Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

#Afrofuturism from my “What to Read after Black Panther” list part two: a full-length adult novel from Nnedi Okorafor, whose books for younger readers I had aggressively sought out while putting off this intense book.  Not for the faint of heart, including rape, female circumcision, and lot of death, but well worth it if you’re able to make it through.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi OkoraforWho Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. DAW, 2010.
Onyesonwu is Ewu, a child of deliberate rape of her mother’s Okeke people by the Nuru, whose Great Book tells that the Okeke are meant to be their slaves.  Her name means “Who Fears Death”, a name to give strength to a child whose mixed-race face marks her as an outcast.  Onyesonwu’s mother is one of the few that survived the attack on her village.  After years in the desert, they settled in a village far away from the border and its attacks, where Onyesonwu’s mother marries a friendly blacksmith and they try to carry on with life as normal.

But life isn’t normal.  Onyesonwu has juju, something only men are supposed to have.  When she accidentally performs large magic in public, life gets difficult.  She befriends a group of young girls her own age, bound by their participation in the coming-of-age rites they all come to see as cruel.  This is a diverse group of girls, including a girl with a hefty sexual appetite, one with a steady sweetheart, and one whom the whole village knows is being abused by her father.  She also meets, Mwita, a boy her age who’s the only other Ewu she’s ever me.  He, too, has magic, but he has no problems getting the local master magician to train him, while Onyesonwu has to beg.

There are multiple missions wound through this book.  The most obvious is Onyesonwu’s hunt to find the evil man who raped her mother and gain revenge.  But she also wants to know why even the Okeke accept the message of the Great Book that says that they are inferior, and she works to fix the damage caused by female circumcision, which is here “enhanced” with magic meant to ensure chastity.

The setting is obviously West African, but the time is less obvious – old, breaking-down technology more advanced than our own is in everyday use in the villages, while there are hints of older, very rare plant-based computers like those used in Zarah the Windseeker. Small appearances of Nsbisi, the magical writing system used in the Akata Witch books make me think that all of these books take place at different times in the same universe.

Okorafor writes with simple words and a cadence that, while perfectly understandable and correct, doesn’t feel American, though I’m not familiar enough with West African English use to say that it is that.  Underneath the simple words and revenge-oriented action are big ideas with lots of room for thinking. Front and center is Onyesonwu, a young woman who refuses to give up no matter the odds. It’s currently being adapted for television, so read it now and avoid the rush.

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Everfair by Nisi Shawl

It’s summer reading time at the library.  I love crowds of kids excited about reading, but it does make it challenging to get anything else done.  But waiting patiently in my own review queue, I have a trio of African-based fantasy books.

This is one I’d been hearing about and even promoting since it came out, and was happy to find it available on audio from Overdrive/Libby.  When I put it on a poster in the library (What to read after you watch Black Panther), I knew it was time to actually read it myself.

Everfair by Nisi ShawlEverfair by Nisi Shawl. Narrated by Allyson Johnson. Tantor Media, 2016.
This is an alternate history of the Congo, which in real life was controlled and horribly abused by Belgium.  In 1889, a group of people from super-liberal Fabian Society in England join up rather incongruously with some African-American missionaries and Chinese laborers, where they buy land from Belgium to form a Utopian society in the Congo, which they call Everfair.  But the Congo had residents before Belgium invaded, and its king and head queen don’t want any foreigners taking over their land, however well-intentioned they are.  The story follows the little country and its characters over the course of decades, as people fall in love and break relationships off, fight battles and survive or not, become more convinced of their faith or gradually shift, and as their own perception of the country they’re trying to make changes.  My personal favorites were British Daisy and French Lisette, sometimes living together, sometimes apart, especially as the mixed-race Lisette realizes the depths of Daisy’s unconscious prejudice.  Queen Josina, the favorite of the king’s wives, is also a wonderful character.

I was glad to have been warned by other reviewers (Maureen at By Singing Light, at least) to expect a story of the country, so that I wasn’t disappointed at how characters come and go in the story. Although it didn’t come up in my original description, there are definite fantasy elements here similar to those in Black Panther.  I don’t know if it’s still Afrofuturism, the category I put it in for my display, if it’s set in the past – but it’s cool all the same.  Allyson Johnson does a fine job reading, narrating with an American accent but giving all the characters appropriate accents, including African, British, French, Irish, and various Americans.  The only place she faltered was with a German who had only a sentence or two, so I forgive her.  Overall, this is a compelling and thought-provoking book.

Nnedi Okorafor has been my go-to author for African fantasy for about a decade now, though I hear N.K. Jemison is fabulous, too.  Stay tuned for more if the summer reading hordes allow, and share your favorite authors!

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3 Great Graphic Novels for Kids

This weekend is the A2CAF, the Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival, which I used to love helping out with back when it was still Kids Read Comics.  Naturally, I’m at work at my regular library rather than there right now, but in celebration of graphic novels for kids, here are three I’ve read recently.

The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O'NeillThe Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill. Oni Press, 2017.
Greta, a young goblin (though she just looks like a brown-skinned girl with small horn buds), is learning the nearly forgotten sword smith trade from her mother.  One day she finds a small lost dragon in the street. It’s a tea dragon, and her efforts to return it lead her to the Tea Dragon Society – two older men (or at least males – one is decidedly nonhuman) who live together and a shy girl about Greta’s age with memory loss – who care for the dragons who grow tea.  Raising the tea dragons and the slow, careful harvesting of their leaves for tea is also nearly a lost art, one that Greta is eager to learn, too. Like Princess Princess Ever After, there are gentle LGBTQ overtones here.  This is an oversized but slim book with beautiful, beautiful manga-inspired art, just the right length (as I think Ursula Vernon said) for reading over a cup of tea.  I would really love a longer, more fleshed-out story, as well as a tea dragon of my own, but this is still lovely.  There’s a related card game coming out later this month, which I’m also quite curious about.

Suee and the Shadow by Ginger Ly and Molly ParkSuee and the Shadow by Ginger Ly and Molly Park. Translated by Keo Lee and Jane Lee. Amulet Books, 2017.
Here is the last of the Cybils middle grade graphic novel finalists.  (You can read my reviews of the other 2017 finalists here and here.) In this decidedly creepy Korean import, Suee and her father move from the city to the suburbs of “Outskirtsville”, where her father continually breaks his promise to come home in time to cook dinner.  Suee feels a great sense of superiority towards the country kids at her new school, which allows her to feel smug rather than hurt when she doesn’t make friends easily.  She only barely remembers a trip to the school Exhibit Hall, where she a handled an old pot.  But suddenly, her shadow is talking back to her and is not at all pleasant.  Other children around the school are losing their shadows altogether and becoming so zombie-like the unaffected children call them “zeroes”, though the adults don’t notice the severity of the problem.  Two people refuse to be put off by Suee’s prickly behavior – a smart, popular boy named Hyunwoo and Haeun, a shy girl in an old-fashioned yellow dress.  Can Suee trust them enough to solve the mystery? This is a great one for budding horror fans.

Be Prepared by Vera BrosgolBe Prepared by Vera Brosgol. First Second, 2018.
In this fictionalized version of her own memories, Vera tells the story of how young Vera ended up spending a summer at a rustic camp.  Vera always feels left out at school – she’s invited to sleepovers, for example, but left out of the circle.  Her family can’t afford the expensive summer camps other kids go to. When she hears about a camp just for Russian-American kids that her church could help pay for, she begs her mother to let her go, convinced this will be a place she can finally fit in. Except, not so much.  At nearly 10, she’s put in a tent with two 14-year-olds who have been coming since they were seven.  Everything is done in Russian, including history lessons, and while she can speak it fine, her reading is at the same level it was when she left Russia at age five.  The stinking, doorless outhouse is a nightmare, and her little brother won’t speak to her.  Will anything redeem this trip, and will she even survive to be picked up?  Brosgol tells the story in rounded pictures, showing her eyes big behind her giant glasses.  The coloring is in shades of green throughout, which somehow works even when highlighting rosy cheeks and knees.  This is a so-awful-it’s-hilarious story to appeal to the many fans of realistic graphic novels like Smile and Real Friends

Three graphic novels, all very different – it just goes to show (if you weren’t already convinced) that it’s a format, not a genre.

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Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green

Last time, I reviewed this year’s Schneider Family Teen award winner, You’re Welcome, Universe.  Here’s the middle grade winner.

Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari GreenMacy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green. Pajama Press, 2017
Macy is in sixth grade and struggling.  She’s horrified when her class is assigned a genealogy project, since she doesn’t know her father considers her mother to be her only family.  A stray comment about this from her best friend sets off a fight that lasts for most of the book.  Furthermore, her mother is getting married – Macy would prefer having her to herself, as she has all her life – and they are leaving their house and Macy’s wildflower rainbow of a garden to live in a boring beige house with the new stepfather and his twin daughters.  Perhaps worst of all, Macy’s mother insists that she help elderly Iris Gillan next door pack her books, as she’s packing up to move to assisted living.  Not only does Macy prefer to plan her own time, but Mrs. Gillan doesn’t speak sign – how will they communicate?

With notes, cookies, and shared books, as it happens.  Mrs. Gillan prefers to be called Iris, and explains that she’s named for the goddess of rainbows, not the flower.  I was happy that the books they bonded over included some recent titles, as well as classics like Anne of Green Gables.  (Though I love so many of the classics, when only classics are name-dropped, it makes me think that the authors of children’s books only read them themselves when they fit in that age range.)  I loved Iris’ language of cookies, too, explaining that each different kind she bakes sends a different message, along the lines of “laughter”, or “you can do it.” Conversations with Iris, as brief as they are, help Macy gain perspective on her life.

Even though being Deaf is a major part of Macy’s life, as in You’re Welcome, Universe, she doesn’t see this as a limitation.  The people who are important to Macy all learn to sign, and she (for better or worse) doesn’t really care about the others, with the exception of Iris.  Macy goes to a mainstream school, plays on a soccer team, and has a rich life of reading and hobbies. The book is written engagingly, in quick-to-read blank verse.  I think my daughter would enjoy it, but I couldn’t get her to read it, likely because she’s quite sensitive about type size right now.  In any case, the difficulties with friends and changing families are ones that will resonate with a broad range of kids.  Even though it looks like the author does not have hearing loss herself, I’m really happy that more books about DHH experience are coming out now – I remember El Deafo being the only one, so deeply touching to my daughter that she took it to bed with her like a teddy bear.

This year’s Newbery winner, Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly, also stars a girl with hearing loss, as well as the Filipino-American boy who’s in the well on the cover.  I listened to it and enjoyed it quite a bit more than Blackbird Fly, but neglected to take notes on it, so I’m afraid I won’t be doing a full review here. But as it won the Newbery, I expect you’ve heard of it already.

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You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner

Once again, a book winning an award – in this case the Schneider Family Award – pushed me from meaning to read it someday to actually doing so.

You're Welcome, Universe by Whitney GardnerYou’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner. Random House Teens, 2017.
Julia believes that graffiti is art, and she’s passionately devoted to it.  She’s really just trying to help her best friend when she covers up some unfortunate slurs about her on the back wall of the school, slurs that were properly reported and that the administration has done nothing about.  But the best friend snitches on her, and the administration doesn’t see it the same way.

Before she really knows what’s happened, Julia is kicked out of the Kingston School for the Deaf and trying regular school with a “terp” or interpreter named Casey.  She’s not really interested in fitting in at school, and despises Casey’s friendly eagerness as well as the bubbly blond cheerleader-type girl she calls YP for the yoga pants she’s always wearing.  Though Julia’s not about to give up graffiti, she’s incensed when someone else starts editing her graffiti, adding admittedly cool skeletons to her art.

Meanwhile, at school, lots of teachers seem to think she’s only pretending to be Deaf to get extra attention.  The art teacher is one of the only understanding ones, and though he’s male, he’s somewhat saved from the unfortunate trope of the Super Insightful Teacher Dude who Makes a Difference by their being some very clueless male teachers as well, such as the teacher who assumes that when she says she admires her moms, it’s because she doesn’t know her English grammar.  At home, though Julia loves her mothers, she’s not able to talk to them about her current struggles. Her job as a fryer at McDonald’s used to be at least a place to see her best friend, but this too becomes torture as her former best friend also works there, and starts crushing on the same boy as Julia.

Julia is full of anger at the world for much of the book, and even though I had to shake my head at some – make that many – of her choices, she also felt authentic to me.  I appreciated that she was going to make her own way, no matter how hard she fell on the way, without giving in to any requests to smile along the way.

There is so much detail in this book about Deaf culture and the realities of living with hearing loss that I had to look it up – the author is not Deaf herself, but worked closely with members of that community to make it authentic.  She is a graffiti artist herself, and this shows.  I also appreciated that Julia is shown as an intersectional character – Deaf, South Asian-American, part of an LGBT family – with strong interests and identity outside of that.  It’s definitely one I’ll be sharing with my own DHH daughter in a few years, and recommended especially now for fans of street art and contemporary YA fiction.

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3 Great Middle Grade Realistic Picks

If you’re looking for some contemporary realistic fiction, here are three solid titles for a range of tastes from full-on adventure to more introspective.
To Catch a Cheat by Varian JohnsonTo Catch a Cheat by Varian Johnson. Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2016.
The officially-ended Greene Gang of the Great Greene Heist returns with a new issue: they haven’t been up to any mischief, but they have been framed with a doctored video showing them flooding the school.  It was clearly a very deliberate effort, timed to show them doing it when none of them have good alibis.  Even though Jackson and his best friend Charlie have been going through a rough spot lately, they badly need to prove their innocence.  Who could have pulled such a clever con, and why?  It will take all of the combined smarts of the diverse group to figure it out.  It’s a lot of caper fun, with some friendship issues and a smidge of middle school-appropriate romance.  There’s even a guide to the various cons and their sources at the back.  It’s short and snappy, especially perfect for kids who have trouble finding time or focus for reading.

The Parker Inheritance by Varian JohnsonThe Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018.
I went into Johnson’s new book expecting more of the fun of his last two books.  It is fun, but it’s longer and takes on more serious issues within the framework of a direct tribute to Ellen Raskin’s classic The Westing Game.

Candice’s parents are newly divorced, and while things are being worked on in their house in Atlanta, Candice and her mother take a trip to Candice’s grandmother’s old house in a small town in South Carolina. That grandmother, the first African-American city manager the city had, was fired after digging up the tennis courts looking for treasure.  But when Candice finds a letter in the attic from an eccentric billionaire promising a large reward to the city if they can find it, Candice is determined to find it and prove that her grandmother wasn’t crazy.

She’s helped in her quest by neighbor and fellow book lover Brandon, who’s also eager to stay out of the way of bullies who persecute him because they think he’s gay.  Frustratingly, his grandfather’s reaction is to try to scold him into being more stereotypically masculine.

Meanwhile, we also get flashbacks to 1957, and a high school girl named Siobhan Washington, the daughter of the tennis coach at the town’s Black high school, as well as a secret night time tennis match between the town’s two high school tennis teams that ended with Coach Washington and his family being forced out of town.

Though racism is an obvious and large issue, the book also deals with many others, including passing, the aforementioned bullying, the importance of treating gay people as people and (quite unexpectedly but sweetly) romance writers as real writers.  It’s all woven together with a tricky puzzle mystery that should indeed appeal to fans of The Westing Game or Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.

Amina's Voice by Hena KhanAmina’s Voice by Hena Khan. Salaam Reads, Simon & Schuster, 2017.
Middle school and a visit from an uncle from Pakistan bring changes for Amina.  She feels her best friend Soojin growing away from her as she’s suddenly interested in boys, hanging out with a girl who was cruel to both of them in fourth grade, and – after years of being the only kids with non-Western names in school – thinking of choosing a Western name for herself when her family finally gets their American citizenship.  Then, there’s a plan to hold a Koran-reciting contest at her mosque, and Amina has trouble pronouncing the Koran the proper Arabic way and is worried of being humiliated when her father says she has to participate.  Music – especially playing piano while singing Motown – gives Amina comfort and confidence, but the visiting uncle doesn’t think it’s appropriate for a good Muslim girl.  All of the personal issues take a backseat, though, when the mosque and related community center are burned and vandalized.  Introverted, musical Amina, working hard to balance faith, family, and friends, reminded me so very much of myself at the same age.  I loved her so much and am very glad I read her story.

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The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X by Elizabeth AcevedoThe Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. Harper Teen, 2018.

“My parents probably wanted a girl who would sit in the pews
wearing pretty florals and a soft smile.
They got combat boots and a mouth silent
until it’s sharp as an island machete.”

In this novel in verse, we meet Xiomara, growing up in Harlem the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. She chafes at the restrictions that culture places on her, to be a devout Catholic, to be submissive, to clean the house where her twin brother is given free time.  Her parents haven’t shown her affection since she grew large and curvy, and she’s blamed when men hit on her.  Her brother, whom she calls Twin because no one else can, goes to a different school and is fighting his own battles.  She also gets support from her best friend Caridad, and there is a sweet but definitely not trouble-free romance with a boy from chemistry class, Aman.

That romance – definitely forbidden by a mother who has forbidden dating – is a strong impetus for Xiomara to look outside the boundaries that were already chafing her.  But just as important is Xiomara’s English teacher, who learned how to pronounce her name ahead of time, praises her writing and encourages her to join the poetry slam club.  We really see just how little of herself Xiomara is willing to share when we see side-by-side essays on school topics, one for herself full of questioning, secrets, pain, and the subdued ones, answering the same question but usually on entirely different subjects, that she actually turns in.  It’s honest and beautiful, with a hopeful but believable ending. I cried real tears.

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At By Singing Light: Anniversary Guest Post

Hello friends –

I’m a day late in posting this, but I have a guest post of my favorite books of 2006 over at By Singing Light, to celebrate my friend Maureen’s twelfth blogging anniversary.  Head on over to congratulate Maureen!

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Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali

Saints and Misfits by S. K. AliSaints and Misfits by S. K. Ali. Salaam Reads, 2017.
Meet Janna, a teen girl trying to figure out her increasingly complicated life.  She’s  committed to wearing hijab as part of her mostly artsy, layered outfits (swim suits are a notable and awkward exception.) Her divorced parents observe their faith very differently – her now-remarried father mostly doesn’t, and gives her a hard time for her conservative clothing.

Janna struggles with a crush on a non-Muslim boy and her brother Muhammad falling for the most annoying, super-girly, upbeat-religious girl at the mosque.  But worst of all, the handsome cousin of her best friend, Fizz, tries to assault her during a party at Fizz’s house.  She’s beset with fear in case it should happen again, at the same time sure that no one would believe any allegations against a person with such a perfect public front.

At the same time, her character is rounded out by her sweet relationship with an older man in her apartment complex, Mr. Ram, whom she takes to play games at the senior center.  She also helps her uncle with the mosque’s web site, keeping it updated and editing the grammar on his “Ask the Imam” letters to standard English.  She also enjoys sneaking up to the roof of the school to eat halal gummi bears with her best friend there.

I started listening to this on audio and had to quit – the reader was one of those who slowed down for unnaturally clear and therefore awkward-sounding diction and used only one cadence for every sentence.  I was starting to hate the whole book – but once I switched over to print, Janna’s true, prickly-sweet personality was able to shine through.  Janna’s faith is an important part of the book, but any teen who struggles with friends, family and boys will find something to relate to here.

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Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

I was planning to do another triple review in the interests of catching up, but have fallen to the reality of headaches and patrons with long reference questions (that last a much more pleasant reason!).  So more contemporary teen girls on the way soon, but a brief review of an excellent book for now.

Piecing Me Together by Renée WatsonPiecing Me Together by Renée Watson. Bloomsbury, 2017.Jade is a junior on scholarship to St. Francis, which she gets to via a long bus ride through Portland every day.  She’s one of the only Black students there, doing everything she can to someday get out of her neighborhood.  She’s worked especially hard at Spanish in hopes of being nominated for a service trip abroad.  Instead, she’s nominated for the local Woman to Woman program and assigned a mentor who keeps skipping their meetings.  Also this year, as she’s riding to school, she meets Sam, a girl from the poor white neighborhood on the way, and makes one of her first real friends at school.

Jade’s hobby is collage (I’d love to see some of the described collages), and this is also a metaphor for her life, as she figures out who she is and who people think she is or should be in all the areas of her life – from the people from the mentoring program who think she needs to be “fixed” in some way, to the difficulties fitting in with friends she no longer goes to school with, and even the differences in food from one circle to the next.  No one seems to want a girl from the ‘hood who is smart and cares about education but still loves Kool-aid and fast food.  Everyone has prejudices, and it’s inspiring to watch Jade learn how to navigate the differences and stand up for herself and other Black girls.  It made me all teary-eyed, and I need to go back and read Watson’s other books now.

This book has won all the awards – a Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King author award, and the Cybils Young Adult Fiction award – but I heard about it first from Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile.

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