Tag Archives: Disabled protagonist

Review for Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish

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.

Review:

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.

Mini Reviews: 5 Latinx and Caribbean Reads

 

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Review for In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

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My Summary: Raami’s privileged life as a Cambodian princess is destroyed when the civil war hits Phnom Penh. Displaced from home and separated from her father, she and her family must endure pain both physical and psychological in order to survive. The only thing left of her past life that she can hold onto is the stories and poems her father told her.

Review:

Trigger/content warnings: ableism, fatphobia

This book is semi-autobiographical, being loosely based on the author’s own experience surviving the Cambodian genocide. The story that you get is truly a work of art.

The story is told in first-person from the perspective of a seven-year-old girl, and this choice of narrative format brings the reader deep into Raami’s emotional core. Children are more observant and more resilient than people sometimes give them credit for, and that is the case with Raami. Her youthful honesty and vulnerability provide clarity and insight. Her tragic loss of innocence blossoms into a determination to rise above her circumstances, find light in her surroundings, and paint shining stories onto the dark canvas of the world.

The author’s use of language is precise and evocative, prose that reads like poetry in many places. I don’t know that I can do it justice by describing it. It’s something that you have to experience for yourself to understand the sheer gorgeousness of it all.  It transports you across space and time and immerses you in Raami’s world, with all its beauty and ugliness and complexity. It pays tribute to the power of words and storytelling, which are thematically embedded in the narrative.

Family lies at the center of the story, specifically parent-child relationships. This focus is important because the Khmer Rouge sought to break down family relationships as a tactic to demoralize and inculcate loyalty to the Khmer Rouge, to the Organization that supposedly provided for all. Raami’s father is her rock in troubled times, so their separation takes an immense toll on her psyche. Her longing for him, her feelings of betrayal and abandonment, and her guilt over her role in his capture by the Khmer Rouge weigh on her throughout the years. She maintains her connection to him and keeps him alive in her mind and heart by recalling his words to her.

With her mother, Raami’s struggle is with feeling like she comes second to her younger sister, Radana, due to internalized ableism. Radana is “perfect” whereas Raami has a shorter leg and a limp from polio. Adults tell her well-intentioned but ultimately hurtful messages about her disability until later she realizes that it’s not a gift but an illness. She finds solace in the love that surrounds her and learns to cope with the microaggressions.

I had mixed feelings about the portrayal of Raami’s disability. On the one hand, it did recognize that it was an illness and not a gift, and it did discuss microaggressions associated with having a so-called physical imperfection. However, there are places where Raami’s mother uses ableist language like “broken” to refer to Raami, and it’s not really challenged, even if the overall message of her sentence is affirming of Raami’s humanity.

The other thing that I had reservations about was an antagonistic supporting character who was referred to as “the Fat One,” thereby reducing her to her size and demonizing her fatness. She was unlikable because of her cruelty and not her fatness, so the author could have chosen a better nickname for her that doesn’t play into fatphobia and body-shaming.

Recommendation: A must-read and a window into an important era of history.

Review for Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

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Note: This review is based on the ARC I received. The book will be released on March 14th.

My Summary: Charlie and Taylor are stoked about being at SupaCon. Charlie’s promoting her first movie and ready to prove that she’s over her breakup with heartthrob Reese Ryan, no matter how much the shippers may cry. Then her crush, the Internet famous Alyssa Huntington, shows up and things get complicated. Taylor is hoping to survive the sensory overload of a huge convention and meet her favorite author. Then her relationship with her best friend and long-time crush Jamie takes a turn, and suddenly she’s hit with more change than she can handle.

Review:

Queens of Geek is such a fun book. It’s a quick read in a good way because it keeps you smiling, squealing, and swooning your way through the story.

To start off, the setting and premise are everything a fandom geek could want. This book is clearly written from a place of someone who is intimately familiar with geek culture. It shows in the details: the references to shows, movies, books, games, etc.; the Internet fan culture lingo/jargon, the emotional experience of geeking out with other people over the things you love, and so on. Even though some of the works referenced were made up by the author or things I’m not a fan of or knowledgeable about, the general geekiness was still recognizable and relatable for me.

The story is definitely character-driven, and the choice of first-person narration was perfect, in my opinion. Charlie and Taylor have distinct voices, and their personalities, quirks, and interests/fandoms shine through. I found myself relating a lot more to Taylor because she’s a bookworm and doesn’t like the spotlight. I’m not on the autism spectrum but the portrayal of panic attacks and sensory overload in crowded spaces was super familiar and resonated with my experiences as someone with general anxiety, social anxiety, and moderate agoraphobia. Her use of Tumblr to vent and document her experiences was also relatable because I’m so much better at expressing myself through text than orally.

The wonderful thing about Queens of Geek is that it is very feminist and empowering in its execution. There’s talk about healthy relationships and how boundaries, expectations, etc. play into them. The words “intersectional feminism” actually appear early on in the story. There are moments when sexism, slut-shaming, fat-shaming, biphobia, etc. are explicitly addressed and called out on the page. Most memorable to me are a) the moment when Charlie and Alyssa bond over being prominent WOC in Internet and social media spaces and b) the moment when Taylor finds common ground with a fellow autistic geek, moments that validate them and their feelings of being othered by mainstream culture.

Also notable is Jamie’s character. He’s a geek of color (he’s Latino, but I cannot remember whether his exact ethnicity was mentioned) and best friend to Taylor, and he actually stands up to and calls out toxic masculinity and defends the girls from sexism from garbage people like Reese, who is a foil to Jamie of sorts. Whereas Jamie is supportive and caring and lovable, Reese is someone you will love to hate and want to launch into the sun.

The two couples/romances in this book were super well-developed and just adorable and swoon-worthy. You will get cavities from how sweet they are. And the kisses! So many good kissing scenes. I’m not big on romance in general, but geeky romances are my weakness, and this is absolutely the book for that.

As far as flaws and criticism go, I had some reservations about Charlie’s character, who is Chinese Australian (the author is white). There were appropriate mentions and descriptions of microaggressions in various places, and the one instance of pinyin checked out*, but I guess I was expecting more in how her worldview as a woman of color and East Asian girl came across. Although Charlie is an outgoing and confident person, when you’re a highly visible woman of color who is versed in intersectional feminism, it’s almost impossible not to navigate spaces, especially public ones, without a heightened awareness of race and racial dynamics.

With this in mind, there were certain scenes that felt too race-neutral to me. One of these was an early scene when she is meeting and greeting a line of fans, and there is no mention of the racial makeup of this line. It felt like a glaring omission given that there is a place where she mentions that she is the first Chinese Australian actor to work on a show. Being the first person of your ethnicity to be in something that’s historically white-dominated carries a lot of emotional weight as far as representation is concerned because you’re held up as a role model. I expected that she would mention meeting her own role models in the past or be on the lookout for fellow Chinese people and East Asians among her fans who see themselves in her work.

For me, another important omission was consideration of safety. Geek fandom culture includes anime and manga, which means [East] Asian fetishists (many are self-described as having “yellow fever”). I have a Taiwanese friend who has done voice acting for anime dubs, and she had literal stalkers. As an East Asian person who is read as female, I am scared of attending cons because I know there will be gross weeaboos among the crowd there. I was expecting Charlie to mention creeps among her fans at some point, but it never came up.

My third and final example is a scene from Taylor’s perspective when Charlie is applying makeup and mentions wanting to do more makeup tutorials. Makeup and cosmetics as an industry are far from being race-neutral. Makeup in white-majority countries is overwhelmingly designed with white people as the default consumer base. Finding foundation that fits your skin tone is an issue for POC, especially if you’re darker-skinned. And with East Asians in particular, eye makeup is its own issue. The moment eyeliner was mentioned, my thought was, um, does she have monolids (the epicanthic fold)? Because that makes a huge difference in how you apply makeup. I don’t even wear makeup (never have, maybe never will, for various reasons), but I know this because it’s a big part of being femme and East Asian. Your eyes play a huge part in beauty standards; having monolids and smaller eyes like mine is stigmatized as being uglier. If Charlie had monolids, her doing makeup tutorial videos would be a Big Fucking Deal because most makeup tutorials are not geared toward people like me.

I would talk about the intersections of being bisexual and Chinese, but I don’t think Queens of Geek was necessarily the story where exploring that complexity would fit in since the focus was on geek culture. Regardless, that intersection wasn’t addressed in the story, but it is something I want to see for queer Asian characters like Charlie.

*During a Q&A video with Alyssa, Charlie mentions one of her favorite foods is mapo doufu (麻婆豆腐) because her mom makes it. This was kind of iffy to me because the book says her family is from Beijing, and mapo doufu is a distinctly Sichuanese dish. Not to say that nobody besides Sichuanese people makes it, but Chinese cuisine is heavily region-based, so I was expecting something more representative of Beijing (one of my Chinese American friends who’s 1.5 generation from Beijing raves about the lamb/mutton, for example).

Final comment before I wrap up: there was a line that was heteronormative in describing Reese’s smile as ones that “makes girls all over the world weak in the knees.” Probably just a slip-up, but it was awkward coming from a character who is herself bi.

Recommendation: Though it didn’t have quite the level of nuance I wanted in representation, I still loved the book and would recommend it to the fandom geeks out there!

Review for Love Made of Heart by Teresa LeYung Ryan

love-made-of-heart

Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find my list of books that I read and the links to the reviews for those books here.

My Summary: After Ruby Lin witnesses mother being hospitalized for a severe emotional breakdown, she is forced to confront her painful past and family history and come to terms with her own mental illness and trauma.

Review:

Trigger/Content Warnings: mentions/descriptions/discussions of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, abuse/domestic violence, suicide, hospitalization, disordered eating

To be honest, it was really hard for me to read this book. Not because it’s badly written, but because I related very strongly to the story in various ways. I guess you could say it was triggering for me at certain points. However, that didn’t make me want to stop reading; it made me want to keep reading because this is the first time I’ve really seen a narrative that comes close to reflecting my experiences with mental illness as an Asian American, and as we all keep saying, representation is important.

There are a lot of ways in which this story diverges from my experiences: my mother’s illness was leukemia, not bipolar disorder and paranoia/schizophrenia; my family wasn’t an abusive/toxic environment (Kind of spoiler alert, highlight to read: Ruby’s father beat her mother and younger brother; Ruby herself is a survivor of intimate partner violence). The story takes place about 30 years ago, in the 80s. Despite these differences, I related to both Ruby and her mother’s experiences with mental illness in many ways.

One of the things I related to a lot was the taboo and silence around mental illness within the family. Although my parents aren’t the “doesn’t believe in mental illness/counseling” type of Asian parents, they never discussed mental illness in my extended family until very, very recently, after my own experiences with it brought it into the open. For a long time, whenever mental health practitioners asked me whether I had a history of mental illness in my family, I could only shrug and say “not that I know of” because if I did, nobody talked about it. In the past year, however, my dad has told me about at least three different people on my dad’s side of the family having depression at some point, and he strongly suspects my maternal grandmother has anxiety, which would not be surprising to me at all.

The book starts out with Ruby’s mother being taken away by police. This definitely reminded me of my own experience being hospitalized. In my case, it was voluntary; I decided to commit myself to the psych ward because I was suicidal and not coping well at all; Ruby’s mother is involuntarily committed. But like her mother, I was handcuffed as a precautionary measure in case I had the urge to hurt myself (or other people). Ruby’s mother reacts to this with extreme distress, and that’s completely understandable. Even going into it voluntarily, I had this overwhelming feeling of wanting to escape and take it back because I knew I wouldn’t have any freedom for an indefinitely amount of time.

Another thing that was relatable to me was Mrs. Lin’s use of food to express defeat and anger. For her, it’s dumping out food in large quantities out of spite, for me, it was starving myself for periods of time as a “punishment.” I have a messy relationship with food. I either eat too much or eat too little as a response to my depression, so I’ve gone through periods of sharp increases in weight as well as sharp decreases in weight.

Soon after her mother’s hospitalization, Ruby starts seeing a therapist to deal with her own mental illness and trauma, and a lot of her frustrations mirror mine: I went in expecting that I’d be “fixed/cured” within a certain amount of time. I was a former straight-A student and thought that I could treat therapy like an academic class and study/work my way toward “graduating” out of my mental illness, and that I was a failure if I didn’t. (Spoiler alert: That didn’t work, and I’m still struggling with not hating myself for not getting over my depression the way some people can/have.)

One of the major themes of this book is that loving someone doesn’t always mean you should live with them. It emphasizes that having distance and setting boundaries is healthy for relationships. This was very validating to me because I always felt guilty for wanting to get away from my family and live on my own. They aren’t horrible people or abusive, but I need my space and feel stifled living at home being treated more like a teenager than an adult.

I appreciated that the author included Ruby’s experiences with racist microaggressions throughout the story. Although the narrative never makes the explicit statement or connection, and the author may not have intended for anyone to see it that way, racism can very much trigger or exacerbate mental illness. Dealing with racism that further dehumanizes you when you’re already feeling like garbage is a part of the intersectional experience of being nonwhite and mentally ill. I almost never feel safe because my awareness of systemic racism means that I know I could have racism thrown my way at any time, even by people who are close to me. Cue a ton of anxiety. On top of that, not feeling comfortable calling people out and feeling like I can’t change people’s prejudices/biases has made me feel helpless and even more depressed at times. (This is why I am livid when people attribute racism to mental illness or when white people try to deflect responsibility for their racism by claiming it’s their mental illness at fault.)

Although the title “Love Made of Heart” might lead people to assume the book is a romance book, the story focuses far more on familial love and relationships than romantic love, and I’m glad that the romantic subplot didn’t hijack the story (nor was it a “cure” for Ruby’s mental illness). In the end, the most important issue was Ruby’s growth and healing as a person, not whether she ended up with anyone.

The book isn’t perfect; it was cissexist in certain places, heteronormative in others, and it also played into the stigma against Chinese-accented English by spelling words of dialogue with L’s instead of R’s for this one character, among other things. But even so, this book meant a lot to me as an Asian American struggling with mental illness. I wish there were more books in YA/NA featuring mentally ill Asian characters, especially given that Asian American girls/women ages 15-24 have the 2nd highest suicide rate after Native American women among all ethnicities within that age group. Asian Americans are also less likely to report or seek treatment for mental illness than white Americans. A book like this one could literally save someone’s life. I’m kind of disappointed that this book was published in 2002 and I’ve really yet to see anything else like it in my search for Asian American mental illness rep.

Recommendation: If you’re interested in reading it, all the warnings I’ve given at the top and in my final paragraph apply. (It may also be difficult to get a copy as it’s old and out of print.)

Review for Flying Lessons & Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh

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As soon as I found out about the existence of this book and saw who was going to be contributing to it, I hit that “Want to Read” button on Goodreads faster than you can say “gimme”! And then I pre-ordered the book, and waited, and waited, and waited, and I finally got my hands on my copy of it, and it did not disappoint.

In order to do this anthology justice, I’m doing a mini-review for each story. At the end, I’ll give my thoughts on the anthology as a whole.

“How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium” by Matt de la Peña

Summary: In San Diego, a young Mexican American boy from a working-class background finds his place among Black basketball players at the Municipal Gym and learns to navigate the dynamic of a team.

Review:

This story is told in the second-person, which can be pretty hit or miss for me. In this case, it worked. I felt like I was being given a pep talk that guided me through the figurative basketball court of the main character’s life. There’s a certain kind of rhythm to the writing that captures both the vivacity of urban environments and the suspense and maneuvering action of a basketball game. It sucks you in.

At its core, this story is a celebration of urban POC, and it doesn’t hesitate to address the racial tensions that structure the urban social landscape. The narrative references racial profiling and internalized racism as well as inter-POC, specifically Black-Latinx/Mexican, relations. Stereotypes are brought up and then unpacked. The author pays tribute to the artistry that pervades basketball, which is overlooked because it’s a physical exercise that’s not really associated with finesse.

On top of that, the story is also about father-son relationships, and the different ways people choose to express their love and care.

There’s something high energy yet also subtle about this story that leaves you in a good mood and ready for more and makes it a great pick for the first story in the anthology.

“The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin

Summary: Lingsi grows up not expecting much out of her mundane life and the path that is prescribed to her by her lower social status. By luck, she is given the opportunity to learn to read, and this skill, rare for a girl of her station, takes her somewhere she would never have imagined.

Review:

So while I was reading this story, something felt strangely off about it. Then I realized why: there are no illustrations, and I’m used to seeing illustrations in Grace Lin’s work. Illustrations would have made a nice added touch, but the story itself was lovely on its own.

This story had a surprising twist that I wasn’t expecting, but it was a great one. To me, it’s a celebration of words: poetry, stories, and so on. It’s also a story of girls claiming agency and finding their path, as the title suggests. I don’t want to give away anything too major, so you’ll have to read the story to find out the details.

“Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina

Summary: Merci Suarez comes a working-class Cuban American family. In exchange for waived tuition to the fancy school Seaward Pines, her family will do a paint job for the school building. Unfortunately, this job leads to an unpleasant encounter that teaches her a lesson about a harsh reality of the world.

Review:

Narrated in the first-person, this story delves into the life of a young girl who’s about to enter a new environment. There’s a sharp contrast between the world of her comfort zone and the school she will attend. The burden of the American Dream is on her generation’s shoulders, and the story hints at the conflict once she starts school. It’s a poignant tale of the sacrifices people make to get a leg up in a stratified society.

The story contains English-Spanish code-switching without translations, which was nice to see as someone who’s multilingual and code-switches when talking to my family/ethnic community. I am fairly fluent in Spanish (6 years of study in secondary school plus 6 weeks of study abroad in college), so I understood exactly what was being said, but those who aren’t hispanohablantes should be able to infer through context clues the gist of things.

“Secret Samantha” by Tim Federle

Note: I’m using they/them pronouns for the main character because the story is in first-person and doesn’t explicitly mention Sam’s pronouns and they/them seems to be the most fitting pronouns to use for Sam’s gender expression.

Summary: Sam’s class is playing Secret Santa, and they happen to pick the name of the new girl, Blade, who fascinates Sam with her clothes, black-and-white painted nails and wicked shoes, so different from what they’re used to. They want to give Blade the perfect gift, but their mother has other plans in mind.

Review:

Okay, I was not expecting this story be so cute and queer. It’s largely a light-hearted story, but it touches on the policing of gender. Sam is gender-nonconforming but is forced to present femininely and go by “Samantha” because they don’t want to deal with the prejudice that comes with it. They’ve addressed the issue of wanting to be called “Sam” with their mom but getting her to gender them properly is a work in progress.

The story is also about first crushes, and this story is so important because we rarely get to see non-hetero attraction portrayed in middle grade fiction because it’s so often automatically sexualized. Here, the attraction is emotional and age-appropriate and honestly I dare anyone who finds it “scandalous” that a twelve-year-old feminine-presenting gender-nonconforming kid might crush on a girl to fight me.

One of the little things I liked about the book was the inclusion of diverse supporting characters. They weren’t described in detail but you can tell from their names that they’re POC.

“The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist

Summary: Isaiah struggles to keep his family afloat; his single mother has an addiction problem and he’s tasked with taking care of his younger sister even though he’s still a kid himself. He finds solace in the notebooks his dad left behind, which contain stories about a fictional version of himself in larger-than-life situations. These notebooks may just be what he needs for a better future.

Review:

My heart went out to Isaiah and his family because they’re short one person, his dad, and I myself recently experienced a similar loss when my mother passed away last year. However, unlike me, Isaiah doesn’t have the same support system, and he’s still a kid, whereas I’m an adult, albeit a young and inexperienced one.

His only escape is the stories his dad wrote, which allow him to see himself empowered while connecting with the memory of his dad. It reminds me of the way I listened to a bunch of cpop and Taiwanese pop songs after my mom passed away because my memories of them were associated with her; those songs came from dramas that I watched with her as a kid.

Although Isaiah situation isn’t looking good, with the help of a caring adult, he’s able to take steps toward healing and hope.

AAVE (African American Vernacular English) is integrated into both dialogue and narration, not as a cheap accessory but to add realism to Isaiah’s character and his voice. Fiction has a tendency to play into the stigma against AAVE as a non-standard English dialect, [mis]using it as a tool to other Black characters and depict them as being uneducated or unintelligent. But in this case, the story normalizes the use of AAVE. It’s familiar and fundamental to Isaiah.

One of the small details I enjoyed about the story was a part where Isaiah mentions watching Bruce Lee movies with his dad. It reminded me of what I read in my Asian American Media Cultures class about Afro-Asian intersections. Bruce Lee was a cultural icon with special significance to Black Americans, particularly Black men, because they empathized with his position as an outsider struggling against a society that devalued and subjugated him.

“Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains” by Tim Tingle

Note: The narrator’s gender and pronouns are never specified or described in this story, so I will use they/them pronouns.

Summary: At a large family gathering, the main character, nicknamed “Turtle Kid” by their Uncle Kenneth, listens to their uncle tell a story about Naloosha Chitto, Big Hairy Man, a Choctaw analogue to Bigfoot, against their mother and other relatives’ warnings. Soon, they and their cousins are gathered around Uncle Kenneth for an outrageous tale full of twists and turns.

Review:

The whole giant family gathering scenario isn’t altogether foreign to me. Though it hasn’t happened much in recent years, I can recall a time when I was younger when a large number of my paternal extended family gathered together for meals and celebrations during the summer, when I was free to visit relatives in Taiwan. I have a ton of cousins myself, so Turtle Kid’s situation felt familiar to me, though I was one of the younger ones.

Uncle Kenneth’s way of storytelling is interactive in two senses of the word. One is that he allows for audience reactions to interrupt the story, thus making it more organic in how it takes shape and the plot proceeds. The other way is that he plays with his audiences expectations, throwing red herrings before revealing what really happens, giving the impression that it’s over when there’s still more complications ahead. The result is funny and engaging. And at the end, even if the kids are scared or confused by the tale of Naloosha Chitto, they have fun, and it’s a family tradition that brings them all together.

“Main Street” by Jacqueline Woodson

Summary: Nicknamed “Treetop,” the white protagonist reflects on her experiences of loss and love. Her mother passed away a few years ago, and her best friend, who is Black, has moved away.

Review:

I was surprised that the viewpoint character was white, but as people have said, when a POC writes white characters, it’s different than a white person writing white characters because they have a different perspective on whiteness.

Treetop’s losses are intertwined. Following the loss of her mother, a Black girl named Celeste moves into her neighborhood, and the two become best friends. But eventually, Celeste moves away, leaving Treetop to cope with a new loss.

Family is central to the story. The main character feels pain because of her mother’s illness and then death, and that pain is compounded by her father’s lack of empathy toward her.

Her friendship with Celeste brings to the fore interracial interactions. They each come from very racially homogeneous areas where everyone looks like them. It’s Treetop’s first time meeting a Black girl, and she doesn’t hold much explicit bias. However, her curiosity and entitlement to satisfy it (e.g. touching her hair) cause some friction between her and Celeste. Until she learns to respect Celeste’s boundaries.

Reading this story made me feel a sense of longing for times past that can’t be changed. I have experiences with moving as a child and losing my mother, so the narrative resonated with me on a deeply personal level.

“Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani

Summary: Santosh gets dragged on a trip to Europe by his grandmother. He goes in expecting cultural learning expeditions to increase his worldliness and is instead caught in one awkward situation after another. Eventually, his grandmother comes clean about the purpose of the trip, and he gains something completely unexpected from it.

Review:

Usually in anthologies there’s one story with someone from the LGBTQ+ umbrella, and that’s it, token diversity quota met, so I’m happy that there is a second cute and queer story in this anthology. I can’t say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything major away, but I was thoroughly entertained.

Santosh’s nerdy awkwardness is so familiar to me since I was That Kid at that age, and in some ways I still am That Kid. More bookish and academic than social, a wallflower, a person who declines social invitations because I don’t think people actually want my company, etc.

His relationship with his grandmother and his grandmother’s quirky personality make for a great deal of comedy. Aside from offering humor, she also offers him some wisdom.

This book’s ending was slightly confusing and hard to categorize, but I’m labeling it magical realism. It shocked me, but at the same time, it was bittersweet.

“Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents: A Story-In-Verse” by Kwame Alexander

Summary: A seventh grader named Monk Oliver is given an assignment to write a memoir about himself. Because he finds his life boring, he decides to exercise creative license and spin a wild story about mindreading and vindication that mixes fact and fiction.

Review:

Unreliable narrators are always interesting because you’re given the task of trying to puzzle out how much of what they say is true and how much is false. The most obvious truth is that Monk is a nerdy type of kid. His detailed knowledge of various subjects pervades his verses, often in the form of figurative language or pointed asides.

When his semi-fictional memoir self acquires mind reading powers, he experiments a little and then sets out to use it to his social advantage, canceling a pop quiz, winning favor with his classmates, and getting revenge on his crush, Angel, who spurns him as a lowlife.

The verses seem to take the mood up a notch with each trial Monk faces in proving his psychic ability. It builds up and up and up in a crescendo until the grand finale, which then slides into a blissfully perfect denouement and an epilogue that leaves you wondering what Monk’s life really looks like, without the hyperbole and supernatural additions. It’s a riot to read.

“Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” by Walter Dean Myers

Summary: Chris Blair becomes a wheelchair-user due to an accident. His dad, a former pro basketball player, thinks it’s the end of his hopes for Chris to follow in his footsteps. But Chris joins a newly formed wheelchair basketball game, and his dad may just be the key to making the team shine.

Review:

This story echoes the first with its focus on basketball and father-son relationships, thus making it a fitting closing story.

In this case, the main character is disabled, and from my limited knowledge, he seems to be portrayed fairly respectfully. The narrative doesn’t objectify him or reduce him to his wheelchair. Offensive language like “wheelchair-bound” is never used.

Refreshingly, the story does not center on the trauma of losing the use of his legs or any kind of struggle with internalized ableism. Instead, it chronicles Chris’s adaptation to a different kind of movement, a new way of playing a familiar sport. He doesn’t talk about wheelchairs as a hindrance. Instead, he admires some players’ chairs for having specialized features that make them more suitable for the game.

Here, Chris’s father is the one who has to unpack his ableism and learn to see his son’s disability through a new lens. Once he is able to do that, he becomes a more empathetic person and assistant coach for the wheelchair basketball team.

Overall Impressions and Miscellaneous Notes:

There were a few places where I noticed problematic language, but it was relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Overall, this was an outstanding anthology, each story with its own appeal and strengths. The order of the stories was arranged well.

My only regret is that there weren’t more stories included. I think it would have benefited from a story showcasing religious diversity, one about a Muslim or Sikh or Jewish character, especially given the recent rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism. It would have rounded out the racial, ethnic, gender, attraction/orientation, and disability diversity.

I hope to see more like this from We Need Diverse Books, and I’m eagerly anticipating the YA counterpart, Lift Off, which is coming summer 2018!

Recommendation: Enthusiastically recommended!

Review for On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: The year is 2035. A comet is hurtling toward Earth. Only some people have been chosen to leave Earth on generation ships and colonize habitable planets far away, and the rest will be left behind in shelters to wait out the catastrophe. Denise, who is autistic, has resigned herself to being one of the disposable ones. Except a chance encounter reveals that there’s one ship still on Earth. Suddenly, Denise and her family might have a chance at escape, but she has to earn her way in. With her mother addicted to drugs and her sister missing, it will be more than just a piece of cake for Denise to overcome the trials ahead of her.

Review:

As with Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, but didn’t get around to reading it until now, motivated by the reading challenge. Also like my previous book, it surprised me by being so much more than what I was expecting.

Although there are many books that explore apocalyptic scenarios, few do it with the nuance that Corinne Duyvis does. Through her protagonist’s marginalized positionality, she unpacks the prejudices that shape society’s evaluation of people’s worth.

Denise is autistic, so ableism is a big factor in how people perceive her. But it’s more complex than that. She’s also biracial (her father is Surinamese, her mother is white) and not white-passing in the Netherlands. The intersectionality of her autism, Blackness, and girlhood means that her disability is often invisible or overlooked because the poster child for autism is a white boy. If she does anything that seems off, it’s dismissed as acting out rather than showing symptoms of a disability.

Her individual family members are also venues for social commentary. Her sister, Iris, is trans, and her mother is addicted to drugs.

Iris transitioned prior to the events of the book, and she is able to pass, so her transness isn’t a central issue. However, it is brought up when it’s relevant and appropriate. For example, when Denise talks about the antiblackness of people’s comments on her physical features, she remarks that Iris got that plus transphobic remarks because of her gender-nonconformity pre-transition. Denise also has to correct her mother when she mistakenly refers to Iris as her “brother.” I appreciate that the author does not deadname or otherwise misgender Iris, even when discussing pre-transition events, as this is a common blunder that cis authors make.

Their mother’s drug addiction and the way people treat them because of it illustrate how pervasive the dehumanization of addicts is in society. There is a lot of victim-blaming involved, and an assumption that drug users are ultimately disposable. It is hard for Denise to defend her mother sometimes because her mother is manipulative and exploits Denise’s autism to garner sympathy for herself. She violates her daughter’s boundaries and treads on her agency when it’s convenient. Although her character walks a fine line, I thought there was differentiation between the addiction and her mother’s toxic behavior. Even while she is sober/clean, she still treats Denise in horrible ways.

Aside from touching on the systemic biases people have, the book also sheds light on the way we value people based on our personal relationships with them. An important theme is the choices we must make when resources are limited: do we choose to follow “everyone for themselves and their own”? Is there room for compassion and empathy for strangers?

The plot of this book contains so many twists and turns that I was never entirely sure what the ending would look like. There was potential for it to go many different ways. But the ending I got was something beautiful. Not a neatly-wrapped, fairytale ending, but one brimming with hope for humanity, with life-affirming values.

Recommendation: Read this book!

Review for A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Veda has a passion for dancing and is a competitive dancer of traditional Indian Bharatanatyam. When she gets into an accident that results in her right leg being amputated below the knee, she must find a way to cope with the loss and regain her dance skills.

Review:

So I already read a book by Padma Venkatraman, Climbing the Stairs, but unlike that book, A Time to Dance is written in verse rather than prose. I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with poetry. I tend to like prose better, but some poetry is just so great that it makes me wish I were any good at writing it (my high school poetry was…terrible).

A Time to Dance is told in beautifully evocative language, rich with detail and figurative language. The author’s description of movement and affect draws you into Veda’s physical and emotional experiences.

Veda is a very relatable character for me. Her mother pushes her toward engineering and science, but her true passion lies with dance. Although U.S. society values engineering, my passion is creative writing. Veda is stubborn but a bit aloof, preferring dance to socializing. I prefer reading and writing alone in my room over parties and such.

Overall, the portrayal of disability seemed pretty good to me based on my knowledge. Veda is not reduced to her disability. She also struggles with things like parental expectations, tension in friendships, fitting in among her peers, crushes, and so on.

The downsides to disability are not ignored or minimized. Veda faces ableism from people around her, from strangers rudely asking her what happened to her leg, to taunts from peers that are laced with slurs and horrible jokes, to her dance teacher believing that she will no longer be able to dance ever again. Moreover, Veda must overcome ableist views that she has internalized: that she is useless, or lesser, or incomplete because of her disability.

At the same time, there are plenty of counterexamples to balance the ableist bits: Veda’s grandmother loves her unconditionally, the bus driver who drives the route to her school welcomes her back without drawing attention to her disability, her new teachers focus on what she can do and don’t act condescending toward her, she is shown professional dancers with prosthetic limbs who serve as role models to her, she meets other people who are disabled and living their lives, and she is reminded that the god Shiva dances in everyone and everything, so there is no one right way to exist or to dance.

The one issue I noticed was a part that said:

when he says I’m “differently abled,”

not handicapped, not disabled,

[line omitted]

he makes me feel

a little less ugly.

While “differently abled” is a term used with good intentions by this character, who is Veda’s caregiver, the implication here is that being disabled is ugly and negative, thus furthering stigmatizing disability.

That said, since I’m able-bodied, my perspective and sensitivity are limited. Therefore, I strongly recommend that you read a more nuanced and thorough review of this book and its representation of disability by someone who is herself an amputee here.

Veda’s emotional journey is a spiritual journey as well. Her passion for dance is fueled by her connection with the god Hindu god Shiva, whose temple she first visited as a young girl. Following her accident, she loses faith in herself and with it, her spiritual inspiration. As she learns to cope with her disability, she also undergoes a spiritual awakening. Although I’m not religious myself, I walked away from this book with a sense of hope and faith that was uplifting because it is so powerful and moving.

Recommendation: Highly recommended!