When the Moon Was Ours

Happy dance!  It’s time to think about the Cybils Awards again!  If you’re a book blogger, there are still two more days (until September 11) to sign up to be a judge.  It’s a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it.  If you’re a reader, now is the time to start looking back at your favorite books for kids and teens published since October 16, 2016. Nominations will open up October 1!

Meanwhile, here is another Cybils Young Adult Fantasy finalist from last year.

When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemoreWhen the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore. Thomas Dunne Books, 2016. Once upon a time there was a story about a girl called Honey who fell out of the town water tower and whose hem stayed wet for the rest of her life.  Once upon a time, there was a boy who tried to give her the moon… The myth that opens the story gives way to the reality, still quite magical, of Miel, who did fall from the tower and who always has a rose growing out of her wrist.  She lives with Aracely, who behaves more like a big sister than a mother.  But her friend Sam – short for Samir – lives nearby and is always painting lamps with the moon to hang up around town.  They are already dealing with being minorities in a mostly white town, when the Bonner sisters, used to having and discarding whatever they want, decide that they want Miel’s roses.  They threaten to reveal all the secrets they’ve found out if she doesn’t cooperate – including that Sam started life as Samira.

This is luminous magical realism – by which I mean that there are magical things that happen more because of the beauty and the symbolism of them than any underlying magical system to the world.  “Lush” keeps coming up in reviews of this book, and it did feel that way.  My colleague pointed out that “lush” often goes together with slow-moving plot.  I didn’t feel that way, but the character development and the beautiful language really did work for me.  Meanwhile, under the thorn-studded rose vines of magic and beautiful words are some bold and original choices.  In most teen books, if there is sex, it’s the culmination of romance that built over the book.  Here, we get shorthand that their relationship was building for years.  They have sex very early on, and then we get to see the awkwardness of renegotiating a longstanding friendship.  I don’t think I’d ever read a trans romance before, and not for teens.  The details of the Latina and Pakistani culture weave beautifully into who Miel and Sam are.  This is dreamy and relevant – kudos to the Cybils committee for this choice!

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Three for Theater Kids

I’m still trying to catch up on all the books I read for my presentation at the Allied Media Conference in June, so it’s time for shorter takes.  Here are three books perfect for the middle school theater fan.

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim FederleBetter Nate than Ever by Tim Federle. Simon & Schuster, 2013.
This is one I’d been wanting to read since it first came out – hooray for the push of needing to talk about it!  Twelve-year-old Nate from Janksburg, Pennsylvania, is constantly bullied for looking like a “fag” at school and pestered about meeting cute girls by his dad. He’s not sure about any sexuality yet – but he is sure about one thing: his love for Broadway.  Supported by his best friend Lesley on cell, he sets off on a bus trip to New York City to audition for a role in E.T.: the Musical.  It’s just not as easy to break into the world of child stars as he was hoping, and his allowance doesn’t stretch as far as he’d hoped… but when he sees two men kissing through the window of a night club with no one stopping them, he knows he’s in the right place. The mix of Nate’s real-world problems and the improbability of his Broadway dreams make for a heady and hilarious mix that’s simultaneously heartwarming.  Don’t miss the sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate.

Star-Crossed by Barbara DeeStar-Crossed by Barbara Dee. Simon and Schuster, 2017.
Thirteen-year-old Mattie is going through two major middle school problems at once: a deep and unrequited crush on a cute boy and dealing with her former friend Willow no longer inviting her to the huge parties she throws, even though Mattie’s other friends, Lucy Yang and Tessa Pollock, are invited.  She’s dressed up as Darth Vader for just such a Halloween party with her friends’ encouragement, so that she can attend unrecognized.  But while there, she has an encounter with a cute new girl from England, Gemma.  From here, the plot the plot of Romeo and Juliet, if it were a comedy instead of a tragedy. Mattie and Gemma end up starring opposite each other in a class production of that same play, and Mattie explains it as they’re working on it, so this will be clear even to kids who haven’t read it themselves.  My colleague Mrs. M. pointed out that Mattie is unusually self-aware and articulate for her age, not having any sort of identity crisis over crushing on people of opposite genders in a short time period.  The angst all comes from liking a person and having to act out her real feelings on stage.  All kissing happens in this context, which keeps it entirely appropriate (if improbable) for any kid interested in the topic.  There’s lots of slapstick humor to lighten the story, from the Darth Vader costume to duels with straws, making the whole thing light and sweet as Verona’s fro-yo.

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca SteadGoodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead. Read by Kimberly Farr, Meera Simhan and Kirby Heybourne. Random House/Listening Library 2015.
Newbery-award winning author Rebecca Stead’s is admittedly more straight-up middle school with a side of theater.  Best friends Bridge, Em and Tab are all changing as they head to middle school and join new groups.  Bridge starts wearing cat ears every day as she starts off feeling swamped, though her new friend Sherm convinces her to join the theater tech team.  Em, an avid soccer player, has developed a figure and the interest in boys to go with it over the summer.  Tab’s English teacher, “the Berperson” has Tab going off on feminist rants.  Most of the book is told from Bridge’s perspective – including getting involved with Em trading increasingly racy phone photos with her crush.  These alternate with a section told in second person from the point of view of a high school student skipping school for angsty reasons whose name isn’t revealed until the very end, as well as Sherm’s angry, unsent letters to his Nonno Gia, who recently moved out – all read by different narrators in the audiobook.  Bridge, who was in a very bad car accident years earlier, still suffers from PTSD and trying to figure out the reason behind her survival. All of the major characters except for Em (I think) have explicit ethnicities that have relevance to their lives – Armenian, Indian/French, Italian – without being their whole identities.  I haven’t always loved Stead’s books (I’m in the minority here), but this one really worked for me.  Such an accurate, sensitive portrayal of middle school and today’s issues that every middle schooler would benefit from reading it.  So many themes and stories woven together that it feels like Literature while still being approachable.

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Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

More action-oriented historical fiction from the author of Under a Painted Sky.

Outrun the Moon by Stacey LeeOutrun the Moon by Stacey Lee. Narrated by Emily Woo Zeller. Print from Putnam, 2016. Audio from Tantor Audio.

It’s San Francisco in 1906.  Our story starts on a literal high note as our heroine, Mercy Wong, climbs into a hot air balloon made by her best friend and hopefully intended Tom.  Though their parents probably approve of the match – despite Mercy’s “bossy cheeks” – both teens have broader ambitions than their parents.  Tom is finds aviation much more interesting than his father’s career in traditional medicine, while Mercy aims to become a successful businesswoman.  Her first step is being willing to do whatever it takes to get into the prestigious, all-white St. Clare’s boarding school.

It turns out that nothing but pretending to be a wealthy heiress straight from China (which she’s never seen) will do to get her into the school – and that’s just the beginning of her troubles.  Elodie du Laq, the owner’s daughter and Mercy’s roommate, know her secret and is determined to make life difficult for her.  But Mercy is beginning to make friends when the great earthquake hits and upsets everything.  It’s going to take someone like Mercy, used to making her own way despite obstacles, to keep the surviving girls of St. Clare’s alive in the chaos that follows. But will Mercy have any family left to go back to?

This is a winning combination of disaster survival and personal growth. Earthquake survival is an attention-getter on its own, but there is so much more.  Dealings with prejudice of race, class and education, the awareness of teens coming to terms with them deciding whether taking their own path is worth disappointing their parents, and the parents who in turn fail them are all bound together with Mercy’s optimistic outlook and determination to find a way, no matter what – and just a touch of romance.  Emily Woo Zeller’s narration highlights the drama of the story, while giving appropriately different voices to the wide variety of people portrayed.  This is a great choice both for fans of historical fiction and for kids middle school and up assigned to read it.

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The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

Look!  I’m actually reading books off of my Want to Read list for this year!  This was one I found combing through Amazon’s middle grade pre-orders – a game-based fantasy starring a Muslim girl, from Simon & Schuster’s new Salaam Reads imprint.

The Gauntlet by Karuan RiaziThe Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi. Simon & Schuster Salaam Reads, 2017.
Farah is just turning 12, and her birthday is being rather spoiled both by her parents, who insisted she invite all the kids from her new class, even though she’s not friends with anyone.  She’d much rather retreat to her bedroom and spend some time with her best friends from her old school, red-haired Essie and African-American Alex.  They are also hiding from her 7-year-old brother Ahmed, whom Farah is expected to shield from ADHD-fueled temper tantrums by giving him his way in everything, including losing all games to him.  But just as the friends are setting up the intriguing new board game her beloved aunt has given her, Ahmed bursts in.  He hears the words they have to say to start the game, says them, and is in the game.  Now Farah and her friends, previously a little freaked out by a game that rattled and moved on its own, must venture into the game to save him.  Paheli is a world of glass cubes, gears, and sand, which rebuilds itself regularly at the whim of the Architect.  It’s filled with people who have previously played and failed to successfully complete the game – some of whom may try to help the kids, some to hinder them, and none of whom can be trusted.

The basic plot here has strong echoes of the classic Jumanji.  It’s been done before, although the South Asian feel of Paheli is a fresh twist and the adventure is still fun.  I definitely enjoyed getting to know Farah and her culture and daily challenges, and her friends seemed reasonably fleshed out characters as well.  The biggest problem I had was with Farah’s parents’ parenting strategies, which mostly seemed to boil down to making Farah appease Ahmed. (At the same time, I hope I manage things better for my own twelve-year-old dealing with a seven-year-old younger sibling.)  Ahmed was such an unpleasant character that I had to agree with Ms. Yingling – I couldn’t really see a reason that Farah would want to put her life at risk for him.  It’s hard to beat Terry Pratchett in The Wee Free Menof course – Tiffany Aching’s attitude that Wentworth might be an annoying little brother, but he’s her annoying little brother and no one else is going to take him put things in a way that I did buy into.  Overall, though, this is a good book to give to kids looking for an exciting fantasy adventure, while at the same time providing a much-needed mirror or window (depending on the kid) to a modern Muslim-American family.  I’ll be looking for more both from Karuna Riazi and Salaam Reads.

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Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

The story begun in Binti continues with even more depth… Spoiler alert: if you haven’t yet read Binti, you’ll want to do so before reading this review.

Binti: Home by Nnedi OkoraforBinti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor. Tor, 2017.
Binti has achieved the dream she set out to accomplish in the first book: becoming a full-time student at Oomza Uni, its own space station.  She still feels closest to Okwu, the friend that, against all probability, she made among the Meduse who slaughtered the rest of the human students on her trip there.  And yet – she finds herself frequently flooded with waves of overwhelming anger.  Eventually, she decides that the best way to deal with this is to go home and take the traditional desert pilgrimage of her people.

But going home is never what you expect.  Her family is still upset with her for leaving in the first place, and assumes she’s there to stay, needing just some good scolding.  Okwu comes along as an ambassador, but is unable to resist provoking the Khoush people who also live in her country, the Meduse’s historic enemies.  Coming back home reveals secrets about her heritage that she never even suspected – but there is nothing to break down her ability to be a master harmonizer like contempt from an older sister.

Binti: Home is filled with unexpected discoveries and the difficult bonds of family and friendship, going even deeper than the already amazing Binti while never letting the plot bog down.  It’s still short and fast to read, so if you’re looking for a good entry point for the amazing Okorafor, now is the time to start!

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The Hate U Give

This is the first book to be published directly because of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, so of course I had to read it.  My only advice would be to please, don’t do as I do, and listen to this audiobook at the same time as reading American Street in print.  So much tragedy befalling young Black men at the same time that I had trouble taking my daughter to the neighborhood park without worrying for the safety of the young men playing basketball and skateboarding there.

The Hate U Give by Angie ThomasThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Read by Bahni Turpin. HarperCollins and Blackstone Audio, 2017.

15-year-old Starr has grudgingly agreed to go to a party with her brother’s half-sister Kenya.  She doesn’t often go out both because she’s somewhat introverted and because she feels out of place in her own neighborhood of Garden Heights since she goes to a private school in the suburbs.  At the party, she’s just catching up with her old friend Khalil when gunshots break out.  They flee, taking Khalil’s car.  But they are pulled over by police, ostensibly on a traffic check, but it feels more likely because black teens out at night are assumed to be up to no good.  And Khalil has not been taught the rules about dealing with police that Starr had drilled into her since she was little.  He moves. He talks without being asked a question first.  And just like that, he is shot.

The rest of the story follows Starr in the aftermath of this event, the second time she’s seen a close friend get shot. Should she testify?  What will happen if she tells her friends at school that she was there, especially when the news is saying that the police shot a suspected drug dealer.  Starr’s carefully cultivated dual identities resonated especially deeply with Pam at Unconventional Librarian, who explains code switching, the different ways Starr talks and acts to fit in at home vs. the mostly white school.

I especially appreciated that the story portrays both worlds in full color.  In Garden Heights, there are the gangs and poverty that are stereotypical of inner city neighborhoods.  But there are also neighbors working together to take care of their children, avid gardeners, and a fierce sense of community.  Starr’s parents are beautifully portrayed, both supportive and firm with their limits.  The private school gives Starr the freedom to enjoy basketball.  There, only a handful of people have any idea of the issues that Starr faces in daily life, some being more willing to listen than others.  The police also have a familiar face, as Starr’s uncle is a police detective.  Bahni Turpin does an amazing job of bringing all these characters to life with a wide range of voices.

This is indeed a very powerful book.  I cried a lot while reading it, and yet even though it’s too close to reality have a rainbow-happy ending, it still ends with Starr in a place of growth and strength. This is one that needs to be read by everyone, stat.

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Always and Forever, Lara Jean

It’s always disorienting coming back to blogging from vacation, but here I am, with another simultaneously light and weighty book by Jenny Han, the closing book in the series that started with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny HanAlways and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han. Simon and Schuster, 2017.
It’s Lara Jean’s senior year of high school.  That means both enjoying the lasts of everything while at the same time planning for the future.  Lara Jean’s plans involve going to school locally, to the university she’s grown up loving and where her boyfriend Peter has a scholarship.  But all of that hinges on her being accepted in the first place.  The rest of life isn’t holding still, either, as her father and their neighbor Ms. Rothschild, now Trina, decide to finally get engaged.  While it’s happy news for Lara Jean, her older sister Margot, still at university in Scotland, is unpleasantly surprised by it.  As always when stressed, Lara Jean finds relief in baking, now with a side of wedding planning.

Overall, this is a great comfort read kind of book.  But that doesn’t mean that everything goes Lara Jean’s way.  In fact, Lara Jean’s careful plans are upset quite a bit, and she worries here in a Hamilton reference that she might be the joy-killing and Peggy to her other sisters’ more outgoing and appealing Angelica and Eliza.  The conclusions are ultimately heartwarming, with the sense of humor that you’d expect as the conclusion to this series.  It’s a series I’ll happily recommend to people, both on its own merits and as a contrast to the many tragic and heart-breaking realistic contemporary YA books with diverse leads, because all these stories deserve to be heard.

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American Street

American Street by Ibi ZoboiAmerican Street by Ibi Zoboi. Balzer + Bray, 2017.
Teenaged Fabiola was born in the US and raised in Haiti with her mother.  They’ve been working for years to move in with Fabiola’s aunt, Matant Jo, and her three daughters, at their house on the corner of streets propitiously named American and Joy in Detroit.  But when they arrive at New York on the way to Detroit, only Fabiola is allowed to continue.  Her mother is detained and sent to New Jersey.

Fabiola is completely at a loss, and things don’t improve when she arrives in Detroit.  Her aunt barely gets out of bed, no one cooks, and Fabiola is scolded for speaking Creole.  She’s even told to let go of her traditional religion, as old superstitions best left in the old country.

She does her best to make her own way, starting by cooking meals for the familt.  She finds signs of the Hatian lwa everywhere, most especially in the old homeless man everyone calls Bad Leg, who sits singing at the crossroads like Papa Legba.  She builds on the phone-based friendship she’s had with her three cousins, known locally as the Three B’s: college-aged Chantal, the Brains, and fraternal twins Pri, Brawn, and Donna, Beauty.  They convince her to go to school with them, make friends, and let their mother deal with trying to rescue Fabiola’s mother.  American school is very different from school in Haiti, but Fabiola is used to working hard.  She even meets a sweet boy, Kasim, improbably the best friend of Donna’s abusive boyfriend Dray.

But early on, she’s approached by a woman in a brown coat who offers her a deal: find out who supplied the bad drugs that killed a white girl in the nearby rich neighborhood, and she’ll free Fabiola’s mother. And Fabiola has to choose between her mother and the new life she’s been building.

This was a powerful and tragic book.  I especially loved the strength of Fabiola’s faith to carry her through, even when the results were ambiguous, as prayer so often is. I did a project about the Haitian religion in library school, so I loved seeing and recognizing the loa.  The difficulties of immigration and of abusive relationships are well portrayed here.  I had a hard time with the attitude given here that the people in this neighborhood all had to choose between crime and destitution.  I’m not in any position to pass judgment on the idea, but the Detroit shown here is a grim place indeed.  Even though I wished for a happier ending, I’d say American Street deserves the praise it’s been getting.

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The Lion Hunters Series

Code Name Verity is still on my list of books that I should read, but have been too chicken.  Instead, I’ve been reading Elizabeth Wein’s other books, including Black Dove, White Raven and all of her Arthurian books, which I believe I first heard about from Maureen at By Singing Light.  Two notes: first, although these books all happen in sequence, the first three are considered part of her Arthurian sequence, while the last two are officially the Mark of Solomon series.  They all feel mostly like one series to me, with the first one quite a bit earlier than the other four. Second, I read the series over the course of two years without taking notes on it, and the plot builds and ratchets up over the course of the books, so these will be brief impressions of the books.  I’ve included both original and the new covers, as I’m torn between joy at the rare fantasy books with a young man of color on the front, and the elegant simplicity and series feel of the new ones.

(While writing this review, too, I came across this article from the Guardian about the tableware imported from Spain and Turkey that was recently found in Tintagel Castle – proof that the wide-ranging political relationships of Arthurian Britain found in this series were really possible.  ) Continue reading

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TTT: Top 10 Books from the First Half of 2017

Only one of the three statements above is actually true – can you guess which one?  Top 10 Tuesday hosted by the very busy ladies at the Broke and the Bookish might officially be on hiatus, but I’m still taking a chance to look back at the first half of the year.

Top Ten Tuesday

Middle Grade (and Younger)

 

Teen

  • American Street by Ibi Zoboi
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  • March. Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
  • The Sunbird, the Lion Hunter and the Empty Kingdom by Elizabeth Wein
  • When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

 

Adult

  • Binti and Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

It looks like I  need to get back to writing up my reviews!  But first – what are your favorites so far?

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