Tag Archives: Middle Grade

Review for Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

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Note: My review is based on the ARC I received.

My Summary: The 8th grade is putting on Romeo and Juliet this year. Although Mattie has no prior experience with theater, she discovers that she enjoys acting. On top of practicing for this play, Mattie has to juggle a complicated web of middle school secrets and relationships, including her own budding crush on classmate Gemma, who is starring as Juliet. As obstacles pop up, Mattie is pushed to take the lead in the play and her life.

Review:

Star-Crossed really transports me back to my tween years, when things were awkward and complicated and your peers’ opinions meant everything in the world. Mattie is thrust into many an uncomfortable situation by life, and we as readers get to experience the rollercoaster of emotions she goes through as she navigates her relationships with her classmates and friends. Whether it’s figuring out how her crushes feel, keeping secrets from her best friends, being the only person not invited to a social event, or worrying about how others will react to knowing she has a crush on a girl, Mattie has to make a lot of tough decisions.

With both humor and heart, the author brings Mattie’s middle school experiences to life. The 8th grade production of Romeo and Juliet is not only a plot device but a way of enriching Mattie’s character development. As she works to understand the feelings of the characters in the play, she also makes connections to her own situation and works through her own feelings. She learns to empathize with and see a different side to a classmate she wouldn’t have otherwise gotten close to.

Though I didn’t figure out I was bi until later in my life, I could still relate a lot to Mattie’s experiences. The newness of being attracted to someone of a different gender than before, the uncertainty as to how people around me will react to finding out about you being bi, the guilt of keeping secrets from people that you want to trust, these were all familiar feelings for me.

I guess one of the most relatable aspects of Mattie’s experiences is her anxiety when interacting with her crush. I can never be completely at ease when I interact with my crushes, even when we’re good friends. The awkwardness Mattie feels is so real to me.

If there was one thing I didn’t like about the book, it was a few passages that came off as really white-centric. There were two different passages describing Mattie and Gemma and their respective levels of attractiveness that felt like they were centering white beauty standards. There was also another minor scene where Mattie wants to play the part of an immigrant in a class activity and she described immigrants in an othering way. Other than these bits, I enjoyed the book a lot.

Recommendation: Recommended for the cute and fun story and charming characters.

Review for Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

aminas-voice

Note: This review is based on the eARC I received from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My Summary: Things are changing around Amina. Her best friend Soojin is getting friendly with one of the “cool” girls and preparing to change her name to something “American”-sounding. Her uncle is coming from Pakistan to visit, and she has to be the perfect daughter or risk making her parents look bad. Then there’s the Quran recitation competition she has to participate in against her wishes and the Winter Choral Concert she wants to sing in but can’t find the courage to sign up for. While Amina struggles to be true to herself, tragedy strikes and shakes her community to the core.

Review:

While this book is primarily a “window” book for me since I’m not familiar with Pakistani culture, in some ways it was also a “mirror” book because I saw pieces of myself and my experiences in not only Soojin, Amina’s Korean American friend (there are a lot of commonalities in how East Asian Americans navigate white-dominated spaces), but also Amina herself because she is a second generation child of immigrant parents.

Both Amina and Soojin experience a variety of racist microaggressions from their white peers, from food-related taunts to language-related stigmas. Prominent among these is the butchering of their names, something that I’m intimately familiar with. Soojin, who moved to the U.S. as a toddler and is about to become a citizen, plans to change her name to something that white Americans can easily pronounce. I had a period where I considered changing my name, so I empathized with her situation, though hindsight makes me glad I didn’t go through with such a change. Amina feels off about this decision because she thinks Soojin’s name is fine as it is, so she does what she can to communicate this validation to Soojin. This was very heartening to read, knowing how strong the pressure to assimilate into the white mainstream can be and how vulnerable kids like Soojin are to these pressures.

In general, the friendship between Amina and Soojin was a highlight of the story. Two Asian Americans sticking by each other is realistic and an important kind of solidarity to represent. On top of that, the story explores how friendships change over time as new people enter your friend circles. In this case, the “interloper” is a white girl named Emily, who Amina doesn’t fully trust because of her history of perpetrating of some of the microaggressions I mentioned before. The distrust is mixed with feelings of jealousy and abandonment, and those feelings are addressed in a constructive way as the story progresses.

Another positive aspect of the story is Amina’s relationships with her various family members. Her older brother has his own character arc and development as he joins the basketball team at his high school and deals with both parental pressure and peer pressure. Amina may not fully understand her brother, but she is supportive of him and stands up for him to their parents when they are being hard on him over his grades (which is something I will never get tired of seeing portrayed in fiction because seriously, grades aren’t everything).

Amina’s relationship with her parents is also a loving and supportive one. They may be somewhat strict, but they are not unfair or uncaring. To the contrary, her parents encourage her, guide her through her problems, and keep her connected to her culture, heritage, and religion.

Her relationship with her uncle who’s visiting from Pakistan is a bit more complicated but dynamic. Her uncle is more traditional and conservative than her parents, so she has doubts about him liking her since she is Americanized in many ways. He becomes her tutor for reciting and learning Arabic from the Quran, and although she feels inadequate and self-conscious at first, she eventually begins to treat him more like a genuine mentor, developing a bond with him that also brings her closer to her faith.

One of my favorite things about this book was the depictions of everyday life at Sunday school and the Islamic Center. It’s such a lovely space that’s community-oriented and celebrates Islamic history and cultures with its displays and decorations. Everyone knows everyone else, and there are annual traditions and festivals that bring people together. You can tell that Amina feels very at home there. As I was reading about it, I couldn’t help but think of the Taiwanese Community Center that my family frequents on the weekends because of the similarities in layout and the feeling of comfort and familiarity it evokes for me. Since the story builds up this atmosphere of home around the mosque and the Center, the subsequent vandalism left a deep impact on me. The trauma of loss weighed on me as if it were real, as if I were Amina witnessing the events. Thankfully, the aftermath of this dark event lifts you back up with hopeful messages.

The title of this book, Amina’s Voice, has both literal and figurative meanings. The more literal interpretation is linked to Amina’s love of music and singing. She is talented but has stage fright and struggles to sing or otherwise perform in front of an audience. The more figurative meaning is about her coming to terms with herself and her identity and being comfortable with who she is. These two themes and struggles are intertwined and resolved over the course of the story in an empowering way. The ending was perfect (in my opinion).

Recommendation: Highly recommended! A heartfelt story about friendship, family, and community.

Review for The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye

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]My Summary: Aref’s home is Oman, where his house and cat and friends are, where his beloved grandfather, Sidi, lives. He loves it there, and he does not want to leave it behind to move to Michigan, a place so foreign and far away for him. With Sidi’s help, however, he begins to see his journey in a new light.

Review:

This book wasn’t quite what I expected, but it surprised me in a good way. I think I sort of misread the blurb and thought it would chronicle the events that happened after Aref’s move, but in fact, the whole story takes place in Oman, while he’s preparing for the move to Michigan.

For the most part, this is a quiet story. There are adventures and high points, but a lot of the narrative is devoted to reflection and immersion in the rhythms of Aref’s environment. He spends some time resisting the idea of moving, but with Sidi’s guidance, he moves toward acceptance.

The relationship between Aref and his grandfather drives a lot of the story, and it’s very heartfelt. The two have a deep bond and shared interests that makes me envious because I was never close to any of my grandparents due to a combination of generational, cultural, and language gaps.

Although Aref is a third-grader, the narration doesn’t patronize him; it’s evident that he’s very bright and also curious. His love for learning and exploring is encouraged by his parents, who taught him a game called “Discover Something New Every Day,” which is their so-called family motto. Everyone in his family keeps lists of interesting discoveries, even his grandfather, though Sidi doesn’t write them down in journals. We the readers get to see some of these lists, which introduce us to everything from basic geographical facts about Oman, to the biology of turtles, to a short biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Through these lists, we get a sense of Aref’s world and perspective, the details he notices and the topics that catch his eye.

I think the beauty of this book is the theme of looking at things more closely and from different perspectives and thus learning more. For Aref and his grandfather, nothing is too insignificant to be studied or too small to be a treasure. There’s a sense that you are opening yourself up to the wonder in the world as you follow Aref’s adventures. It helps take you away from the hectic flows of modern life to appreciate everything that’s around you. More importantly, the story teaches us to be more empathetic. Although at first Aref thinks only of himself and his situation, he eventually realizes that other people, people he knows, have experienced a similar move, and that he failed to consider their feelings in the past.

I liked the symbolism of the turtle, which is familiar to most and accessible to kids. It places change and moving in a broader context and timeline while paying tribute to the value of returning to one’s roots and homeland.

I can relate to Aref’s experience because I moved twice at a young age, once after third grade and again after fourth, both times from one state in the U.S. to another, the second time it was about 1500 miles (~2400 km) between the two houses. It was hard leaving behind everything that was familiar because I had taken so much of it for granted and couldn’t imagine adapting to a new environment. Reading this book transported me back to my own moving experiences.

Recommendation: Recommended for those in search of a heartwarming tale about saying goodbye to all that is familiar.

Review for The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami

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My Summary: Dini and her best friend Maddie are major Bollywood fans. Unfortunately, Dini’s plans to attend a Bollywood dance camp with Maddie during the summer are shattered when her parents announce that their family is moving to India–and not even to Bombay, the hub of Bollywood, but a small town named Swapnagiri. Just when Dini has given up hope of seeing her favorite Bollywood star, Dolly Singh, life takes a turn for the unexpected…

Review:

This book was super fun to read. Dini (short for “Nandini”) was an engaging character. Her passion and determination brought a sense of liveliness to the story. Moving such a huge distance to another country is a stressful situation for anyone, but she tries to make the best of it, long-distance communication with a massive time zone difference and all. Her enthusiasm in scheming and executing her plans gets her into a bit of trouble, but ultimately her well-intentioned meddling produces positive results.

Not only does the book tell the story of Dini, it also tells the tale of multiple supporting characters. From the mailman to the baker to the school principal to the van driver, everyone has their own story to be told, their own problems to deal with. Through the perspectives of these different side characters, the book paints a picture of daily life in small town India and shows the mysterious and serendipitous ways in which seemingly separate lives intersect.

The book is part mystery, part adventure, and part Bollywood-esque drama. All of the different threads of the characters and subplots eventually converge and get resolved in a heartfelt happy ending. It’s definitely a feel-good, fairy tale-esque book, but heaven knows we need more of these kinds of books to offset the negativity of the political climate and give us hope for a brighter future.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are letters to and from characters (rendered in different fonts for different characters), excerpts from Dini’s favorite magazine that supplies the latest buzz on Bollywood and her favorite [fictional] star Dolly Singh, and charming illustrations by illustrator Abigail Halpin. These touches add texture to the story and variety to the reading experience.

As it turns out, there’s a sequel to this book, The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic, so I’m looking forward to reading that soon.

Recommendation: Recommended for young readers and adult readers wishing to indulge their inner child.

Review for Stir It Up! by Ramin Ganeshram

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My Summary: Anjali loves cooking and dreams of having her own cooking reality TV show. However, her parents want “better” things for her, like getting into the elite Stuyvesant High School and working at a job that’s nothing like their humble family restaurant. When she’s accepted to a contest on the Food Network, she knows her father won’t approve, but she has plans of her own.

Review:

I love food, so the premise of this book drew my attention. A biracial, Afro-Indian Trinidadian girl from Richmond Hill, Queens, who wants to star in a Food Network show? Great. Unfortunately, I found the execution a bit lacking.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book. It had good elements: the centering of immigrants and POC in a story about Queens, the lovable grandmother character, the best friend who’s also a POC, the racially diverse supporting characters/show contestants, the commentary on the policing of race for people whose families have immigrated more than once, the incorporation of Indo-Caribbean food culture, and the lovely recipes that are sandwiched between chapters.

What was missing for me was substance. The writing felt too spare in many places. For readers who aren’t familiar with the ingredients and dishes mentioned in the story, it’s hard to imagine what they look like. The descriptions focused on lists of ingredients and how the dishes were prepared without much elaboration on the visual spectacle of the finished product.

And for a book that’s supposed to be about food, we get surprisingly few descriptions of smell or taste: aroma, texture, flavor, etc. Anjali spends an entire chapter at a cooking class but the actual consumption of the delicious food that’s made is crammed into a single paragraph with no details provided. Kind of anticlimactic, in my opinion. In short, I was hoping for a book that engaged my senses more.

On top of that, the plot felt a little too rushed without much downtime. There were 166 pages total, and 37 of those were recipe inserts, meaning all of the actual narrative was squeezed into about 130 pages, which is short even for a middle grade book. I wanted more build-up to and more elaboration during the contest scenes. That would have increased the emotional impact and overall weight of the story. I guess to put it another way, it felt like I was eating simple sugars when what I wanted was complex carbs. Wasn’t filling enough, I was still hungry when I was done.

Recommendation: Not sure what to say except maybe I’m not the right audience for this book? I think younger readers might be more forgiving.

My 17 Most Anticipated MG Releases of 2017

Follow-up to My 25 Most Anticipated YA Releases of 2017 post. I love middle grade fiction and want to give it some love. ^_^

So the first book on this list is already out but I don’t have it yet, so I’m still anticipating it. ;D

Midnight Without a Moon by Linda W. Jackson (Jan. 3rd)

  • #ownvoices
  • Black MC
  • Historical fiction
  • Related to Emmett Till murder case

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres (Jan. 17th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Mexican American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Food, family, and friendship

The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim (Jan. 31st)

  • #ownvoices
  • Chinese MC
  • Historical fantasy
  • Intelligent animal friends

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (Mar. 14th)

  • #ownvoices (for one MC)
  • Filipinx American MC (#ownvoices), Japanese American MC, d/Deaf MC
  • Contemporary
  • Friendship story

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan (Mar. 14th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Muslim Pakistani American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Tackles issues of identity and Islamophobia

Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan (Mar. 28th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Biracial white/Chinese American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Multicultural family story

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi (Mar. 28th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Bangladeshi American Hijabi MC
  • Fantasy, Steampunk
  • Puzzles and games

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar (April 11th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Jewish Cuban American MC
  • Immigrant story

The Emperor’s Riddle by Kat Zhang (May 2nd)

  • #ownvoices
  • Chinese American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Mystery and adventure story

One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson (June 6th)

  • Black MC by a Black author
  • Senegalese MC
  • Contemporary
  • Magical realism

Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence (July 11th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Japanese American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Family and food traditions

Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh (July 25th)

  • #ownvoices
  • Biracial white/Korean American MC
  • Fantasy
  • Ghost story

Akata Warrior (Sequel to Akata Witch) by Nnedi Okorafor (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Nigerian American MC
  • Fantasy
  • Nigerian/West African magic

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Cuban American MC
  • Contemporary
  • Tackles issue of gentrification in Miami

Love Sugar Magic by Anna Meriano (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Mexican American MC
  • Magical realism
  • Family of brujas (witches)

Weaving a Net is Better than Praying for Fish by Ki-Wing Merlin (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Chinese American MC
  • 1st generation immigrant
  • Mystery/suspense

Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien (TBD)

  • #ownvoices
  • Chinese/Taiwanese(?) American MC
  • Fantasy
  • Sport that combines martial arts with ice skating

Review for Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai

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My Summary: Maya flies from the U.S. to Pakistan to attend the funeral for her grandfather. There, she finds out that her family has roots in India through her grandmother, who moved to Pakistan after Partition. In order to complete her grandfather’s final rites, her grandmother wishes to seek out an old family heirloom that was left behind in India. Maya sets off for India with her grandmother and older sister to hunt for this family treasure in a race against time, but unexpected complications result in her tackling the search completely on her own.

My Review:

N.H. Senzai became one of my favorite middle grade writers last year after I read Shooting Kabul and Saving Kabul Corner. Having written two books that focused on her husband’s Afghan American heritage, she decided to write one based on her own as an Indian and Pakistani American.

Ticket to India is many things at once. It’s a whirlwind tour of India (both the beautiful and the ugly), brought to life through vivid descriptions. The story cleverly incorporates landmarks into the plot: Maya’s grandmother  uses them to remember the location of her old home and the location of the family treasure. The perspective through which we see these landmarks is different from that of a regular tourist, however, because even as these sights are new to Maya, they are also in a way familiar to her, echoing the landscape of Pakistan.

Other facts are included in the story through the use of epistolary format. Part of the story is excerpts from Maya’s journal for a school assignment. Since she is writing with her teacher as an audience, she lists various facts about Pakistan and India, among other things, thus supplying some of the background for the story. It takes the place of an unnecessary info-dump in the middle of action or dialogue.

Although some neutral facts are stated, the book doesn’t shy away from critiques of British imperialism in the past and rampant political corruption and religious conflict in the present. These views are communicated through Maya’s interactions with various adults as well as her observations of various situations.

Aside from being informative, the book is also a suspenseful adventure. Maya faces many obstacles and setbacks as she makes her way across India. She meets both people who show her kindness and help her and people who have malicious intentions. She also meets people with good intentions who still make her journey difficult because they have their own ideas of where she should go. I was on the edge of my seat wondering whether she’d make it out of trouble spots in one piece and ultimately succeed in her quest.

The book is also about sibling relationships. Maya’s older sister tends to outshine and overshadow her. She’s more assertive and kind of a know-it-all. However, their unintended separation gives Maya a chance to come into herself and develop a sense of independence.

Like Shooting Kabul, Ticket to India tackles complex political issues, this time concerning the Partition of the Indian subcontinent and its continuing aftereffects. Aside from Maya and Zahra’s sisterhood, there is also the “sibling relationship” between India and Pakistan. They share many things, including a common history up until Partition. However, there is also conflict as only siblings can wage against one another, intimate and painful.

The author takes a hopeful and optimistic approach to the question of the two countries’ futures. The similarities between India and Pakistan are emphasized over the differences. Moreover, by making Maya the viewpoint character, she breaks down the idea of India and Pakistan as being in binary opposition to one another. Like the author herself, Maya is both Pakistani and Indian, not just one or the other, and the conflict is not a zero-sum game.

Recommendation: Highly recommended. This book is both entertaining and thought-provoking, a great middle grade cross-country adventure!

Review for The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia

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My Summary: Aliya has a lot of problems typical for a fifth grader: she wants to fit in, she worries about being popular enough for student council, and she has a crush on a cute boy who will probably never notice her, and she’s loaded with homework assignments that she’s not too excited about completing. Unfortunately, on top of that, she faces Islamophobia from people around her, even though she’s not even very strict about observing certain Islamic traditions. Then, a new girl, Marwa, arrives. She’s Moroccan and wears the hijab, which makes her a prime target for bullying. Aliya can choose to avoid association with her, or maybe Marwa has something to teach her about being true to oneself.

Review:

Even within diversity, there is diversity. Although the majority of Indians are Hindu, there are many who are Muslims. I think this is the first book about an Indian Muslim American that I’ve read, and I’m glad I found it because it covers a lot of issues in an way that’s accessible to kids.

Aliya’s family is Indian and Muslim. They speak Urdu at home, and she knows a bit of Arabic for the common prayers and greetings. However, the women in her family don’t wear the hijab, eating halal food isn’t a huge priority for the family, and Aliya hasn’t observed the fast for Ramadan with much success. Throughout the course of the book, she starts to see her faith in a new light and make commitments to observing certain practices.

Aliya is a flawed but still sympathetic protagonist. She wants to do the right thing but feels inhibited by fear and social pressure and doesn’t always know how to respond to difficult situations. Thankfully, she is not alone in her struggles; she has Muslim friends from Sunday School at the local Islamic Center to commiserate over hate incidents and regular tween issues, and her parents, grandmother, and great-grandmother are there to support her as well, offering their wisdom and advice to guide her toward growth.

Unfortunately, due to a bunch of teasing and bullying from kids as school, directed toward Marwa or toward Aliya, she internalizes some of the negative and xenophobic perceptions about people like herself.

It takes two different school projects and then some for Aliya to come to terms with her faith. One is for her Sunday School and takes the form of a series of letters she writes to Allah with the intent of bettering herself. The other is a project for regular school where she works with her best friend Winnie on a display board to showcase their respective cultures and religions.

This book is a celebration of diversity in two ways. One is Aliya’s best friend Winnie, who is biracial Jewish Korean American. Like Aliya, she faces microaggressions from people, even from Aliya’s own grandmother (Aliya tries to correct her), so even though she’s not the main protagonist, her experiences are represented on the page.

The other way is in its portrayal of the differences in how various families and individuals interpret and practice Islam. Marwa wears the hijab with confidence, Aliya’s mother does not and believes it is not necessary to cover up to be modest. One or two of Aliya’s friends from Sunday School wear the hijab, with varying degrees of confidence because of the Islamophobic attacks that happen so frequently to girls who wear it. More importantly, they’re shown as having agency in doing so; it’s a personal choice that they make for themselves.

Aliya’s personal and religious/spiritual journey were a pleasure to follow along with. The book alternates between a typical first-person narration and an epistolary format for Aliya’s letters to Allah. Those letters bring the reader into the intimate relationship she has with Allah, and the change she undergoes is apparent from the progression from mere complaints about what is happening to conscientious self-reflection and constructive action. She may not know all the answers at the end, but she has greater confidence, self-discipline, and wisdom to navigate her future.

The major themes in this book were interesting to me because they approach adversity and Islamophobia/prejudice from a gentler angle than, say, Does My Head Look Big in This?, which has a very different tone, overall. However, the “quieter” methods of dealing with bigotry are not necessarily less powerful or effective.

My one criticism was an instance of ableist language. Aliya nicknames her finnicky and crotchety great-aunt Choti Dahdi “OCD,” which stands for “Old Choti Dahdi.” Her great-aunt isn’t a two-dimensional character defined purely by her neuroticism, but the nickname was an insensitive one.

Recommendation: It’s a great book for young readers that teaches empathy, resilience, and integrity.

Review for Flying Lessons & Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh

flying-lessons-and-other-stories

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 Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

akata-witch

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: (reposted from my 2016 favorites post) Nigerian American (Igbo) 12-year-old Sunny was born in the U.S. but moved to Nigeria at age 9. Sunny has a hard time fitting in at school because she’s American-born (“akata” is a pejorative/slur Nigerians use for Black Americans and foreign-born Black people) and an albino, to boot. Then, her life takes a dramatic turn when she finds out that she’s a free agent Leopard Person, someone with gifted magical abilities. Alongside three friends, she learns about magical history, juju, and more, all while trying to hide this other life from her parents. But her magical powers aren’t just for fun and show, and she’s soon recruited to track a serial killer.

Review:

I’ve had all of Nnedi Okorafor’s books on my TBR for a while and decided to pick up Akata Witch for #DiversityDecBingo.

Some people have compared this book to Harry Potter, but that’s like comparing apples and oranges and doesn’t do Akata Witch justice. Sure, there is friendship and magic and a dangerous villain, but its approach to magic is vastly different and doesn’t follow a Eurocentric tradition.

Before I go into depth about the magical elements, I’d like to talk a bit about the characters.

Sunny, our main character, is a second generation Nigerian American, and I totally relate to her experience as a second gen person going back to the motherland. I’m decently fluent in Mandarin and Taiwanese, but whenever I visit Taiwan, I always feel like I stick out like a sore thumb, from my fashion sense to my not-quite-fluid speech (I still talk to my family in Mandarin/Taiwanese, but not enough these days). Sunny’s issue of being “too American” for people back in the motherland is both frustrating and relatable.

Sunny also appeals to me as a fellow nerd, if I may call her that. She enjoys learning about magic and is energized by learning, which is totally me. Her mundane school assignments bore her, but her extracurricular magic lessons engage her interest and are among the bright points in her life. School was okay-ish for me as far as being interesting, but I did a lot of extracurricular reading for leisure, especially during college, before I added Asian American studies as a second major and was silently suffering through engineering. My extracurricular reading during those years was largely non-fiction and academic texts, and while that probably sounds extremely dull to most people, it was what kept me going and led me to finally admit that I wasn’t happy with my major and needed to change something.

Aside from being a nerd, Sunny is also a good soccer player. She squares off against boys and proves that girls can do as good as or better than boys.

Sunny’s three friends and fellow students are also Nigerian or Nigerian American. They have their own distinct personalities and specialties/talents that create a unique dynamic for the group. They bicker and tease but they also have one another’s backs and learn to work together. I really liked the portrayal of their friendships.

The four of them also get paired up romantically, two sets of girl-and-boy couples, which is kind of heteronormative, but that’s not a huge part of the story, which focuses more on them developing their powers and sense of maturity and responsibility. However, the narrative did get sexist and cisnormative during certain scenes.

Ironically, there is a named non-binary character in the book, who is genderfluid between male and female with alternating she/her and he/him pronouns, but she is only mentioned in passing and isn’t even human but rather a giant, intelligent, and magically gifted spider. I’m leery of the fact that the only non-binary character is non-human, but at the same time his character’s concept is also intriguing to me, and I wish the author had given more information on her. I’m hoping he appears in the sequel.

Now, for the magic. Although there are rules to how magic operates that govern everyone, there is still a lot of room for individual style to show through. Different Leopard People approach magic differently and have different proclivities and innate talents.

Instead of the classroom setting like in Harry Potter, the students have individual mentors. Their learning process is much more organic, the pace set by each individual’s own progress rather than by some arbitrary standard, which feels more like my ideal type of learning environment. Their use of magic is very much personalized and unique, so no two people perform the same exact magic, and there is more than one way to achieve a goal. For assignments, they’re sent to complete various quests and tasks that test their mettle and their skill on the fly.

On top of having very hands-on assignments, they are not given grades for what they do, nor do they take standardized tests. Instead, they earn and collect chittim, rods made of various kinds of metals, which materialize out of thin air and can be traded for various things. Chittim can only be gained through learning. For this reason, money and material things do not rule the world of Leopard People, knowledge does. I thought this was a wonderful concept, though I’m biased because I happen to love learning a lot.

The one thing that did bother me about the fantasy elements was that magical disabled person trope was used. Sunny’s power is tied to her albinism, and her photosensitivity due to albinism is also magically cured. In general, a Leopard Person’s disability reflects their power. There’s a more thorough and nuanced review of these elements and the representation of albinism in the book written by a POC with albinism here.

Recommendation: Recommended for the strong and likable heroine, the realistic and touching friendships, and the highly original fantasy worldbuilding. Would not recommend it if you are looking for accurate albinism/disability representation.