Sea Sirens

by Amy Chu and Janet K. Lee
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some intense moments, but the language is actually pretty simple. It’s in the Middle Grade graphic novel section, but I’d give it to the younger end of that set.

Trot is a California girl through and through. She spends the days (when she’s not in school!) at the beach with her grandfather while her mother works — he fishes, she surfs. Except there’s a problem: her grandfather has the beginning stages of dementia and doesn’t always remember where he is or that he’s supposed to be watching Trot. After one experience where her grandfather goes missing, Trot’s mom grounds them both to the house. So, Trot sneaks out with their cat, Cap’n Bill, and they go surfing. Except, they end up in the underwater world of the Sea Sirens. The are mortal enemies with the Sea Serpents, and Trot and Cap’n Bill help defeat them. So, they’re taken in as heroes for an underwater adventure with the Sea Sirens. (And Grandpa comes too!)

As I mentioned in the content, this is almost a beginning chapter Graphic Novel (does it belong with the other beginning chapter books? Perhaps.) — the language is basic, there are a lot of illustrations and not a lot of text, and the adventure is pretty simple. I think it serves the same function as the Babymouse books: it’s there to help beginning readers find a footing in the world of graphic novels. It’s fantastic that the main character is Vietnamese-American, and that her grandfather sometimes slips into Vietnamese when he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. It’s a cute book — I bet the full-color finished is quite gorgeous — and it’s a start of a series of adventures that Trot and Cap’n Bill will have. It’ll be a good one to put into the hands of those 1-3rd graders who are looking for something fun to read.

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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.

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
First sentence: “Dark clouds were gathering in the sky, and there was a hint of rain in the morning air.”
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Content: There is some drinking and swearing, including mulitple f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Sal is starting his senior year of high school, and he feels like his life isn’t making sense. He’s mom died when she was three, he never knew his biological father, and although he loves his adoptive father and his Mexican family, he still wonders about the family he never knew. His best friend, Samantha has a crap relationship with her mom, and his other friend, Fito’s, mom has drug problems. Sal’s life is pretty tame comparatively, but still. He’s trying to figure himself out.

Actually, the plot of this one is kind of incidental to the book. It’s mostly about relationships: between Sal and his father, Sal and his grandmother, and Sal and Sam. It’s about the dynamics between them all and what it means to be a part of a family. There is discussion of death and making life worthwhile, as Sal (and Sam and Fito) try to figure out how they fit into the world. Even though it wasn’t heavy on plot, it was beautifully written. Sáenz has a gift for language and I enjoy the way he wrote the characters. Sal’s dad, Vincente, is one of the best fathers I’ve read in a very long time. It was delightful spending time with these characters that I came to care about. (Yes, I cried when Mima died.)

Perhaps not the most exciting book I’ve read recently, but I did enjoy it.

Where We Come From

by Oscar Cásares
First sentence: “No kicking the ball against the side of the house.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Nina is an older woman who has grown up in Brownsville, TX, which is right along the US-Mexican border. Having never married, she’s spent her whole life in service of her family, ending up being the one to take care of her mother while her brothers all married and moved away (and they all treat her like absolute crap). She is a kind woman, and so when her housekeeper asks for a favor in helping get family across the border illegally, Nina says yes. It almost turned into something awful, but the traffickers were caught. Except one boy, Daniel, got away in the raid, and made his way back to Nina’s and she’s been trying to help him find his father in Chicago.

All this is complicated by the visit of Orly, her godson. She doesn’t want word to get back to her brothers or Orly’s father (Nina’s nephew). She doesn’t want her mother to know. So, Orly is given a strict set of rules to follow. Of course, he is made curious about the pink house behind the main house, and discovers Daniel’s presence, which just complicates things.

If this were a middle grade or YA novel, there would be adventure or intrigue and Orly and Daniel’s relationship would be at the center of the book. And to be honest, I almost wish it was. As it was, I didn’t dislike it, but I did feel like there was too much adult book getting in the way. I felt bad for Nina, but I wanted her to grow a backbone. I wanted *something* to happen, but mostly it was a lot of everyday stuff. Which wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t really engaging either.

It’s not a bad book, I’m just not sure it was quite what I wanted out of it.

Love from A to Z

by S. K. Ali
First sentence: “On the morning of Saturday, March 14, fourteen-year-old Adam Chen went to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Zayneb is a senior in high school in Indiana, and she’s dealing with an Islamophobic teacher. He’s constantly bringing up ways in which Muslims are backward and how the religion is repressive, even though he’s white and doesn’t know nearly as much as Zayneb, who is actually a practicing, hijab-wearing, Muslim. Which makes her a target. So, one day, right before spring break, she’s had enough: and starts passing notes with a friend about the teacher and needing to take him down. He intercepts the note and reports her to the principal, and gets her suspended.

Which leads her to spending time with her aunt, who is a teacher at an international school in Doha. And that’s where Adam comes in. His father is the director of that school, and Adam’s home from spring break at college in London. Except he’s dropped out: he just got a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, which his mother had and died from complications connected to, and he’s determined to make as much art as he can, while he still can. He’s also Muslim: his father, who is a Chinese-Canadian, converted to Islam after the death of his wife, and Adam and his younger sister Hanna soon followed.

Adam and Zayneb have an instant connection, and while this book is dealing with heavier stuff like racism, people’s perceptions of Islam, and dealing with a diagnosis of MS, it is, at its heart, a rom-com. There’s a meet-cute in the airport, there are several meetings, a setback or two, and eventually, they fall in love and are super happy together. It’s a good Muslim story: they don’t actually hold hands or stay out all night, or even have sex in the back of a car. They enjoy talking and connecting and do everything properly and by the book. And the physical stuff doesn’t happen until the Epilogue, after Zayneb graduates from college and they get married. It’s really quite sweet.

I loved seeing a really religious rom-com, because there isn’t many of those out there. And because I’m an outsider to Islam, I appreciated the glimpse into that religion. There’s this one scene where Zayneb is face-timing with a friend, who has another friend (who is a white girl) with her. Zayneb says something to the effect how white feminists want to free Muslim women from wearing the hijab, because it will free them from oppression, and that’s not what it means. I have to admit that I was one of those white feminists for a very long time, but I’m coming to realize that it’s just an expression of their religion, and just because it’s different from me, doesn’t mean it’s oppressive or wrong. I appreciated that reminder.

In short: it was a unique YA romance, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Monster

by Walter Dean Myers
First sentence: “The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some frank talk about what goes on in prison, the use of the n-word as well as f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Steve Harman is a 16-year-old black kid in Harlem who is in jail waiting trial for murder because of a drugstore robbery gone bad. He’s not the only one on trial; his “acquaintance” is also on trial for the same murder (I found myself wondering about the legality of this). Because Steve is an aspiring filmmaker, the book is written as a screenplay, covering the trial with flashbacks to Steve’s life as well as the night of the incident, interspersed with handwritten journal notes from Steve.

The most fascinating thing about the book, for me, wasn’t the format (which took a bit of getting used to). It was the way the story unfolded. We were basically the 13th juror, albeit with a bit more information, listening in on the trial from the opening arguments to the testimony and cross-examinations through the closing arguments. I don’t feel like Myers biased the reader in one direction or another (or maybe he did, wanting us to be more sympathetic to Steve), but instead allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions from the evidence presented.

On top of that, it’s a scathing look at the justice system. Sure, people are just doing their jobs, but when a 16-year-old kid ends up in an adult prison just because of who he knows, or what lawyer he can or can’t afford, when the guards don’t do much to protect the prisoners from each other… no wonder we need prison reform in this country!

It really was a fascinating and enlightening read, and I’m glad I did.

Who Will Tell My Brother?

by Marlene Carvell
First sentence: ¨When I filled out the form for the test — the dreaded “you will be labeled for life test” the “colleges will want you–or not” test the “who are you? — what are you? — why are you?” test, I wrote my name.”
It´s out of print, unfortunately.
Content: There is some blatant racism, one use of the n-word, and one (off-screen) instance of violence against an animal.

Evan is a bi-racial (half Mowhawk) senior at his small-town (Upstate New York?) high school, and he’s fed up with their mascot: an exaggeration of the “generic” Native American, with feathered headdress and tomahawk, complete with war whoops and “dancing” at the pep rallies. He decides that this year he’s going to do something about it. Except his petitions fall on deaf ears: they don’t want to change “tradition”; they don’t feel it’s racist; and by the way, you have light brown hair and blue eyes, are you even Indian?

As Evan’s fight goes on over the years, this book gives readers an extended look into not just white privilege, but also White Arrogance. White people, at least the white people in this book, not just refuse to listen to a minority, they assume they Know Better just because they’re white. (In other words: white people are the worst!)

I was a bit skeptical about Carvell writing this story, since she’s white, but since it’s loosely biographical (written in verse, which is why I’m not entirely sure of some of the details) based on her son, I’m going to give her a pass. She didn’t come up with a huge white savior ending; the school didn’t change their policy, though there was some protests by other seniors at graduation. It felt real and honest, which I appreciated.