Solo

by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content:  There’s some drug use and drinking, mostly by adults. It’s in the Teen Section (grades 9+) at the bookstore, but I’d give it to a 7th/8th grader who is interested.

Blade Morrison is the son of an aging rocker, whose career has been in a steady decline for most of Blade’s life. Drugs, alcohol, and Blade’s mom’s death all contributed to the decline, and Blade has lost patience with his father. Especially when he shows up, mostly naked, at Blade’s graduation. It also doesn’t help that his girlfriend’s father has forbidden her to see him. So, when a long-kept family secret comes out and Blade ends up half way across the world, he is given a chance to figure out his own life and maybe figure out his relationship with his family.

On the one hand, this was a super privileged book, with its Hollywood sensibilities with parties and drugs (mostly on the part of Blade’s dad) and Misratis and paparazzi. And when Blade gets to Ghana, there’s a LOT of “things are solved through the simple people” going on, which didn’t really sit that well with me. (Maybe it’s me?)

That said, Alexander and Hess’s poetry is lovely, and I loved how they incorporated music. There’s a line, near the end of the book about how, in spite of everything, music is something that binds us and brings us together, and that resonated so very much with me. Rock-n-roll, R&B, jazz, classical… music is universal and helps heal, and Alexander and Hess captured that perfectly. Which, in spite of the little complaints I had, really made this book, well, sing.

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Homegoing

by Yaa Gyasi
First sentence: “The night Effia Otcher was gorn into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.”
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Content: There’s non-graphic sex, a lot of swearing, violence, and general difficult situations. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

A good, powerful look at two sisters, separated at birth — one eventually sold into slavery in America, and the other remaining in Africa — and the subsequent generations. It’s a powerful look at choices (made by and for individuals) and how those can affect not only individual lives but also generations. It’s a unique way to tell a story — every chapter is a different person, progressing through the generations — and both the writing and the actual storytelling are excellent.

It’s a haunting read, but a good one.

Black Dove, White Raven

by Elizabeth Wein
First sentence: “Sinidu told me I should aim for the sun.”
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Content: There’s a smattering of violence, and some insinuations, but it’s not nearly as intense as Wein’s other books we have in the store. I’m torn between leaving it where it is (in Teen, grades 9+) and moving it to YA (grades 6-8), where it really fits better, subject and content-wise. Thoughts?

I know Wein has written other books about Ethiopia, but I didn’t know they existed, really, until this one came out and I started hearing the buzz. And so I really didn’t know what to expect with this one.

Many of the elements I have enjoyed about Wein are there: women pilots, in this case two: a white woman, Rhoda, and her black friend, Delia,  learned to fly in France and go around the States in the late 1920s/early 1930s with their barnstorming act. There is also World War II: after Delia’s accidental death, Rhoda takes their two children, her daughter Emelia and Delia’s son Teo (whom Rhoda has taken as her own) to live in Ethiopia, which was Delia’s dream.

The book is a long letter written to the emperor of Ethiopa by Emelia. It’s in the middle of World War II, and the Italians have invaded Ethiopia. Because of their precarious legal situation: Teo is not legally Rhoda’s son, they’re not really legally in the country, and because Teo’s father was Ethiopian, it means that their position in the country, especially with the Italians there, is a precarious one.

Emelia recounts history and how their little family ended up where they are. Teo contributes some, writing journal entries and flight logs — Rhoda eventually teaches both children to fly — and so you hear his voice as well as Emelia’s.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and yet, I felt like the conflict didn’t really pick up until the last third. It’s a quieter book than her previous two WWII books, one that felt more vignette-driven as well. (Though typing that, and thinking back to Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, I’m not sure that’s true.) The characters were definitely younger in this one, and perhaps that’s what I’m feeling. I did like how Wein rounded out most of the characters in the book, but especially the female ones (the male ones, aside from Teo, were basically set dressing, there to move the plot along). Wein also touched on a lot of cultural issues for the time: segregation in the US, slavery in Ethiopia, the war, the limitations of women at the time. Even though it didn’t feel like much, plot-wise, there was enough to hold my interest and carry the book.

I’m not sure I love it as much as I do the other books I’ve read by Wein, but I did thoroughly enjoy it.

I Will Always Write Back

by Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch
First sentence: “I’d never heard of Zimbawe.”
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Content: It’s a non-fiction book that deals with teens, and so there’s some mention of teen drinking and pot smoking, but for the most part it’s pretty harmless. It’ll be in the middle readers biography section, though I’d hesitate giving it to the younger end of the readers. I think it’ll be best for grades 5 and up.

In the fall of 1997, Caitlin Stoicsitz made an impromptu decision that changed multiple lives. She raised her hand to get a pen pal, and her letter was sent to Martin Ganda in Zimbabwe. You wouldn’t think something as simple as that would be life-changing, but it was. Caitlin’s letter got sent to a small, rural school in Mutare, and by chance Martin, who was one of the best students in class, was on the receiving end. He wrote back, and that was the beginning of what became a deep friendship for them. And because of that friendship, Caitlin was able to change Martin’s life, to give him the opportunities — especially educational — that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. For what seems like mere pittance, Caitlin (and eventually her whole family) was able to pay Martin’s fees for school (especially since his father was out of work) and help him get into a U. S. College. That doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but as you get to know both Caitlin and Martin over the course of the book, you realize that it IS.

In return, Martin gave Caitlin something that many Americans desperately need: a view of how everyone else lives. Compassion for the downtrodden, and a knowledge that we really, truly are privileged in America.

Like many memoirs, this one is uneven. It’s chatty, and sometimes Caitlin’s narrative borders on whiny, neither of which might bother the intended audience, but kind of grated on me. I also felt like there was a bit of the “American savior swoops in to save the day” which also kind of grated.

But I do honestly believe that Caitlin and Martin have a bond, and I do believe that writing and responding to the letters, when one truly cares and when one is open to other ideas, can change lives.

And this book is a good reminder of that.

So Long a Letter

by Mariama Ba
First sentence: “Dear Aissatou, I have received your letter.”
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Content: It’s pretty serious and deals with issues of infidelity and polygamy and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But there’s no swearing, sex, or violence. It’d be in the adult section of the bookstore.

Recently widowed, Ramatoulaye sits down to write a long letter to her best friend about all the events that led up to Ramatoulaye’s husband’s death. It was a happy story:  for 25 years, they were happily married. Ramatoulaye spent her life in devotion to her husband, bearing 12 children. Then one of his daughter’s friends caught his eye, and he woos her, and takes her as a second wife (as is permitted in Islam). That simple act wrecks Ramatoulaye, but she manages to survive as a single mother.

It’s a slim novel, and an interesting one. I didn’t particularly like the format –why, if she’s writing to her best friend, would Ramatoulaye need to recount her friends’ history (which was much like her own; her husband took a second wife. The difference is that Aissatou left her husband)? It didn’t make sense to me, logically, some of the things Ramatoulaye included in her letter. That said, if when I was able to get past that, I found the story was simultaneously enlightening and disheartening.

Enlightening, because that’s an area of the world I know very little about. And through Ramatoulaye, Ba brings to life the ordinary lives of Senegalese women. And disheartening because they have so few rights, as we have come to think of them. I read this book in the middle of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and this is a prime example why I need to read more books like this. In my privileged home in my privileged country, it’s easy for me not to think about Senegalese women and their lives. But books like these help me. It helps that Ba is a good writer (aside from the format, of course), and was able to draw me into Rmatoulaye’s life.

And that’s what makes this book worthwhile.

Primates

The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas
by Jim Ottaviana & Maris Wicks
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Content: There’s nothing objectionable, content wise. There is, however, some text in cursive, which may make it difficult for younger readers to read. Also, A found the format confusing, since it bleeds from one story into the next. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) graphic novel section at the bookstore.

This one caught my eye when it came into the store, because honestly? A graphic novel about women scientists: how rare is that. Granted, it’s the same famous women scientists (we ALL know Jane Goodall, right?), but still. Women, animals, science: I’m there.

It’s a loose (read: slightly fictionalized) retelling of how Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birutė Galdikas became the sort of scientists they did. It was full of information on how they all met Louis Leakey and how he sent them out to observe and study chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans in the wild. Their styles were vastly different: Dian was the most emotionally involved in her study, I think, and the most passionate about her work. That said, Birutė went the most native; her husband left because she devoted too much of her time to the orangutans purely for the sake of studying them.

I think that’s what fascinated me most about these women. They weren’t in it for recognition or even for purely the sake of science.They were in it because they loved the animals, they wanted to understand them,  and ultimately protect them from ignorance through educating the world. I admire that.

As for the format, I mentioned that A found it difficult to follow. I didn’t, but then I’m an adult. It made me a little sad, though, that she did, because if the kids find the book hard to follow, they won’t be inspired by these women’s stories. And that makes me sad. Perhaps it would have been better to do this in three books, but I enjoyed seeing the connections between these women. I don’t know if I was inspired, but I was at least interested. And that counts for a lot, I think.