Mulan and the heroine’s journey

I was really looking forward to watching the live action “Mulan” in theaters, but because of COVID-19, it has been pushed back. In lieu of the movie, I decided to read three retellings of Mulan. The live action has gotten some backlash for not being faithful to the “original” animation in 1998, but that is only one version of a centuries old ballad.

There are so many ways to retell the story, the center of which is a young woman who disguises herself as a man so she can take the place of her father in the imperial army. To me, Mulan is about strength and knowing yourself, as well as questioning what femininity and masculinity really mean.

Aside from the Mulan retellings, I also read two books by authors who explored a part of their background. The heroine’s journey always draws me in.

The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas

This is an amazing book! Sherry Thomas is a romance writer, and this telling includes romance between Mulan and a princeling. Their families have dueled for generations and the winner gets to keep the other’s sword. At first Mulan didn’t recognize that the princeling was her rival Yuan Kai, and once she recognized them, she starts to have feelings for him. Their prior history makes the romance a little different from the romance in other versions of Mulan. They have to wrestle with family history in addition to the gender disguise.

Another thing that sets The Magnolia Sword apart from other Mulan retellings is the north-south regional differences and Rouran history that Thomas incorporated into the tale. Chinese history, like most forms of written history, is written by the victors. Mulan’s troop also included minorities, some of which descended from the enemy they were fighting. Thomas didn’t treat China as a monolith fighting against a foreign invader, and I appreciate that she brought more nuance to the story instead of having clear cut good guys vs. bad guys. In fact, Mulan had to find out who to trust even within her own family. This was a really refreshing aspect to the tale.

The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller

Mental health, science and flawed parents — Keller explored these themes in The Science of Breakable Things. I liked that Natalie is a little bit naive in that she thinks she can “solve” her mother’s depression by bringing her a reminder of her passion, which is a rare flower that she studied in her former lab. We might not be that naive but don’t we all want to solve our loved ones’ problems or bring back the past in some way?

Of course, it doesn’t work and Natalie finds out. But what she did accomplish is bringing depression to the surface as something that exists. It’s not an elephant in the room. It’s what her mother has, and there’s no easy way to erase it or make her mom better. And I think the fact that a kids’ book acknowledges that is very beautiful.

Before the Sword by Grace Lin

Grace Lin is one of my favorite authors, and Chinese folktales are her strength. Before the Sword is an original prequel to Mulan, when she was a girl. This book shares the same canon as Disney’s live action, so Mulan has a sister, Xiu, who was bitten by a poisonous spider. Mulan goes on a journey to find a cure, accompanied by the Rabbit and later, an Immortal named Lu Ting-Pin. The outcome of the book is that she finds out her destiny as a warrior, and the reader learns the origin and motivations of Xianniang.

Lin incorporates tales within the story, just as she did the “The Mountain Meets the Moon” trilogy. I love how the tales connect, and the comment thread is that the villain is the White Fox! She is so evil and beguiling. But the most interesting character to me is actually Xianniang. She and Mulan have a lot in common — feeling unwanted and a little bit lost. They both went on a journey with Rabbit, but where Mulan succeeded in bringing back a cure for her sister, Xianniang fell into the grasp of the White Fox, who, [SPOILER ALERT] was actually her mother! By the end of the story, I was rooting for Xianniang to find her place, even in the form of a witch joining the Rouran warriors. I’m excited for her and Mulan to meet again because they understand each other.

Ticket to India by N. H. Senzai

Partition, the separation of Pakistan from India, was an extremely traumatic event for both Indians and Pakistanis. When a line is literally drawn between religions, homes and families, the impact is felt for generations and it can never truly heal. N. H. Senzai identifies with both Pakistan and India, and Ticket to India explores what that’s like. It’s not that Pakistan and India are so different, or there’s pride in being from either country (as superior to the other) — it’s that there’s always a longing for home that never goes away.

The protagonist, Maya, is on a quest to find her grandmother’s treasure chest that she left behind when her family went to Pakistan after Partition. Maya finds that India is a place of contrasts; it has a lot of beauty as well as a lot of ugliness, but it’s nonetheless her grandmother’s home. This is the second book I’ve read from Senzai, and she really is the gold standard in South Asian MG lit.

Reflection by Elizabeth Lim

This was a YA adaptation that’s part of “Twisted Tales,” a series that takes a dark turn from the Disney versions. Reflection begins when Shang dies from saving Mulan from the Huns, and Mulan decides to follow him into the underworld, diyu, to take him back to earth. After talking to my friend Lynn, I realized this is a gender-swapped version of the Greek myth Eurydice and Orpheus. In the Greek version, Orpheus’s task is to bring his wife back to life, and he fails at the last second when he looks back at her.

In this version, Mulan is the one saving Shang. She’s still disguised as Ping, and the climax of the story happens when he finds out that she has been lying to him. [Spoiler alert] The penultimate test comes when an image of Shang abandons her in hell, and she has to believe that even though he would do that, she has to keep her end of the deal with King Yama, the king of hell. The final trial is that she has to select who she is — Mulan or Ping, among a pond of mirrors that reflects different versions of herself. I identified with this part because I feel like I’m always trying to find my true self, or fighting for it to come out.

Who are your favorite heroines, past or present?

Constructing and reconstructing reality in YA lit

Two of these books are based on real events, one is an imagining of the future, and one is an imagining of the past. Whether it’s real or imagined, building a rich world helps the reader get into a story. I came to appreciate that more this year because I have been diving deep into certain topics. I enjoy longform nonfiction and realistic fiction that offer a lot of context for explaining why characters do what they do, and the risks and rewards they face in their world.

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

This book has been on my list for a long time and I’m so glad I finally read it. Slater is a journalist and this true event was originally about a Black teen who lit a nonbinary teen’s skirt on fire. By talking to people from Sasha’s parents to Richard’s counselor, Slater was able to find what happened before that eventful day and the aftermath. Justice is not straightforward, and The 57 Bus challenges our assumptions about it. Juvenile crimes, teenage impulses, and the process of figuring yourself out — no single court decision can capture all of that. If only we could look at more crimes and events with the level of questioning and research that happens in The 57 Bus. 

Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh

Rebels can either want to build a new world, or they can fight hard for the world that used to be. Rebel Seoul is Lee Jaewon’s story about choosing an alliance, being a weapon vs. a person, and coming to terms with who your parents are. Jaewon’s father is an idealistic rebel who fought for the Old Seoul. Jaewon lives in Neo Seoul, during sometime in the future when Asian countries have become an alliance, after 50 years of war.

Oh is not only writing about God Machines, simulations and technologies, but she is also constructing history. I enjoyed this story for the fast pace and I felt the tug of war that Jaewon was facing.

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Towers Falling is set 15 years after 9/11. Rhodes, the author of Ghost Boys, writes in such a poetic way. Kids like Dèja, born after 2001, are still living in the aftermath of 9/11. It isn’t just a historical event, but personal in the way it affects witnesses and survivors. Dèja’s father worked in one of the towers and he has been suffering from PTSD ever since 2001. This is a great book for social studies and looks at the impact events have on individuals, families, schools and communities.

Did not finish

Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson – I have heard so many great things about M.T. Anderson, and this book was written in a unique format with documents. Anderson really was consutructing history. I may return to this someday but not now.

Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins – This is Suzanne Collins’s debut book, so of course I wanted to read it. I honestly only didn’t because I ran out of time and the book was due. I will have to get to it someday! The Hunger Games was great at worldbuilding, and I want to see how Collins did it here.

Flawed kid protagonists tell their stories

There are many protagonists in kidlit that are very mature and evolved, and when you read a lot of fiction, this starts to feel normal. However, children in real life are flawed and not nearly as together as most kidlit protagonists are. Kidlit characters can be so developed that when you come across a flawed protagonist, they feel unlikable.

I thought these books did a good job of depicting true and flawed kids. Kids are not always likable and motivated, and it is really great to see protagonist who have attitude and make mistakes. Continue reading

Older teen protagonist get real about trauma

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I am really glad that there is so much amazing YA out there. To me, it feels like authors are creating a new genre entirely. I didn’t feel that anything I read in high school resonated with me. Books like The Outsiders and The Catcher in the Rye are not only outdated, but they don’t relate to today’s teens at all.

I hope books like the ones I read here make it into the hands of teen readers, even if it’s a long way before schools start teaching these books. Continue reading

Realistic and diverse YA

I am so thankful that these books exist. They tell specifict stories and break stereotypes not because the characters do the opposite of what we expect them to, but because they are nuanced and have so many aspects to themselves. I think we are starting to see that minority characters are here not to make a book diverse, but that they can have full range in their own right. The characters in each of these books is flawed, complex, privileged in some way, and most of all, they are fighting internal battles. All of the struggles compounded to make the stories here very powerful, heartbreaking, but also more realistic. Continue reading

YA fever

For the month of June, I decided to branch out and read what I normally don’t read. This includes romance, contemporary YA, and mysteries! I have always wanted to read those genres but as a creature of comfort, it was easy to pick out the realistic and fantasy books I normally read.

Trying something different is good!

Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds – What a wonderful debut!!!! This is much more than a teen romance. I love the time loops and the concept of this book is hard to pull off, but Justin did it and we wanted to follow Jack King wherever time takes him. I love Kate, and Franny and Jillian. My favorite thing about this book is that it could’ve become so many tropes and other things, such as winding into a large cast or become gimmicky, but it didn’t. The author showed a lot of restraint and the plotting was A+.

Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi -I did not finish this because although the cover and premise are very promising, and looks like a very fun, teen romance read, the writing was not my style. Teen speak is tricky to master and too much of it is usually not a good thing.

Just South of Home by Karen A. Strong – The cool thing about this is that I follow the author on Twitter for a while before I was able to read the book! It’s so cool to know authors as real people who have emotions and witness the work they put in in order to make a book come to life. This was a good MG ghost story! I think ghost stories and horror are going to be the next big thing in kidlit and YA. It’s a way to deal with mature themes, and it’s totally appropriate and respectful too. I loved responsible protagonist Sarah, city girl Janie, cute Elis and mature Jasper. Really nice reading a debut and I can’t wait for Karen’s sophomore novel. Hopefully it will be another ghost story!

Miraculous Miranda by Siobhan Parkinson – This is kid speak done right! I loved Miranda and her fantasies, and I’m always a fan of Harriet the Spy-esque characters. Kids who are cynical and kind of battling life in their own snarky way, with really spot-on observations. Miranda reminds me of Ray from Uptown Girls. You will never catch them being hurt or sad, but inside their steely and sharp wit is vulnerability and fierce hope. I love characters like Miranda.

The Jigsaw Jungle by Kristen Levine – I love books composed of letters, e-mails, other documents, and look like a scrapbook. I did not love Claudia’s dad because what he did was so irresponsible, but I loved Claudia and her friend’s determination to get to the bottom of it. The format of this book reminds me that I would really love books about local history, consisting of documents, yearbooks, photographs, and letters!

What stories catch your eye this summer?

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

This was my first ever Angie Thomas book and I totally get the hype now. Reading this book felt like tagging along with Brianna on her journey. I’m a fan of first-person narrators because I like experiencing the world with the character. Brianna’s comments and thoughts about her surroundings felt like her breaking the fourth wall to show us her world. By the end of the book, I really felt that I had been with Brianna through her journey.

There are a couple things I especially loved about the book:

  • I loved the world building–Garden Heights is so developed and believable. We usually talk about world building in fantasy, but a fictional world that’s realistic with all the details is just *chef’s kiss.* Garden Disciples vs. Crowns, Midtown School of the Arts, Garden High, Sal’s Pizza, Mr. Watson the school bus driver–all of these details situated us right in Bri’s world.
  • My favorite part of the book has to be what’s usually called the “fringe characters.” I had so much fun reading about them.
    • Granddaddy’s one-liners and Grandma’s pettiness had me wanting to hear from them more!
    • Milez/Miles/Rapid_one – the manager’s son with his own story was cool. There’s a different side
    • Sonny and Malik! The Unholy Trinity is awesome and I loved their changing and complex friendship.
    • Dr. Cook, the superintendent who wasn’t totally a villain. This made me trust the author– the people who I expected to let us down, were redeemed.
    • TREY and KAYLA!!!! I relate to them because they’re my generation and I felt it so hard when Bri said that Trey did everything right but still has to work in a pizza shop. I also love that Trey was a psychology grad.
  • I loved when Brianna called Malik out. Malik might be an attractive boy and Bri’s best friend, but what he did was not right. I’m so here for more boys being called out for playing with feelings and being uncertain. However, Malik is also not a villain and they were able to patch up their friendship even after that kiss.
  • I was always nervous that Supreme would turn out to do something shady and things would blow up, so I’m so glad that Brianna didn’t get her come up through him.
  • Other things I loved: The memes, Blackout (aka Bossip), Dat Cloud (aka Sound Cloud.) As a pop culture lover I loved this.

Thanks Brianna! Your passion for rap will stand out.