Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Most Anticipated MG/YA Releases of September and October

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.

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao (Oct. 10th) – Young Adult, Fantasy/Retelling, Chinese MC

  • 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.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. SĂĄnchez (Oct. 17th) – Young Adult, Contemporary, Mexican American MC, #ownvoices

  • 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.

Author Interview: Kathleen Burkinshaw

The last special guest for May Asian author interviews is Kathleen Burkinshaw. Her debut novel, The Last Cherry Blossom, was published just last year, and in this interview delve into the behind the scenes writing process for the book, which was based on Kathleen’s mother’s experience.

The Last Cherry Blossom

From Goodreads:

Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

SW: Please tell us a little about The Last Cherry Blossom beyond what the synopsis says.

Kathleen: The Last Cherry Blossom depicts the culture, mindset, and daily life during WWII before the bomb was dropped through the eyes of a 12-year-old-something that has not been done before.

My hope is not only to convey the message that nuclear weapons should never be used again; but to also reveal that the children in Japan had the same love for family, fear of what could happen to them, and hopes for peace as the Allied children had. I want the students/readers to walk away knowing that the ones we may think are our “enemy” are not always so different from ourselves. A message that needs to be heard now more than ever.

SW: I definitely agree since the othering of the “enemy” is constantly used to justify violence.

Aside from talking to your mother, what kinds of research did you do for this story? What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned?

I had to search for books that were about daily life in Japan during WWII-not as easy when you need to find them written in English 😊 But I was lucky to find a couple out of print books on eBay. Also, my local library had some great resources.  In addition, the website for Hiroshima has some information on life during WWII in Hiroshima as well.

The most surprising and interesting piece of research happened while in Hiroshima. In July 2015, we went to honor my mom at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. (Sadly, my mom had passed away in January 2015. Thankfully, she did know TLCB would be published and had read one of the drafts).  The most surprising information came while visiting with the librarians at the Memorial Hall. They kindly spent about 2 hours with me. I gave them my mother’s Hiroshima address and they showed it to me on a map from the early 1940’s.  My mother had always said she was over an hour from the center of the city. However, when we looked at it on the map she was only 2 miles away from the epicenter; much closer than what I had thought! To me, it’s a miracle that she survived considering how close she was to the epicenter.

Also, while there I realized the beauty of Hiroshima.  I had been so focused on the horrific destruction of August 6th itself.  But while we were there I saw the beauty of the sea, the mountains, and palm trees!  My mother always said she grew up in a beautiful place and I finally could see it through her eyes.  This came in very handy when I returned to my first round of edits from my publisher.  The visit to Hiroshima enhanced my descriptions in of Hiroshima before the bombing.

SW: I’m glad your trip surprised you in a good way and allowed you to connect to your mother’s feelings and memories. 🙂

Representing a culture that is unfamiliar to most readers is like an act of translation. Did you have any difficulties on this front while writing your book?

Kathleen: Yes, I wanted to be as true to the culture and time period as I could.  However, I needed to make it flow naturally. I spent a great deal of time working through this. One of the issues I had involved dialogue. The Japanese language has a polite form-especially at that time.  There are also no contractions when they speak.  So, I wanted to show that, but struggled with it sounding stilted.  I finally found a balance by using contractions and less formal conversation when Yuriko narrated and when speaking with her friends.  However, when a younger character spoke to an adult, or an adult was speaking to the younger character’s, it would be more formal and no contractions used.

SW: Making historical fiction both educational and engaging can be difficult. What techniques did you use to strike this balance?

Kathleen: Yes, it is very difficult. I tried to describe the historic information so it would flow with the story.  I didn’t want it to read like a report of Japan during WWII.  One of the reasons I used newspaper headlines, propaganda poster text, and radio slogans as chapter headings was to set the tone on what was happening and how it was reported. I wanted the story to be about the characters and their personal issues. The war would be part of the scenery in the world that these young girls happened to live in. I hope I came close to that balance for the readers. 😊

SW: Do you have any favorite historical fiction kidlit titles?

Kathleen: Yes, I do! I have too many to list them all.  But a few are: Kira-Kira and Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata. Two books that were inspirational to me were Blue by Joyce Moyer Hostetter and Eleanor Hill by Lisa Williams Kline.   Also from the 2016 debut authors- Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban.

SW: I have Kira-Kira and Weedflower on my shelf, but I still need to read them. Weedflower stands out to me in particular because it shows a Japanese girl prominently on the cover.

Although it doesn’t have a person represented in it, I honestly love the cover for The Last Cherry Blossom. Did you have any input on the design, and how did that process work?

Kathleen: Thank you! Katy Betz is the talented artist behind the stunning cover art. My editor asked me to make a mood board.  A few weeks later she sent me the cover art. I would have never come up with it (which is why I write and can’t draw), but from the moment I saw it I knew it perfectly represented beauty from the ashes.

SW: What would you say has been the most rewarding part of being a children’s author?

Kathleen: Meeting readers and students who tell me that my mother’s story taught them something they didn’t know about WWII, that her story inspired them, they think differently about nuclear weapons, and that they want me to write more books, touch my heart and amaze me so much.

Also, I’ve received emails from students/readers who didn’t like to read, but after reading The Last Cherry Blossom, they are interested in reading again! What could be a better compliment to an author?!

SW: That sounds lovely. I can’t wait to read and experience The Last Cherry Blossom for myself!


scbwisigningyay! (1)Kathleen Burkinshaw is a Japanese American author residing in Charlotte, NC. She’s a wife, mom to a daughter in college, and owns a dog who is a kitchen ninja.  Kathleen enjoyed a 10+ year career in HealthCare Management unfortunately cut short by the onset of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD). Writing gives her an outlet for her daily struggle with chronic pain. She has presented her mother’s experience in Hiroshima to middle schools for the past 6 years. She has carried her mother’s story in her heart and feels privileged to now share it with the world. Writing historical fiction also satisfies her obsessive love of researching anything and everything. The Last Cherry Blossom is a SCBWI Crystal Kite Award Finalist (southeast region) and 2016 Scholastic WNDB Reading Club selection.

You can find Kathleen online at kathleenburkinshaw.com and on Twitter @klburkinshaw1.

Review for In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

in-the-shadow-of-the-banyan

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 Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

shine-coconut-moon

My Summary: Sam (short for Samar) doesn’t think much about her Punjabi Sikh identity because her mother raised her in a secular environment away from her extended family. However, when her long-estranged uncle appears on their doorstep in the aftermath of 9/11, she begins to explore her heritage and culture.

Review:

This book was published in 2009, but it remains relevant as Islamophobic sentiment remains pervasive in the U.S. and other places. Muslims aren’t the only group targeted, anyone who is perceived as Muslim is also implicated. Sikhs fall into this category.

Sam’s uncle Sandeep wears a turban, so racists target him for hate speech and hate crimes. Sam is in the car with him when some boys from her school throw and yell things at him. As a result, she is forced to confront the bigotry of people around her.

It’s during this same time that Sam starts researching and reconnecting with her Punjabi and Sikh culture and heritage and tries to find her place as a South Asian/Indian in U.S. disapora. It’s a very polarizing experience, to put it lightly. On the one hand, white kids have always made fun of her for being brown. On the other, a fellow Indian American calls her a “coconut,” meaning brown on the outside, white on the inside. This type of labeling is familiar to me, as East Asians have our own variant, “banana”/”Twinkie,” for yellow on the outside, white on the inside. The in-group disdain for being too assimilated into white American culture is so real.

Thankfully, Sam has positive experiences to balance out the negative ones. Her uncle is supportive of her journey, and together they visit a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. There, Sam has a very spiritual moment and finds the joy of connecting with tradition and her roots. At school, she gets recommendations for resources from a Sikh classmate and finds online forums where there are people in her same situation.

These changes in her understanding of herself and her world also affect her other relationships with her mother, her white boyfriend Mike, and her white best friend Molly in various ways. Sam’s desire to connect with her extended family creates tension with her mother, who has bad memories involving her parents, Sam’s grandparents, and rejected their religion and culture as a result. Mike turns out to be garbage who laughs at racist jokes and victim-blames Sam for experiencing a hate crime, and most satisfyingly, the narrative drags him for his crap. Molly doesn’t get it at first and throws around the term “reverse racist” (oh, lord), but she reevaluates her position after witnessing the attacks on Uncle Sandeep in person.

One of the great things about this book is that it pulls in so many relevant and important issues. It touches on Japanese American incarceration during World War II as it relates to present-day Islamophobia (though it uses the word “internment,” which is problematic), criticizes stereotypical media representation like Apu from The Simpsons, and explicitly addresses colorism in Indian and South Asian communities. Notably, it points out that distinguishing between Sikhs and Muslims shouldn’t be done as an attempt to “opt out” of the Islamophobic violence while leaving Muslims to take all the hits.

Although this book has its darker moments and tackles serious issues, it ends on a bright and hopeful note. Most of the major conflicts are resolved, and Sam is moving forward with a sense of empowerment and perspective that she lacked in the beginning. The ending echoes the beginning in a way that brings everything full circle, which is my favorite kind of ending.

A few minor things I was not a fan of: One was use of the words “deranged,” “lunatic,” “crazy,” etc. to describe violent and threatening people. The second was a line where a character claims that having sex is what makes girls women since that’s not only sexist but throws asexual people under the bus. There was also use of the word “slutty” a few times. The last was a dialogue where Molly is spouting a bunch of Orientalist stuff about Indian culture, and the narrative doesn’t really directly call it out for what it is.

Recommendation: Recommended for its heartfelt and honest portrayal of the struggles of being in diaspora and fighting racism.

The 228 Massacre: A Brief History and Book List

It’s been 70 years since February 28th, 1947, a day that marked the beginning of a very dark and bloody era of Taiwanese history. For those who don’t know, Taiwan has a very complicated history involving multiple waves of colonization. Taiwan was home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years. (The indigenous Taiwanese are Austronesian and have linguistic and genetic relations with the indigenous people Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Oceania.) In the 17th century, the Spanish and Dutch established bases on Taiwan for a time, followed by Ming Dynasty loyalists under Koxinga after the fall of the Ming Empire. The earliest waves of colonists came from southeastern China, mostly the Hokkien-speaking Hoklo people from the Fujian province and some Hakka people, who eventually became the majority due to many indigenous people’s intermarriage and/or assimilation into Han communities and society. The Qing Dynasty claimed Taiwan despite never fully controlling the island and after the second Sino-Japanese War, ceded Taiwan to Japan. From 1895 until 1945, Japan governed Taiwan and touted it as their model colony.

Following Japan’s surrender in World War II, Taiwan was ceded to “back” to China. At the time, China was still under the rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party (a.k.a. the KMT, from “Kuomintang”) and was referred to as the Republic of China (present-day China is known as the People’s Republic of China, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP). The KMT installed a government in Taiwan that soon drew resentment from Taiwanese people due to its rampant corruption. On February 27th, 1947, a scuffle between a woman selling contraband cigarettes and a KMT soldier resulted in the soldier hitting the woman on the head with his pistol. In the ensuing chaos, another official fired a shot into the crowd, killing a bystander.

This event sparked protests and riots starting on February 28th that resulted in violent crackdowns from the KMT. Starting in 1949, the KMT instituted martial law on the island that lasted 38 years (until 1987), which is the second longest period of martial law after Syria’s (1963-2011). During the period from 1947 to 1987, otherwise known as the White Terror, anyone suspected of being against the KMT in words, ideologies, or actions was persecuted, tortured, murdered, or spirited away, never to be seen again. The persecution even crossed the Pacific Ocean to the United States, including the murder of Henry Liu. The total estimate for people who died ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 and remains a topic of debate.

Until the lifting of martial law, nobody spoke of what happened. The truth was dangerous, and it was heavy. In recent decades, a formal apology was issued by former President Lee Teng-hui, and a museum and memorial park were created and dedicated to memorialize 228 and the White Terror. However, some of the people involved in perpetrating the killing and persecution (e.g. government officials and soldiers) are still alive and have never been held accountable for their crimes. Until today, documents related to 228 were classified, thus impeding transitional justice. Without justice, there cannot be peace for the dead and the wronged. That is why it’s important to keep telling this story over and over and remembering the injustices that were committed.

That’s why I’ve created this book list for people who want to learn more about Taiwanese history, politics, and 228/The White Terror. The list includes four nonfiction titles and four fiction titles. The hyperlinks in the above paragraphs are for various Internet articles and sites.

Nonfiction

wealth-ribbonWealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound by brenda Lin

This autobiographical essay collection explores the author’s transnational identity as a Taiwanese American whose life has been split between countries. It tells the stories of three generations of her family, from her grandparents’ generation to her own.

my-fight-for-a-new-taiwanMy Fight for a New Taiwan: One Woman’s Journey from Prison to Power by Annette Hsiu-Lien Lu

This is the autobiography of Taiwan’s former Vice President from 2001 to 2008. She came from humble origins but eventually became an activist and leader of feminist and pro-democracy movements in Taiwan during the late 20th century.

maritime-taiwanMaritime Taiwan: Historical Encounters with the East and the West by Shih-Shan Henry Tsai

This book maps out the complex history of Taiwan and the various powers that claimed and influenced it throughout the past few centuries.

taiwans-struggleTaiwan’s Struggle: Voices of the Taiwanese edited by Shyu-tu Lee and Jack F. Williams

In this essay anthology, “leading Taiwanese figures consider the country’s history, politics, society, economy, identity, and future prospects. The volume provides a forum for a diversity of local voices, who are rarely heard in the power struggle between China and the United States over Taiwan’s future. Reflecting the deep ethnic and political differences that are essential to understanding Taiwan today, this work provides a nuanced introduction to its role in international politics.”

Fiction

miahMiah by Julia Lin

This collection of interrelated short stories traces the lives of generations of a Taiwanese Canadian family, from the time of Japanese occupation of Taiwan, to the White Terror under the Kuomintang government, to modern Taiwan and Canada.

the-228-legacyThe 228 Legacy by Jennifer J. Chow*

In this historical fiction novel set in the 1980s, three generations of an all-female, working-class Taiwanese American family struggle with their own secrets: grandmother Silk has breast cancer, daughter and single mother Lisa has lost her job, and granddaughter Abbey deals with bullying at school. When Grandma Silk’s connection to a shocking historical event in Taiwan comes to light, the family is forced to reconnect and support one another through their struggles.

the-third-sonThe Third Son by Julie Wu

Growing up in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Saburo is the ill-favored third son of a Taiwanese politician. By chance, an air strike brings him into contact with Yoshiko, whose kindness and loving family bring hope and light to Saburo’s world. Years later, Yoshiko reappears in his live but at the side of his arrogant and boorish older brother. In order to make something of himself and win Yoshiko’s respect, Saburo pushes the boundaries of what is possible and winds up on the frontier of America’s space program.

green-islandGreen Island by Shawna Yang Ryan (review at hyperlink)

Told through the perspective of an unnamed first generation Taiwanese American woman, Green Island chronicles the life of the main character from her birth on March 1st, 1947, the day after the infamous 228 Massacre, to the year 2003, marked by the SARS outbreak, intertwining her personal, family history with the political history of Taiwan.

*Jennifer J. Chow is a Chinese American author married to a Taiwanese American. I’ve read the book and as far as I can remember, the facts checked out with the exception of a minor anachronism (regarding the year bubble tea was invented, ha).

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 Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan

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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.

Note 2: Parts of this review were originally published in and adapted from my Favorite Books of 2016 post.

My Summary: Told through the perspective of an unnamed first generation Taiwanese American woman, Green Island chronicles the life of the main character from her birth on March 1st, 1947, the day after the infamous 228 Massacre, to the year 2003, marked by the SARS outbreak, intertwining her personal, family history with the political history of Taiwan.

Review:

Trigger/Content Warnings: mentions of death, murder, torture

One of the last books I read in 2016 but also one of the best, this book was an intensely personal read for me because it focuses on a dark, tumultuous, and bloody era of Taiwanese history, called the White Terror, that my own family lived through. Taiwan was under martial law for 38 years, from 1949 to 1987, surpassed in length by only Syria (1963-2011). My parents (and maternal grandparents) grew up during that time; they immigrated to the U.S. before martial law was even lifted.

The main character was born in 1947, the year my paternal grandparents got married. My maternal grandmother was born in 1944, and my oldest paternal uncle was born in 1948, so the main character is somewhere between my grandparents’ and parents’ generations. My paternal grandfather was trained to use firearms from his time serving in the Japanese military (Japan ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945), and he’d thought about joining the protests against the provisional government set up by the Chinese Nationalist Party (a.k.a the KMT and the loser of the Chinese civil war). If not for his marriage, he would have gone, and probably been spirited away, never to be seen again, in all likeliness shot to death by a firing squad like so many men were.

The main character’s parents are part of the intellectual elite of Taiwan; her father is a doctor, her mother was educated in French literature and art. This makes them prime targets for persecution. After the 228 Massacre, her father attends an assembly called by the provisional government and asks for democratic rule in Taiwan. Days later, he is dragged away by KMT officers to be tortured and interrogated on Green Island, where he is imprisoned for eleven years before returning, a changed man.

At the core, Green Island is a story of the psychological and intergenerational trauma of such continual, relentless political persecution. The narrative explores the effect of Dr. Tsai’s absence and his return on the main character and her family throughout her lifetime. Even after his return, the government is not done with him or their family. After she moves to America and settles there, the surveillance follows, eventually placing her in a harrowing situation that echoes that of her father years ago. There is almost no facet of the her life that isn’t touched by her family’s past and Taiwan’s politics.

Far from being removed or objective, the story entreats readers to empathize with the difficult moral dilemmas that arise when you are forced to choose between saving loved ones and standing up for your beliefs. That the main character is never named does not make her less complex or emotionally compelling. The first-person narration immerses you in her world with all its sights, sounds, textures, cultural and sociopolitical forces, and, of course, her inner emotional landscape, in all its subtleties and extremes.

Overall, this book is a great fictionalized account of 20th Century Taiwanese history. Aside from a few minor changes made for the sake of a more cohesive narrative, it’s a very accurate depiction of Taiwanese history, according to the author herself and compared against my own knowledge of the subject.

On top of being mostly accurate, event- and timeline-wise, the story rings true to me in the details: from the terms of address among family (the Romanization was weird to me because I learned the Pe̍h-ƍe-jÄ«/Church Romanization system, but I was able to figure it out), to the pejorative phrases like “mainland pigs” (used to describe the KMT and the Chinese people who immigrated to Taiwan post-1949), to the metal bento boxes that kids took to school, to the descriptions of shaved ice stands. Although I myself did not live in Taiwan during that time period, I’ve heard enough stories from my dad to have a decent mental picture of what it was like.

Toward the end of the book, the 228 Memorial Museum is mentioned and described. I actually went there with my family back in 2015, and it was a sobering experience, to put it lightly. My older sister was crying while reading the stories of the dead and missing. I mostly just felt numb inside, weighed down by unspeakable pain and horror. It’s hard not to think about how my own family members could have been on those walls, in those pictures, how a small twist of fate spared my family the experiences of Green Island‘s main character.

Recommendation: I’ve read a number of fictional depictions of the White Terror, and Green Island is by far the most vivid and powerful of them. If you’re going to read any historical fiction book about Taiwan, Green Island is the book to read.

Review for Song of the Cuckoo Bird by Amulya Malladi

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Note: I read this book as part of the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: At age eleven, Kokila makes a decision to flee the marriage she was forced into and take up residence at Tella Meda, an ashram that offers refuge for people with no place left to turn to. There, she becomes a part of an ever-evolving family of women whose lives are bound together by their status as outcasts.

Review:

I have very conflicting feelings about this book. The women in it are all deeply flawed characters, which isn’t an issue, but some of their supposed flaws are only considered flaws by very sexist, colorist, ableist, etc. standards of evaluating women’s worth. Some of it is merely a reflection of the society they live in, but at times even the narrative itself endorses these kinds of judgments.

But beyond the vicious name-calling of “wh*re,” “b*tch,” and “sl*t,” you get the stories of complex women who are doing what they can to survive in a society that devalues women. Their flaws do not mean they are not sympathetic characters.

There is Kokila, who shuns the life of a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law without a full understanding of the long-term consequences.

There is Chetana, who is the cast-off daughter of a sex worker who must bear and try to overcome the social stigma of her mother’s profession.

There is Charvi, who is declared a guru by her father and thus forced to live a solitary life in accordance with the worshipful expectations of others.

There is Renuka, who is a widow and refuses to live with her sons and daughters-in-law, who judges everyone but also learns to be selfless.

And there are others, women from all walks of life, seeking shelter.

The events of the book span nearly five decades, from the 50s to 2000, so we get to see these women grow and mature and age. Told more as a series of anecdotes than a single tale, the stories explore the ironies and contradictions and hypocrisies of these women and their lives. They are all capable of both cruelty and condescension and solidarity and kindness toward one another. They protect and betray, they take and give, they help and hurt. No one is perfect, but everyone has some goodness in them.

Among the paradoxes and contradictions in the book is the ashram’s reputation. It is at once respected and disdained. Respected because it is inhabited by a woman who is supposedly touched by the gods but disdained because only the “lowest” women of society take shelter there.

Then there’s the character of Ramanandam, Charvi’s father, who is a feminist in theory but much less so in practice. And Vineetha Raghavan, an engineer who calls herself a feminist but is extremely classist and disdainful toward poor, uneducated women. Charvi is supposed to have the demeanor and temperament of a goddess detached from mundane and petty mortal concerns, ever patient and generous, and even comes to believe herself divine, but she also has a bit of a bitter, hateful current running through her, beneath the serene surface. And even as the women of Tella Meda decry the way some mothers treat their children and deny their agency and care only for “propriety” but not love, when they become mothers themselves, they unwittingly reproduce that kind of mentality.

One of the things I appreciated about the book was how honest it was. Menstruation, lust, and sex are not glossed over or hidden away in denial. Likewise, the abuse, exploitation, and objectification of women by men are addressed and not given a pass. The men who do horrible things are criticized and get their due in time.

Although the ashram is very sequestered from the rest of the world, it also evolves alongside India with its social and political changes. Technology starts to appear, the younger generations have more options for social advancement, and so on. Grounding the stories in the broader context of history makes them all the more realistic and compelling.

Recommendation: I think I’ll say read at your own risk, with content/trigger warnings for abuse, alcoholism, misogyny, whorephobia, body-shaming, colorism, and a relationship between a 20-something and 60-something-year-old.

Review for Starcursed by Nandini Bajpai

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My Summary: Leelavati has a cursed horoscope that portends death for whomever she marries. Resigned to a fate of never being wed, she spends her time teaching astronomy, having learned much of the science from her father, the renowned Bhaskara Acharya. Then, her childhood friend Rahul Nagarseth, returns, and the two fall for each other. Thus, they find out whether the stars will keep them apart, or whether they can turn the tides of fate.

Review:

So, part of the basic premise of this book sounds fairly similar to The Star-Touched Queen, with the cursed horoscope and all, but the execution is vastly different (it was published in 2013, by the way). Whereas The Star-Touched Queen is historical fantasy, Starcursed is regular historical fiction. Instead of magic, we have science. The story is set in 12th century India, with the wars led by Muhammad of Ghor as the backdrop.

Bhaskara Acharya was a real person in history, a famous mathematician and astronomer, and he named one of the four parts of his greatest work after a woman, Leelavati. It’s unknown whether she was a real person, and if so, what her relationship was with Bhaskara Acharya, but in this story, she is imagined as his daughter.

Although some may find it boring, I really enjoyed the incorporation of real historical science into the narrative. (That might be my inner space nerd speaking.) Leela is an admirable young woman, wielding her intellect the way a fantasy heroine might wield spell or sword. She stands up to the misogyny of people who assume that because she is a woman, she cannot be a gifted astronomer. She proves that one woman can outperform a group of men in a competition of calculations.

I liked that Leela’s character explicitly pointed out that there was a time before her own when women-scholars were prevalent, to illustrate that misogyny within a society is not static and unchanging but rather is contextual and dynamic. There was also some commentary on how misogyny is indoctrinated into boys, as she has no issues with her younger male students doubting her competence but runs into skepticism from older boys and men.

The romance between Leela and Rahul is sweet and strong in a quiet kind of way, compared to the typical YA fare. Their romance is built upon their friendship. The two are intellectually compatible, share common interests in astronomy, and Rahul genuinely respects Leela and does not feel threatened by her brilliance or the need to one-up her.

Unfortunately for the two of them, they come from different castes and religions (Leela is a Brahmin and Hindu, Rahul is a Vaishya and Jain). Rahul is also biracial Indian and Chinese in a society where miscegenation isn’t viewed favorably. The two have various obstacles to circumvent, not least of which is Leela’s cursed horoscope.

I recognize the author’s attempt to incorporate Rahul’s Chinese heritage into the story, but it flopped in the execution. At first I thought it would be okay because the Chinese astronomy/astrology references checked out, facts-wise, in the early portion. The other stuff was super questionable though.

One was the anachronistic use of and referral to Chinese language(s). Nobody besides linguists knows what 12th-century Chinese sounds like, so obviously I’m not expecting anyone to actually write a character speaking the language of the time. But everything else was also anachronistic:

  • The labeling of things as “Chinese” and the use of “China” makes no sense as the toponym “China” didn’t come into common usage until the 16th century or so. Historically, China was referred to by its dynastic name, in this case it would have been the Song Empire.
  • The story also refers to the Chinese language that Rahul speaks as Mandarin. Mandarin did not exist at that time and did not come into existence until late in the history of China, having undergone significant sound changes from the Middle Chinese languages.
  • Then, there was the use of “Cantonese” as a descriptor, which is also bizarre because Canton is the name for Guangdong/Guangzhou that came from muddling the Portuguese name CantĂŁo, a name that wasn’t given until a few centuries after the events of the book.

I know this is really nitpicky but I can’t help but notice it because of who I am. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the story, it just bugged me whenever stuff like it popped up.

So aside from the language issues, Rahul’s character knows kung fu and yeah…that’s really stereotypical. It wasn’t his most prominent trait, but it was a Thing. Sigh.

The good part about Rahul’s characterization was that he brings a much more open-minded perspective to the cast of characters, countering the xenophobia of many Indian scholars toward Chinese people, as well as prejudice toward the Turkis people who are not involved in the invasion of India. Overall, the book had threads of criticism against classism, xenophobia, and prejudice, including religious prejudice. I appreciated having those elements in a historical fiction book.

Recommendation: I ragged on the Chinese stuff pretty hard, but I actually liked the book quite a bit for what it was, so I’d still recommend it–with the caveat that you shouldn’t take the Chinese elements as historically accurate.

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!