Today I’m excited to be part of the blog tour for Mindy Kim and Yummy Seaweed Business by Lyla Lee (with illustrations by Dung Ho), the first in a new chapter book series focusing on a Korean American girl. The book and its sequel, Mindy Kim and the Lunar New Year Parade, will be released on January 14th by Aladdin Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster).
Fresh Off the Boat meets Junie B. Jones in this first novel in an adorable new chapter book series about Mindy Kim, a young Asian American girl who is starting a snack business!
Mindy Kim just wants three things:
1. A puppy!
2. To fit in at her new school
3. For her dad to be happy again
But, getting all three of the things on her list is a lot trickier than she thought it would be. On her first day of school, Mindy’s school snack of dried seaweed isn’t exactly popular at the lunch table. Luckily, her new friend, Sally, makes the snacks seem totally delicious to Mindy’s new classmates, so they decide to start the Yummy Seaweed Business to try and raise money for that puppy!
When another student decides to try and sabotage their business, Mindy loses more than she bargained for—and wonders if she’ll ever fit in. Will Mindy be able to overcome her uncertainty and find the courage to be herself?
I loved this book. It’s super adorable and I found various aspects of it very relatable. One thing I shared with Mindy was being the new kid who moved from one state to another (I moved twice when I was a kid) and the struggles of navigating and adapting in a new social environment. Another was being the lone or minority Asian kid. Unlike Mindy, I was fortunate not to have the “ew, what’s that” lunch experience (I bought lunch from school for most of my school years), but thankfully the microaggression gets subverted and things makes a turn for the better in the story.
The second aspect was Mindy’s family situation. Her mother recently passed away from illness, and she and her dad have to adjust to the loss and the change. I lost my mom to leukemia in 2016, so I empathized with Mindy and her family’s grief. Although her mom is no longer around, Mindy still has her dad, and I loved how close and loving their relationship is. They communicate openly with each other and support each other through their rough patches, and it reminded me of my own bond with my dad.
Another theme in the book is friendship. Mindy manages to make a friend named Sally, and things look bright until a messy incident comes between them. When I was a kid, I had a friendship that went sour and never recovered, and sometimes I still find myself regretting it, so I think it’s important to teach kids conflict resolution, which the story does. It emphasizes the importance of making amends and the power of a sincere apology, which was nice.
The story wraps up with a happy and somewhat open ending that leaves room for more to come. I can’t wait to read the next books in the series.
About the Author:
LYLA LEE is a writer of many things. After working various jobs in Hollywood and studying psychology and cinematic arts at USC, she now lives in Dallas, Texas. When she is not writing, she is teaching, watching Korean dramas and other TV shows, and eating all kinds of good food. Visit her online at lylaleebooks.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @literarylyla.
About the Illustrator: DUNG HO was born and raised in Hue, Vietnam, where she studied graphic design at the Hue University College of Arts. After graduating, she worked in the design and advertising industries before discovering a great passion for illustration and picture books and becoming a freelance illustrator. Currently, she lives and works in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. Ho draws inspiration from nature and the interaction between people and nature and especially loves to draw children. When not drawing, she enjoys cooking and watching movies. Visit her online at dungho.me and on Instagram @dunghanhho.
Don’t miss the rest of the tour:
MINDY KIM AND THE YUMMY SEAWEED BUSINESS BLOG TOUR
I really enjoyed Hena Khan’s middle grade debut Amina’s Voice (review here), so I’m happy that Simon & Schuster offered me a copy of More to the Story to read and review.
From the critically acclaimed author of Amina’s Voice comes a new story inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic, Little Women, featuring four sisters from a modern American Muslim family living in Georgia.
When Jameela Mirza is picked to be feature editor of her middle school newspaper, she’s one step closer to being an award-winning journalist like her late grandfather. The problem is her editor-in-chief keeps shooting down her article ideas. Jameela’s assigned to write about the new boy in school, who has a cool British accent but doesn’t share much, and wonders how she’ll make his story gripping enough to enter into a national media contest.
Jameela, along with her three sisters, is devastated when their father needs to take a job overseas, away from their cozy Georgia home for six months. Missing him makes Jameela determined to write an epic article—one to make her dad extra proud. But when her younger sister gets seriously ill, Jameela’s world turns upside down. And as her hunger for fame looks like it might cost her a blossoming friendship, Jameela questions what matters most, and whether she’s cut out to be a journalist at all…
More to the Story is an endearing story about a Muslim Pakistani American girl, Jameela, who’s struggling to deal with several stressful changes and situations in her life. It touches on multiple themes and manages to balance a number of subplots well and resolve them with a pitch-perfect ending.
First among the issues touched on in the story is Jameela’s father leaving the family to work a job far away. Life as a middle schooler can be tough enough as it is without one of your parents being across the globe. Although modern technology allows long-distance communication, it’s definitely not the same as having your parent by your side on a day-to-day basis. I found this particular struggle of Jameela’s relatable because when I was a teen, my dad had to take a job that forced him to relocate over a thousand miles away, and I missed him terribly. Like Jameela, I have a close relationship with my dad, so I found their dynamic touching.
Another central theme in the story was sibling dynamics. Jameela is a middle child, with an older sister and two younger sisters. I’m also a middle child, with one older sister, and one younger sister. Her relationships with her siblings don’t look anything like mine, but it was still interesting to see how they played out. This story emphasized how, even if you envy them or find them annoying at times, your siblings are your family, and you can’t help but love and care about them.
The third theme I want to talk about is friendship. In the story, Jameela meets and befriends the nephew of a family friend, a British Pakistani boy named Ali who has just moved to the U.S. I liked the way their friendship was developed, with Ali gradually opening up to Jameela, who has a genuine desire to understand him better and help him with the troubles he’s dealing with on his own. I also appreciated the exploration of consent and boundaries and ethical journalism when Ali and his experiences became a tentative topic/subject for Jameela’s school newspaper article.
Next is the subplot on Bisma, Jameela’s younger sister, who develops a tumor. Cancer is terrifying. I know this firsthand from when my mom got leukemia. Despite the fear and uncertainty, Jameela is able to cope with support from her family and takes it upon herself to be as supportive of an older sister as possible. I was several years older than Jameela when my mom was diagnosed, but I found myself admiring and envying her bravery and resilience in the face of everything, and I really wanted to give her a hug to let her know she’s not alone in experiencing such a scary situation.
Another topic that came up in the story was anger management. Jameela is a passionate person who feels things intensely, and sometimes that manifests as anger, which can have destructive consequences. The story is explicit about addressing this issue, which made me appreciate it even more. I feel like if I’d had a book like this when I was younger, I wouldn’t have struggled so much with anger as a teen, something that definitely negatively impacted my relationships with my peers.
Last, but not least, I loved that this book showed a teen pursuing a creative passion and having it taken seriously. A lot of times people downplay kids’ hobbies and interests as things that are fleeting or pointless, so it was heartening to read a story where a young teen character does what she loves and is supported in that endeavor by her parents and other adults. It’s my hope that young readers of this book will feel encouraged follow their dreams, be it journalism or art or science, and carry their passion into the future with them.
All in all, this was a heartwarming read that’s perfect for anyone who loves stories about family, sisterhood, and love in all its manifestations.
Hi, everyone, I’m pleased to be posting again as part of the blog tour for Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the ALA annual conference in New Orleans earlier this year. I hope you take some time to check out his book and read my review. 🙂
Darius doesn’t think he’ll ever be enough, in America or in Iran. Hilarious and heartbreaking, this unforgettable debut introduces a brilliant new voice in contemporary YA.
Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian–half, his mom’s side–and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life. Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush–the original Persian version of his name–and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.
Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough–then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay.
I’m not sure how best to describe this book except to compare it to a weighted blanket. It settles onto you in a loving embrace and makes you feel at home.
Darius expresses his doubt and his hope so candidly that it makes you want to give him a hug. His use of SFF pop culture references gives him a distinctiveness and nerdy sense of humor that grounds his character.
Darius is someone I can relate to strongly for multiple reasons: being part of diaspora, dealing with depression, and feeling socially estranged from peers. He struggles with feeling adequate and comfortable in his own skin, an experience that has defined pretty much all of my life, so it was hard not to see myself in him.
The depiction of depression in this story resonated with me in a lot of the details, from the neveremding quest for the right meds, to the self consciousness about taking meds and the unhelpful comments from ignorant people and the difficulty talking about it to family because of language and cultural barriers.
The beauty of this book is that it is so incredibly validating of people like me and Darius. Disappointment, insecurity and despair are tempered by warmth, solidarity, and love.
I love the way Darius’s various relationships are portrayed in this book because they feel so nuanced and real in the way he navigates the line separating distance from intimacy. It’s hard to let yourself be vulnerable when you feel under attack from all sides: from your family, from your peers, from your country’s mainstream culture, from your heritage culture. But Darius is given the chance to do that and he gains so much from it. His friendship with Sohrab is so pure and wholesome, and his interactions with his extended family are bittersweet as they try to bridge the gap between them.
Although I’m not Persian/Iranian, there were aspects of the culture that were relatable for me, such as the centrality of food in all occasions, the range and specificity of familial terms, and the concept of taarof, whose Taiwanese equivalent I just tweeted about the day before reading the book.😂
On a different note, this is one of the few books I’ve read where boys are allowed to be sensitive, to cry, to feel the emotional spectrum fully without the narrative shaming them, and I really appreciate that given the prevalence of toxic masculinity in fictional boys.
Overall, I have to say this is one of my favorite contemporary reads of the year, and i confess it made me tear up near the end in a key scene, so I’m recommending it wholeheartedly.
Adib Khorram is an author, a graphic designer, and a tea enthusiast. If he’s not writing (or at his day job), you can probably find him trying to get his 100 yard Freestyle (SCY) under a minute, or learning to do a Lutz Jump. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri. This is his first novel.
So September and October are a gift because there are so many great kidlit titles coming out from authors of color. Here’s a [far from exhaustive] list of ones I’ve had on my radar! I’ve had the privilege of reading many of these already (16 out of 24, which is 2/3), and I can tell you that they are amazing. 🙂
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera (Sep. 5th) – Young Adult, SFF, Gay Puerto Rican (#ownvoices) and Bisexual Cuban American MCs, M/M romance
2 boys who are going to die meet and bond over the course of about 24 hours
You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (Sep. 12th) – Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Indian/Bengali American MCs (#ownvoices), Biracial Black/Bengali MC
5 women spanning 3 generations of a Bengali family in the U.S. negotiate their multicultural identities
Shadowhouse Fall (Shadowshaper #2) by Daniel Jose Older – Young Adult, Urban Fantasy, Afro-Latina Puerto Rican MC
Supernatural and real world forces of evil threaten the lives and community of Sierra Santiago, who will do anything to protect her own
Warcross by Marie Lu (Sep. 12th) – Young Adult, Science Fiction, Chinese American MC, #ownvoices
A gamer girl/bounty hunter hacks her way into the world’s biggest virtual reality game tournament and is hired to track down a suspicious figure lurking in the game
Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh (Sep. 15th) – Young Adult, Science Fiction/Dystopian, Korean MC, #ownvoices
A boy who has risen in the military of a future Korea is drafted into a special weapons project that turns girls into war machines and starts to fall for his charge
Rise of the Jumbies (The Jumbies #2) by Tracey Baptiste (Sep. 19th)- Middle Grade, Fantasy, Black Trinidadian MC, #ownvoices
Corinne La Mer makes a dangerous journey across the Atlantic to find a way to save the missing children of her island home
One Dark Throne (Three Dark Crowns #2) by Kendare Blake (Sept. 19th) – Young Adult, Fantasy
The deadly race for the throne has begun, the last sister standing wins.
The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore (Sep. 19th) – Middle Grade, Contemporary, #ownvoices Black MC, secondary Black Autistic character
Following his brother’s gang-related Death, a boy struggles to cope and avoid the gang life and finds solace in building Lego creations at the community center.
The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh (Sep. 19th) – Middle Grade, Contemporary, #ownvoices Taiwanese American MC, secondary Autistic character
One summer away has upended Bea’s life and friendships, forcing her to make new ones and develop confidence in being herself.
Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman (Sep. 26th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Biracial white/Japanese American MC, Social Anxiety rep, #ownvoices
An anxious aspiring artist flees her abusive home with an old friend-turned-crush and embarks on a journey that will transform her.
Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar (Oct. 2nd) – Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Indian MC, #ownvoices
A girl is swept up in the freedom movement of India through her mother’s participation and becomes involved herself in radical change.
Akata Warrior (Akata Witch #2) by Nnedi Okorafor (Oct. 3rd) – Middle Grade/Young Adult, Fantasy, Nigerian American MC, #ownvoices
A girl and her friends develop their powers as Leopard people to face down and vanquish a threat to humanity.
Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore (Oct. 3rd) – Young Adult, Magical Realism, Bisexual Latina/Mexican American MC, #ownvoices
The Nomeolvides sisters are blessed and cursed. Flowers flow from their hands, but their love makes those they love disappear. A mysterious boy who emerges from their garden estate may be the key to unlocking the secrets of the past and even breaking the curse.
Seize Today (Forget Tomorrow #3) by Pintip Dunn (Oct. 3rd) – Young Adult, Science Fiction/Dystopian
The conclusion to a series about a girl who foresees her own future in which she kills her sister and must work to stop herself.
Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani (Oct 3rd) – Young Adult, Contemporary/Fantasy, Graphic Novel, Indian American MC, #ownvoices
An Indian American girl connects with her heritage through a magical pashmina that transports her to India.
Not Your Villain (Sidekick Squad #2) by C.B. Lee (Oct. 5th) – Young Adult, SFF, Black trans boy MC
Bells becomes a fugitive due to a coverup by the Heroes’ League and has to take down a corrupt government while applying to college and working up the courage to confess his feelings to his best friend.
Xifeng has a great destiny awaiting her, but her path to becoming Empress of Feng Lu requires her to embrace the darkness within her.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Black MC, #ownvoices
A Black teen processes his feelings about antiblack racism through a journal dialogue with Martin Luther King Jr. and becomes the center of a media storm when he and his friend become victims of police brutality.
A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Thriller, Queer Chinese American MC, #ownvoices
Jess harbors a crush on her best friend Angie and through Angie, is drawn into a wealthy but seedy social circle with dangers they cannot escape unscathed.
After her sister’s death, a girl feels alone and pressured to take her sister’s place, only to discover that her sister may not have been as perfect as she seemed.
Like Water by Rebecca Podos (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Besexual Latina MC, Secondary qenderqueer character
A small-town girl falls for someone who brings to the surface secrets she’s been trying to suppress.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (Oct. 24th) – Young Adult, Contemporary/Thriller, Novel-in-Verse, Black MC, #ownvoices
His brother is dead, and he’ll make the killer pay, but as he goes down the elevator, someone new appears who is connected to his brother, and he may not make it to the bottom.
Calling My Name by Liara Tamani (Oct. 24th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Black Christian MC, #ownvoices
A girl navigates her budding sexuality in an ultra-religious environment that treats sex as forbidden and dirty.
Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi (Oct. 31st) – Young Adult, Nigerian-inspired Fantasy, Black MC, #ownvoices
Sin-eaters practice magic to rid people of their guilty feelings but pay the price in a being permanently marked and a short life-span. Taj is called to eat the sin of a royal and is forced to fight against an evil that threatens his entire home.
Note: This review is based on an ARC that I received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The finished book will be released on September 26th, 2017.
My Summary: Kiko Himura wants nothing more to escape the suffocating environment of her home and her very white hometown in Nebraska, and acceptance into Prism, her top choice of art school, is her ticket to freedom. Much to her dismay, rejection from Prism ruins her plan, but a new unforeseen opportunity takes its place: she will go on a trip to California with her former best friend, Jamie and visit art schools on the West Coast. Desperation and the nightmare of being forced to live in under the same roof as her predatory uncle are enough to outweigh her intense anxiety, so she goes. More than just a vacation, this is a trip to find herself, reconnect with Jamie, and forge a new future.
Trigger/content warnings: anxiety, emotional abuse, childhood sexual abuse, suicide ableism
I have a lot of feelings about this book because I related to Kiko so much. Growing up in a very white environment as an Asian person messes with your self-esteem and self-image, and like Kiko, I definitely felt that I would never really be seen as attractive by people because I was Asian. I literally had a white friend tell me he generally wasn’t attracted to Asian people (he is no longer my friend, in case you’re wondering). The various microaggressions she experiences are all too familiar to me.
In addition to sharing Kiko’s experience of being Asian American, I also have generalized and social anxiety, and the descriptions of Kiko’s anxiety in Starfish resonated strongly with me. There’s a scene at a classmate’s party that was especially relatable and brought back some painful memories of parties I went to in college. Another aspect of Kiko I saw myself in was her anxiety over having romantic relationships as someone with mental illness(es). The fear of falling into toxic and codependent relationships is so real. In general, the portrayal of anxiety was just so incredibly on point for me, to the point that it actually triggered my own anxiety at times because I was empathizing with Kiko’s experience on a visceral level.
Besides being really relatable, Starfish was simply gorgeously written. Kiko is an artist, and the author expresses her artist’s point of view through poetic language. Each chapter ends with a brief description of Kiko’s latest work of art, which is thematically related to the chapter in question and serves as a visual representation of Kiko’s inner emotional landscape and how she relates to the world and the people around her. These added details create a distinctive voice for Kiko’s character.
If it wasn’t obvious from the trigger/content warnings, this story deals with some heavy topics. Kiko’s home environment is incredibly toxic. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her two brothers and her white mother. Her mother is emotionally abusive toward her. This abuse has a racialized dimension, as she uses her embodiment of white beauty ideals to belittle Kiko, whose features are more typically East Asian. Kiko craves her mother’s love and approval even while knowing that her mother does not really care about her except as it benefits or is convenient for her. It really hurt to follow Kiko through her interactions with her mother, the pain was so raw.
To make matters worse, during the events of the story, Kiko’s maternal uncle moves into the house with her family, which amplifies her anxiety. It is first strongly implied and then explicitly revealed that he sexually abused Kiko when she was younger, and she has lingering trauma from those events. Although Kiko told her mother what happened, her mother never believed her and sided with the uncle instead.
Despite the serious topics, the book isn’t all doom and gloom and angst, nor is it a tragic story. Kiko’s physical journey doubles as a psychological journey as well, allowing her to process everything she has lived through, refute the victim-blaming messages she’s gotten from her mother, and see that there are people and things outside of the cage of her toxic home. Her relationship with Jamie is very sweet and wholesome, and she also finds a role model who is Japanese American who sees her talent and gives her the push she needs to really chase her artistic dreams.
These parts of the story bring hope and light and an empowering message that were so lovely and satisfying to read. Perhaps others readers might think the ending/resolution is too much of a fairy tale happy ending, but personally, I loved it and think it’s necessary and important for readers who see themselves in Kiko. Her mental illness is not magically cured by the end of the story (which would be a very terrible message to readers), but she has greater self-awareness, a robust support system, and a means of channeling her creative energy and expressing herself honestly, all of which are critical to coping.
My one criticism of this book was the pattern of ableist language. Disabilities, including mental illnesses, span a huge spectrum, and while the rep for one disability may be great, other disabilities may not get the same treatment. In this case, the anxiety was portrayed wonderfully, but there was still ableist language that was insensitive toward other illnesses/conditions, including bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and psychosis. Specifically, these illnesses were effectively used as a scapegoat/explanation for Kiko’s mother’s abusive behavior. (Unfortunately, it’s common even for mentally ill people to use words like “psychopath” to label people who behave in violent otherwise horrible ways.) The author did mention on Twitter that she removed the words “crazy” and “insane” from the final version of the book, but I don’t know whether these other references to mental illness were taken out or rewritten. If you’re planning to read the book, just be warned that there may be several instances of stigmatizing language.
Recommendation: Overall, I highly recommend this book because it did so much for me and covered a lot of ground and was just breathtaking to read and experience. If you have anxiety or other related mental illnesses or are an abuse survivor, I’d recommend taking it slow and taking breaks because it definitely has the potential to be triggering.
The Jumbies and Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste – MG, Fantasy, Afro-Caribbean/Trinidadian MC, #ownvoices
The Jumbies is an atmospheric tale of secrets and dangers that draws you in and gives you the heebie jeebies. Corinne, our gutsy heroine, will do anything to protect her father from the beautiful but deadly Severine. With the help of her friends, the local witch, and her own latent powers, she sets out to save the island from being taken over by a powerful force. When you are done you will look to the trees and wonder what strange creatures lurk within and whether they might appear to make mischief.
Book 2 tops Book 1 and takes you on an incredible journey across the ocean, with more magic and new friends and foes as Corinne comes into herself and her power. It captures the agony of a painful, half-forgotten past and the fragile hope for a future and brings home the tensions of family and loss.
The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera – YA, Contemporary, Puerto Rican MC, #ownvoices
The Education of Margot Sanchez follows the story of a Puerto Rican girl who’s trying to fit in at her prestigious prep school at all costs. Her desperation drives her to questionable actions, and eventually her misdeeds catch up to her. While she’s serving out her punishment at her family’s grocery store, she meets a handsome young man who’s campaigning against the gentrification of their neighborhood, and through various events, comes to appreciate her community and confront her own mistakes.
This novel covers a lot of ground, including dynamic friendships, peer pressure, budding romance, class struggles, challenging machismo, family drama, and personal growth. Margot is an incredibly flawed person but also a sympathetic protagonist, and watching her character learn and grow was intensely satisfying. In other words, the book really lives up to its name.
American Street by Ibi Zoboi – YA, Contemporary, Magical Realism, Black/Haitian American Immigrant MC, #ownvoices
I had few expectations going into this book and when I came out the other end, I was shaken to the core. This is not an light read. From the beginning it’s wracked with tension and conflict. Fabiola has just moved to Detroit from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and she’s thrust into this new environment without her mother, who has been detained. The American paradise she envisioned turns out to be much grittier than she realized. In Detroit, she relies on her strong-willed and influential aunt and cousins to support her and finds an unexpected romance.
Unfortunately, these relationships are overshadowed by various kinds of violence: intimate partner violence between one of her cousins and her boyfriend, violence from systemic racism and classism, and the violence of livelihoods built upon huge risks and illegal activities. In her quest to free her mother from detainment, Fabiola gets drawn into a complicated and fragile web of secrets and lies that threatens to destroy the foundations of her new life.
What was especially poignant and powerful to me in this book was the juxtaposition of Fabiola’s and her cousins’ respective backgrounds and the way they projected their own hopes and dreams onto one another. Although Fabiola is the primary viewpoint character, there are a few interludes and departures from the main narrative that provide insight into the supporting characters, their histories, their motivations, and so on that add another layer of depth to the story. The magical realism elements were critical to establishing setting and foreshadowing and illuminating the themes of the story.
Trigger Warnings for American Street: abuse, violence, death
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya – MG, Contemporary, Cuban MC, #ownvoices
Like Margot Sanchez, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora tackles the theme of gentrification but with a lighter tone. Arturo is an adorkable thirteen-year-old whose extended family lives together in an apartment building and runs a restaurant established by his grandparents. He has a few ambitions: tell his crush he likes her, save the family restaurant and local community from a seedy land developer, and make his grandmother proud of him. Along the way, he discovers the beauty of poetry and the legacy of Cuban revolutionary José Martí and connects with his late grandfather, who left behind letters and verses for him.
This heartfelt story shows us that not all heroes wear capes, and even the thirteen-year-old boy who gets tongue-tied around his crush has a shot at saving the day. My favorite parts were the family dynamics, the delicious food descriptions, and the incorporation of poetry into the narrative as an inspiration for Arturo and a medium for his growth and self-expression.
Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar – MG, Historical Fiction, Cuban Jewish American Immigrant MC, #ownvoices
Lucky Broken Girl is semi-autobiographical and tells the story of a young Cuban Jewish girl who has just immigrated to the U.S. and winds up confined to her bed for almost a year after a car crash that puts her in a full-body cast. While she is cut off from the world outside, she finds solace and companionship in her neighbors and classmates, who bring joy and beauty into her life with their kindness and generosity. Throughout this experience, she struggles with ableism from her parents, who are her caretakers, and her own inner voices, which are exacerbated by her isolation.
Perhaps most poignant and memorable is her period of rehabilitation after she is free of the cast. The anxiety and sense of inadequacy and frustration with slow progress were palpable to me, and intensely relatable as someone who experienced hospitalization for mental illness, albeit not for months.
If there was one thing I really felt was lacking in the story, it was more interaction with people who shared her experiences of disability. They were mentioned but weren’t given much page time, and I feel like including those kinds of interactions would have enriched the narrative. That, and I feel like there could have been space for acknowledging that not everyone is temporarily disabled the way Ruthie was; some have lifelong disabilities (hi, that’s me), and their worth isn’t defined by their disabilities or whether they can recover from/overcome them.
Life update and mini review series introduction: I have a full-time job right now, so writing 600+ word reviews for every book I read has become unsustainable. However, since I still want to share my thoughts on all the books I read, I’m compromising by doing mini reviews for most books and full reviews for a smaller fraction. This first set of mini reviews will focus on five books with Muslim characters that I’ve read recently. 🙂
The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi – Middle Grade, Fantasy, Adventure, Bangladeshi American MC, #ownvoices
In The Gauntlet, Farah Mirza is forced to play a larger-than-life board game in order to save her younger brother from being taken by the game’s Architect. It is such a fun book that really engages the senses, especially sight, smell, and taste. Loaded with loving and vivid references to Bengali, desi, and Middle Eastern cultures, it’s an adventure that you can’t miss. As someone who loves games and puzzles, it was a treat to read about Farah’s three game trials, especially the one involving Mancala, which I played with my sisters when we were young. There were colorful characters and interesting twists and a setting that literally shifts and changes to keep me engaged and delighted throughout.
The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah (originally published as When Michael Met Mina in Australia) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Afghan-Australian MC
The Lines We Cross is a powerful story about racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. The main character, Mina, moves from a racially diverse, working-class part of the city to a wealthier, white-dominated area. There, she meets and goes to school with Michael, who is white and the son of a local conservative political organizer who is the head of an organization pushing a xenophobic and Islamophobic agenda. Despite their differences, the two are drawn to each other and find common ground, and Michael is forced to confront his own privilege and question his internalized biases. The reason this learning and redemption arc works is because Mina’s perspective is there to complement Michael’s, it’s not just centering Michael. Moreover, Mina actively calls out Michael’s ignorance and biases and refuses to perform the labor of educating him, so her purpose in the story is not to serve his character development.
Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali – Young Adult, Contemporary, Egyptian/Arab-Indian American MC, #ownvoices
Trigger Warnings: Sexual assault
Saints and Misfits is a gem of a story about a Muslim hijabi teen, Janna, who’s trying to navigate the confusing feelings of adolescence and deal with her traumatic experience of sexual assault by a supposedly upstanding member of her community. Her voice is refreshingly honest, snarky, and down-to-earth. I loved the different relationships explored in the story, from her family drama, to her friendships with people at school and at the Islamic Center, to her crush on Jeremy, to her mentor-mentee relationship with her imam. The supporting characters really rounded out the story, giving it depth and breadth. The topic of sexual assault was explored with sensitivity and grace, and I found it to be an empowering story for survivors and an honest commentary on how a community may fail its members.
Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed – Young Adult, Contemporary, Indian American MC, #ownvoices
Trigger Warnings: Islamophobia, physical assault
Love, Hate, and Other Filters is a powerful novel about intergenerational conflict and Islamophobia, how it feels to be caught in between others’ expectations and your own aspirations. Maya’s parents have a plan for her, and it doesn’t involve going to NYU to study film or dating someone who’s not her parents choice of pious Muslim boy, especially not a white boy like Phil. Because of these suffocating expectations, Maya lives a double life, applying to NYU and meeting Phil in secret, and it will break your heart to see her struggle. Parallel to the day-to-day events of Maya’s life, a terrorist plots to wreak havoc. When the attack occurs, the prime suspect shares Maya’s last name, so she gets targeted with vitriol and violence. This book is such an emotional rollercoaster, and the author doesn’t pull any punches. Maya’s fear and hope are tangible, and you feel the weight of her choices. I loved the juxtaposition of Maya’s first-person narrative with third-person snippets of people whose lives are affected by the terrorist attack. It heightened the tension of the story and connected the dots between seemingly unrelated people.
That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim – Young Adult, Contemporary, Pakistani American MC, #ownvoices
That Thing We Call a Heart happens over the course of a summer, the summer before Shabnam goes off to college. She’s been estranged from her best friend Farah, so she finds companionship in a cute boy named Jamie, who lands her a job at his aunt’s pie shack. It’s hinted at in the synopsis, but Jamie is not that great of a guy, and he sort of fetishizes Shabnam, and through this experience Shabnam comes to learn what a bad relationship looks like and how infatuation can cloud your judgment. My favorite part of the story was her interactions with her parents, her best friend Farah, and her great-uncle who survived Partition. Her dad teaches her about Urdu poetry, which gives her a connection to her heritage and artistic inspiration. Her best friend Farah was by far my favorite character, defying stereotypes of hijabi girls by dyeing her hair and listening to punk music and not taking shit from anyone. Shabnam’s alienation from Farah is very much her own fault, and in the story, she has to work through the issues and make amends. The dynamic nature of their friendship felt realistic, and it resonated with me a lot as someone who’s gone through similar stages with my own best friend. Lastly, her relationship with her great-uncle felt really relatable to me as someone who doesn’t have very close relationships with people of my grandparents’ generation, who lived through two periods of colonization. Her uncle lived through a very horrifying and bloody chapter of history, and it’s hard to communicate and connect when you feel like there is so much you don’t know about someone and their history. Shabnam’s curiosity and weighty feelings and desire to learn more about that history mirrored my own with respect to 20th Century Taiwanese history.
As y’all may already know, I’m a huge SFF fan, and this year Asian SFF YA has been absolutely spectacular! I’ve reviewed Want, A Crown of Wishes, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo already, but I still need to write and post reviews for Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Warcross. I’ll be honest and say Want and Warcross are my favorite books by Cindy Pon and Marie Lu, respectively. They are so immersive and intense and exhilarating. All of these were five-star reads for me, and I’m so excited for other people to read and hopefully fall in love with them! 🙂
It’s a tie! Rise of the Jumbies is the sequel to The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste, and Shadowhouse Fall is the sequel to Shadowshaper. I have yet to review any of these, but I really need to. I read these two sequels for Caribbean American Heritage Month, which was this past month. Rise of the Jumbies is set in Trinidad and also Ghana (with an epic cross-Atlantic journey in between), and Sierra, the heroine of Shadowhouse Fall, is Puerto Rican. Both series incorporate Caribbean lore, and they are filled with suspense, family bonds, friendship, and journeys of self-discovery. I adore these covers so much.
3. NEW RELEASE YOU HAVEN’T READ YET, BUT YOU WANT TO
I’m not sure what counts as new, but among the books released in the past two months, there are quite a few I’m eager to read:
One Shadow on the Wall tells the story of a boy in Senegal who has lost his father and must support himself and his family. Crossing Ebenezer Creek is based on a historical event during the Civil War era of U.S. history and features a recently-freed Black girl trying to forge a new life and future for herself. I Believe in a Thing Called Love is a contemporary romantic comedy in which a studious Korean American girl attempts to use Korean drama tropes to win the heart of her crush.
4. MOST ANTICIPATED RELEASE OF THE SECOND HALF OF 2017?
HAHA as if I could pick just one or even three. I need to section these off:
The Speaker by Traci Chee (The Sea of Ink and Gold #2, September 12th)
Chainbreaker by Tara Sim (Timekeeper Trilogy #2, November 7th)
If you haven’t read my rave reviews for the prequels to these books, you can go find out why I love them so much. The short version: The Reader (my review) is one of the most creative fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time, interweaving four different storylines and featuring a fascinating magic system in which the act of reading is a literal kind of magic. Not Your Sidekick (my review) is a fresh take on superheroes in a futuristic American West combined with a cute f/f romance. Timekeeper (my review) is set in an alternate England where clocks literally control the flow of time; in this world, our hero investigates a series of clock malfunctions with a sinister source while falling in love with an adorable and mysterious clock spirit.
I wasn’t joking when I said I love SFF! Beasts Made of Night is a Nigerian-inspired fantasy story that centers on a young man who is a magic user responsible for vanquishing the sin-beasts that form from people’s guilt as he navigates a deadly political conspiracy. Rebel Seoul takes place in near future Korea and stars a boy turned soldier who is recruited for a special project involving giant killing machines and forced to decide where his loyalty lies. The Library of Fates is based on the historical invasion of India by Alexander the Great and features a princess and servant on the run, in search of the Library of All Things, which may have the key to changing one’s fate.
Starfish is about a biracial Japanese American girl who deals with social anxiety while away from home and finds the courage to pursue the career of her dreams as an artist. You Bring the Distant Near tells the stories of three generations women in an Indian/Bengali immigrant family as they grow into their American identity. A Line in the Dark features a queer Chinese American girl who gets sucked into an elite social circle that is filled with secrets and danger.
More fantasy! Spirit Hunters stars a biracial Korean American girl who discovers her new house is haunted and has to save her brother from malevolent spirits. Akata Warrior is the sequel to Akata Witch (my review), a fantasy story starring four Nigerian American/Nigerian teens exploring their magic and working together to face down powerful foes. Whichwood is a companion to Furthermore and is a Persian-inspired story about a girl who washes the bodies of the dead and whose hair and hands are turning silver.
5. BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT
Okay so as far as 2017 book covers go, a few have disappointed me:
All of these were in my most anticipated cover reveals post but fell short of my expectations based on their synopses. Specifically, I was hoping that they would feature POC prominently, and they all failed to do that.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was probably the biggest letdown out of all of them. The symbolism of the apple blossom isn’t apparent because most people have no idea what an apple blossom looks like and wouldn’t be able to identify it on sight, the font is really tacky, the repeating yin-yang symbols is also kitschy and the only real indicator that the book is based on East Asian cultures, and in general I just wish it had more detail and texture to it. My mental aesthetic for Xifeng and FOTL was Fan Bingbing starring in the Chinese historical drama, The Empress of China, and I was totally hoping for something similar to the images below.
What disappointed me about the Warcross cover was the color scheme: it wasn’t dark enough for the feel of the story, in my opinion. And, to state the painfully obvious, it’s literally just the title in a slightly upgraded version of 2007 MS Word Art. Verdict: should have hired Jason Chan, who did the cover art for Want and Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship.
As for Beasts Made of Night…I was hoping for a Black boy to be on the cover looking fierce and magical, but instead we got animal silhouettes. It’s not terrible, but I wanted something with more texture that really takes up space.
The conclusion: PenguinTeen needs to invest in better cover art. They are horribly underselling their best SFF titles by POC with mediocre covers.
A Line in the Dark gives you the dark and creepy vibes from the synopsis but is once again very vague, and I’m willing to bet the hand model they used for that photo wasn’t even Asian. Like why is it so hard to just put a queer Chinese American girl on the cover?
Okay, I’ll stop ranting about cover art now and talk about actual stories that disappointed me. There were only two, actually.
One was the middle grade book Stir It Up!, which I reviewed earlier this year. As I mentioned in my review, it didn’t have the level of detail and substance I was hoping for in a book centered on Indo-Caribbean cuisine that had so much potential. The other book was The Takedown by Corrie Wang. The premise sounded very interesting, and I was cautiously optimistic despite the fact that it was written by a white author (the main character is biracial Chinese American), but when I actually got to scoping it out at the bookstore, I found the main character really annoying, plus it was lowkey racist and sexist, among other things. Good thing I didn’t buy it.
I was looking forward to reading this book because it features a Thai American protagonist, the 2nd one in contemporary YA that I know of and the first in years. There was some hype going for me. Then I actually read it, and I was completely blown away. My Goodreads review says it all:
“I didn’t intend for my review to be a haiku but the universe had the syllable count planted in my subconscious somehow so here you go:
holy fucking shit
what the hell did I just read
I need to lie down”
Also, my Twitter mini-thread:
narratives I've read. the diaspora narrative really heightens the tensions that play out in the thriller arc bc it's so intensely personal
Okay, it’s fairly rare for a book to actually, literally make me cry, but this book actually did that. It was over a very emotional mother-daughter moment that really struck a chord with me, and I guess the biggest factors that contributed to that was a) the protagonist is [East] Asian American like me, and b) I lost my own mom last year so I’m still really sensitive to stuff relating to moms. If you want to read my thoughts about the Latinx rep (the love interest is Mexican American), I wrote a brief review about it on GR, but as I’m not Latinx, I don’t feel comfortable actually recommending this book to people since it was called out a few months back by a sensitivity reader for bad rep, and I don’t know to what extent that stuff was fixed/edited for the final version.
Okay, this was one of my favorite middle grade books of the year because it was really cute and fun but also creative about turning certain racist microaggressions against biracial Asian people on their head. You can read my full review here.
12. FAVORITE BOOK TO MOVIE ADAPTATION YOU’VE SEEN THIS YEAR
…I don’t think I’ve seen any? Oops.
13. FAVORITE REVIEW YOU’VE WRITTEN THIS YEAR?
Probably my review for Want since it’s such a personally satisfying read because of the Taiwanese rep.
14. MOST BEAUTIFUL BOOK YOU’VE BOUGHT OR RECEIVED THIS YEAR?
It has such gorgeous cover art! It extends onto the back as well, and there’s a Chinese character on the cover under the jacket; it’s the word for the main character’s name, Jing. You can see it in my bookstagram post:
Midnight Without a Moon is based on true historical events relating to the murder of Emmett Till in the mid-20th Century, told through the perspective of a young black girl. Stef Soto, Taco Queen tells the story of a girl who wants to escape the shadow of her family-run taco truck until that very livelihood is threatened, and she become it’s greatest champion. The Harlem Charade follows three kids of color in Harlem as they investigate one of them’s missing grandfather and stumble upon an insidious plot to gentrify their neighborhood. Piecing Me Together tackles the intersections of race, gender, and class for a Black teen girl who attends a mostly-white private school, where she’s identified as “at-risk.” Wintersong is an atmospheric retelling of the story of Labyrinth, in which a girl who loves to compose music becomes the bride of the Goblin King, her creative muse, in order to save her sister. Empress of a Thousand Skies is an epic space opera in which a princess and a former refugee have to join together to help reclaim the throne and save the galaxy. History Is All You Left Me tells the story of a teen struggling with the death of his ex and his own debilitating OCD, and his ex’s boyfriend is the only one who understands his pain. The Foretelling of Georgie Spider is the third and final book in The Tribe series by Indigenous author Ambelin Kwamullina; the series takes place in a dystopian future where people who manifest powers are Illegal and must survive in secret on the fringes of society or be detained by the state. I read the first book last year (my review) and loved it, so books 2 and 3 are waiting for me.
HEY, you made it to the end, yay you! I tag everyone who wants to do this tag. ^o^
This month is packed with interviews because of #AsianLitBingo, and there are four more to go before the end of the month, not counting this one, so I hope you are ready for the flood. Today’s special guest is F.C. Yee, whose debut YA novel The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is releasing August 8th!
I have to take a moment to appreciate this cover because it’s so eye catching. (In an earlier version of the cover, Genie was much smaller compared to the title, and the difference in the visual impact is pretty dramatic.) I especially love the tagline because it’s a hyperbolic rendition of a typical Chinese parent line and sets the tone for the story.
Before we begin with the interview, here’s the Goodreads synopsis:
The struggle to get into a top-tier college consumes sixteen-year-old Genie Lo’s every waking thought. But when her sleepy Bay Area town comes under siege from hell-spawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are suddenly and forcefully rearranged.
Her only guide to the demonic chaos breaking out around her is Quentin Sun, a beguiling, maddening new transfer student from overseas. Quentin assures Genie she is strong enough to fight these monsters, for she unknowingly harbors an inner power that can level the very gates of Heaven.
Genie will have to dig deep within herself to summon the otherworldly strength that Quentin keeps talking about. But as she does, she finds the secret of her true nature is entwined with his, in a way she could never have imagined…
As always, my comments and questions are in bold and labeled with “SW.” F.C. Yee’s answers will be labeled “Christian” (because that’s what the C stands for and I’ve been using given names for all these interviews).
SW: Please introduce yourself!
Christian: Hi! I’m F.C. Yee, author of The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. It’s my first work of fiction to be published. Prior to that, most of the writing I did was in college for a humor magazine. I live in San Francisco and enjoy varied pursuits like staying in, staying in and watching TV, and staying in and playing games.
SW: Beyond what’s the in the Goodreads synopsis, tell us a little about The Epic Crush of Genie Lo.
Christian: This book, if I did it right, is about knowing exactly what you want and being kept from it by forces that claim they’re beyond your control. It’s about discovering your inner power, testing the validity of those claims, and finding out that they were BS all along.
If I did not do it right, then it’s solely about make-believe punching.
It is not the first book I ever wrote; in fact the first words I put to paper for The Epic Crush of Genie Lo were during a writer’s conference where I was supposed to be talking about a different book entirely. I solidified some ideas on hotel stationary during a pitch session and read the pitch to the group before the rest of the story existed. They didn’t hate it, so here we are.
SW: Since your book incorporates some Chinese lore, what is your favorite Chinese myth/folktale/legend?
Christian: My favorite story would be how the goddess Nuwa created humans. According to some versions, she started by sculpting individual people out of clay. But at some point she got impatient and started flinging the clay around, creating people wherever drops of it landed.
The legend isn’t very funny when used to justify social hierarchies like it apparently was in the past, but it is pretty amusing to imagine a creator goddess going “Eh, whatever. It’ll work out.” I like to think we’re all of us the product of hasty assembly, without exception.
SW: That sounds less flattering than what the Greeks came up with, but hey, we can’t all be artists and masters of crafting, right? Speaking of craft, did you do any research for the story? If so, what kind?
Christian: I read multiple versions of Journey to the West, including an abridged one that has maybe three demons tops, and an unabridged version that was so long I doubt I remember every part of it. Prior to that I had read or watched media about Sun Wukong in passing, but it wasn’t with the intent of doing research. Also, it would be impossible to claim that I wasn’t influenced by American Born Chinese, which I’d read before the idea of doing fiction ever crossed my mind.
SW: My background with Journey to the West is fairly similar. My dad read me these illustrated storybooks about the Monkey King and I watched a cartoon movie about him, but I’ve never actually read Journey to the West in either English or Chinese. I’ve been meaning to though.
But even with only bits and pieces the human mind can create so much. You start out with a seed of an idea but end up with a fully fledged story. How has your story grown and changed from its earlier iterations?
Christian: The major plot beats and characterizations were pretty much the same since early drafts, but a lot of the smaller details kept evolving to fit the story and tone. I ended up removing some unnecessary complications that would have caused the narrative to come to a screeching halt or thrown the reader out of the flow of the story. There was also a steady shift over time towards increased focus on Genie’s relationships with her best friend, and especially her divine mentor/boss/older sister figure.
SW: I loved that character, so I’m glad you decided to give her more page time. It was cool to see a very modernized depiction of her. Coincidentally, she’s sort of important to one of the stories I’m writing, so I’m just going to pretend our stories happen in the same universe about a thousand years apart 😉
What was your greatest challenge with writing the book?
Christian: I struggled for a while with how to relay the origins of Sun Wukong to anyone who wasn’t familiar with the original story. Going back to the above question, another draft of the book had interludes that tried to summarize relevant chunks of Journey to the West, and that didn’t work as well as what I eventually landed on.
To my surprise I also got stumped on some small key plot mechanics that I needed to keep the story moving forward. Certain elements that should have been obvious in retrospect took me weeks of banging my head against the wall to figure out.
SW: I think I’ve been through something similar in the past. On the flip side, what was your favorite part of writing the book?
Christian: I enjoyed creating the reversals that occur during fight scenes and giving off that manga-esque “You think you have me beat but this isn’t even my true power!” feeling. I may or may not have imagined most of those moments before writing the book and used them as motivation to finish the rest. *cough*
SW: “Write the shiny, explosive parts first, sweat the small stuff later” is probably a lot of writers’ modus operandi, to be honest, ha. 😂
This next question is something that came up while I was reading the ARC of your book. (Spoiler free zone, don’t worry) What’s your beef with bubble tea? Okay, I’m being facetious, but Genie seemed to be very adamantly against bubble tea. Speaking seriously, was there any reason besides familiarity that motivated you to set the book in the Bay Area in particular?
Christian: I personally love bubble tea! I just thought it would be funny if Genie hated something that most everyone in the Bay Area loves. The thought of her silently grousing as all her friends keep wanting to meet up for bubble tea was a very Genie-like image in my head.
As far as for why the book takes place in the Bay Area, I’m afraid it was just proximity coupled with an Asian American population that lent the setting elements that I wanted. I’m sure there’s an alternate universe where I lived elsewhere and wrote the book to be in Flushing, NY, or maybe Vancouver.
SW: I guess that means Genie and I would not hit it off that well. I love bubble tea and wished I lived somewhere that has plenty of bubble tea shops nearby. 😅
Now, for the last question…
Although the book feels like it can stand alone, I also think there’s room for more stories about Genie. Are there are any sequel ideas/plans? If not, any hints at what’s next/what you’re working on?
Christian: There will definitely be at least one more book about Genie (hooray for contractual obligations!) After that, I might try my hand at YA Fantasy, or even a Middle Grade book. I would love to do a book that has a Korean influence as I’m of Korean descent as well as Chinese, and I have to be fair to both sides of the family ☺
SW: Yesss! I’m so down for another book about Genie and Quentin. I’m also excited about the possibility of a Korean-influenced book because we need more Korean rep in YA, especially SFF.👀
Thanks a bunch for this interview! I’m looking forward to receiving my copy of The Epic Crush of Genie Lo on release day!