Root Magic by Eden Royce

Root Magic
by Eden Royce.

Walden Pond Press, 2021. 

ISBN 978-0062899576.

Read from library copy. 

It’s 1963 in South Carolina, and Jezebel and Jay Turner are mourning the recent death of their grandmother, an admired practioner of Root, the Gullah Geechee traditional magic. Now that her grandmother is gone, Jez is being targeted by supernatural monsters for her untamed power.   Their mother had always been skeptical and not wanted them to learn Root, but under the circumstances, she allows the kids’ uncle, Doc, to begin to teach them.  

This would be plenty exciting on its own, but school integration is just beginning.  The members of the Gullah Geechee community, island dwelling and mostly poor, are looked down on even by the mainland Black kids at school.  So when Jez meets a new girl, Susie, she’s excited at the possibility of friendship, even if Susie isn’t willing to take Jez to her own house.  There’s also a power-hungry sheriff who sees his position as an opportunity to make the lives of all the Black residents difficult, especially anyone who dares to stand up to him.  And the Turner family is not one to submit to injustice easily… 

The sticky air of the swamp, the warm connections of family, the danger and thrill of Root – its potential joys and the danger lurking under the surface of every body of water and behind any trees – as well as the atmosphere of entrenched oppression – are all brought vividly to life here.  It was very interesting to compare the Root as shown in Root Magic with the Root of Legendborn – clearly related, though used differently.  I also loved the little doll that Jez’s grandmother left her, which was animated enough to help her, much like Vasilisa’s doll in “Vasilisa the Beautiful”.  But most of all, I enjoyed seeing Jezebel grow in power, confidence, and kindness. 

This is the first book I have seen from a Gullah Geechee perspective, but other books that mix a strong sense of place with magic and African-American history and culture include Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes, The Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown, Just South of Home by Karen Strong, and of course Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia.

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Historical, Middle Grade, Print, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Life Between Cultures: Red, White and Whole and Amina’s Song

You know how sometimes you pick up a book and it’s a little surprising how perfectly it is just what you wanted to read at that moment? And maybe it shouldn’t be surprising because after all, you did pick it (or perhaps let someone you trust pick it for you), but somehow it is.

Here are two moving stories from authors I’ve enjoyed in the past, both telling stories of middle school life for first-generation Americans, and which hit the spot for me so perfectly it was really hard to put them down. (Also, I ended up reading Red, White and Whole right after reading Red, White and Royal Blue. They are very different genres, despite the similar titles, but both made me both laugh and cry.)

Red, White and Whole by Rajani LaRocca

Red, White and Whole
by Rajani LaRocca.

HarperCollins, 2021.

ISBN 978-0063047426.

Read from library copy.

It’s 1983, and Reha feels like she’s living a double life.  There’s the self she is on the weekends, when she spends time with her Indian best friend Sunny (short for Sunita), and the self she is at school, where there are no other Indian-American kids and her best friend is Rachel, who at least understands belonging to a religion no one else at school does.  When she partners with a new boy in English class, these two parts come into conflict as her parents don’t approve of being in such close contact with someone of the opposite sex.  And of course there’s lots of pressure for Reha to be more successful than her parents.  She wants to be a doctor, but when her mother becomes gravely ill, this wish is put to the test. 

The central metaphor is of our blood – how we have red and white cells in our body, very different, but both the same.  This novel in verse also looks poetically at the meaning of Reha’s name – star – while her mother’s name, Punam, means moon.  This moving, sad and hopeful story is very different from LaRocca’s Midsummer’s Mayhem, but also excellent.  

Amina’s Song
by Hena Khan.

Salaam Reads, 2021.

ISBN 978-1534459885.

Read from library copy.

As this sequel to Amina’s Voice opens, Amina and her family are just winding up a trip to visit their relatives in Pakistan.  The uncle she dreaded in the first book is now beloved, but having health problems, and they are all relieved to see him. She’s now good friends with her slightly older cousin, Zohra, who’s 16.   Amina spends lots of time filming moments of the stay – the marketplace, the joy of the afternoon chai, where the family gathers to drink chai and eat delicious sweets every afternoon.  

Back at home, she wants to share the beauty of Pakistan with her friends, but they don’t really want to listen.  Worse yet, her best friend feels threatened by how much Amina misses Zohra.  Worst of all, when she chooses Malala Yousafi as a topic for her school’s biography wax museum, her classmates think that Pakistan is a horrible backwards place she’s lucky to have escaped.  And just to add to everything, she makes friends with a boy, Nico, whose interest in digital music meshes nicely with Amina’s love of singing and her new desire to write songs.  But it’s upsetting when both her parents and her other friends think that they must be interested in each other romantically.  

It’s very satisfying to see Amina come up with a brand-new way to share her love of Pakistan and renew her friendships.  Her Muslim faith is important here as well as Amina works with people from her Mosque to help set up apartments for new refugees.  This is another uplifting story of the challenges and joys of living between cultures, mixed with the ordinary hardships of middle school.  I was so happy to spend more time with Amina! 

Here are some more realistic middle grade books from the point of view of new and first-generation Americans:

Posted in Books, Middle Grade, Print, Realistic, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Strange Birds: a Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers

I really enjoyed Celia Pérez’s First Rule of Punk, and a Scout-flavored book seemed right up my alley. It took me a couple years longer than I’d planned to get to it, but I’m glad I did!

Strange Birds by Celia C. Pérez

Strange Birds:
a Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers
by Celia C. Pérez.

Kokila, 2019.

ISBN 978-0425290439.

Read from library copy.

Four very different girls unite in what starts out as a secret club just to have friends and grows into action for a cause. Cuban American Ofelia Castillo dreams of being a journalist, and is lobbying her parents to send her to a summer journalism course in New York.  Aster Douglas lives with her grandfather, one of the first Black professors at the local university, while her mother is deployed overseas.  She practices cooking from Julie Child and is nervous about going into seventh grade at the local middle school after being homeschooled most of her life.  Cat Garcia is the youngest of four sisters, under pressure from her mother to enter the Miss Floras competition that’s the culmination of years of effort in this Scout-type group.   Finally, Lane DiSanti is spending the summer with her wealthy grandmother while her parents are on two different continents getting a divorce.  Her grandmother would also like her to join the Floras, but Lane is interested in modern street art, not old traditions.  Still, she decides to put out secret invitations to form a secret Scout troop of her own.  

Everything is awkward and uncomfortable when they first meet, but soon the new group bonds over a plan to stop the use of the historical hat with real endangered bird feathers used by the Floras in their ceremony.  Shenanigans ensue, with all the girls learning that both friendship and activism are more important and more difficult than they had thought.  

With chapters told from alternating points of view, we really get to know all the girls and their concerns well – great both for character readers like me, and for kids of different backgrounds to find characters they can see themselves in, including brief discussions of how the characters are treated differently depending on their skin color. The small-town Florida atmosphere is so vividly painted I could almost feel the humidity. A “handbook” at the end includes an activity based on each of the girl’s major interests – how to be a journalist, sew your own badge, start bird-watching, and bake Aster’s famous chocolate chip-chip cookies.  Highly recommended!  

Posted in Middle Grade, Print, Realistic, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Asian-American Graphic Novels 2020-2021

I’ve now been putting together lists of Asian-American graphic novels since 2014. Since these lists would get out of control if I kept putting all the books in each one, this year I thought I’d start putting in just the books that have come out since my 2019 list (including a couple of older titles that I missed on that list.) Links are to my own reviews where available.

Adult

  • Apsara Engine by Bishakh Som (2020)
  • Ascender Vol 2: the Dead Sea by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen (2020)
  • Ascender Vol 3: the Digital Mage by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen (2020)
  • In Waves by A.J. Dungo (2019)
  • The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine (2020)
  • Monstress vol 5 and 6 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda (2020-2021)
  • Red Sonja and Vampirella Meet Betty and Veronica by Amy Chu (2020)
  • Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto (2021)
  • Spellbound by Bishakh Som (2020)
  • Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal (2018)

Teen

  • Almost American Girl by Robin Ha (2020)
  • Displacement by Kiki Hughes (2020)
  • Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang (2020)
  • Flamer by Mike Curato (2020)
  • Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (2020)
  • Shadow of the Batgirl by Sarah Kuhn and Nicole Goux (2020)
  • Superman Smashes the Clan by Gene Luen Yang (2020)

Youth

  • The Adventures of Team Pom: Squid Happens by Isabel Roxas (2021)
  • Donut Feed the Squirrels by Mika Song (2020)
  • Green Lantern: Legacy by Minh Lê and Andie Tong (2020)
  • Marvel: Avengers Assembly Book 1: Orientation by Preeti Chhibber (2020)
  • Marvel: Avengers Assembly Book 2: the Sinister Substitute by Preeti Chhibber (2021)
  • Measuring Up by Lillie Lamotte and Ann Xu (2020)
  • Pawcasso by Remi Lai (2021)
  • Sky Island by Amy Chu (2020)
  • Space Bear by Ethan Young (2020)
  • Stargazing by Jen Wang (2019)
  • Tamamo the Fox Maiden: and other Asian Stories by Kei Macdonald and Kate Ashwin (2019)
  • Tidesong by Wendy Xu (Nov. 2021)

This list feels pitifully short, even including things by Asian-American authors that don’t seem to have Asian-American characters. If you, dear reader, have any that I might add to this list – books published in the last two years – please let me know! Publishers, please give us more!

[Updated 7/16/21 to add more titles, especially Filipino-American representation. Thank you to Isabel Roxas for the tips!]

Posted in Adult, Books, Graphic Novel, Lists, Middle Grade, Teen/Young Adult | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

BLOG TOUR! Hollow Chest by Brita Sandstrom

Today I am honored to be part of the blog tour for Brita Sandstrom’s debut book, HOLLOW CHEST. Thanks so much to Walden Pond Press for inviting me to join!

About the Book

Author Brita Sandstrom

Debut author Brita Sandstrom arrives with a sweeping, unforgettable historical ghost story of the darkness around and inside us, and the courage it takes to keep hope alive.

Charlie has been having nightmares. Eyes watching him in the night, claws on his chest, holding him down. His dreams have been haunted for years, ever since German bombs rained down on London, taking his father’s life, taking his city’s spirit, taking his beloved brother, Theo, off to war in France.

Now Charlie is left to take care of his grandpa Fitz while his mother works, waiting for the day when Theo will come home. And with World War II nearly won, that day is almost here. Grandpa Fitz warns Charlie that soldiers sometimes come back missing a piece of themselves, but Charlie isn’t worried. Whatever Theo has lost, Charlie will help him find it.

When Theo finally does return, though, he is cold and distant. But Charlie refuses to accept that the brother he knew is gone, and soon, he discovers the reason for his brother’s change: war wolves. These are terrifying ancient beasts who consume the hearts of those broken by grief.

The wolves have followed soldiers back home from the front. And if Charlie truly wants to save Theo, he’s going to have to find them and get his brother’s heart back. But can a heart that’s been eaten ever be replaced?

About the Author

Brita Sandstrom is a graduate of Hamline University’s MFA program in writing for children and young adults. Hollow Chest is her first book. She lives with her family and a collection of cats in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can visit her online at www.britasandstrom.com

Cover of Hollow Chest by Brita Sandstrom

Review

Hollow Chest by Brita Sandstrom. Walden Pond Press, 2021. ISBN 978-0062870742. Review copy kindly sent by the publisher.  

In London, February 1945, World War II is winding down.  Charlie is counting down to the day when his older brother Theo is set to return from the war front, injured but alive.  Charlie’s had to drop out of school to care for his aging grandfather (who lost an arm in World War I) while his mother works since Theo left, and is really looking forward to a return to normal.  He’s still woken by nightmares of sirens and yellow eyes watching him, the unease sticking with him even though the air raids have stopped. Streets and buildings are still in ruins from the Blitz, food is still scarce, but Charlie is hanging on to hope.  

But when Theo comes back, he isn’t the same – his spirit and interest in life are wounded, as well as his leg.  The adults Charlie meets – both in his family and the nurse and soldier he befriends at the hospital he visits for school – all tell him to give Theo time.  Still, Charlie sees shadowy wolves weaving through crowds and lurking around corners.  Once in a while, someone like Grandad or Mad Melly, the crazy woman surrounded by pigeons who pushes all her belongings around in a pram, will acknowledge that they exist – but forget they mentioned anything the next moment.  Slowly, Charlie becomes convinced that they are real, and they have eaten Theo’s heart.  And Charlie is determined to track down the wolves and get it back, no matter what.  

If this sounds unsettling, it is.  Mid-war London is not a comfortable place to be, and the missing buildings, broken pavements, shortages, and streams of soldiers returning broken as well are all there, everyone trying to make the best of the terrible situation. And Charlie has allies on his quest, including Mad Mellie and his cat, Biscuits, who is as brave and fierce and silly as a cat should be, and there are great moments of connection and humor as well as the fear. All the human characters read as white, though Charlie and his family appear to be Catholic, a little out of the mainstream in London at the time.  

Here’s my favorite passage about Biscuits:

“‘When have I ever let you starve?’ Charlie demanded, bending down to rub her little ears the way she liked. But Biscuits refused to be distracted from her imminent starvation and flung herself onto the ground, languishing.”

And here’s a creepy one:

“Charlie could feel [the war wolf’s nose] all the way through his jacket and jumper, a sharp lump of ice sucking up all the warmth in his body with each deep breath. Safe in his chest, Charlie’s heart fluttered – thump-THUD, thump-THUD – like it was try to shy away…”

The end is bittersweet and unexpected, full of resilience and hope. 

"War-ravaged London springs vividly to life in Sandstrom's exception debut, provid[ing] a rich setting through which to examine the gragility and incredibly resilience of the human heart." - *Booklist HOLLOW CHEST Brita Sandstrom, June 8, 2021 from Walden Pond Press

Be sure to visit the other stops on the BLOG TOUR JUNE 7-JUNE 15

June 7 Nerdy Book Club @nerdybookclub

June 8 Bluestocking Thinking @bluesockgirl

June 9 Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers @grgenius

June 10 Teachers Who Read @teachers_read

June 11 Charlotte’s Library @charlotteslibrary

June 13 Storymamas @storymamas

June 14 A Library Mama @alibrarymama

June 15 Writer’s Rumpus @kirsticall

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Historical, Middle Grade, Print | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cattywampus and Cinders and Sparrows

Every year I participate in the Cybils Awards, I read books more quickly than I can review them. Here are a couple of the books I’d wanted to share with you since the fall. 

Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo.

Scholastic, 2020.

ISBN 978-1338561593.

Read from library copy.

In the Appalachian town of Howler’s Hollow, the women of two magical families, the McGills and the Hearns, have been rivals for generations.  Delpha McGill has been secretly learning magic from her mother’s spell book, but isn’t sure of her skills.  Meanwhile, Katybird Hearn, who is intersex, has magic welling up inside her, making her hands glow and even hurt with magic she doesn’t know how to use.  Still, she’s not sure that the magic will see her as enough of a girl to let her use it properly.  When Delpha and Katybird clash, everything goes wrong – a walking outhouse and a graveyard of witch grannies come back to life just for starters- both girls will have to work together to find a solution.  Other memorable characters included Tyler, a geeky, overenthusiastic weredog with two mamas, and Katybird’s pet racoon, Pudge.  While there’s no racial diversity, there’s a range of LGBTQ and economic experiences, with some good friendship building wrapped up in the over-the-top magic.  

Cinders and Sparrows
by Stefan Bachmann. Read by Justine Eyre.

Greenwillow Books, 2020.

Print ISBN 978-0062289957. Audio ASIN B07YN584DZ.

Listened to audiobook on Libby. 

I hadn’t read any Stefan Bachmann since The Peculiar back in 2013, so I was very happy to see this. 12-year-old orphan Zita is shocked when she inherits Blackbird Castle.  She quickly finds out, though, that all is not well.  Her family is frozen in the dining room, and the guardian who is supposed to be teaching her to use her magical powers considers yelling good teaching.  While she befriends the only two servants, Minifer and Bram, they must keep this secret from the guardian and the pair are clearly magically prevented from telling her anything useful.  (All the human characters here read as white.) She also gains the companionship of a raven and a ghost dog.  As the house gives her clues and she starts to regain foggy memories of her kidnapping as a very young child, she becomes more and more convinced that whoever cursed the rest of her family is after her as well.  There are numerous monsters, both new and familiar, including triggles, fangores, and ghosts galore.  This doesn’t feel like it breaks terribly new ground, but it was well done fantasy with a classic gothic feel.  I really enjoyed the audiobook, read with a British accent and with beautiful classical interludes reflecting the mood of that part of the book.  

Posted in Audiobook, Books, Fantasy, Middle Grade, Print | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

I had worked closely with Angeline Boulley on putting together the Decolonizing Libraries panel for the KidLitCon 2020 that never happened, so naturally between that and being a book set in my home state, I went out and bought my own copy.  Trigger warning: this book contains scenes of murder and rape, as well as drug use. 

Firekeeper’s Daughter
by Angeline Boulley.

Henry Holt, 2021.

ISBN 978-1250766564.

Read from purchased copy.  

Daunis Fontaine starts every morning giving an offering of semaa and praying to the Creator for a specific one of the Grandfathers – the values of the Anishinaabemowin – before running to visit her grandmother in the nursing home where she’s been since her stroke.  It’s the summer after high school, and Daunis is still trying to decide whether to go to the University of Michigan in the fall, or to stay home and go to the local college with her best friend, Lily, where she can also continue helping with her grandmother.  

Her white mother got pregnant with her in high school, but due to drama and the prejudice of her own parents never married Daunis’s father, nor put his name on her birth certificate.  That last has meant that though Daunis is still close with her paternal aunt and her half brother Levi, she isn’t enrolled with the tribe.  

Early in the book, Daunis is witness to a murder, and all around her people – her own uncle, other girls her age – turn up dead.  None of them appear to have been murdered, but there are still too many people. When the FBI turns up asking her to help, Daunis has to decide if cooperating with them will help or hurt the community she loves. 

Things that I really enjoyed here: the magic of coming onto Sugar Island, the place that feels most like home for her; the inclusion of her dreams; the many included Ojibway words; the hard work she does with both family and romantic relationships and especially the way the romance wrapped up and the balance of beauty and ugliness of spirit in people and communities.  There’s also a lot of hockey, which feels right, even though it’s not an area of expertise for me.  

This is being billed as both a thriller and as a Native Nancy Drew.  There is certainly plenty of tension, good friendship, and a little romance.  But the strongest thread that comes through is Daunis herself, her confidence in the ways of her people, her respect for her elders, and her love for the land.  Her spirit and that of her people shines through the darkness of the corruption and pain at the heart of the string of deaths.  It is a stunning book, and I am so very glad it’s getting the attention it deserves.  

You can watch a conversation between Angeline Boulley and Louise Erdrich on YouTube.  

Posted in Books, Print, Realistic, Teen/Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

More Modern Adventures with Gods: Girl Giant and the Monkey King and City of the Plague God

Here are two new contemporary fantasy adventures, both with enough action and introspection to satisfy an array of readers.

Girl Giant and the
Monkey King
by Van Hoang.

Roaring Brook Press, 2020.

ISBN 978-1250240415. 

Read from library copy. 
Ebook available on Libby.

Eleven-year-old Thom Ngo’s mother has recently moved them from California, where Thom had friends and was a key player on the soccer team, to Georgia, where she has no friends, can’t play well, and there aren’t even any bubble tea shops close to their house.  She’s recently become strong, so strong that she’s always breaking things like doorknobs accidentally.  When she actually tries to play soccer well, instead of avoiding the ball, she knocks out the rival goalie.  On top of that, she’s gone from being one of many students of color to being one of two Asian-American kids in her class.  So when her mother spots the Culture Day flyer Thom had hidden in her backpack, Thom is horrified at her mother’s suggestion that she dress in traditional Vietnamese clothing for it.  Thom has learned never to ask questions about the father she never knew, and is used to being a team with her mother – but this seems so potentially humiliating that it’s worth disappointing her mother.  

When her mother takes her to a local temple to reinforce her cultural pride, she winds up with – the Monkey King of Vietnamese legend?  He is very impressed with her strength, and soon has her skipping class and sneaking out at night to practice her skills.  Then, a new and effortlessly cool Vietnamese boy, Kha, appears at her school wanting to be friends with her.  He tells her that the Monkey King is a trickster and can’t be trusted.  Can Thom really trust either of them?  And will she have the time to make a thoughtful decision when she’s being whisked away to adventures in multiple magical realms?  This story of modern-day kids interacting with gods will appeal to both Percy Jackson fans and those looking for stories of the struggles of finding a place in middle school, an aspect of the story that made it feel much more fleshed-out to me than many similar stories.  

City of the
Plague God
by Sarwat Chadda

Rick Riordan Presents, 2021.

ISBN 978-1368051507.

Listened to the audiobook on Libby. Ebook also available.

 

Sikander Aziz has never been to Iraq.  All he knows are the stories his parents told him of their life there before war forced them to emigrate to New York City. His brother, Mo, traveled there doing charity work and botany before his death a few years earlier, though he told Sik stories both of modern-day Iraq and the legends of Mesopotamia, most especially the epic of Gilgamesh.  Now that Mo is gone, though, Sik spends all his free time helping to run his family’s deli.  That is, until the deli is invaded by two horrible, pestilent demons, who demand that he give “it” to them, because Nergal wants it.  Sik knows that Nergal is the Mesopotamian god of war and plague – but he has no idea what “it” is.  A mysterious person rescues him from the demons… but unless he can figure out what the MacGuffin is and get to it before Nergal, plague will keep spreading through New York.

The rescuer turns out to be Belet, the prickly and super-competent adopted daughter of Ishtar, goddess of love, war, and cats.  Soon Sik is hanging with Ishtar and Belet – and somehow Daoud, Mo’s best friend, whom Sik sees as mostly nothing but hopelessly narcissistic, committed to his acting career even though he’s only being cast as a terrorist over and over again.  And then the adventure is off for real… one that mixes a hefty dose of reality, like anti-Arab sentiment and the horror of hospitals overflowing with plague victims, with magical cats, flying chariots, and a snarky and bloodthirsty talking sword, as well as Nergal, Ishtar, and of course Gilgamesh (now a gardener in Central Park, refusing to fight but baking excellent cookies.)

The plague hits very close to home (even though it was written before Covid-19), but the fantasy aspect could be just the angle to make the pandemic more bearable for you or the young reader in your life.  I was very amused that all through the book, Sik finds himself in the presence of lots of weapons and people who know how to use them, but when he asks for a weapon for himself, he is consistently – realistically, but very atypically for the genre – told that he hasn’t had time to train properly and is more likely to hurt himself or a companion than to help.  That means that he has to use what he already has to win the day: his wit, the stories from Mo, and the skills he’s learned from working with cranky NYC customers.  Can I say how much I love having an adventure story where violence isn’t the answer?  I also really appreciated seeing him volunteer at the charity meals his Islamic center put on, sharing the delicious food from multiple cultures.  Also, characters like Belet and Daoud that initially appeared one-note develop into much more rounded characters over the course of the book.  

When I first put together a list of Rick Riordan read-alikes back in 2014, there were just not a lot out there, and it was especially difficult to find them about non-European cultures. Now the category is joyfully exploding, with many excellent books coming from lots of different publishers and authors, as well as the Rick Riordan imprint. Here are a few recent ones:

Posted in Audiobook, Books, Fantasy, Middle Grade, Print, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Food, Friendship, and Immigration – Measuring Up and A Place at the Table

Here are two and a half reviews of books for middle grade readers that combine cooking (or eating together) with making friends and the immigrant experience. What could be yummier?

Cover of Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu.

Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu.

Harper Alley, 2020.

ISBN 978-0062973863.

Read from my daughter’s library-sponsored Comic Book Club copy.

12-year-old Cici has just arrived in Seattle from Taiwan, heartbroken that they had to leave her beloved grandmother, Am-ma, behind.  Cici enjoyed cooking with Am-ma, and now takes over the family cooking as her parents are both working.  She’s also making her first friends, and while Jenna seems very nice, Cici is self-conscious about her own home and her own parents don’t understand the importance of American friendship rituals like sleepovers. When Cici discovers a cooking contest that would earn her enough money to bring Am-ma over to visit, she decides to enter.  At first, she’s partnered with Miranda, the daughter of a chef, who isn’t impressed with her skills being only in Taiwanese food.  Meanwhile, she has to keep the contest secret from her parents, who would be angry at her not putting all her energy into school. Cici starts reading and cooking her way through The Art of French Cooking, trying to find a way to impress the contest judges while still staying true to her Taiwanese roots. 

The thin, slightly angular line work has a nice juvenile feeling, a distinct departure from the polished lines of the popular Telgemeier-style artwork. It felt expressive and immediate, as if Cici were drawing her own story.  The mix of the new immigrant experience with the excitement of a cooking contest and the everyday struggles of middle school friendship make for a winning combination.  

Cover of A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi & Laura Shovan

A Place at the Table
by Saadia Faruqi & Laura Shovan.

Clarion, 2020.

ISBN 978-0358116684.

Read from library copy. 

Sara has just started middle school at the local public school, instead of the private Muslim school she’d gone to all her life.  She’d like to stay invisible, but this is impossible when her mother – with her accent, wearing her hijab – is teaching a Pakistani cooking class at her own school and Sara has to wait with her.  Even though she knows everything being taught, sshe’d rather just sit in the corner and draw.  Sara is really not interested in making new friends, but video chats with her bestie just aren’t the same as being together in person (we can all relate to this now!)  

Elizabeth was looking forward to middle school with her best friend Maddy, but Maddy seems to be changing into someone she doesn’t recognize.  Elizabeth’s mother has been depressed ever since her own mother died back in England earlier in the year, and her father is almost always traveling for work, meaning also that they’re not making it to Shabbat services at their temple as often as Elizabeth would like.  But Elizabeth loves cooking, especially the Pakistani cooking videos she watches on YouTube.  

It’s not until they’re forced to start cooking together that they realize that they are both stressed because their mothers aren’t US citizens and won’t take time to study for the test.  Maybe this could be the solution?  As we read their stories, narrated separately, we also see that both girls are old enough to start noticing their parents’ problems, but are frustrated by parents who tell them that they’re taking care of things.  Both girls, too, find comfort in their different religious communities, and have to decide what to do about racist comments directed mostly towards Sara’s mother.  There are a lot of issues, but they are presented in a way that feels real rather than like a laundry list, and the problems are offset by the fun of cooking and of inventing a new recipe for the cooking contest, as well as the genuine joy of new friendship and some fun sibling hijinks.  

When I first heard about this book, I thought it would make a great pairing with Save me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan, which I had been meaning to read for a few years.  I’ve now read both – I still think they feel similar, and yet quite different.  Save Me a Seat is a much shorter and tighter book. It focuses much more on the two boys’ situation at school and their personal issues, and takes place over the course of a single week.  I really enjoyed them both, but Save Me a Seat could work better in a classroom setting because of those factors. There is definitely room for both on the shelf – and even more stories of cross-cultural school friendships.  

Posted in Books, Graphic Novel, Middle Grade, Print, Realistic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

One Long, Two Short: The City We Became, Remote Control, and The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water

If you have been following me for any length of time, you will have noticed that most of the books I read, I get from the library.  (I think that at my daughter’s current rate of reading, we would be buying upwards of 500 books a year if we bought everything just the two of us read ourselves, and who can afford that? )  But here, dear readers, are three recently-read books by authors that I trust enough to buy them to be part of my personal home library.  

The City We Became
by N.K. Jemisin.

Orbit, 2020.

ISBN 978-0316509848. 

Read from purchased copy. 

New York City is awakening – and as it does, one person from each of its boroughs can suddenly sense what is going on in their borough, the other avatars, and the struggling person who’s meant to unite New York City as a whole.  Manny, a soon-to-be graduate student of indeterminate ethnic origin, forgets his own name as his whole consciousness is filled with Manhattan.  Brooklyn is represented by a former hip-hop star turned politician, also named Brooklyn, while the Bronx is represented by Bronca, a Lenape art director.  In some, the instinct to find the others is strong, while others resent the other boroughs.  But even as they aren’t getting along with each other, New York himself is in danger, and an ever-shifting Woman in White is making her way around, leaving waving white tentacles in her wake.  Paulo – the avatar of Sao Paolo, the most recently awakened city – is there to help, but even he can only do so much…

I admit when I read this, after finishing her Inheritance trilogy, I was rather afraid that it would require more brain power and emotional strength than my pandemic-addled brain and heart have.  Happily, even though the stakes are great, I was able to keep track of all the characters and enjoy the epic struggle against Cthulu-woman.  When, oh when is the next book coming?

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor.

Tordotcom, 2021.

ISBN 978-1250772800.

Read from purchased copy. 

Once upon a time, a girl named Fatima in Ghana climbed a tree and read the messages in the stars.  When a mysterious box fell from the sky, she took it and cared for it in secret – until both the government and powerful international tech companies came looking for it, willing to do anything to get it.  In the explosive incident that follows its theft, leaving her family dead, the girl forgets her name and becomes Sankofa, the adopted daughter of death, feared by all as she wanders the earth following the pull of the box and tries to avoid using her powers.  This book combines a mythic feel with descriptions that bring Ghana to life.  It’s a short, sad and powerful reflection on the meaning of life, and who has or does not have power.  

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
by Zen Cho. 

Tordotcom, 2020.

ISBN 978-1250269256.

Read from purchased copy.  

A too-handsome stranger walks into a coffeehouse and starts a brawl in his efforts to protect the waitress, obviously a nun by her shaven head, from a handsy patron.  As Fung Cheung, said stranger , is enjoying his martial prowess, his much less beautiful companion, Tet Sang, comes in to save the day. Drawing attention by starting fights and taking souvenir copies of one’s own wanted poster is exactly the opposite of what one should be doing when one is an “independent contractor.” Though they leave the town immediately to complete their current mission (multiple layers of smuggling), the nun, Guet Imm, follows them and begs to join them.  Her tokong has burned down, she’s been fired from her job, and she has nowhere else to go.  This innocent helpless front hides a stubborn character and the magical skills that come only from deep faith and long practice in the service of the Pure Moon.  

This is a short book set in a magical historical Malaysia that packs in an enormous amount of both character and world-building – even though our main point of view character is hiding a lot of secrets himself, things we only learn as Guet Imm figures them out.  It starts off with the feel of a classic wuxia movie, and while the action remains through the book,, the focus on faith, compromise, and survival in a world at war told through the eyes of characters left out of most stories even today makes it exceptional.  Also, lots of laugh-out-loud funny moments.  I’ve now bought two copies of this – one for my goddaughter and one for myself. And since I was slow getting to it, her new book, Black Water Daughter, is coming out later this month.   

Posted in Adult, Fantasy, Print, Sci-Fi | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments