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.”
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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.

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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.

Glory Be

by Augusta Scattergood
First sentence: “What was taking Frankie so long?
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Content: There’s some physical violence. It’s short and the chapters are short. It’s in the middle grade section (grades 3-5) of the bookstore.

Glory, the youngest daughter of a Southern preacher, has grown up all her life in Hanging Moss, Mississippi. She hasn’t thought much about how her cook, Emma, is black. Or why she doesn’t see any black people at the pool or library. But, it’s the summer of 1964, and things are changing. The pool closes “for repairs”, but it’s because the pool committee doesn’t want “those people” sullying the waters. They try to do the same with the library, but the librarian stands up and keeps it open. And Glory’s best friend, Frankie, is on the line because his older brother and father are leading the charge against desegregation.

This had a lot of the same feeling as The Help did: white southern people being enlightened and standing up to their racist neighbors, but not really doing much else. I don’t know. It wasn’t bad, and I’m glad that white people have this kind of awaking story, but it kind of left a sour aftertaste. It was a very white book (I am surprised it was on my list for a mulitcultural children’s literature class…) and I wanted, well, more. Emma, the cook, didn’t play a huge role, and the whole book had a white savior narrative to it: Look! White people can recognize that black people are people too. Ugh.

I wanted more.

Internment

by Samira Ahmed
First sentence: “I strain to listen for boots on the pavement.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are instances of mild swearing, plus a handful of f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but just because of language. The themes are good for anyone, really.

It’s in the near future, and the U. S. government has decided that Muslims are a threat to the country. It started with a registry, with everyone declaring their religion. And then Muslims began to be discriminated against (well, they probably were already), and now they’re being rounded up and taken to internment camps. To keep the rest of America safe from them.

Layla and her parents are among those rounded up and sent to camp Mobius in the California desert. It’s a harrowing experience: being arrested at home and then shipped on a train to an isolated “camp” (read: prison; there aren’t cells, but they’re kept in with an electric fence) where they were expected to comply to rules and are constantly watched over by drones and guards.

Layla, however, is not okay with all this. (Fair.) In spite of her parents’ pleas to just get along, Layla decides that she needs to Do Something. So, she smuggles out articles she’s written about conditions in the camp — the Director using intimidation and force and the disappearances of other internees — to be put on blogs. She organizes protests. She makes friends with sympathetic guards on the inside who help her along with her boyfriend on the outside. They stand up for what they believe in, and resist.

I think that was the thing that was most striking to me: that resistance to authority comes from the teenagers. It probably always has. Adults get complacent, and are conditioned to not make waves. But teenagers? They’re often idealistic and want a better world. And have the courage to make it happen. And Ahmed captured that perfectly.

Yes, this book is heavy-handed: Ahmed hammers the idea that This. Is. Wrong. home in so many ways, but I think this book is meant for White People. Seriously. I am sure that so many of the themes of racism and exclusion and mistrust of the Other are already known to Muslim (and Black and Asian and Native) people. The people who need to see this are White. And probably middle class. And comfortable in their lives. (Like me.) We need to remember that inaction is the same as action. And that just because we don’t see or experience the problems doesn’t mean they’re not there.

In the end, the question I thought this book was asking was: What kind of White Person will you be? (Granted, I’m coming at it with this perspective. I’m sure others will get something different out of it.) And that’s a good question to be asking right now.

Love, Hate, & Other Filters

by Samira Ahmed
First sentence: “Destiny sucks.”
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Content: There’s some talk of sex, but none actual. There is also swearing, including some f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Senior Maya Aziz has one goal in life: to go to NYU (she’s been accepted!) and get a degree in filmmaking. However, her parents — even though they’re on the liberal end of the Indian Muslim scale — would rather she go close to home — University of Chicago or Northwestern — and get a degree in something practical. It also doesn’t help that they’re trying to set her up with a nice Indian Muslim boy… even if they don’t want her to get married just yet.

Maya just wants to live her life the way she wants to, and she was starting to make headway (even with the super popular white football player who’s interested in her!) when there’s a hate crime in a nearby city, and suddenly her small town isn’t safe — for her — anymore. And things just escalate when her parents’ dental practice building is vandalized Now her parents are refusing to let her go anywhere, let alone to New York to go to school.

Oh this was SUCH a good debut! Ahmed tackles conflict in a religious family, not with just culture but with belief, and she tackles the differences between parents and children — Maya’s parents aren’t bad or controlling; they just feel they know what’s best — and tackles the differences between immigrants and their first-generation American children. But she also addresses racism and prejudice all while wrapped up in a very sweet love story.

She’s definitely a writer to watch.

New Kid

by Jerry Craft
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 5, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some bullying, and it’s a bit on the longer side. It will be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

In the letter that accompanied the ARC, Craft wrote that he wanted to draw a graphic novel that featured kids who looked like him because he didn’t find any when he (or his sons) were growing up. He wanted to feature a kid of color, having some of the experiences — that were not just “gritty” — that kids of color have. And I think, with this graphic novel, he succeeded.

It’s the story of a kid — Jordan Banks — who wants to draw and go to an art school but whose parents have decided that a fancy (white and rich) prep school will give him better opportunities in life. Problem is Jordan doesn’t want to go to a fancy prep school, especially one where he’s in the minority.

The book follows the school year — my favorite thing was the chapter titles that referenced movies (Upper, Upper West Side Story; Straight Out of South Uptown were a couple that made me smile) — as Jordan learns the ins and outs of making friends, standing up for himself and others, and the ways in which well-meaning white people just Don’t Get It.

It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s honest, and it’s eye-opening, and Craft is definitely a graphic novelist to keep an eye on.

On the Come Up

by Angie Thomas
First sentence: “I might have to kill somebody tonight.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 5, 2019
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some violence. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+), but if you read The Hate U Give, then this will be good for you.

Bri has one goal in life: to be a rapper. She’s a talented poet, she’s good at thinking on her feet, and she has a killer beat. However, that’s not what her mother — especially after Bri’s father, a semi-famous rapper, was killed in a gang war — wants for her. She wants Bri to be like her older brother, focusing on school, getting into a good college, and Be Something. But, things are rough for their family: sometimes they go without heat or electricity because it’s tough making ends meet, and when Bri’s mom loses her job, Bri’s determined to make a go of being a rapper.

But things backfire: at the expensive (white) prep school that Bri attends, she’s apprehended by the security guards for carrying contraband (in this case, candy she sold to make a few dollars) and it spirals into a referendum on racism and profiling that Bri doesn’t want to be stuck in the middle of.

Bri’s story is one of heart and hopefulness — is she really “on the come up”? Can she make it with just talent, and not by succumbing to the racist whims of studio executives? — with an underlying look at the everyday racism and trials that Black people go through. It’s not as heart wrenching as THUG was, but it is eye-opening, especially for a middle-aged white woman who is trying to see the world through a different pair of eyes. Thomas is a talented writer, telling stories that not only are representative for the world around her and accessible to her target audience, but are also Important for everyone to read.

Excellent.