Other Words for Home

by Jasmine Warga
First sentence: “It’s almost summer and everywhere smells like fish, except for right by the sea where if you hold your nose just right you can smell the sprawling jasmine and the salt water instead.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s talk of periods starting. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Jude lives in a seaside Syrian town, and she’s happy with her life: her father runs a store that caters mostly to tourists, and she and her best friend and her brother love what they can get of American culture. But then the civil war breaks out, and Jude’s older brother disappears and Jude’s parents decide to send her and her mother to the U.S. to live with family. They say it’s for a “visit”, but that visit turns into months as the situation in Syria gets worse. Jude learns English, starts the seventh grade, and figures out how to navigate both her family life — her American, half-white cousin isn’t terribly thrilled about Jude coming to live with them — and her school.

This is a very sweet novel in verse, telling the story of a new immigrant and how she learns to adjust to life in the U. S. I read several of these sorts of stories for my multicultural children’s literature class, and I have to say that while this has many similarities, it’s also a different story. Jude is dealing with post-9/11 Islamophobia and so when she chooses to wear the hijab after her period starts, she has to deal with the fact that she’s wearing a visual representation of a religion that is often maligned in the U.S. It also deals with her everyday difficulties: understanding slang, getting along with classmates, trying to figure out where she belongs all while dealing with uncertainty about her brother and father back in Syria. It’s done quite well, and in a way that I think kids will relate to. It’s not just an important book, it’s a very good one.

Return to Sender

by Julia Alvarez
First sentence: “Tyler looks out the window of his bedroom and can’t believe what he is seeing.”
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Content: There’s a bully, and some conflict. And it’s a bit on the longer side. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

So, I’m taking a mulitcultural children’s literature class, and this one is on the list. I was a little way in, and I thought it felt familiar, so I looked it up, and yep: I’ve read it before. Except this time, because it’s for a class, I felt a need to finish it.

It’s told in two voices: Tyler, the son of white dairy farmers in Vermont who are going through a rough patch and need to hire people to help out. They go with the cheap option, and hire a family of migrant workers, who are in the U.S. illegally. And Mari, the daughter of the Mexican family.

There are Things Going On: not just the threat of a raid since they hired undocumented workers, but Mari fitting in at school, the fact that Mari’s mom has disappeared (she went home to Mexico for her mother’s funeral and hasn’t come back yet, even though she started), and just general pre-teenage angst in general.

I found it less preachy this time — mostly because I hadn’t remembered that issues of undocumented immigration or the wall was an issue back in 2005-2006. I found that aspect of it interesting. The idea of The Wall isn’t new, it’s just the most recent manifestation of people who want to enter this country and our extreme dislike for letting them in.

But it was’t a great story either. I didn’t like the format; Tyler’s chapters were odd (written in the present tense) and Mari’s chapters were all letters, which I found a bit hard to suspend my disbelief. I don’t usually mind epistolary novels, but this one was just a bit much.

I finished it this time, sure, but it’s not one of my favorites.

Harbor Me

by Jacqueline Woodson
First sentence: “We think they took my papi.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: This deals with some heavy topics: immigration, guns, police brutality, etc. but it does so in a way that’s accessible and approachable for younger kids. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

In this classroom in New York City (I’m assuming… it’s a very diverse classroom), six kids are allowed one hour each week to talk, unsupervised by adults. The idea, hatched by their teacher, is that they would be able to talk about things on their minds, big and small, unencumbered by  adult approval/disapproval and interference.

The six kids are Esteban, whose father has been recently taken by ICE and is being held in Miami, possibly to be deported back to the Dominican Republic; Amari, a black boy whose father has recently had the talk with him about how to act in public, which bothers him deeply; Ashton, a white kid who recently moved from Connecticut, and who is often bullied at school; Holly, an upper-middle-class black girl; Tiago, a Puerto Rican whose mother doesn’t speak much English; and our main narrator, Haley, a biracial whose mother died in a car crash and whose father is in jail, and who is being raised by her uncle.

While Haley’s our main narrator, and her story is the one that we learn the most about, this really isn’t a plot-driven book. It reads much like the idea behind it: as a safe space for 4-6th graders (mostly, though maybe kids younger or older would be interested) to explore tough topics and feelings about things in the news today that may be bothering them. It’s less about the characters than it is about the ideas and themes. Which isn’t a bad thing; kids hear news and are probably more aware than adults give them credit for, and to have a book that addresses their fears  — even if they don’t solve them — and is a space for them to discuss their fears, is a good thing.

And Woodson’s writing is as lyrical as always. It’s a really tight book; there isn’t an extra word in it.

Worth reading.

Audio book: Disappeared

by Francisco X. Stork
Read by: Roxana Ortega and  Christian Barillas
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Listen to it on Libro.fm
Content: There is talk of selling and doing drugs, of girls being kidnapped and sold into the sex trade and there’s violence.  It’s not explicit, but it is there. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore.

This one is hard to describe: nominally, it’s the after-effects of what happens to one reporter in Juarez, Mexico, when she won’t stop trying to find her friend who disappeared one night. Sara has spent the last four months trying to honor her friend, mostly through telling the stories of all the girls who have disappeared over the years in Juarez. But, she hits too close to home, and she sets off a chain of events that puts her and her family — her mother and brother — in danger.

But it’s also the story of her brother, Emiliano, who has fallen for a rich girl. The problem: he’s not. Sure, he works hard, has a small folk art business, helps out his family. But he can’t provide for this girl the way her family wants him to. Not without going into “business” in the one trade that makes money in Juarez: drugs.

I’ve not read all of Stork’s writing, but every time I read one of his books I am reminded what a powerful storyteller he is. He weaves together Sara and Emiliano’s stories in a way that they compliment each other, coming to a head at the climax. He had me on the edge of my seat (figuratively, since I was driving much of the time) wondering what was coming next. And while it isn’t a happy ending, it’s an honest and hopeful one.

And the readers were fabulous. Both of them make the story come alive, helped me connect to this tale.

Highly recommended.

You Bring the Distant Near

by Mitali Perkins
First sentence: “The swimmers have finished their races and are basking in the sun.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

This one is a difficult one to describe plot-wise. It’s a slice of life, looking at three generations of women in an Indian family as they move to America and make a life here. It starts with the mother, Ranee, and her two daughters, Sonia and Tara, as they move from London to New York in the early 1970s. Each of the daughters reacts differently to coming to America, each looking for their own way to cope. Ranee isn’t as adaptable: she complains about their apartment in Flushing, she complains about her husband sending money home. Then he passes on, and Ranee is forced to adapt to this country as her daughters grow up and get married, one to an Indian, the other to a black American man.

The book then picks up when Ranee’s granddaughters, Anna and Chantal, are in high school. They are dealing with their own issues: Chantal is bi-racial and is trying to figure out her own identity. And Anna, though American, was raised in Mumbai where her mother is a Bollywood star, but has recently moved back so she could go to high school and college in America.

Perkins handles all this admirably; giving us a taste of Bengali culture, as well as the things immigrants do in order to fit in. One of the more interesting parts of the novel, for me, was set after 9/11, when Ranee goes through her own transformation as a reaction to the terrorist attacks. She figures out what “American” means to her. And that sentence may be what’s at the heart of this delightful novel: what does “American” mean? Perhaps it has become an individual expression for everyone, and there isn’t a “norm” anymore. (That was probably always the way it was, but we pretended otherwise.) Which is, as posited by this book, a very good thing.

An excellent read.

Undertow

undertowby Michael Buckley
First sentence: “You can hear them coming from blocks away, a low thrum like the plucking of a bass string.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher (I think).
Content: It’s violent. There is an attempt at a sex scene, but it doesn’t get off the ground. There is some domestic abuse. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’d be wary about the 6th grade end of the scale.

In this alternate not-so-distant future, there are these humanoid creatures called the Alpha, which have come out of the ocean and onto the shores near Coney Island, sending the community — and the country — into a tailspin. The Alpha aren’t exactly like humans — they have scales and different coloring, and sword-like things coming out of their arms. It’s not been an easy adjustment for the humans in Coney Island and the surrounding area. In fact, many of them haven’t adjusted at all, choosing instead to fight the “intrusion” of the Alphas on their territory.

For Lyric and her family, the appearance of the Alpha has caused some conflict, because Lyric’s mom is one of them. Sure, she’s been “passing” for 20 years, pretty sure her people abandoned her. But, since their appearance, the other Alphas that have been passing are being targeted. They’re outcasts among their people, and they’re outcasts among the humans as well. And things are getting more complicated: the government is insisting that select Alpha attend school, which just complicates matters more. Especially since Lyric is tapped for one-on-one lessons with the Alpha prince. Fathom.

I’m not doing a very good job describing this one. I suppose it sounds weird, but the thing that struck me most, especially in this political climate, was the whole immigration deal. You could substitute Alpha for any ethnic group, and you’d have a story that’s reflective of the way America currently reacts to immigrants. Sure, it’s exaggerated, but the hate and the discrimination are there. I found it all a fascinating way to deal with the whole issue. Buckley’s also being clever with the Atlantian myths and I thought that the whole Alpha-mythos building was quite unique and clever.

As for the rest of it, it’s a fairly typical YA dystopian. Buckley’s fairly brutal with his characters, which adds a level of intensity. And, sure, there’s a romance and the ending is sufficiently open-ended to make room for the sequel. It was a clever take on this genre, and definitely a fun read.