The Hate U Give

by Angie Thomas
First sentence: “I shouldn’t have come to this party.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some almost sex, and some drinking. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I came to this one in a round-about way. I have a teen review group, and one of them read this (and loved it), and so I didn’t feel a need to read it. Too many other things on the pile. Then, it became a big thing (and rightly so), being talked about all over the internets. and so we picked it to be a part of our summer teen book group. And that is really what pushed me to read it. (If all else fails: pick it for a book group. I’ll read it then!)

As one of my co-workers said, I’m reading this as a privileged white woman, and it makes one VERY aware of that privilege. At first, I thought I was not hip enough for Starr and her world, but after a couple of chapters, I found myself immersed in the world Starr inhabits. Thomas very eloquently shows (not tells!) the reader what it’s like to live in the inner city, the conflict- both with the “system” and with each other – that they face every day.

The basic plot is this: Starr is at a party, when a shooting happens. As everyone is fleeing, she ends up with an old friend, Khalil, and they end up getting pulled over by a white cop. And, because this unfortunately happens too often, the cop shoots Khalil. And from there, the story follows Starr as she deals with the aftermath of that. From dealing with PTSD after the experience (it’s her second friend who has been shot and killed), to dealing with being a witness at the grand jury (and all the implications that brings), to dealing with the balance between her home life and her school life — she goes to a prep school in the suburbs — and her friends there. Thomas treats everything complexly and is incredibly forthright and honest about absolutely everything. It’s an excellent portrait of the life of a black teenager and an important book, especially for a white person to read.

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Like a River Glorious

likearivergloriousby Rae Carson
First sentence: “Sunrise comes late to California.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Walk on Earth a Stranger
Content: There are some difficult scenes of emotional and physical abuse. The book is in the YA section (grades 6-8), but I’d let people know about the abuse before handing it to them.

Lee Westfall and her friends have made it to California, and Lee, with her “witchy” gold sense, have found them a pretty prime spot for gold hunting. Things are going well, until Lee’s awful (doesn’t even begin to describe it) uncle sends his henchmen to fetch her. They kill a couple of her friends, set fire to the camp, and basically kidnap Lee and a couple of others, including her beau, Jefferson. They end up at Lee’s uncle’s camp, which being run horribly, to say the least. He’s kidnapped Native peoples to do the work, and beats them while keeping them in squalor and nearly starving them. He’s “hired” Chinese workers, but doesn’t treat (or pay) them well at all. Lee is horrified, and doesn’t want to help this awful man, but he beats up Jefferson and her other friends in order to gain her cooperation. It’s awful, but it works. The question is: how can she survive in this situation while looking for a way to get out.

I’ll be honest: this one was slow starting. I picked it up and put it down several times, but after about 50 or so pages, it picked up considerably. So much so, that I didn’t want to put it back down. Carson doesn’t airbrush the treatment of the native peoples, and she is quietly feminist as well. Hiram (Lee’s uncle) is horrible, awful, and downright scary (I was thinking he was going to rape her at one point…) and while the ending is a bit too pat, it does wrap things up nicely.

A solid historical fantasy.

Peas and Carrots

peasandcarrotsby Tanita S. Davis
First sentence: “By the door,on the other side of the sheet that divides the room, Baby cries in his car seat.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 9, 2016
Disclaimer: I’ve met the author, working with her for KidlitCon in Sacramento and I find her an absolutely delightful person.
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There are several instances of mild swearing, plus some illusions to adult drug and alcohol use. Because there are no f-bombs, it’ll be in the YA section (grades 6-8, though it might be better for the older end of that spectrum) of the bookstore.

Dess is a 15-year-old girl stuck in the foster care system. Her deadbeat dad’s finally in jail, as is her mom. Dess’s grandmother gave up trying to care for her and her baby brother years ago. Dess is determined: she doesn’t need anyone. And so when she gets placed in a new home, one of an affluent family, she figures it’s not going to last.

Hope’s parents are stable and happy and take in foster kids, including Dess’s brother Austin, to give back to the community. Hope’s used to the revolving door of kids, but there’s never been one close to her age. Until now. And since Dess is doing pretty much everything to keep people at arm’s length, Hope knows that living with Dess is going to be a challenge. She just doesn’t know if she’ll be able to adjust.

First test: which one of these girls is African American and which one is white? (Answer: Dess is white. Did you pass?) That’s actually one of the first things I liked about this: Davis takes your (my) assumptions about foster care, about the State of the Country, and turns it upside down. In this story, the white girl is the one who’s on the run from an abusive family and the black girl who has the stable life. And Davis doesn’t leave it there; there’s discussion about race and class and belonging, which I respect.

And, as an unofficial foster parent myself, I found myself nodding and agreeing and loving the entire book. Yes, the kids come with baggage and a backstory that usually isn’t pretty. Yes, their lives can be changed by living in a stable, more affluent (though we’re not nearly as well off as Hope’s parents) situation. But Davis also got the corollary to that: having a foster kid in your home is challenging, sometimes disruptive, but is also life-changing. And, if you let yourself — as Hope and Dess eventually find out — you will be better off for it.

Definitely worth reading.

Between the World and Me

betweentheworldby Ta-Nehisi Coates
First sentence: “Son, Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some swearing, including a couple f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Sociology section (I think) of the bookstore.

By now, most of you will have either heard of this or read it, I think. There’s not much to say, summary-wise; it’s a letter from Coates to his son concerning what Coates thinks about being a black man in America. It’s sort of rambling, and kind of disjointed; it feels like a series of random thoughts jotted down on a piece of paper as Coates was musing about his place in this world. Which fits, I think.

What it is, really, is damning. Especially if you, as Coates put it, think you’re white. There’s a complacency that comes with being white, with being privileged (even if you’re “just” middle class), that isn’t afforded to those who are not. And Coates, rightly, forcefully, reminds us of that. Reminds us that to be black — particularly a black male, since he’s writing from his own experience — is to bear the burdens of all our complacency. That our “freedom” isn’t free, and that it’s not the military who are paying for it. That all these shootings that are making the news aren’t new, that they have been going on for hundreds of years, and those that think they are white just throw up their hands and turn a blind eye.

One passage that really struck me:

I am ashamed I made an error, knowing that our errors always cost us more. This is the import of history all around us, though very few people like to think about it. Had I informed this woman that when she pushed my son, she was acting according to a tradition that held black bodies as lesser, her response would likely have been “I am not a racist.” Or maybe not. But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.

It’s a difficult read, because he condemns everyone and offers no answers. There’s no solutions, possibly because Coates doesn’t have any, and I found that a difficult thing to swallow. I want to know HOW I can change, what I can do to make a difference. Perhaps reading books like this is a start; it has made me aware that there are black men and women who think this way, who believe that they are lesser because we let police arrest and shoot them. Who are not given the same opportunities because they can’t afford to buy a house in the suburbs. Who are treated differently when they walk into stores just because of the color of their skin.

It does make me feel hopeless, in a way. But, on the other hand, I’ve read this and I’ve been made aware. Maybe that’s a start.

Walk on Earth a Stranger

by Rae Carson
First sentence: “I hear the deer before I see him, though he makes less noise than a squirrel — the gentle crunch of snow, a snapping twig, the soft whuff as he roots around for dead grass.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy picked up at Children’s Institute and signed by the author (who I fangirled over).
Content: There’s some violence, including a few deaths, and some talk about sex (but none actual). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Leah Westfall has a talent for finding gold. Well, maybe more than a talent: she can magically sense gold out in the wilderness. But, in northern Georgia in 1849, gold is getting pretty scarce. Even so, she and her parents get by. She’s fairly content. Then, her parents are brutally murdered by a man wants to control her “talent”, so she disguises herself as a man, runs away and head for the place where gold is most plentiful: California.

That’s basically the premise, as this book is primarily concerned with Leah’s — Lee’s — journey getting to California. It’s full of action and suspense, but it’s ordinary action and suspense. Robbers, rough rivers, threats from the known and unknown. It doesn’t seem like much, but it kept me turning pages.

This book deviates from Carson’s other works in that it’s more of a historical fiction piece and less of a magical one. Sure, Lee has magical abilities. But (so far), that’s the only magic. The rest of it, from the inherent sexism and racism to the trials they face while crossing the plains is historical. Even though I like Carson’s magic, I think I enjoyed this one more because the magic was so understated. It did help Lee out, on occasion. But for the most part, she was making her own way on her own terms. Which was awesome.

The other thing is that this is the first of a projected trilogy, but I have no idea where Carson is heading. Sure, the Big Bad isn’t taken care of, but he wasn’t a real threat in this novel either. I was actually content with the way this one ended: Lee survived the journey, she got to California, she can live happily ever after. However, I will follow Carson down whatever road she wants to take, and I wouldn’t mind reading more of Lee’s story at all.

Full Cicada Moon

by Marilyn Hilton
First sentence: “I wish we had flown to Vermont instead of riding on a bus, train, train, bus all the way from Berkeley.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy sent to me by the publisher rep.
Content: There isn’t anything objectionable, and it’s a novel in verse so it’d be appropriate for the younger readers. Good for conversation as well. It’ll be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Mimi Yoshiko Oliver is obsessed with space. It’s 1969, the height of the space race, and she wants to be an astronaut. The problem? She’s a girl. No one takes her desire seriously, especially in her school in Vermont. It also doesn’t help that she’s Afro-Asian, one of the only people of color in an all-white community.

As she goes through seventh grade and the beginning of eighth, Hilton gives us Mimi’s struggles and triumphs, from her attempts to get into shop class — there are some pretty strong gender norms in the late 1960s —
to her struggles to make friends. There are lots of stories about racism in the south in the 1960s. It was actually quite refreshing to be reminded that even northerners had issues with civil rights.

It’s a lovely novel in verse, as well. Hilton captured Mimi’s sense of wonder an awe at the world around her as well as her desire to go into space. It wasn’t overly detailed, something which might bother some readers but I found I didn’t mind. Perhaps it’s because I’m older, and I remember what it was like (sort-of). But, I also think it was a conscious choice on Hilton’s part to make it more accessible to those reading it. So, on the one hand, it’s historical fiction. But the other, it didn’t really feel all that much like it.

Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Mimi and her family, as they adjust to a new home, broaden their horizons, and have a memorable year.

Stella By Starlight

by Sharon M. Draper
First sentence: “Nine robed figures dressed all in white.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s some pretty intense stuff going on in this book, by Draper never lets it get too dark. She knows her audience and (rightly) assumes they can handle anything that is thrown at them. Be prepared, however, for some discussion. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) at the bookstore.

It’s 1932, North Carolina. The whole country is in the throes of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt is running for office. For Stella and her family, this doesn’t really matter. They’re more concerned about making ends meet. And avoiding the local Klu Klux Klan.

And they’re doing a pretty good job until Stella’s dad, pastor, and a family friend decide to exercise their constitutional right and vote. Then, all hell breaks loose.

There’s actually a lot more going on than that: Draper knows her history, and paints a picture of what life was like for African Americans struggling to get ahead in the 1930s. The one-room school, with a teacher who handles all grades next to the white school where they get new books. The small houses and hand-me-over clothes. Having to enter in the back door of shops. Or, most tellingly, a white doctor who won’t come help Stella’s mother after she’d been bitten by a rattler.

And Stella is such an engaging character to go through all this with. She’s an observant, smart girl, but one who also struggles with writing in school. She’s trying to figure out her place in life, how to navigate the injustices of her situation, and still come out ahead. She’s got fantastic parents, and a supportive community. There’s so much that I found admirable about the way she deals with her situation. And so much to discuss (I know; I ended up talking to my family) when you’re done.