First person narrative from Fall 2020

This is a very long overdue post of books from Fall 2020! This is Candelwick’s young adult list from two falls ago, and they are very strong first-person narratives. I gave my copy of Rural Voices away, but I really want to read it again. I also want to read Everything I Thought I Knew! These are the two books I did read, and I loved them. They are both novels-in-verse about young women who find themselves in a world that wants to label, sexualize and take advantage of them.

Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew is a novel-in-verse about periods, girls’ reputations, and the way words and images travel instantly in high school. All it takes is the person sitting behind you looking over your shoulders, or your friend hearing your conversation with a teacher in passing, for a rumor to grow. I felt for the way the main character felt like she could not even go to school anymore, and the rumor literally made her sick. Rumors do spread like cancer — ask any woman who has had words, whether true or untrue, spread about her. Rumors are toxic and I so feel for the way women have to deal with that. But the best part of Blood Moon is how the girls came together and reclaimed their reputation and their bodies. Love to see that!

Somebody Give This Heart a Pen by Sophia Thakur is a series of poems / spoken words from a young woman’s perspective. Fans of Elizabeth Acevedo may enjoy this — it reminds me of The Poet X , except written from the author’s perspective instead of fictional Xiomara’s. She talks about her body and how it attracts looks, the way she feels both minimized and hypervisible, and how becoming a woman is just a really full experience. It’s an experience I love reading about in spoken word! Thakur’s energy really comes through.

Book reviews, from one year ago!

I actually borrowed these books last year, and I am only writing about them now! I literally read Watch Over Me the week of the election. I can’t believe it has been one year. The chillier weather this time of the year always reminds me of Fall 2016 and last year.

From last year: “It has been a very wild time the past few months and I’ve found it hard to read, but there are a few books I managed to squeeze in when my mind wasn’t occupied with resisting fascism!”

Watch Over Me by Nina Lacour

Nina Lacour writes beautifully. Someone on Goodreads described it as drinking a glass of water, and this one definitely feels like that. It is triggering because of the abuse and gaslighting that happened to Mila and her mom. It’s also very atmospheric–it was set in a farm in rural northern California. It’s a ghost story and the book gave me a kind of bruised feeling. There is so little that you can tell about a person. There is no way you can tell what trauma and longing they are going through. The way Mila finds healing through Lee is something I can relate to.

Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden

It’s hazy in my mind, and the book felt like a dream. I love the loose lines in Tillie Walden’s graphic novels. This one is about two women and a cat who take a road trip across west Texas. I vaguely remember an incident of sexual harassment or assault being the reason one of the women is on the run. I actually don’t remember where they are going or if they ever arrived. I’m in this state of mind a lot the past three years, feeling like I am running away or trying to leave my trauma behind, and not knowing exactly where I was going. This captures some of those feelings.

Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

I did not finish this, but I will! It’s about Taiwan.

Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram

In this sequel, Darius has a lot on his plate: he has an internship at his favorite tea shop, he has a boyfriend, and he is on a soccer team. He’s passionate about tea, his first relationship and obviously, soccer, but they become a lot to balance, and he doesn’t feel so good about them after all. I totally relate to this because I was literally that in Darius’s shoes the 2017-2018 school year. It was kind of miserable and really hard. Darius and I both deserve better.

The Other Side of the Sky by Amie Kaufmann and Meagan Spooner

This was for Phelicity’s book club, but I did not finish it. I will come back to this because it’s been described as having Ghibli vibes, and I am very much for it.

I love going in the queue and remembering books from 2020!

Xiomara, Yahaira, Camino and Emoni: Elizabeth Acevedo’s Teen Girl Characters

Clap When You Land and With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo just does not miss!

There are a lot of YA novels about teen girls, but hers center them. It’s not that her main characters are perfectly active agents in control of their lives—just the opposite. Things happen to them that are outside their control. Probably more so because they are young Afro-Latinas. But we find out their reactions, plans and dreams and the way Acevedo writes these girls, they are in such good hands and I close the book feeling like, “They will be fine.” They are cared for, they know who they are, and they have mujeres in their lives who have their backs.

Her two books following The Poet X (2018) pulled so many emotions out of me. With the Fire on High (2019) made me want to be Emoni’s friend. She’s a teen mom who is passionate about cooking in her senior year of high school. I love the way Emoni talked about virginity. Tyrone, her baby daddy, was the first (and only) person she had sex with, yet everyone thinks she is a ho because she got pregnant.

There are so many details that gave the reader a sense of Emoni’s reality as a teen mom: doing her daughter’s hair before she goes to school; being able to sign permission slips for her daughter, but not for herself; and getting her phone confiscated because of school policy when she really needs it in case her daughter’s daycare needs her. These hassles show that she is a high school student at the same time that she is a mom, and she has so many responsibilities that she keeps to herself, which makes people think she is stuck-up.

But that’s ok because she has Abuela, Ms. Fuentes, Angelica and Malachi. I love how they support her even when she isn’t sure where she stands. I especially love Malachi, the transfer student who became her love interest. I love that he doesn’t judge or like her less for being a mom, and he doesn’t rush her into having sex, even though Emoni was fully prepared for that to be the case. [spoiler] When they were about to have sex on their culinary arts field trip to Spain, I LOVE how Malachi was a virgin and Emoni obviously was not! And they talked about it like adults, and it didn’t stop them from being attracted to and friends with each other.

On the other hand, masculinity was all the way toxic in Clap When You Land (2020). Camino and Yahaira never knew each other existed until their father died in a plane crash on his way to the Dominican Republic, where he had another family. The book is about the messy and painful aftermath of his death and the girls grieved. I had so many questions while reading this book and it really took me on a trip.

Like Camino and Yahaira, I had so many questions:

If you have two wives, do you love one let alone both of them? Yahaira’s mami told her that, he might have loved his wives, but his love for his children were not in question.

How do you grieve for someone who has lied to you your whole life? There isn’t an answer.

Just how much can a woman survive? I think Zoila, Yahaira’s mom and later, Camino’s stepmom, really stood out to be in her strength. At first, I thought having your husband not only cheat on you, but to start and raise a whole other family in your home country, for 16 years, would be like dying a slow death.

But Zoila surprised. Her character arc was amazing. She went from being a general’s only child, to a wife whose husband betrayed her in the worst way, to a widow, to the stepmom of the child of her husband and her friend.

I love how she had strengths that didn’t jump out until the times it mattered: She protected her stepdaughter, fiercely, even though just stepping foot on the island where her husband started a second family was excruciating for her. I also love how Camino and Yahaira slowly figured out who their mom is. Camino thought she was “una chica plastica” and Yahaira thought she was a “showpiece of a woman,” but she turned out to be a true matriarch.

The idea of a man fractured, and a family fractured, has been on my mind after reading The Bluest Eye. The pain, grief and utter sadness is also palpable here. Some reviews said the language in this book felt bruised, raw and wounded and they are absolutely right. My chest literally hurt thinking about what Zoila, Tia, and even Camino’s mom, and the girls must have gone through.

But I think I was wrong to be angry at Yano for being a womanizer. The book isn’t about him. It’s about the women healing (Tia and Camino), defending (Zoila) and making moves (Yahaira) in the absence of him.

And that is just so beautiful.

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