy Day School, and so Jordan and Drew are no longer the new kids. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to navigate the school culture, especially for Drew, who is a darker-skinned Black kid than Jordan. In fact one of the things I found most interesting about this book was the way Craft leaned into racisim and colorism. Jordan is a lighter-skinned Black kid, and everyone (well, white teachers) often overlooks Jordan when talking to or about the Black kids at school.

In fact, as the book follows Drew (though we still get a good dose of Liam and Jordan as well as some of the other friends they made in New Kid), Craft highlights all the little ways that Drew is battling racism in his every day life. Especially from well-meaning white people (which caused me to reflect on the myriad of ways I may have been unintentionally racist towards Black friends).

It’s a fun book, though. I enjoyed learning more about Drew and his life, and how he struggles to figure out who he really is and what he really wants. My favorite section though was when Liam and Drew visited Jordan’s family for an afternoon. I loved seeing the interactions between the adults and the kids and just experiencing Joy.

An excellent book. (And hopefully there will be more!)

State of the TBR Pile: October 2020

The only thing I have for you this month is this: if you haven’t taken the time to go nominate your favorite (or at least good, kid-friendly) books for the Cybils yet, go do it! Anyone can nominate any book published in the past year (since October 16, 2019). It’s easy, it’s fun, and you’ll be helping us choose the BEST, kid-friendly books of the past year.

As for me, this is what I have on tap to read:

Swamp Thing: Twin Branches by Maggie Stiefvaer and Morgan Beem
Tristan Strong Destroys the World by Kwame Mbalia
Fangs by Sarah Anderson
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
Shine by Jessica Jung
The Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris
Cooking Gene by Michael W Twitty
We Are Not From Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez

What are you looking forward to on your TBR Pile?

When Stars Are Scattered

by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is war and death as well as some situations that might be rough for the tender-hearted. It’s in the middle grade section of the bookstore.

So, this is a real story Omar Mohamed is a real person, and Jamieson worked with him to bring his story — which, when she met him, he was writing down for adults — to children. It’s set in the 1990s, when Somalia was in a war, and Omar and his younger brother Hassan are refugees in a camp in Kenya. Omar’s father was killed and he and his brother were separated from their mother, which left them all alone. Thankfully, their neighbor Fatuma stepped in and became their guardian. This graphic novel is a depiction of their time in camp, the ups and downs, and how Omar and Hassan — who is disabled and has seizures — manage from day to day. It’s set in three parts, one when Omar was probably about 11, another when he was 13/14 and the last when he was 18 and finally was able to be relocated to the United States.

It’s a powerful story, partially because there aren’t many stories about what life is like in refugee camps (spoiler: it’s a lot of hunger and boredom), but also partially because of the way Jamieson and Mohamed choose to tell it. There’s a bit about Islam, about cultural norms — there are two girls, Nimo and Miryam, who are going to school with Omar. One is married off, the other gets to continue her studies — but mostly it’s about Omar and his trauma and relationships to those around him.

It’s a remarkable story, one with an ending that made me cry. I’m so glad Jamieson and Mohamed chose to share it with us.

Twins

by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some talk of crushes on boys. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Maureen and Francine are identical twins and have done everything together. Same friends, same classes… they’re identical, so they must be the same. Right?

Wrong. It’s the start of sixth grade and all of a sudden, Francine wants to be called “Fran” and they are no longer in all their classes together. And Maureen is left wondering why now? Why the sudden change?

And when both Francine and Maureen — independently, for different reasons — decide to run for class president, sparks start to fly, not just at school but at home, too.

I usually adore Varian’s books, and this is no exception. It’s a great story — he and Wright capture not only what it means to be siblings, and the unspoken competitions (even where there shouldn’t be any — at least from a parent’s perspective), but also what it means to be a twin searching for her own identity. The stakes aren’t terribly high — who will win class president? Can Maureen pass Cadet Corps? Will Francine ever talk to her again? — but they are absolutely reflective of what an 11-year-old might feel. And I liked that they addressed racism — there’s a scene where Maureen and a couple friends are at the mall and they get dissed by a White mall worker not only because they’re young, but because they’re Black. It’s not a big scene, but it helped paint the picture of Maureen’s personality and give the book some weight. (I also really really appreciated the twins’ parents. They were awesome. It’s always nice to have good parents show up in a kids’ book.)

I loved Wright’s illustrations as well. She gave the twins each their own personality, and distinguished them not only in physical ways (Fran wears earrings), but also in subtle ways — the way they position their bodies, for example. Wright just *got* what Varian was trying to get across with the words, and brought it all to life.

I can’t wait to read more about Francine and Maureen. I hope there is more!

Audio book: Clap When You Land

by Elizabeth Acevedo
Read by  Elizabeth Acevedo and Melania-Luisa Marte
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a scene of sexual assault and one of almost-rape. There is also swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Camino Rios lives in the Dominican Republic, where her father — who lives in the US — vists every summer. Yahaira Rios lives in the US with her parents, except every summer her father goes to the Dominican Republic for “work”. And then, one fatal day, the plane that their father is on crashes into the ocean, killing everyone on board.

What follows is a story of loss, of grief, of forgiveness, of finding. Told in verse — and beautifully narrated by Acevedo and Marte — it follows the two months after the plane crash, as Camino and Yahaira find out about each other, and come to terms with their beloved papi’s other family, and find their way through their grief in the aftermath of a tragic accident.

Acevedo brilliantly captures not only the grief, but the differences between growing up in the US and growing up in the DR, and the challenges that each one brings. I loved the way both Camino and Yahaira had things they loved about their father, but they also had to come to terms with his deception and imperfections.

Truly an amazing book.

Monthly Round-Up: September 2020

I read an awful lot of non-fiction this month, so I suppose it’s fitting that my favorite is, well, a work of non-fiction.

Thoughtful, smart, and definitely worth reading. As for the rest:

Non-Fiction

Women Who Run With the Wolves
The Color of Compromise (audio)
Dear Fahrenheit 451

YA

If You Could Be Mine
Dear Universe
Igniting Darkness

Adult Fiction

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor
Giovanni’s Room
Such a Fun Age (audio)

What was your favorite this month?