We Need Diverse Books / Overwhelmed in the face of all sorts of racism

by Tessa

Yesterday I gave myself a holiday from blogging, but I also didn’t want to keep posting regularly when really I’ve been fixated on the terrible news from Ferguson about the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, and the blithely racist comment that Daniel Handler made on Jacqueline Woodson’s big night, and thinking about how when things get depressing for me I like to retreat into a book, but for lots of Black people and other People of Color they don’t have the privilege of escaping into books where the characters look like them or reflect their lives. Or if they do, the POC in the book are often treated like message or lessons and not people. Just one more privilege that is not afforded them.

So, if you’re looking for places to donate this holiday season or just because you want to act in some small way, check these out:

1. The Ferguson Library (here’s a post on Book Riot about their great work)

2. We Need Diverse Books campaign

I’ve turned off comments on this post because I don’t feel like debating anyone. This is obviously my personal opinion. Regular posting will continue tomorrow.

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In Honor of MLK Day, Books About Fighting Oppression

A List of Books With Messages of Fighting For Social Justice

martin luther king jr martin luther king jr

by REBECCA, January 20, 2014

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and in its honor I’ve compiled a list of YA books about fighting injustice and oppression, both the small scale and large.

Proxy Alex London

Proxy (Proxy #1), by Alex London (2013)

As a Patron, Knox has and does anything he wants, as if there were no consequences to his actions. Because there aren’t. Well, not for him. Syd is Knox’s Proxy: any transgression of Knox’s is taken out of Syd’s hide. It’s been this way since they were boys, and Syd has learned to deal with the nerve-spasming pain of shocks, the beatings, and the manual labor. But when Knox kills a friend, Syd’s punishment may as well be a death sentence. But there are things brewing that are larger than Knox and Syd. In this future, where everything has a price, two boys will set out to see if they can take down the system. Great commentary on the crux of class and race in capitalism’s trash-economy with a kick-ass gay protag of color. My full review is HERE and the sequel comes out this Spring.

The Rock and the River Kekla Magoon

The Rock and the River (The Rock and the River #1), by Kekla Magoon

“The Time: 1968. The Place: Chicago. For thirteen-year-old Sam it’s not easy being the son of known civil rights activist Roland Childs. Especially when his older (and best) friend, Stick, begins to drift away from him for no apparent reason. And then it happens: Sam finds something that changes everything forever. Sam has always had faith in his father, but when he finds literature about the Black Panthers under Stick’s bed, he’s not sure who to believe: his father or his best friend. Suddenly, nothing feels certain anymore. Sam wants to believe that his father is right: You can effect change without using violence. But as time goes on, Sam grows weary of standing by and watching as his friends and family suffer at the hands of racism in their own community. Sam beings to explore the Panthers with Stick, but soon he’s involved in something far more serious—and more dangerous—than he could have ever predicted. Sam is faced with a difficult decision. Will he follow his father or his brother? His mind or his heart? The rock or the river?” (Goodreads).

Shadoweyes Ross Campbell

SHADOWEYES Ross CampbellShadoweyes, vol. 1, by Ross Campbell (2010)

In a dystopian society, humans live on garbage heaps and there isn’t much protection for those who can’t protect themselves. One day, Scout becomes able to turn into a blue superhuman creature with claws and the ability to protect the downtrodden. Along with her best friend, Kyisha, Scout embraces her new form and tries to protect her neighbors from those who would take advantage of them. For Scout, this means everything from stopping muggers to befriending her offbeat classmate Sparkle . . . and rescuing her. Tessa’s full review is HERE, and you can read Shadoweyes on Campbell’s website HERE.

Moxyland Lauren Beukes moxyland Lauren Beukes

Moxyland, by Lauren Beukes (2008)

Moxyland “follows the lives of four narrators living in an alternative futuristic Cape Town, South Africa. Kendra, an art-school dropout, brands herself for a nanotech marketing program; Lerato, an ambitious AIDS baby, plots to defect from her corporate employers; Tendeka, a hot-headed activist, is becoming increasingly rabid; and Toby, a roguish blogger, discovers that the video games he plays for cash are much more than they seem. On a collision course that will rewire their lives, this story crackles with bold and infectious ideas, connecting a ruthless corporate-apartheid government with video games, biotech attack dogs, slippery online identities, a township soccer school, shocking cell phones, addictive branding, and genetically modified art. Taking hedonistic trends in society to their ultimate conclusions, this tale paints anything but a forecasted utopia, satirically undermining the reified idea of progress as society’s white knight.” (Goodreads)

Beautiful Music For Ugly Children

Beautiful Music For Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills (2012)

Shy trans guy Gabe is a huge music fan (Elvis in particular) and an aspiring DJ. The summer after high school, Gabe gets the chance of a lifetime from his musical mentor, John: a chance at his own radio show, “Beautiful Music For Ugly Children.” In high school, Gabe was stuck as Elizabeth, hiding who he really was. On the air, though, Gabe is able to be himself and let his B-side play, inspiring others to do the same. With his newfound attention, though, come threats, and Gabe must decide whether to stand by his message of radical acceptance or go off the air. My full review is HERE.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling (2003)

Possibly my favorite Harry Potter book! At the end of book four, Voldemort returns. Now, in response to those rumors, the Ministry of Magic is threatened by Dumbledore’s power at Hogwarts. In Ron, Harry, and Hermione’s fifth year at Hogwarts, the Ministry sends Delores Umbrage to check Dumbledore’s power. Little by little, she strips away the students’ rights, including the ability to meet in groups or use magic to defend themselves, so the gang forms Dumbledore’s Army to teach themselves. I think this book is such a genius installment in the series, because it takes a brief break from the direct threat of evil overlord Voldemort and turns to the bureaucratic evil that occurs as a result of fear of evil, and can be just as oppressive.

Santa Olivia Jacqueline Carey

Santa Olivia (Santa Olivia #1), by Jacqueline Carey (2009)

“Loup Garron was born and raised in Santa Olivia, an isolated, disenfranchised town next to a US military base inside a DMZ buffer zone between Texas and Mexico. A fugitive ‘Wolf-Man’ who had a love affair with a local woman, Loup’s father was one of a group of men genetically-manipulated and used by the US government as a weapon. Loup, named for and sharing her father’s wolf-like qualities, is marked as an outsider.

After her mother dies, Loup goes to live among the misfit orphans at the parish church, where they seethe from the injustices visited upon the locals by the soldiers. Eventually, the orphans find an outlet for their frustrations: They form a vigilante group to support Loup Garron who, costumed as their patron saint, Santa Olivia, uses her special abilities to avenge the town. Aware that she could lose her freedom, and possibly her life, Loup is determined to fight to redress the wrongs her community has suffered. And like the reincarnation of their patron saint, she will bring hope to all of Santa Olivia.” (Goodreads)

The Chocolate War Robert Cormier

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (1974)

Cormier’s often-banned book is a classic now, but was rather radical in its time. At Trinity, Jerry’s school, there is an annual fundraiser and all the students sell chocolates. As part of a hazing ritual, Jerry is told to refuse to sell chocolates for ten days. This is bad enough, in the eyes of the Brother Leon, the chocolate-zealot in charge of the sale at Trinity. But, after ten days, even though his hazing is over, Jerry keeps on refusing to sell chocolates. And what started as a silly prank turns into a full-scale civil disobedience. Tessa’s full review is HERE.

Little Brother Cory Doctorow

Little Brother (Little Brother #1), by Cory Doctorow (2008)

Hacker Marcus and his crew are gaming in the wrong place at the wrong time—in San Francisco after a terrorist attack. After being taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security, they’re placed in a secret prison and interrogated mercilessly. After their release, Marcus realizes that the city has become a police state, with limited access to internet resources, surveillance of private citizens, and civil liberties violations up the wazoo. Marcus sets out to free the people (and the information), bending his not inconsiderable skills toward taking down the DHS himself. Awesome example of kids using the resources available to them to change the world. And Doctorow practices the freedom of information he preaches; you can download Little Brother HERE.

Catching Fire Hunger Games Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games #2), by Suzanne Collins (2009)

While Mockingjay (The Hunger Games #3) takes the Rebellion as its subject, I’m more interested in the political messages in Catching Fire. [Spoiler alert, in case there’s anyone on the planet who hasn’t read it or seen the movie] Rather than depending on a hero, as in so many YA dystopias, in Catching Fire, the Rebellion recognize the effect that Katniss can have on their efforts and realize that they must preserve her so she can serve as their symbol after the quarter quell is over. Tributes from multiple districts unite against the Capital to do so, risking their own lives to get Katniss out of the arena. Bloody genius.

Inside Out Maria V. Snyder Inside Out Maria V. Snyder

Inside Out (Insider #1), by Maria V. Snyder (2010)

“I’m Trella. I’m a scrub. A nobody. One of thousands who work the lower levels, keeping Inside clean for the Uppers. I’ve got one friend, do my job and try to avoid the Pop Cops. So what if I occasionally use the pipes to sneak around the Upper levels? The only neck at risk is my own . . . until I accidentally start a rebellion and become the go-to girl to lead a revolution.”

And, finally, for our little brothers and sisters in struggle:

A is for Activist Innosanto Nagara

A is for Activist, by Innosanto Nagara (2012)

A board book for the next generation’s fight for justice.

Let’s keep dreaming a better world into being, my friends.

Pitch Perfect, or, How Anna Kendrick Is Taking Over the World

A Review of Pitch Perfect, directed by Jason Moore (2012)

by REBECCA, October 15, 2012

Pitch Perfect Anna Kendrick

Way back in July, as you may remember, I reviewed Step Up Revolution. Before the movie, I saw a preview for Pitch Perfect, which excited me to no end because a.) a cappella; b.) Anna Kendrick; c.) a cappella. So, in my review of Step Up Revolution, I mentioned that it terrified me to learn that Anna Kendrick could sing in addition to her ridiculous skills of subtle, awkward comedy because it seemed to find her poised to take over the world. Now, nearly three months older and wiser than I was when I wrote that review, I have learned that not only can Anna Kendrick sing, she is a Tony-nominated musical performer. To summarize: hot damn, Anna Kendrick.

Pitch PerfectAnyhoo, back to the movie (which is loosely based on a non-fiction study of competitive college a cappella groups by GQ editor Mickey Rapkin). In Pitch Perfect, Anna Kendrick plays Beca, a reluctant college freshman with a chip on her shoulder (divorced parents, poor dove) who really just wants to move to L.A. and be a music producer. She reluctantly joins the Bellas, an all-female a cappella group on campus, to satisfy her father’s promise that if she’ll just try and join in then he’ll help her move to L.A. at the end of the year if she still hates college. Beca produces awesome mashups and remixes of songs, but Aubrey, the type A leader of the Bellas, resists change, insisting on using the same tired songs they used last year. Pitch Perfect follows the Bellas through the stages of competition until finally, before the finals, the group decides to let Beca remix them into a triumphant climactic performance.

I really enjoyed the movie, even though the only other two people in the theatre were TALKING THE ENTIRE TIME WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE THE WORLD IS ENDING IT’S A MOVIE THEATRE SERIOUSLY I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. In spite of a nonsensical Stand By Me pie-eating-scene vomit gag and some questionable jokes, Pitch Perfect is definitely a solid entry into the young-people-develop-senses-of-self-through-competitive-art-making genre. It’s basically a white, a cappella version of 2007’s Stomp the Yard. I’m really interested in why all these movies that are really about finding and expressing yourself through art are framed around winning a competition for that art. Like all such movies, Pitch Perfect is really about Beca and the other Bellas learning to be confident in themselves despite parents’ pressure, social pressure, and the douchebaggery of their rival all-male a cappella group.

Pitch Perfect Anna KendrickI liked Anna Kendrick in this, mostly because she’s so understated in the way she plays Beca, who isn’t really all that likeable, even though she’s quite talented. I liked how she wanted to produce music rather than be a rock star or a singer. Sidebar: I’m a Rebecca, and as someone who has made a 30-year study of the name, I feel confident asserting that 99.7%  people either spell it Rebecca or Rebekah. Therefore, there is no reasonable explanation for the excision of Beca’s second c. Her father is a professor of comparative literature who teaches his daughter German; therefore I refuse to believe that he named her Rebecca and spelled it Rebeca. That would be ridiculous. So, I turn it over to you, Jason Moore, director of Pitch Perfect who also directed three episodes of Dawson’s Creek: why?

Pitch Perfect Rebel WilsonOne thing that actually kind of stood out about Pitch Perfect, in contrast to other similars, was that it’s  quite funny. It was written by Kay Cannon who writes for 30 Rock and New Girl, and there were some definite moments of hilarity (but not the puking—why the puking?). Notable among these are the character of Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), who speaks so softly she can barely be heard, but says things like, I set fires to feel alive; and Beca’s roommate who hates her. The always-wonderful Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, as the a cappella competition announcers were also a highlight (“Nothing makes a woman feel more like a girl than a man who sings like a boy”). There is a character who goes by Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) who makes a lot of fat jokes but seems to be pretty confident. I couldn’t tell, honestly, where the film came down in terms of fat phobia; the line between people laughing at her and laughing with her is definitely walked, but in a way that I at least found intriguing. I’d be curious to know what others thought about her characterization.

Pitch PerfectPitch Perfect took a little too long to get on board with Beca’s arrangements, so it misses a few chances to present what I was really there to see: awesome mashups and arrangements of songs. Indeed, the best scene—a kind of riff-off version of the improv game “Freeze,” where a category is chosen and each a cappella group tries to riff off the choice of the other, was delightful, but all too brief. Pitch Perfect had it’s Glee-esque moments of portraying the other competitors as cartoonish (a group called the Sock-a-pellas that sing with sock puppets), but it worked with the tone of the film, which is part absurdist one-liners and part running gags. The characterizations feel a bit thin and Beca’s friendship/romance with rival a cappella-er, Jesse, a little unnecessary. Still, while Pitch Perfect may not be, it still mostly rocks (there, that was it—my “pitch perfect” pun, since everyone else is doing it; I hope you enjoyed it). Now, how about them Whiffenpoofs?

No Revolution, But Inspiration Nonetheless: Step Up 4!

A Review of Step Up Revolution, directed by Scott Speer (2012)

By REBECCA, July 30, 2012

Step Up Revolution

Sean and Eddy (Ryan Guzman and Misha Gabriel) are the leaders of The Mob, a flash mob dance crew in Miami, and work in a luxury hotel by day. When the property developer of the hotel where they work threatens to buy the land where they and their friends and families live, they use dance as a weapon to fight back. Along the way, Sean meets Emily (Kathryn McKormick), an aspiring dancer and (you guessed it) the daughter of our evil empire-builder, who joins forces with them.

Oh, Step Up franchise, I haven’t cared about any of your characters since Channing Tatum in 2006, but damn do I like your style. The short story is this: Step Up Revolution‘s dancing and effects are pretty awesome; the rest is total garbage, but that’s cool because it’s the dancing that we care about, right?

Well, actually, not quite. When I first saw the preview for Step Up Revolution, I held out a smidgen of hope that there might be something truly . . . revolutionary about a crew of performers taking advantage of our technology-obsessed culture to reach an audience so large that their art could change people’s lives for the better.

Step Up RevolutionDid I hope in vain? Not entirely. In fact, the movie opens with a truly gorgeous instance of flash mobbery that models the amazing ease with which workaday public spaces can be transformed into theaters of expression with even the most basic recon into how these spaces function. It is a breathtaking show of the power that a group of individuals can have over their environment when they work together toward a common goal, and I actually found myself tearing up a little at the notion of groups of teenagers watching this movie and being inspired to use its tactics in their own communities. It’s a truly inspiring scene.

This early promise, however, and with it much of my joy in The Mob’s tactics, stagnates into such a lockbox of capitalist Hollywood formula that even the dancing feels like it’s been calibrated to dazzle but not to surprise. While there are beautiful scenes of dance magic and trickery (taking over an art gallery and an upscale restaurant), rather than having a message, The Mob stages their flashmobs in the hopes of getting enough hits on their Youtube channel to win a monetary prize. While members of the mob will surely benefit from the money, this (frankly disappointing) goal makes it difficult to really care about their performances as anything more than beautiful dancing. Which is fine, except that:

Step Up RevolutionAlthough the premise of the film rests on the audience rooting to save the culturally diverse neighborhoods that Bill Anderson’s property development will destroy, The Mob is a multi-ethnic group in which only the two white dudes (Sean and Eddy) have more than a few lines of dialogue (this is painfully exemplified in the tattooed, Latino artist who is literally mute). And, the privileged Emily exoticizes Sean’s neighborhood (“people actually live here!”) and suggests that the reason Sean can “break the rules” is that he has nothing to lose, etc.

Step Up RevolutionIt is Emily, though, who, upon learning of her father’s dastardly plans, tells The Mob that art for art’s sake isn’t enough anymore—that it’s time for “protest art” that has a message. When they begin using their art to actually fight for something, The Mob’s dancing becomes far more interesting and they inspire loyalty and gratitude from the folks in the neighborhoods they are trying to save.

Basically, then, it comes down to the standard questions (both about the film itself and the art within it): can art that is made for capitalist gains ever detach itself from those chains? can something that achieves positive change for suspect reasons be detached from those reasons? are politics and selling out mutually exclusive or inextricable? I’m tempted to be a bit generous and say that, rather than simply being a big mess, Step Up Revolution draws attention to the ways in which sometimes it is unlikely people and situations that produce the tools of change. Certainly, any revolutionary ground that The Mob gains in its victory against Anderson is blotted out when The Mob’s success against a capitalist take-over collapses into an offer from Nike to capitalize on it.

Step Up RevolutionStill, Step Up Revolution was, for me, a success (albeit a qualified one) of political affect. That is, while I was watching it, I felt buzzed with the potential that its tactics could have; I felt hopeful that people would be inspired to use those tactics positively. Say what you will about how such feelings of political affect dissipate the moment we step away from the color-saturated, tune-drenched movie theater, I choose to hold out hope that teenagers seeing the movie might still cut through the bad dialogue and predictable plot to the core of The Mob’s stated message: placing art in the public forum forces people to listen to voices to which they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed.

Anna Kendrick and Kristen Stewart Twilight Jessica and BellaIn other news, I was treated to the preview for what will clearly be another filmic gem: Pitch Perfect, starring Anna Kendrick, about a college a cappella group that needs a new image. Number one, the a cappella group is called The Bellas and I can’t help but suspect a subtle Twilight reference (the preview for Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 came on right after Pitch Perfect, reinforcing this connection in my brain). Number two, the fact that Anna Kendrick can sing as well as being a genius of awkward comic timing makes me think that she may be poised to take over the world.

So, did you see Step Up Revolution? What did you think?

Adorable, homeless, angsty Justice: Shadoweyes, Vol. 1

Shadoweyes, Vol. 1
Ross Campbell
SLG Publishing, June 2010

Review by Tessa

Characters
Scout, aka Shadoweyes – a surprise shapeshifter
Kyisha, BFF of Scout, but not putting up with her shit.
Sparkle, upbeat and unlucky Pony Master
Noah, Kyisha’s boyf, with his own opinions about how to be a vigilante

Hook
It’s the year 200X. Humanity lives in a giant, cobbled together trash heap.  Scout finds herself suddenly able to transform into a bulbous-headed, harpoon-tailed, adorable blue creature: Shadoweyes.  Finally she can fight injustice the way she was meant to.

Worldview
Shadoweyes opens with a long view through deep space, past an asteroid and broken satellites orbiting a planet with a barren surface, towards a buried bridge, leading to a Blade Runner-esque city named Dranac, all looping highways and jumbled buildings, with trash stuffed in all the crevices.  This could be Earth’s future, or its past, or not Earth at all.  But the people of Dranac are distinctly humanoid (with cyberpunk style).

Scout and Kyisha are busy hanging out and designing Scout’s Crimewatch persona – there are apparently neighborhood groups dedicated to fighting petty and violent crime, which tells you a lot about how much the governmental structure must care about its citizens. Once the name “Shadoweyes” is decided on, they leave on their first patrol and notice a man being menaced by a brick-wielding youth.  In short order, Scout gets knocked out by said brick, Kyisha punches the dude, and a week or so later a recovering Scout goes into her bathroom and transforms into a little blue creature with a tail and light-sensitive eyes.  She can change back, but it’s really painful.

Drakan looks like this but with way more buildings and garbage everywhere.

For Scout this is a perfect opportunity to fight crime, but she doesn’t know what the hell is going on.  Does this have anything to do with the brick or is it something that was waiting to happen to her, stuck in her genes?  As it gets harder and harder for her to change back, she decides to leave home and become a full-time vigilante.  Only Kyisha knows who she really is.

Then Scout saves someone half-dead. Someone who promptly kidnaps one of Scout’s classmates, the unbelievably peppy Sparkle.  And although she’s sick of being homeless and hungry, Shadoweyes now has a real goal to achieve. And an excuse to visit her mom.

What was the book’s intention and was it achieved?
One of the things I loved about reading Wet Moon, Ross Campbell’s other slice-of-life graphic series about a subtly creepy town in the Deep South was its matter of fact depiction of goth/industrial/emo kids of all shapes and sizes.  It was like all the token characters in TV or wherever had gotten together to create a real life for themselves (without realizing they were living right next to the set of True Blood and some of that otherworlidness was bleeding into their world.)  The same can be said of Shadoweyes, but the goth aesthetic seems less notable in a cyberpunk setting.  The characters care about what they look like, but they don’t seem to be consciously dressing to be part of a subset.  Maybe that’s what everyone looks like.

Another thing that I really like about Campbell’s way of settling us into the world of Shadoweyes is how he inserts information about the society without just outright making it part of a voiceover.  Within the first couple pages we know that Kyisha has a serious peanut allergy and that Scout has asthma, which clues the reader in to the possible environmental effects of living in Dranac, without totally spelling it out.

Although the story of a weaker person (class-wise and, in this case, physical strength-wise) gaining superhero powers isn’t new, it has a renewed strength here. It has grittiness via its setting and heart via its characters, and even humor, as when we see a view of Shadoweyes’ lair, covered with newspaper clippings of her exploits, and one particularly large headline reads: “Shadoweyes helps student with biology homework.”  While the plot moves along at a quick pace, it mostly focuses on the emotional turmoil of becoming Shadoweyes–with, admittedly, a long conversation in the last issue of the collection between Shadoweyes and Sparkle that could have been shortened or used the graphic format to better effect.  There are hints of more exciting conflicts to come, though, especially between Noah, Kyisha’s boyfriend, and Shadoweyes, as their views of when to let a bad guy go differ.  I’m excited to see where this leads.

Readalikes

Malinky Robot: Collected Stories and Other Bits
Sonny Liew
Image Comics, August 2011
If you dig the gritty collapsed-society feel of Dranac, check out the world of Malinky Robot.  There’s more gentle humor in here as Atari and Oliver try to suss out the pleasures of life at the bottom of society. The cover copy hints at this when it describes the stories as “featuring stinky fish, philosopher-labourers, and summer rain.”

The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury
Brandon Thomas & Lee Ferguson
Archaia Entertainment, August 2011
For the lovers of strong female superheroes, we have Miranda Mercury. She carries on her family’s legacy of space heroism. She kicks major ass!  A complex sci-fi swirl of buried intentions rides along on sharp lines as the plot twists and sizzles.

The Never Weres
Fiona Smyth
Annick Press, February 2011
A speculative work from a Canadian author! I could take or leave (alright, leave) the narrator character, but if you focus on the story of a infertile human race a century in the future and one teenage girl who loves art and has a mysterious past, then you’ll find an imaginative work with an art style that called to mind Keith Haring, a little bit.

Disclosures & Digressions
I noticed on some Goodreads reviews of this volume that some people have a beef with Campbell’s faces – that they’re all the same or that they’re expressionless.  Obviously I don’t hold those views, but I’ll just say that if you really want to see cookie cutter, expressionless faces, you should read Birds of Prey: Endrun.  It’s a prime example of why I get frustrated when I try to get into reading the main superhero canon, and why I find Campbell so exciting.

Links
Ross Campbell is all over the internet!
Livejournal: http://mooncalfe.livejournal.com/
Deviantart: http://mooncalfe.deviantart.com/
Standalone page: http://www.greenoblivion.com/
Shadoweyes: http://www.shadoweyes.net/
Tumblr: http://mooncalfe.tumblr.com/
Oni Press Artist Page: http://www.onipress.com/creator/rosscampbell

I got this book from the library.

Photo by flickr user yakobusan

Plenty of Bandwidth (Talk Hard!): Sister Mischief

Review of Sister Mischief by Laura Goode

Candlewick, 2011

by REBECCA, February 13, 2012

In honor of Whitney Houston’s life, here is a book about the power of female musicians to change the world.

characters

Esme Rockett, aka MC Ferocious: “a Jewish lesbian lyricist” and a “smart, sassy, die-hard word nerd”

Marcy aka DJ SheStorm: Esme’s best friend and “the butchest straight girl in town”

Tess aka The ConTessa: the sweet “powerhouse of a vocalist and former super-Lutheran teen queen”

Rowie aka MC Rohini: “a beautiful, brilliant, beguiling desi chick on the stick” (I have no idea what “on the stick” means)

Mary Ashley Baumgarten: Tess’s ex-best friend, a bigoted mean girl for Christ

Pops: Esme’s dad, a super-supportive artisan with a passion for miniature houses and bacon

Drs. Priya and Raj Rudra: Rowie’s parents, mom a lover of food and poetry; dad a disciplinarian

hook

Best friends Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie are Sister Mischief, the all-girl hip-hop group that wants to take Holyhill (aka Holy Hell) Minnesota by storm. Along the way, they find first loves, lyrics, a PA hijacking, 4-H (Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, that is), and, of course, goats.

worldview

This is a fun book: A group of four really different female friends; how they go through the trials of living in a small, conservative town when they aren’t conservative; the hilarity of that particular brand of hyper-Christian mean-girl; nerdy riffs on music; high school hijinks, first love in a tree house; the use of official media to push a political agenda; an awesome dad who treats his daughter like a real person—really, it’s all here.

“So, it turns out I’m gay, Pops.”

He looks hard at me, not upset, probably just checking that I’m serious. When he doesn’t say anything, I keep talking.

“Definitely a homo. Like, Same-Sex City, population Esme. Just a big gay, gay lesbian.”

He nods.

“Cool with me, kiddo. Eat a sandwich.” (17)

When I first saw the press for this book I was delighted by the juxtaposition of girls from suburban Minnesota throwing themselves into hip-hop, as well as by what seemed to promise a complex treatment of femininity (you had me at “butchest straight girl in town”!). Rather than complex, though, I found the novel . . . inclusive. Many different people and perspectives were represented (Tess’ generous and positive faith, Esme’s confirmation that she is a lesbian, Marcy’s aggressive anti-sentimentality, Rowie’s coping with her feelings for Esme alongside her ethnic identity). These characters challenge the views of their school’s predominantly SWASP (straight, white, anglo-saxon, protestant) population through their hip-hop, and the formation of Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos, a combination of hip-hop discussion group and gay-straight alliance.

Goode takes on high school obsession and righteousness with tenderness and humor (we’ve all been there), and Sister Mischief, like Sister Mischief themselves, is optimistic about the power of music and words to change how people think. It’s not a naïve worldview, just a particularly teenage one. And I mean that in a good way. Esme and her friends are smart and savvy, and this makes their explicit desires to use hip-hop as a tool of change in their small, conservative, religious town laudable rather than laughable. Goode does a wonderful job of allowing them to express their beliefs with a conviction that is believable of thoughtful teens, but not obnoxious.

what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?

Sister Mischief is totally fighting the good fight. The book didn’t completely blow me away like I hoped it might, though. For example, while Marcy and Tess are well-sketched in the way they talk and act, they are clearly not the focus of the story, which seemed like a bit of a missed opportunity to really get at the complexities of female friendship, small-town shenanigans, and the inspiration behind their music. For that matter, Rowie, who gets far more time on the page, is seen mainly through Esme’s eyes—that is, seen mainly through crush-goggles. Even Esme didn’t feel totally fleshed out, which made the drama between Esme and Rowie less interesting than it might have been.

In truth, though, I think what made many of the scenes that might have been powerful or unique fall a bit flat is their proximity to the truly dynamic scenes about music. Goode, the back cover tells me, is a poet, and this is clear in her rhythmic language and great dialogue. The scenes of Sister Mischief performing build to a frenzy of empowerment and triumph that are truly powerful. Their rhymes are funny, positive, and vulnerable:

“I’ve spent my whole life trying to be bigger than one
Like I could up and make the earth revolve the sun
Something bout that wanting makes a girl feel invisible
Divisible: is it, though?
I wanna get physical
With an unfuckwittable
Visible mistress who
Feels my kind of blue
Listen, I don’t care who
Let’s screw through curfews
Show me who it is soon, is it you, is it you?
Girl of my dreams, cool as the moon
You gotta come soon ‘cause I wanna get with you, boo.
 
 So who says the homos can’t come out and drop bombs?
And who says I gotta look like these Botoxed white moms?
MC Ro and me got anthems to dance with
Wearin’ low-riders low and we got plenty of bandwidth
To transmit these messages you best not be messin’ with.” (341-2)

I’d love to see teenagers take a page out of these ladies’ book: sing and dance their hearts out, splatter the streets with ink, paint murals skyscraper-high, and generally throw their art at the world. And in this, I think, Sister Mischief most delivers on the dust jacket’s promise that we’re “about to get rocked by the fiercest, baddest all-girl hip-hop crew.”

personal disclosure

I often found the slang that Goode puts in the girls’ mouths humiliating, and when I began reading, this highlighted my anxiety that the girls’ passion for the culture surrounding hip-hop would not touch upon the really complicated issues surrounding race and class in regard to hip-hop. Here, however, I was relieved to find, Goode is absolutely aware of how Esme, Marcy, Tess, and Rowie could come across as problematically coopting the historically black culture of hip-hop to rebel against their majority white, affluent suburb. Instead, Goode not only acknowledges this common cultural critique but, further, rehearses arguments for and against it, showing her characters to be not only savvy about the music and culture, but also about the extremely complicated issues of race, class, and gender that intersect in the reinterpretation of that music and culture.

readalikes

Books and movies in which a rag-tag group of sympathetic underdogs go up against an institutional Goliath armed with only their wit, conviction, and art and totally win:

Will Grayson, Will Grayson John Green David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010). This book has a totally different tone, but a similar reverence for the power of public art to triumph over bullshit. Check back for our adoring joint review.

Pump Up the Volume (1990).

I am going to say something controversial. I think that folks who like dance movies will like Sister Mischief. Yeah, like Step Up 2 The Streets (yes, that’s how it’s really written) and Stomp the Yard. I know, these movies are usually melodramatic exercises in constructing ever-more ridiculous plots to make excuses for people breaking out into dance. I know, their treatment of socio-economic issues is usually nothing more than the bit of sandpaper used to scuff the bottom of a luxe 4-inch heel. But, like the climax of Sister Mischief, the feeling of triumph when those slo-mo leaps, flips, twists, and dips express the dancer’s passion always wells up in my throat.

Procured from: the library

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