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.

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!)

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.

Audio book: Such a Fun Age

by Kiley Reid
Read by Nicole Lewis
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also talk of sex, but none actual. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman who is kind of aimless. All her friends seem to have “real” jobs, but she’s working as a temporary typist for the Green Party in Philadelphia and as a babysitter for Alix and Peter Chamberlin. The thing is, Emira adores Briar, the girl she sits, and doesn’t really feel much of a need to change things up. Then she meets Kelly — at a grocery store after Emira had a run-in with a security cop. And they begin to date, which sets up a run-in with Alix.

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot happens in this book from the description, but it’s more thoughtful and intricate than that. It’s a meditation on relationships — can a wealthy White woman really have a “friendship” with her Black babysitter? Is a White man who sees himself as an ally because he has Black friends and dates Black or biracial women, really an ally? — but it’s also a meditation on how we perceive ourselves. Reid did a fabulous job making no one out to be the “villain” here. Everyone had reasonable motivations (or at least presented reasonable motivations) and I could see they were all operating from a place they thought was reasonable. But, I could also see how the decisions were self-interested. Everyone said they were trying to help Emira, but were their decisions really helping? There’s a lot to talk and think about, especially about the way White people center themselves, even when they’re trying to help.

On top of that, the narrator was fabulous. I loved the way she portrayed each character (especially 3-year-old Briar; she was perfect!) and the way she made them distinctive and intriguing. She kept me coming back (though I think this one would have worked for me in print form, as well) and wanting to see what was going on next with Emira and Alix.

Definitely worth the buzz it’s been getting.

Juliet Takes a Breath

by Gabby Rivera
First sentence: “There was always train traffic ahead of us and that Saturday was no different.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by publisher.
Content: There are a ton of f-bombs, some tasteful on-screen sex, and pot use. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

So, while doing some Googling and looking when I finished this, I discovered that it was published four years ago by a small press, but picked up by Dial Press and re-published last year. Which explains 1) how I got an ARC from our Penguin rep and 2) why I missed it the first time around.

Because this a a spectacular piece of feminist LGBT writing.

The premise is this: Juliet has grown up in the Bronx, but gone away to a liberal arts college in Baltimore. Once there, she began discovering her sexuality, and read “Raging Flower” a seminal feminist book by Harlowe Brisbane. On a whim, Juliet decides to write Harlowe and ask if she needs an intern, which Harlowe readily agrees to. So, Juliet takes off across the country to Portland, hoping to be inspired and discover out more about herself.

What she discovers is that Harlowe doesn’t have all the answers, but the experiences — both good and bad — are immensely worth having.

The book was not kind to Portland; the people there were VERY hippie. So much hippie. And maybe that’s the way Portland really is, but I kind of felt like it was overkill. That said, I think Rivera did an amazing job exploring the space between adoring someone and being hurt by them and questioning their motivations. I also loved Juliet’s exploration of her sexuality and her relationship with her mother. But mostly I adored her cousin Ava.

It’s a good feminist book, encouraging girls (and women) to stand up and question not just patriarchy but their own individual responses. It was also a good exploration of intersectionality, and how if we don’t welcome everyone to the table, there’s not a lot of good that can be done. It’s all about taking ownership, and I can get behind that.

And it wasn’t a bad story either.

Black is the Body

by Emily Bernard
First sentence: “This book was conceived in a hospital.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is swearing, including a few f-bombs. Also, an entire chapter is devoted to teaching and talking about the n-word. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

This has been on my radar for a while; everyone — well, all my coworkers — said it was a really good exploration of one person’s experience as a Black woman moving through White spaces.

And it was that. Bernard grew up in Nashville, but went to college at Yale, and teaches in Vermont, so she is often the only (or one of the only) Black people in a space. In this series of essays, she explores what that means. She talks about an act of violence she experienced, the adoption of her daughters, her relationship with her White husband, and tells the stories of her mother and grandmother’s lives.

It’s an interesting book, one that is very personal to Bernarnd’s own experience. She doesn’t pretend to have answers, but does ask a lot of questions about how White people treat and react to Blacks. It was worth a read if only to think about how I am reacting to others.

That, and it’s a series of personal stories, which I always enjoy. So while this was not my favorite book about race, it was a good book. Because everyone’s perspective is worth hearing.

The Murmur of Bees

by Sofia Segovia
Translated by Simon Bruni
First sentence: “That early morning in October, the baby’s wails mingled with the cool wind that blew through the trees, with the birdsong, and with the night’s insects saying their farewell.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some violence, but none on-screen, and some mild swearing. (There may have been one or two f-bombs, but honestly? I’m not remembering any.)

This is a sweeping family saga, set in Linares, Mexico, and following the Morales family over the course of many decades. It’s not exactly linear, though it nominally follows the life of Simonopio, an abandoned baby that was found covered in bees, and how his life affected that of the Morales family. It’s told through reminiscences by the youngest of the Morales children, Francisco, as he heads back to Linares after many many years away.

It has a loose plot, but mostly it’s just small stories connected together to tell the tale of a family and a time — the late 19th century and early 20th — in their history.

And all of this makes it sound less than it was. Segovia’s writing is gorgeous, and even the magical realism elements — Simonopio talks to his bees, and has an uncanny ability to sense and predict things — added to the overall sense of wonder this book created. Maybe because it was nominally told as a series of flashbacks, with Francisco interrupting to explain and comment upon his family that it all worked together seamlessly.

It truly was a delight to read, and I’m glad I did.