Dear Martin

dearmartin.jpgby Nic Stone
First sentence: “From where he’s standing across the street, Justyce can see her: Melo Taylor, ex-girlfriend, slumped over beside her Benz on the damp concrete of the FarmFresh parking lot.”
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Content: There is some teenage drinking, talk of sex, swearing, and violence. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Justytce is a scholarship student at one of the most prestigious prep schools in Atlanta. He’s smart, he’s observant, he definitely deserves to be there.

Except. He’s one of only three black students in the school. And when he was arrested for trying to help his drunk ex-girlfriend (so she wouldn’t drive drunk!) right before his senior year, he starts to notice things he’s let slide before. Like how his best friend’s (who’s also black) friends are, well, racist. Like how cops seem to get a pass when dealing with black people (especially men). And he tries, through writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr, to understand they way black people are treated, and tries to understand how to do the, well, “right” thing.

It’s not easy. Justyce says at one point in the book that it’s tough being in his position: he’s got white people at his school questioning whether he deserves to be there (or to get into Yale) and then black people in his mother’s neighborhood trying to pull him back and making fun of him and his aspirations. It’s unfair, to say the least.

And then, in one fateful afternoon, his whole life changes: his best friend is shot and killed in a traffic altercation with an off-duty cop. And Justyce — who was also in the car – – is caught in the cross hairs, and blamed for everything.

It’s a short novel — just over 200 pages — but it packs a punch. The takeaway? White people are awful. We have to work really hard at not being awful, because we take so much for granted. It was definitely eye-opening.

Pair it with The Hate U Give and Ghost Boys, and if you’re white, remind yourself of the privilege you have every day of your life.

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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.

Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans During World War II

by Martin W. Sandler
First sentence: “It was a heroic achievement.”
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Content: There are some difficult moments, especially for younger readers. It would be in the middle grade history section of the bookstore.

I’ve known vaguely about the Japanese internment that happened during World War II for a while now (though it wasn’t something that was taught in school), but I had never read anything that detailed the actual experience of Japanese Americans in America.

My thoughts? White people are awful. (This is not a new realization. Just an additional confirmation.) My reservations about this book? It’s written by a (very nice) white guy. The book — which goes through the experiences of Japanese in America from the turn of the 20th century through World War II and afterward — seems really well-balanced and fair, and Sandler has done his research. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that this is a story that would be better told by someone who had gone through the experience, by someone who could first-hand explain the experiences of racism they had while they were trying to make a living here. Sandler doesn’t really hold those in charge accountable (really: what were the politicians thinking?!) and while he is sympathetic to the plight of the Japanese and forthright about the conditions they lived in, it lacks the emotional punch a Japanese writer could most likely give it.

Still, not a horrible book.

Long Way Down

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “Don’t nobody believe nothing these days which is why I haven’t told nobody the story I’m about to tell you.”
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Content: While there isn’t any swearing or on-screen violence, the themes are quite intense. I go back and forth as to where this should go. One of my co-workers insists that 10-year-old kids shouldn’t be reading it, so doesn’t like it when I stick it with the Newbery Books (even though it got an honor). I’m not sure it needs to be in the Teen (grades 9+) section, though, so I may compromise by putting it in the YA (grades 6-8).

Will’s older brother, Shawn, has been shot dead. And so, Will believes, it’s his duty to hunt down the person who shot Shawn (and he’s sure he knows who it is) and kill them. After all, that’s part of the rules: Don’t cry, don’t snitch, and always get revenge. But, on the elevator with a gun tucked in his pants, Will encounters ghosts of his past, every single one of whom has been killed by gunshot.

The ending is left open: will Will follow through, or won’t he? But, it’s these conversations with the ghosts — all told in verse — that left me shook. The toxic masculinity is rampant and obvious (at least to me, an outsider): if someone shoots someone who then shoots someone, then (of course) someone else will have to shoot that someone. It’s a vicious cycle that just leaves everyone dead. (What is that adage? An eye for an eye just leaves everyone blind?) It’s awful. And culture, tradition, racism, oppression, expectations… they don’t let these boys grieve the way they need to grieve. (And don’t get me started on gun culture.) I’m not entirely sure that’s what Reynolds was trying to get across, but that’s what I (again, as an outsider) got out of it.

Hopefully, books like these will help bring awareness to this. And maybe we can all stop killing each other just because of the color of our skin.

Audiobook: Children of Blood and Bone

by Tomi Adeyemi
Read by: Bahni Turpin
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Listen to it on Libro.fm
Content: There’s a lot of violence, some of it intense. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Imagine a world in which magic existed, but the non-magic users (who happened to be in power) were afraid of what magic can do, so they (well, he: the king) did everything they could to stamp it out. They killed the magi — adults who were at full power — and suppressed the children of the magi. These children, Diviners, were never able to fully come into their power, they were discriminated against, and their families taxed beyond what they can afford.

This is the world that Zélie, a Diviner, was raised in. She remembered the raids, when her mother was taken and killed and her father (who is not a magi) beaten. She remembers the stories her mother told about magic and the gods, and has all but lost her faith that it can ever come back. That is, until she meets Amari, the daughter of the king that ordered the raids. Amari has stolen a magic scroll, an artifact that, in the right hands, can bring magic back. And she’s on the run. She teams up with Zélie and Zélie’s brother, Zane. And together they are determined to bring magic back.

Except it’s not as easy as that. Amari’s brother, the crown prince Inan, is on their tale, determined to stop them. And nothing — NOTHING — goes to plan.

It’s a huge book, but it’s a fast-paced one; Adeyemi definitely knows how to plot to keep a reader engaged and the pages turning. Or, in my case, a listener listening. It helps that my favorite narrator, Turpin, read this book, and as always, was fantastic at it. It’s such an excellent performance, one that immersed me into the world of Orïsha (and it helped with all the foreign names and places too!) and the story.

And what a story! There were moments that I was afraid Adeyemi would disappoint me (especially toward the end), but she pulled off a spectacular ending, and still left enough undone for a sequel (which I can’t wait for).

Remarkable. And definitely worth the hype.

Ghost Boys

by Jewell Parker Rhodes
First sentence: “How small I look.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 18, 2018
Content: There are some tough issues here, but all the violence is either handled delicately or is off stage. The publisher has it for 10 and up, so I will probably shelve it in the YA section (grades 6-8) at the bookstore, but it would be good for curious 4th and 5th graders.

Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a white police officer while playing in the park. He had a toy gun, and the officer thought he was being threatened and therefore shot Jerome. If that sounds familiar, it’s intentional.

The book isn’t about the shooting, exactly. It’s told from Jerome’s perspective, after his death. He’s a ghost, hanging around, angry he is dead, and wondering what his purpose is. From there, we learn in flashbacks how he came to be shot, as well as following the preliminary hearing (in which the white officer gets off), and learn about Emmett Till’s murder in Mississippi in 1955. The point of the novel, however, isn’t about the story. It’s about the feelings this kind of murder generate. The sadness and anger in Jerome’s family. The questioning by the daughter of the officer. The sheer number of black boys that have been murdered. But also hopeful feelings: the friendships that come out of a tragedy like this.

While it’s a bit on the heavy-handed side, I think that was done intentionally. Rhodes wants to get her readers — many of whom are young — thinking about why this happens. About underlying racism. About seeing the “other” as, well, not “other”. And I think she wants to get a dialogue going, because if we don’t talk about these things, our culture won’t change and black men and boys will keep getting murdered.

It’s a quick read, and definitely a worthwhile one for kids (and adults!) to read.

The Parker Inheritance

by Varian Johnson
First sentence: “Abigail Caldwell stared at the letter.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the author.
Release date: March 27, 2018
Content: There are some tough issues brought up about racism, especially in the 1950s, but also currently. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, though it  may be more interesting for grades 5 and up.

Candice does NOT want to spend the summer in Lambert, South Carolina. Her parents have recently divorced, though, and their house needs to be renovated in order to put it on the market, and it’s better if they’re not underfoot, so Candice’s mom decides to take up residence in her grandma’s old house in the small Southern town. It’s bound to be a boring, never-ending summer.

That is until two things happen: she meets Brandon, the boy across the street, and she discovers an old letter, detailing a mystery about an inheritance of $40 million. The same inheritance that her grandmother tried to find ten  years ago, and was fired from her job as city manager over. If Candace and Brandon can figure this out, they could not only help the city, but also clear her grandma’s name.

I love puzzle books, even if I’m not entirely smart enough to figure them out, and this was no exception. About halfway through, Johnson references The Westing Game (one of my favorites!), and from then-on, I was using what I knew about that book to figure out the clues. (I did pretty well, too!) So, perhaps this one is better the more you know that one. But, in addition to the fun puzzle solving, Johnson takes us through history. We learn about sharecroppers, and what it was like to be a black person in the South in the pre-Civil Rights era (there’s not a lot, especially for kids, written about that time). He weaves in themes of revenge, justice and forgiveness as well as acceptance and tolerance. It’s a lot for a middle grade novel, but under Johnson’s capable hands, everything comes together seamlessly. He knows how to write kids so they seem real, and address tough issues in a way that they are accessible but not watered down.

An excellent book.