Allegedly

by Tiffany D. Jackson
First sentence: “Some children are just born bad, plain and simple.”
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Content: There’s a lot going on here: drug use, (tasteful) sex, lots and lots of swearing, not to mention more mature themes. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Mary Beth Addison was convicted at 9 years old for the murder of a baby, Alyssa. She never said a word in her interviews with detectives, and was convicted in the court of public opinion: some children, Mary being one of them, was just Bad. It didn’t help that the baby was white, and Mary is black.

Six years later, she’s out from “baby jail” (her words) on good behavior, and in a group house with five other teenage girls, convicted of crimes, some more major than others. She was just trying to survive until she met Ted and got pregnant. When she realizes that the state could take her baby away from her, she decides to take action: she wants to go to college, so she attempts to take the SATs. But, mostly, she finds her voice and decides to tell people what really happened the night Alyssa died.

This books was… a lot. Seriously. A LOT. So much to take in: a critique on parenting and poverty and the justice system and white privilege and teenage pregnancy and and and… It’s SO well written and so compelling, that even in its worst moments, when I, as a white woman, had to look at it and realize just how far from my lived experience this book was, and realize that there are people — KIDS — out there LIVING this experience, I could NOT put it down. It has a good mystery element to it as well — what really happened the night Alyssa was killed, and how can we really believe anyone’s testimony — but, as social critique, it’s superb. And it’s a great story as well. Jackson had me totally won over to Mary’s side, and yet left questions and doubts and open ends all the way to the very end.

Incredible.

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Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish

by Pablo Cartaya
First sentence: “Most kids clear out of the way when I walk down the hall.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing “objectionable” language or other-wise, but the main character is 14 years old, and the themes seemed a bit more mature than the usual middle grade fare. So, it’s in the YA (grades 6-8) section of the bookstore.

Marcus Vega is a very large 14 year old. He’s one of those kids that went through puberty early, and he’s the giant in the hallway. He uses this to his advantage: he charges kids for his “protection” services, walking them to school and home again and otherwise being the heavy, enforcing the principal’s rules (for a fee). The money goes home to help out his struggling single mom, and he’s also super protective of his younger brother, Charlie, who has Down Syndrome. So, it’s not out of character for Marcus to punch a kid — the school bully, Stephen — for making fun of his brother. However, it’s his word against Stephen’s, and Stephen’s parents are the super involved, high donors type, and so it’s Marcus who ends up being threatened with expulsion. Thankfully, it’s right before spring break, and Marcus’s mom decides that it’s about time for them to head to Puerto Rico to meet Marcus’s father’s (who left when Marcus was four) family.

Marcus then becomes obsessed with finding and confronting his father, if only for closure. This takes him, his mother, and his brother, all over the island, meeting different members of the extended Vega clan. But, mostly what this book becomes at this point is an extended love letter to Puerto Rico. The book starts with a blurb about the hurricanes that hit the island last year, and how many of these places in the book are no longer like Cartaya describes them. But, as a reader, you can tell the affection that Cartaya has for the island. It’s a charming, sweet, Spanish- and Puerto Rican-infused book. Sure, Marcus has a happy ending but that’s not the point of the book, I think. It’s more to raise awareness: there is a culture and a history in Puerto Rico that’s rich and rewarding and even though they’re different from us, they’re also Americans too.

And while it’s not as good as visiting Puerto Rico, it’s a good second choice.

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.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears

by Meg Medina
First sentence: “To think, only yesterday I was in chanletas, sipping lemonade, and watching my twin cousins run through the sprinkler in the yard.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some difficult situations with Merci’s grandfather and some intense moments and older themes. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5), but it would probably be better for the older end of the spectrum.

Merci Suarez likes her life: she lives with her parents and her older brother next door to her aunt and her twin sons on one side and her grandparents on the other. They’re happy as a family, with their traditions and squabbles, and she doesn’t want things to change. But, she’s started 6th grade, with all the pressure that brings, and her brother is a senior in high school and is going to be leaving for college. And, then her beloved grandpa starts forgetting things and acting strangely. And then there’s that girl (THAT girl) at school who Merci thought she was friends with, but turns out to be nothing but a thorn in Merci’s side.

The question is: how is Merci going to deal with everything being different?

This is a perfect little book about friendship and family and figuring out how to manage change. Merci isn’t perfect, which I appreciated, and I enjoyed the fact that the conflict came from something other than bad parents. Merci’s parents are supportive of her, and encourage her in her education. I felt for her at times, especially because she had to make sacrifices with friends and school because of her family. It’s a very realistic portrait, and one I appreciated. I liked how Medina captured the Latinx family experience; it’s a good example why Own Voices is so important. I liked Merci’s story, and felt for her experiences, and I loved how Media wove in culture and heritage as well.

It’s an excellent book.

Pride

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: September 18, 2018
Content: There is swearing, including a few f-bombs. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I think a 7th/8th grader who was interested would like it, as well.

I’ll admit this up front: I’m a sucker for Jane Austen retelings. I adore them, especially when they’re well-done. And this one, set in Brooklyn with class tensions (but not race) and feisty girls who speak their mind, this one is extremely well done.

The fun thing about this is that if you know Pride and Prejudice, you smile as Zoboi hits all the notes of the original. A rich family moves into the neighborhood where the Benitez family — of Dominican/Hatian blend — live. The family — the Darcys — are well-off African Americans, and they completely re-do the house all fancy. Because they can. And yeah, they look down their noses at the Benitezes, with their loud, immigrant ways and their spicy immigrant food, and well… everything. Zuri is the second daughter of this crazy family, and is about to start her senior year in high school. She is fiercely proud of her neighborhood and her family, and she doesn’t want a snotty rich brat, no matter how fine he is, stomping on her turf.

And, if you know the original, you know how it turns out. What I loved was that Zoboi paid homage to Austen while making the story thoroughly her own, and thoroughly modern. While I could sense the Austen book in the background, the everything felt organic and natural, and the characters more than just caricatures. Even if you don’t know the original, the plot made sense on its own, and I loved that Zoboi was able to do that. And I thought it was interesting for her to highlight the class differences within the African American community; it gave the book a depth it wouldn’t have if she had gone with a rich white/poor black narrative. And I appreciated that.

It was a delightful dip into a story I love but looking at it in a whole new light.

Front Desk

by Kelly Yang
First sentence: “My parents told me that America would be this amazing place where we could live in a house with a dog, do whatever we want, and eat hamburgers till we were red in the face.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content:  There are some uncomfortable and intense moments, but nothing too graphic. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Mia Tang and her parents are immigrants from China. Which means, even though her parents are highly educated, they’re scrambling for jobs.So, when one comes up managing a hotel — for $5 a room per night, not counting the first week, but they can live there for free — they jump at the chance. Except it’s not as easy as all that. It’s a lot of work for two people (no cleaning staff!) to handle, so Mia takes to running the front desk. Even though she’s only 10. And even though she learns to love the hotel and the weeklies — the people who pay by the week, not by the night — she can’t talk about what her parents do or where she lives at school. Because she’s not like the other kids.

There is a small plot to this one: Mia’s parents take in Chinese immigrants who have fallen on hard times, usually for only one or two nights, and hide them from the owner. Mia wants to be a writer, except her mother doesn’t think she can because English isn’t her first language. and she enters a contest to run a hotel in Vermont. She makes friends and makes choices and learns the power of the written word. There’s not much going on plot-wise, but the characters are compelling, and it’s an excellent look into the things immigrants do (and white/rich people do to them!) in order to make it work here in America. It was definitely enlightening.

So, while there’s not much to talk about, it’s an important — and excellent — book.

Audio book: Crazy Rich Asians

by Kevin Kwan
Read by Lynn Chen
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, plus some illusions to sex and a couple of pretty crass characters. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This is a trip and a half! Seriously. The basic plot is that Rachel Chu has gone to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, to attend the wedding of his best friend. What she thinks Nicholas is: a history professor who was educated at Oxford. What Nick really is: the grandson of one the richest people in Singapore, with a huge and wildly rich and snobbish family. Rachel — who grew up the daughter of a single immigrant mother in the US — has absolutely no idea how to fathom the wealth or handle the snubs of Nick’s family and friends.

What this book really was: a huge soap opera featuring incredibly wealthy Asians, both old money and new. The book was full of name-dropping and place dropping and everything dropping, but yet, I couldn’t stop listening. Partially it was because Chen is a fantastic narrator, handling all the accents, from old-world Chinese accented English, to both posh and Aussie English to a flat American accent. It was delightful listening to her nail every character and every voice. And, I have to admit, I love the soap-y aspect of it all. What wild and crazy and absurd and outrageous things are these people going to do?

It also serves as a reminder that a good percentage of the world’s money is not, actually, in the US. That there are some really really really rich Asians out there, and that they spend their money. A lot of money.

Was it a good book? Maybe not. But it sure was fun! (Am I going to read the sequels? Maybe…. Will I see the movie? Heck yeah!)