Sold

by Patricia McCormick
First sentence: “One more rainy season and our roof will be gone, says Ama.”
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Content: There is violence toward women and a (non-graphic) rape scene. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Lakshmi is a 13-year-old girl in the mountains of Nepal who is just getting by with her mother and step-father and baby brother. Their existence isn’t great: they depend on the weather to make sure their livelihood — growing rice — is secure, and Lakshmi’s stepfather is a gambler and a drunk, spending all their money on cards and booze. Still, it’s not a terrible life. That is, until one monsoon season wipes out their entire crop. There’s nothing else to pay their debts with, and so Lakshmi’s stepfather sells her to a buyer that’s passing through. Lakshmi thinks she’s off to be a maid, and that the wages will go home to her family. Turns out, though, that she’s been sold into slavery, and that her “job” is prostitution. (I loathe to use that word, because I feel it implies some sort of choice, and Lakshmi has NO choice in the matter; in fact, she’s drugged and repeatedly raped at the beginning since she’s unwilling to do what she’s told.)

Eventually, some well-meaning Americans come in and shut the business down and rescue the girls who want to be rescued (go white savior moment?) but there’s a lot going on culturally with the girls.

This is such a hard book to read. Not technically; it’s written in loose prose verse (they weren’t simple enough to be poems, but it wasn’t really a prose book either), and so it went quickly, but emotionally? It packs a wallop of a punch. Toxic masculinity and patriarchy and class divisions are going to kill us all. That someone would sell their child to be a sex worker, that men would want to come visit them, that women would imprison these girls for their own gain? It’s a lot to stomach and it makes me feel both incredibly angry and incredibly hopeless.

It’s an excellently written book, and I’m grateful someone told their story (even if it’s a white woman). Even if it is emotionally draining and difficult.

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Amal Unbound

by Aisha Saeed
First sentence: “I watched from the window as the boys tumbled out of the brick schoolhouse across the field from us.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some violence. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Amal has a goal: she loves school, and wants to go to college and become a teacher. It seems simple, but for a 12-year-old girl in a Pakistani village, it’s means everything, She sees her future before her, and feels like she can make a difference.

That is, until one day she decides to stand up for herself… with the wrong person. Jawal Sahib is a member of the Khan clan, the people with the most money and influence in the region. And he’s not a person you cross. So, the next thing Amal knows, her father’s debts have been called in (he took out loans to cover his orange groves), and he can’t pay. So Jawal Sahib takes Amal as “payment”. She’s put to work in the household as a personal servant for Jawal Sahib’s mother, Nasreen Baji. It’s not something Amal wants, but she has no choice. And so, she tries to make the best of a (very bad) situation.

There’s more to the story than that; Saeed not only deals with involuntary servitude but also the treatment and education of women, she touches on corruption in politics and commerce in Pakistan; the Khans are so influential because they have bribed so many people. It’s enough that Jawal Sahib feels that he is above the law, and everyone beneath him is resigned: that’s just the way things are.

It’s a very stark picture of what life can be like in Pakistan, and how many people are just scraping by while a few get rich off their backs. But it’s not a depressing one: Amal is an incredible character to spend a book with, one who really does find ways to make life bearable and who tries to make a difference wherever she goes.

And Saeed knows how to tell a story that will keep younger readers engaged as well.

Excellent.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 1

by M. T. Anderson
First sentence: “I was raised in a gaunt houses with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.”
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Content: There’s violence and talk of human bodily functions. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore if we had it.

Octavian had an idyllic childhood, growing up in the house with a bunch of rational philosophers (in the Novanglina College of Lucidity) where his every move was studied and cataloged. He was dressed in the finest silks, taught to play the violin and speak Greek and Latin and French. And he had no idea he was black and a slave. That is, until the sponsorship for the society lapsed and they found a new person to sponsor them, someone who felt that Africans were truly less than people. From there, Octavian’s life changes, and not for the better. He escapes, and gets involved in the Revolutionary War.

I heard lots of good things about this one when it first came out, and it won the National Book Award and a Printz honor. I wanted to like it, to understand what all the excitement was about it. But. Times have changed in the past 12 years, and I’ve changed a bit with them, and the one thing I couldn’t get past was that this felt like appropriation. I like Anderson as a writer (for the most part), but to write a slave story just felt… wrong. Yeah, he made some of the white people sufficiently awful (well, one of them anyway), but he also has a literal white savior narrative at the end of the book which really sat poorly with me. And to be honest, I lost interest. I kind of skimmed through the last third of the book, just to see what happened, but I wasn’t engaged.

And I have no interest in reading the second part. I wish I had liked this better.

The Poet Slave

by Margarita Engle
First sentence: “My mind is a brush made of feathers”
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Content: There is talk of torture and beatings, but nothing graphic. It would be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This slim novel (sort-of; it’s touted as a biography, and it is biographical, but I’m not sure it really counts as a “biography”) depicts the childhood and early life of noted Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano, who was, for much of his life, a slave. Although the verse is spare, Engle doesn’t hold anything back: Juan was not only taken from his parents to be a pet of his first master, he was denied his freedom (his first master willed him his freedom at her death) and sold to a horrible woman who beat, tortured, and nearly killed Juan. The poems/chapters are told from varying points of view: Juan, his parents, his owners, and one of his master’s sons. They tell of his desire to learn, to express himself, and the punishments he received because of them. It’s heartbreaking.

Engle has captured not only the difficulties that Juan faced in his life, but his capacity for hope, for happiness, and for creativity. Her poetry is beautiful, and she allows Juan’s story to come through.

Definitely recommended.

A Crack in the Sea

by H. M. Bouwman
First sentence: “As with true stories, Venus’s story has no beginning.”
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Content: There are some heavy themes, and it might be a little slow for the reluctant readers. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This is one of those stories that doesn’t feel like it has much of a plot or a point; one whose only purpose is to tell mythology. And this one did that well. It takes place in an alternative, second world, one that’s reached through a crack in our world. There a hundred or so escaped slaves made a home for themselves, existing in a world with magic and creating a new life away from the cruel slavers.

200 years later, the people have grown into a Raftworld and an island nation, and a brother-sister team may be what can save the relations between the two nations.

I wanted to like this one more than I did. While I liked the format — it reminded me of the Grace Lin books — I kept thinking that it was problematic. See: the author is white. And this one, pulling on slaving stories and mythologies, should have been written by someone whose mythology it is. And while I liked the story well enough, I couldn’t shake that feeling, that somehow this was imposing.

But that may just be me.

Homegoing

by Yaa Gyasi
First sentence: “The night Effia Otcher was gorn into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.”
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Content: There’s non-graphic sex, a lot of swearing, violence, and general difficult situations. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

A good, powerful look at two sisters, separated at birth — one eventually sold into slavery in America, and the other remaining in Africa — and the subsequent generations. It’s a powerful look at choices (made by and for individuals) and how those can affect not only individual lives but also generations. It’s a unique way to tell a story — every chapter is a different person, progressing through the generations — and both the writing and the actual storytelling are excellent.

It’s a haunting read, but a good one.

Unbound

unboundby Ann E. Berg
First sentence: “When Mama tells me
I’m goin
to the Big House,
she makes me promise
to always be good,
to listen to the Missus
n never talk back,
to lower my eyes
n say, Yes, ma’am
no, ma’am,
n to not speak
less spoken to first.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some tough subjects dealt with here, but there’s nothing graphic. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I’ll say this up front: I’m uncomfortable with this book. Not because of the subject matter (though I do have to admit that I’m tired of Civil War slave narratives. Not because they’re not important, but because it seems to be the only African American story publishers want to tell.) but because it’s a white woman telling the story. I’m not going to say she shouldn’t be telling this story, but rather because I think this story would have been better served being told by a person of color.

That’s not to say it was a bad story; it was okay, as far as slave narratives go. Berg was trying to tell the story of a community of runaway slaves in North Carolina who settled in the Great Dismal Swamp (where native peoples had settled for thousands of years), living there in order to be free from slavery. But that’s not really the story she ended up telling. It was more of the disgruntled slave who couldn’t keep their place and so they had to leave narrative. Which is fine, but not exactly the narrative of the people in the Great Dismal Swamp.

It’s not that it’s a bad book. It does tell a story at a level that children can understand. It does have┬ánon-white characters. It does talk about the less desirable things in American history.

I just wish it were, well, More.