Summer Reads Pt. 2: Sisters and The Book of Bad Things

by Tessa

It’s part 2 of my “books I’ve read this summer about summer” posts! Today I’m covering 2 dece reads for middle schoolers (and other people who read and like books). Unfortunately, both of them won’t be published until the end of August. Which is a great time to read books about summer in order to hold on to that summer feeling.

[Disclaimer: I’m reviewing Advance Review Copies of these books, so between now and when they’re actually published, things could have changed in the book.]


Raina Telgemeier

Graphix, 2014



Raina Telgemeier is a godsend for realistic comics lovers who want to read stories about the middle school years. This is her follow up to her first book, Smile, which was about her totally falling on her face/mouth and having to deal with the messy dental aftermath of it for a long time, during her most awkward years.

This one’s about her sister. Actually, spoiler alert, it’s still about Raina and her feelings about her sister Amara. The framing is a road trip that she, her mom, her sister, and her little brother take, going from California to Colorado to visit family, and is punctuated by flashbacks that explain more about how the sisters grew to have their tense relationship, and why Raina won’t sit in the front seat of the van.

The flashbacks have a neat yellow filter on the pages, making it clear that the story is in the past. I wish all of the ARC I saw was in color, but that would be crazy expensive and I understand why it switched to black and white, but I’m glad I got a preview of what the coloring will be like (done by Braden Lamb, who does stuff for the Adventure Time comics!). The past sequences, with the filter, look like yellowed color photos, while the present sequences, and the present sequences capture the color of the late 80s, which is when I think this was set (maybe early 90s?), as does the fashion, of course.

Telgemeier’s writing and drawing makes me feel comfortable, like I’m reading a surprisingly interesting (and long) cartoon in a newspaper. Her family stories have the rhythm of a good sitcom, replete with punchlines and realistically wacky situations. I was so happy to slip back into those rhythms that I wasn’t bothered at first by the arc of the story. There is one scene at the end, though, that packed a big emotional punch, and it’s delivered by Amara. That made me realize that I didn’t know much about her. It’s a function of Raina not being allowed/distancing herself from Amara, so she doesn’t know what her sister is like. But it also leaves much of the book’s story obscuring half of what the book is about. It’s Sisters, not Sister, and it would have been a more powerful book for me if the big realization weren’t related to one sister not really being present in the story except as a mystery and antagonist to the other. This misstep in plotting won’t hurt the book with its core audience, though, and there are many solid scenes in there for fans to savor.


The Book of Bad Things

Dan Poblocki

Scholastic, 2014


A colleague of mine brought this back from… BEA? And when I saw that it was middle grade horror and that SLJ compared it to R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, and John Bellairs, I gladly took it off of her hands.

I’ve never heard of Dan Poblocki before, but he has written a lot of MG horror. Thanks for keeping the torch alight, Dan Poblocki. But you need to work on your tumblr.

The Book of Bad Things is about Cassidy Bean. She’s part of an exchange program in New York City, possibly part of a social work program, that lets her go and live with rich people in upstate New York during the summer. She’s visited one family, the Tremonts, for a couple summers, but this summer she’s arriving late to Whitechapel because the Tremonts took a while to say that Cassidy was welcome to come.

Something happened last summer to Cassidy and the Tremont’s son, Joey. They went out to the big house where Ursula Chambers, the town hermit lived. She yelled at them, and then later, Joey’s dog died, and for some reason, those two things became connected for Cassidy and Joey. Cassidy blamed herself for having the idea in the first place, and the summer seemed ruined.

Now she’s back with a new journal: The Book of Bad Things, where she writes down her fears and anxieties. Joey isn’t talking to her, and Ursula is dead. All her belongings are being raided by the townspeople, because Ursula didn’t have a family. Then, the people who took Ursula’s things start seeing her. And they start dying.

What I liked most about this book was that it wasn’t afraid to be scary and gruesome. It makes its characters question the line between reality and what they’ve seen in horror movies that feels more sophisticated to me than most horror setups in books for the younger set. Poblocki plays with the ideas of ghosts, zombies, psychic/emotional manifestations, and curses, and the real life scariness of hoarding, anxiety and hurt friendship. Sure, Cassidy’s narration is a bit stiff at times, but she’s a very serious girl, so it fits her. It also never states what race Cassidy is, so it’s possible to read her as black, which is important for many kids.

As an adult reader, I wasn’t terrified, but I can tell that if I had read this when I was a tween, it would have firmly lodged itself in my psyche.






Fat Kid Rules the World!

A Review of Fat Kid Rules the World, by K.L. Going

Putnam Juvenile, 2003

Fat Kid Rules the World K.L. Going

by REBECCA, April 15, 2013


Troy: this secret punk fan is paralyzingly self-conscious about being the Fat Kid

Curt: anything but self-conscious, he is an infamous, often-homeless and always-hungry punk rock dropout

Mr. Billings: Troy’s ex-military father who is by turns disapproving and supportive of Troy and Curt

Dayle: Troy’s fit, jockish little bro who seems like an asshole but might just need a little TLC


Curt MacCrae startles Troy out of throwing himself in front of a subway train and demands that he is owed lunch in exchange . . . and that’s just the beginning. Soon, Troy finds himself one half of the punk band Rage/Tectonic, even though he can’t play the drums and hates anyone looking at him. Can Troy overcome his self-consciousness to embrace the musician inside? And can he save Curt from his own demons in the process?


As I began reading Fat Kid Rules the World, I kept thinking, “gosh, you know, this book is kind of reminding me of King of the Screwups for no apparent reason,” forgetting completely that the wonderful K.L. Going also wrote King of the Screwups. I mention this because Fat Kid Rules the World affected me similarly to King of the Screwups: I found myself really moved by the voice and consistently surprised by the incredible nuggets of wisdom that characters managed to smuggle in under the pretense of casual observation. Fat Kid Rules the World is Going’s first novel, and it’s the novelistic equivalent to what my friend, A—, refers to as “the perfect 90-minute movie”: it’s 183 taut, beautiful, disciplined pages in which every new scene adds layers to the characters and every bit of dialogue further fleshes them out.

Fat Kid Rules the World K.L. GoingSeventeen-year-old Troy is 296 pounds and 6’1”, as he tells us in the second sentence of the novel, just before he tells us that he’s “trying to decide whether people would laugh if [he] jumped” in front of a subway train (1). “I’m not being facetious; I really want to know. Like it or not, apparently there’s something funny about fat people. Something unpredictable. Like when I put my jacket on and everyone in the hallway stifles laughter. . . . I don’t get angry. I just think, What was funny about that? . . . There’s got to be something, right? Right?” (1). Troy’s entire sense of himself is as The Fat Kid, so when the skinny kid on the floor of the subway distracts him long enough to prevent him from taking that “fateful step forward,” he’s shocked that anyone is even speaking to him. And thus, a friendship between Troy and emaciated, smelly, mismatched Curt is born.

Fat Kid Rules the World is set in early 2000s New York City and the descriptions of filthy subways, busted diners, and punk dive bars are the perfect backdrop to Troy and Curt’s adventures. Curt is a force of nature and he has set his sights on Troy. Troy finds himself doing things he’d never have imagined, but he can’t understand why Curt would want to spend time with him because he still can’t quite see himself as anything other than The Fat Kid. Slowly, as he meets some of Curt’s friends—like Ollie, who gives him drum lessons—and finds joy in drumming, Troy begins to imagine that there might be more to him than his weight. And it’s this realization that struck me the hardest.

There has been a lot of necessary discussion here and on other YA book blogs about the depictions of fat people in YA novels—see, in particular, Kelly’s excellent post, “Weight, Body Image & Body Portrayal in YA Books” over at Stacked. One thing that keeps coming up in these discussions is our dissatisfaction with authors who write fat characters as possessing no character traits except fatness; characters who have no particularity—as if they’re constructed from the outside-in, from the views of those who gaze upon them. In Fat Kid Rules the World, Going manages both to capture the incredibly damaging self-consciousness that comes from Troy hating his fat body for what he considers its limitations and the attention it garners and also to show the way that Troy can leverage his joys and talents against the messages that society gives us about weight, which he has internalized. And, most importantly, this isn’t the story of a character who finds himself by losing weight; it’s the story of a character who finds himself by losing himself in music.

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

DIY punkAt the heart of Fat Kid Rules the World is Going’s rather sophisticated thesis that the punk scene’s DIY ethos is the antidote to Troy’s sense that he is worthless by the standards of mainstream culture into which he has been indoctrinated. Because he’s fat, Troy dresses in the plainest clothes possible, to avoid drawing attention to himself; he has nothing up on his walls, as if he’s created a prison to punish himself; he keeps his love for a local punk band secret because he believes it’s at odds with being The Fat Kid. In short, Troy has stripped himself of any distinguishing features in an attempt to disappear:

“‘You have got to . . . I mean, really you should do something about this room,’ [Curt] says. ‘You’ve got nothing up here. No Big T trinkage or any such sort of thing. Where are the band posters? Where’s the graffiti?’ He frowns disapprovingly, then turns his gaze to me. ‘And you must spice up those clothes, man. Not for the sake of spiciness, per se, but simply because they’re not you. There’s no Big T in your big Ts.’

He’s cracked himself up and I stop long enough to stare at what I’m wearing. Bland tan pants. A T-shirt that reads DOG DAYS OF SUMMER.

‘There’s not much in my size—’ I start, but Curt interrupts.

‘Screw that,’ he says. ‘ You make your size. You make your walls. It’s not about what’s out there.’

Then what’s it about? I almost ask.” (50)

What it’s about, is Troy learning that just because he’s fat it doesn’t mean that he can’t claim the things he loves: “I am a participant. With one gesture I’ve moved from the world of imagination to the world of funky sweat stench and ear-ringing volume” (94). What it’s about, by the end, is Troy learning that he can turn his unique, and sometimes shitty, experiences into art. (I won’t ruin them for you, but chapters 70 and 71 are exquisite.) Troy doesn’t come to love his body, but he comes a little bit closer to accepting it as a part of him instead of renouncing it; he doesn’t get a major record deal and become a rock star, but he finds joy in self-expression; he doesn’t change the world for everyone, but he changes things for his brother and for Curt. If King of the Screwups hadn’t convinced me that I should make K.L. Going a must-read, Fat Kid Rules the World definitely has.

Fat Kid Rules the World movie Matthew LillardhackersMatthew Lillard (who also performed the audiobook of Fat Kid Rules the World) recently directed a film version, which I watched immediately after finishing the novel, and which I really disliked, unfortunately. It takes Going’s gritty, reflective story and translates it into a slick, toothless forming-a-band story that only gestures at the hard edges of the book. But I’ll give Lillard a pass because I love him so much as Cereal Killer in Hackers.


Punkzilla Adam Rapp

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). Runaway Punkzilla hops a cross-country bus from Portland to Memphis to see his dying brother for the first time in years. On the ride, he catalogues  his misadventures in Portland in a very unique voice.

King of the Screwups K.L. Going

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going (2009). Liam has made it, as far as high school life goes: he’s handsome, stylish, popular, good at sports, and fun. But everything he does disappoints and infuriates his businessman father. Finally, his father kicks him out of the house and Liam goes to live with his uncle, Pete. In a new school, Liam decides that maybe he can reinvent himself into someone his father could respect . . . and maybe even love? Adore this book!—check out my complete review HERE.

Sister Mischief Laura Goode

Sister Mischief by Laura Goode (2011). 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. Check out my full review HERE.

procured from: the library

Whatever, punk rock: Nevada by Imogen Binnie

Nevada Imogen Binnie


Imogen Binnie

Topside Press, 2013

review by Tessa, with comments from Rebecca


in NYC

Maria Griffiths- still wants to write the ultimate zine that explains what it means to be a trans woman, but hasn’t yet. feels a little trapped in her union job at a bookstore. feels a little trapped in her head.

Steph – Maria’s increasingly distanced girlfriend

Kieran – a fellow bookstore worker and catalyst for life changes in Maria and Steph’s relationship

Piranha – an agoraphobic, pill-savvy and wise friend to Maria.

in Nevada

James – a boy stuck in the worst city ever and maybe stuck in a male body

Nicole – thinking her way out of Star City’s claustrophobic social norms, and an increasingly frustrated girlfriend to James


Maria Griffiths is a little tired of everything—her job, her girlfriend, thinking about being trans. She is starting to think that her new life philosophy should be about irresponsibility.



The first time the reader meets Maria, she’s being unsatisfactorily choked during sex by her girlfriend. Then she fakes an orgasm. To say she has intimacy issues would be an understatement. It’s like Maria wants to find intimacy but someone gave her a map that omitted it entirely, so how is she ever going to find it without some serious luck?

It’s not like Maria hasn’t done relatively well for herself. She’s union at her job, she’s really good at riding her bike, and she successfully figured out that she was transgender and transitioned. But life isn’t a series of radio boxes ready to be clicked, leading to fulfillment, and something’s missing for Maria.  She doesn’t know if she wants to be saying something to a wider audience or be left alone to make bad decisions.

Luckily or unluckily, her distance from her girlfriend Steph leads Steph to tell a little lie about cheating, which makes Maria start thinking about where her life is, and where her life used to be when she was growing up in small town Pennsylvania, getting high on heroin and passing out in crash-pad houses – knowing there was more out there — “There was a Borders and hour away and sometimes somebody would manage to get a zine onto their magazine rack, so she knew that there was more going on than classic rock radio and getting fucked up.” (27) – but not being able to escape yet.  She’s not making those bad decisions now, but she’s really not making any decisions—until some bad things naturally start happening, because the scale of Maria’s life tips just over into uncertainty, and she embraces it.

did this book achieve its intentions?

Have you ever, like me, wished you could have a real-time transcription of your thoughts?  Imogen Binnie’s narrative style is as close to that as I’ve found, except it’s not in first person. It’s like Binnie read Maria’s thoughts and wrote a journal of Maria in third person, and I find it is a very fun and effective way to get to know Maria.

Here is Maria thinking about what she wishes people knew about trans women

(and please note all quotes are from the ARC and could be changed when the final copy comes out NEXT WEEK woot!):

“It’s worth pointing out that trans women in real life are different from trans women on television. For one thing, when you take away the mystification, misconceptions and mystery, they’re at least as boring as everybody else. Oh, neurosis! Oh, trauma! Oh, look at me, my past messed me up and I’m still working through it! Despite the impression you might get from daytime talk shows and dumb movies, there isn’t anything particularly interesting there—although, of course, Maria may be biased.

She wishes other people could understand that without her having to tell them. It’s always impossible to know what anyone’s assumptions are. People tend to assume that trans women are either drag queens and loads of trashy fun, or else sad, pathetic and deluded pervy straight men- at least, until they save up they money and get their Sex Change Operations, at which point we become just like every other woman? Or something. But Maria is like, Dude, hi. Nobody ever reads me as trans any more. Old straight men hit on me when I’m at work and in all these years of transitioning I haven’t even been able to save up for a decent pair of boots.

This is what it’s like to be a trans woman: Maria works in an enormous used bookstore in Manhattan.” (10-11.)

This quote showcases Binnie’s lovely (not kidding) use of colloquialisms like “Dude” and her slipping in and out of “I” to “she”, and it showcases the way that being trans isn’t what the book is about. To me, that’s the hallmark of a good read – Nevada is a portrait of Maria at a crux in her life. Maria is trans and it informs the past and current course of her life, and she thinks about it a lot, so it’s not like it’s not in there. It’s just that the “issue” is in service of the character and not the other way around. So it’s not an “issue”, it’s a part of a person, just as cancer functioned in The Fault in Our Stars and class functioned in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and being a lesbian was part of Starting From Here, and how the encroachment of meth failed to function in A Plague Year.

Imogen Binnie

Imogen Binnie, photographed by Julie Blair/Topside Press

One of Rebecca’s favorite things about Nevada, and I’m inclined to agree, is how Binnie “evokes a really particular (and very self-conscious) demographic (microdemographic?). these are characters who are really familiar to me but I’ve really never read about them in another book. And I’m so glad there is now a book about them.”

One of the ways that I see this happening is how engaged Maria and the other characters are in literature, theory, and philosophy. They think about it so much it becomes part of their in jokes, as in this part of Kieran and Maria’s friendship:

“Kieran heard that Maria liked Kathy Acker so he started doing shitty Kathy Acker impressions at her and normally she responds with shitty impressions of James Joyce, who Kieran is really into. She’s supposed to say, Yes I say Maybe Whatever Yes Sure Fine Yes Whatever Sure, but right now it’s not like she even wants to talk to him. It’s stupid, anyway-he is supposed to be this End of Gender gender tough genderqueer radical, but was James Joyce working to undermine patriarchy. Kieran will talk about all the reasons that yes, Joyce was working to undermine patriarchy, but the actual answer was no, James Joyce was a patriarchal fuck and dead white man worship is a function of patriarchy. But fuck that conversation right now.” (31).

Much of Nevada is in Maria’s head. There are glimpses of other narrative voices, but hers is the main one.  (Binnie’s style also makes it a little more work than ussual to differentiate the nuance in each voice as well, which may be a drawback to some, but I enjoyed it so much I noted it and moved on). Reading Maria’s paragraph-long musings is bracing, funny, and hypnotic. At times in the book it’s like she and I were simultaneously looking up from her thoughts to realize that there was an entire world out there, with fresh air and ways to forget her obsessions, even though her obsessions are an interesting space in which to spend time.

nyc bookstore cart - by flickr user markhurst

nyc bookstore cart – by flickr user markhurst

Rebecca notes, sagely, regarding characterization, that “Binnie is ruthless in regard to her characters, which I love. We’ll read about maria’s thoughts about how she thinks Steph is oblivious of something and then twenty pages later, Binnie will show us a glimpse of Steph and it’s clear that Steph is actually totally aware. No character is safe from Binnie’s narrative’s edge and it’s a joy to see how incisively she understands her characters’ perspectives, and also how totally capable she is of seeing their weaknesses.”

Although Nevada is a novel about adults worrying about adult things, like possibly being fired and how they’re going to pay rent if they break up with someone they’ve been in a relationship for four years with, and how that also will affect their personality, it also contains themes that run through many YA novels. In some ways, Maria feels like she never had her adolescence because she was trying so hard to protect herself by suppressing herself, so her journey in Nevada is the journey of trying to make herself open up to adolescent experiences.

The plot is divided up into two parts—her crumbling but triumphant escape from New York City and a snapshot of her travels, presumably cross country travels.  It’s in this second part that Binnie shows Maria as she’s seen by another person—a probably transgender Wal-Mart clerk named James.

Through her interactions with James, Maria tries out the guise of mentor and the task of audibly explaining her experiences to an outsider to her world. And while the ending thankfully shies away from identity-road-trip conventions, it doesn’t eschew the connection that both Maria and James are looking for. I was left with the feeling that both of their lives were opening up a little more, that they were accepting other potentialities for their life, even if getting there would be uncomfortable or painful. I’d be happy to go along with them and find out what happens, but unfortunately, the book ends.


I’m pulling these from books I’ve read, but please check out the great lists that are available on Goodreads on the subject of trans memoirs and fiction!


Girl by Blake Nelson – for the evocation of a strong character through voice (and: girl in a state of life transition).


Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger – While Wittlinger has other books specifically with trans characters, Hard Love’s theme of figuring out how to separate linked feelings is apropos for many of the relationships in Nevada.


a + e 4ever by ilike merey – intimacy issues + exploring sexuality and gender performance + close friendship + the intensity of being a teenager = a messy, real graphic novel


Girls, Visions, and Everything by Sarah Schulman – Lila spends a summer purposefully wandering without purpose around New York, bearing witness to the way she and her friends live before it becomes unaffordable, getting into adventures and finding ways of loving people.

And Imogen Binnie has a blog, which can also be read.

I received this book from Topside Press with no expectations or remuneration on either side

Letter to My Younger Self: Read Slake’s Limbo!

A Review of Slake’s Limbo by Felice Holman (1974)

Slake's Limbo Felice Holman

by REBECCA, February 25, 2013

I first mentioned Slake’s Limbo in my post “YA Summer Survival Kit: A Crash Course for the Apocalypse: A List of Books That Teach Us How To Do Important Stuff,” in the section on how to Survive Urban(-ish) Perils. I hadn’t read the book when I wrote that post, only heard about it, so I’ve been keeping an eye out for a copy ever since. The other day—bless the Fates!—I found a copy in perfect condition at a used book store in town. It’s a really skinny book, so I almost overlooked it, but it was like it was waiting for me. Total time it took to read? Oh, maybe an hour, spread out because I kept it in the kitchen and read it while waiting for bread to toast, etc. But, man, did it pack a punch. And, while I think I might be too old to experience the “favoriteness” that I would have felt about this book if I had read it when I was ten or eleven—that glorious age of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish—I still thought it was wonderful.

Slake's Limbo Felice HolmanThirteen-year-old Aremis Slake is bullied at school and abused by his aunt, with whom he lives. Finally, one day, a group of bullies from school are chasing Slake and he ducks into the subway to escape them. He rides the trains idly all day and finally realizes that there’s no reason he needs to go back to his life at all. So he doesn’t. He finds a little alcove in a subway tunnel and lives there, reselling newspapers for money, ducking beneath the turnstiles to ride the rails, and making friends with a rat.

Slake’s Limbo is written in 1974, so there’s a very particular feel to the atmosphere of subterranean New York City. Its version of New York reminded me a little of Harriet the Spy‘s, written ten years earlier. There is the grit and dirt of the city here, certainly (far moreso than in Harriet’s Upper East Side), but also that air of more-innocent-times that seems to cling to narratives set before the eighties. Slake becomes acquainted with several regular newspaper customers on the train platform and even their interactions feel of another time. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of very contemporary YA novels recently, but I’m feeling the distance between now and then a lot lately . . .

Slake's Limbo Felice HolmanAs I said, this is a very slim book—about 115 pages in my copy, with its (very) 1986 cover illustration—and maybe that’s why its lyricism hit me. We are told everything about Slake, a narrative device that is frowned upon. Yet, it’s a very personal book, and the description of Slake’s spaces takes his interiority. I kind of think that this is the same story that we might read in an Adam Rapp novel, say, but written from the outside-in rather than the inside-out. The heartbreak is all here, but its stated baldly and without sympathy as opposed to being expressed through action. Yeah, I think Slake’s Limbo and Punkzilla (2009) should be book friends.

Also, did I mention that the prose is 70% concrete and 30% feathers?:

Just before he awoke, it seemed, Slake would dream that a bird had come to the sooty window, open just enough to keep him from asphyxiating . . . that it had come to the sill and perched there, perilously near the inner edge so that it might, at any moment, fall or fly into the room. In his fear that this small creature of the air might blunder into this hostile place, Slake would open his mouth to cry out. As he did so, the bird woud lean forward and land in Slake’s mouth. Then Slake swallowed it. Slake would awake, gagging (7).”

Slake escapes from the hostility of his above-ground home and into a subterranean room of his own. Never good at anything in his life, he quickly finds himself quite capable of surviving, making enough money to eat, learning the routes of all the trains, even feeding a rat hungrier than himself. I can’t tell you precisely what made Slake’s Limbo so compelling to me, exactly. It’s simple, clean, and lovely, that’s all. I will now go to the library and try to check out everything else that Felice Holman has ever written.

Note: there is an audiobook version of Slake’s Limbo read by Neil Patrick Harris! How delightful.


Punkzilla Adam Rapp

Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (2009). Runaway Punkzilla hops a cross-country bus from Portland to Memphis to see his dying brother for the first time in years. On the ride, he catalogues  his misadventures in Portland in a very unique voice.

Stick Andrew Smith

Stick by Andrew Smith (2011). When Stick’s abusive father finds out that his older brother, Bosten is gay, Bosten has to leave home for his safety. Stick sets off on a grueling road trip to find Bosten. My full review of Stick is here.

Skellig David Almond

Skellig by David Almond (1998). This is short British novel about a young boy whose sister is sick and who finds a bird-man-angel dripping with bugs in his shed, so of course I love it. The bird-man-angel eats Chinese food, for god’s sake. Skellig is a very simple story, but its elliptical quality makes it haunting and very re-readable.

Have you read anything by Felice Holman? How do I not know her? Please advise.

Panther Baby, slip some radical literature under the tree, for me.


Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion & Reinvention

Jamal Joseph

Algonquin Books, 2012

review by Tessa


Jamal Joseph –
Cuban-American orphan growing up in late 60s NYC with revolution in his family tree (though he doesn’t know it)

Noonie Baltimore –

The strong-willed woman who ends up raising Jamal and showing him love, discipline, and self-respect

The Panther 21 –

Black Panther members from NYC who are arrested in 1969 on trumped-up charges of conspiracy and kept in jail without bail.



Jamal Joseph was born out of wedlock to a Cuban woman who decided to move to New York City and get an education. To do this, she gave Jamal (then called Eddie) up for foster care.  His foster parents got sick, and Jamal was then raised by Noonie and Pa Baltimore. Noonie was the housekeeper for Jamal’s foster parents. They made sure he went to school, respected his elders, and in Pa Baltimore’s case, learned a bunch of fun swear words from cursing out the TV news.

Jamal is very aware of the political situation in the US as far as the fight for civil rights is concerned. So when Martin Luther King Jr is assassinated, he goes out to the streets to protest. Shop windows are broken and the police show up, indiscriminately chasing anyone around, shooting at them, and claiming they’re “looters”. Jamal is running from the police for this reason when he runs into a phalanx of 20 or so men in fatigues and berets, calmly walking the streets. They surround him and tell the policemen that they’re exercising their constitutional right to free assembly. The police leave them alone. Then they tell Jamal to run home so he doesn’t get killed. These are the Black Panthers. Jamal, duly impressed, goes to a meeting as soon as he can. He’s 15 years old.

By the time he’s 16 he’s risen in the ranks of the Panthers, spoken out at school against the way that history is being taught, and clashed with Noonie about his new, radical afterschool activities. Then he becomes part of the Panther 21 – accused of planning to bomb buildings.  Sure, he was taught to clean and put together an M-16, but the conspiracy charges are simply not true.  It doesn’t matter. He’s in jail.

And that’s just the beginning of Jamal Joseph’s journey.

Jamal Joseph speaking about the Black Panther 21 case on the green at the University of Vermont - Burlington, Vermont - 1971 photograph by Roz Payne

Jamal Joseph speaking about the Black Panther 21 case on the green at the University of Vermont – Burlington, Vermont – 1971 photograph by Roz Payne

What is the book’s intention and is it achieved?

Panther Baby is Jamal Joseph’s story, told from his point of view and with his biases, and that’s how I like it. It leaves the door wide open for further reading about the Black Panthers and the even more militant Black Liberation Army that Joseph was a part of later, in the 70s/80s.

Joseph doesn’t try to hide the parts of being a radical that weren’t so great, but he doesn’t apologize for his politics either, and that’s admirable. He shows the good he did, the prejudice he was up against, and the benefit of having pride and taking power back from a society that tried its hardest not to allow certain people to have any.

Much of Joseph’s story is about navigating codes and roles. He talks about being a man and what that means, which is different from being a black man, which is different from the variations on being a black man representing toughness on the streets. And then he goes into the codes of behavior in prison, and how he successfully and unsuccessfully tries to navigate that world without using violence and without being taken advantage of.

Apart from being a thrilling life story, there’s a lot here to think about and discuss. His personality shines through, and I can guess that even now Joseph hasn’t given up the thought-provoking life.  He’s a questioner and he’s an activist.

Unlike many memoirs, Panther Baby doesn’t waste time dithering around. Joseph cuts to the chase and his story packs a punch. To mix metaphors. I could even see a reader wanting more.



The Rock and the River / 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.” – from the publisher site.


One Crazy Summer / Rita Williams-Garcia

I know from Jumped that Williams-Garcia is a master of voice, so I expect that all the praise heaped on this title is well-founded.  From the NY Times review by Monica Edinger: “Mothers. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them. Yet 11-year-old Delphine and her younger sisters Vonetta and Fern have done just fine without theirs. Cecile, a poet, walked out on them just after Fern was born. Now, in the summer of 1968, their father, with the reluctant agreement of their grandmother, has decided that the three girls need to leave their Brooklyn home to spend a few weeks with their mother in Oakland, Calif., to get to know her. …Cecile brusquely takes them to her sparsely furnished stucco house; sends them to pick up a Chinese take-out dinner, which they eat on the floor; and then pretty much ignores them. The next day, wanting them out of her way, she directs them to the Black Panther People’s Center.”


Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice / Phillip Hoose

Colvin was a teenager who was part of an earlier fight for civil rights – she refused to give up her seat on a bus just like Rosa Parks, but was deemed too unstable to base a landmark case on.


Map of Ireland / Stephanie Grant“In 1974, when Ann Ahern begins her junior year of high school, South Boston is in crisis — Catholic mothers are blockading buses to keep Black children from the public schools, and teenagers are raising havoc in the streets. Ann, an outsider in her own Irish-American community, is infatuated with her beautiful French teacher, Mademoiselle Eugenie, who hails from Paris but is of African descent. Spurred by her adoration for Eugenie, Ann embarks on a journey that leads her beyond South Boston, through the fringes of the Black Power movement, toward love, and ultimately to the truth about herself.” – from Goodreads description

If anyone has any good non-fiction recommendations about the Black Panthers, lemme know!


Movie Review: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

A review of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, directed by Roberto Faenza (2011)

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

by REBECCA, December 26, 2012

I love love love Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (my full review is HERE)! So, when I learned that the book had been made into a movie (thanks, mom!), of course I had to see it.

It’s the summer after high school and James is working at his mother’s art gallery in Manhattan. His pretentious sister is dating a married professor, his mother ditched her newest husband during their Vegas honeymoon, his father believes that he should never order salad as a main course in a restaurant because it isn’t manly, and about the only people James can stand are his grandmother and his coworker, John. This is James Sveck’s life, and it’s kind of going to shit.

Someday this pain witll be useful to youSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful To You is a movie that, had I never read the book, I would have thought was pretty charming with a few super good lines. Toby Regbo (who played the young Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part I) is smart, sensitive, teen-hating James Sveck. Regbo is good—he doesn’t overplay the angst, his American accent is great, and he has the perfect pointy little face. Marcia Gay Harden is good as James’ well-meaning but self-absorbed mother and Peter Gallagher is a little too charming as James’ keeping-up-appearances father. And, bonus, Deborah Ann Woll (Jessica on True Blood) is James histrionic sister. Bonus part two, the always delightful Ellen Burstyn is James’ wise and laid back grandmother.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To YouBut . . . well . . . meh. Like I said, it wasn’t bad, by any means. It just didn’t capture the tone or, more importantly, the voice of Cameron’s novel. The novel is written from James’ perspective and his voice is total YA gold. In the movie, voiceover is used occasionally to give the feel of a first person perspective, quoting directly from Cameron’s novel. Despite providing the movie’s best lines, though, the voiceover is too sporadic to completely evoke that strong perspective, making it feel a bit uneven. Similarly uneven is the New York atmosphere. For an NYC-born family in the art biz, the New York that the film shows is extremely touristy, with none of the charm or comfort that a local would experience. Further, in my opinion, the soundtrack (original music by Andrea Guerra) really does the atmosphere a disservice.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To YouThe biggest problem with the adaptation, though, is the shift in the role of James’ therapist from the book. In Cameron’s novel, the therapist is something of an antagonist, in that it is in his encounters with her that we learn about the material of James’ frustration with the world. It’s because of her knee-jerk inane pleasantries and clichés that we have access to James’ perspective: “I see,” James’ therapist says. “I hate when people say ‘I see.’ It doesn’t mean anything and I think it’s hostile. Whenever anyone tells me ‘I see’ I think they’re really saying ‘Fuck you’” (87). So delightful. Anyway, in the film, the therapist is more of a life coach (played by Lucy Liu), and she becomes more like James’ only friend, and he talks her her easily, while running through Central Park and drinking smoothies. This totally changes the dynamic of the characters, making it appear as if all James needed was one random sympathetic chum to talk to in order to be all right with the world.

In sum, this is a cute movie. If you’ve read the book, it’s certainly not as good, but charming enough that you might want to watch it for curiosity’s sake. And, if you haven’t read the book, the movie’s definitely worth seeing, even if it’s not the most standout thing you’ve ever seen. Summary: READ THE BOOK; IT’S SO GOOD!

5 Reasons You Should Be Watching Beauty and the Beast!

by REBECCA, December 3, 2012

Beauty and the Beast CW

In August, I included the CW’s Beauty and the Beast in a list of new YA(ish) shows that I was excited about:

Beauty and the Beast meets crime procedural (maybe?). Homicide detective, Cat, meets the mysterious man—or beast—who once saved her life. He has been hiding out for ten years, protecting his secret: that when angry he totally Hulks out into a beast. Cat agrees to keep his true identity a secret, and he begins to help her solve cases. And, of course, they become drawn together in ways that I’m sure are mutually delightful and destructive. I know, I know: this show will probably be terrible, but I can’t help but hope that maybe it’ll be kind of like Angel meets The Vampire Diaries meets Jean Cocteau . . . no?


We’re about mid-way through the first season, but I feel pretty dang confident going ahead and declaring Beauty and the Beast a success. Here are my top five reasons why you should be watching.

Beauty and the Beast1. Kristin Kreuk/Cat! I can’t lie: I love me some CW, but they do tend toward female characters that I don’t like. As a result, I wasn’t really expecting much from Cat. But she’s great. She has awesome qualities that I almost never see in TV aimed at younger audiences: she’s a sensible, sincere, matter-of-fact human being. Yay! She’s not boring at all, but there’s nothing super special about her (except that she’s gorgeous, but this is TV), which is so refreshing. I never watched Smallville, so I had never seen Kristin Kreuk in anything before this, but she’s great. She’s vulnerable and sympathetic, but she’s subtle, thank god, and a totally good actor. Kristin Kreuk, I salute you for managing to be the beautiful romantic lead in a CW show while being neither a bitch nor a dishrag!

2. Government-Engineered Beastliness! The premise of Vincent’s beastliness (and we learn this in episode 1, so I’m not really giving anything away here) is that he was the subject of drug-testing when in the military, in an attempt to engineer the perfect fighting machine. As we know, this NEVER works out. So, Vincent drops off the grid and, occasionally, saves people’s lives—Cat’s, for instance. This is great because it opens up the plot for future seasons. In this season (so far), mostly Vincent manages to stay off the government’s radar, but I imagine that in future seasons Vincent and Cat may end up taking on/running from a major government conspiracy. In his real life, though, Vincent was a doctor, so he is a great combination of nurturing/aggressive, healer/harmer, etc.

Beauty and the BeastJay Ryan, who plays Vincent, is pretty great, too. For one thing, he’s handsome in a very non-obnoxious way (avec wicked scar!). He has this super-gravelly voice that sounds exactly like the voice someone would have if they were experimented on by the government and had to live in a warehouse and barely talk to anyone. Also, congratulations, Jay Ryan, for your excellent American accent. I am driven to the brink of insanity when movies/shows do a bad job with accents (that’s why there are dialect and accent coaches, people!) and Jay Ryan’s is spot on. Also, I love how his best friend/housemate is a total dweeb, but he is treated like an equal, not like he’s lucky to be friends with handsome doctor man. Because Vincent isn’t handsome doctor man anymore, and he totally knows it. I mean, he’s still handsome. And I guess he’s still a doctor. Wait, he’s still a man . . . I, uh, anyway, you know what I mean.

passive-aggressive3. No Passive-Aggressive Behavior! If there is one thing that I hate about people (and believe me, there are many) it’s when they are passive-aggressive. This goes double for TV and movies, because in addition to it annoying me personally, I also think about all the impressionable young flowers out there who will watch it and then potentially act passive-aggressive in the world. But here, in the world of Beauty and the Beast, that doesn’t happen. Are you reading this, Hollywood?! It is totally possible to make a great movie/show where people are able to actually express their needs and opinions without devolving into a puddle of passive-aggression. Take note! It’s a brave new world out there.

Make It Or Break It Kelly Parker4. Ensemble! I love a show with a good ensemble. Although Cat and Vincent are the main game in town, Cat’s partner, Tess, is a badass, sassy player, and her coworker Evan is charming. On Vincent’s team is only his bestie J.T., who is also great—he’s a sweet science professor who totally cares about Vincent enough to shack up with him and keep his secret, even when it’s tricky. I love that J.T. tries to protect Vincent by telling him not to see Cat, and that instead of being jealous or anything, he gets all pissed at Cat for putting their secret in danger. And, the crowning jewel . . . Cat’s sister is played by Nicole Gale Anderson, who played Kelly Parker on my favorite show, Make It Or Break It! (Check out why you should absolutely watch Make It Or Break It HERE.)

Beauty and the Beast5. A Remake That Actually Benefits From Being Remade! What I didn’t realize when I first started watching Beauty and the Beast was that it is a remake of the 1980s Beauty and the Beast, starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman, in which she plays a district attorney and he plays “a sensitive and cultured lion-man” (thus spake imdb). I have never watched this show, but now I totally will because (yay, Ron Perlman!) Vincent is part of “a secret Utopian society of outcasts living in an underground sanctuary where Vincent is protected and loved.” What with the rash of Hollywood remakes that do not benefit from being recontextualized, this is a remake that totally makes sense. Shifting the story to have a component of the military-pharmacology complex is a great update.

So, are you watching Beauty and the Beast? What do you think? Tell me in the comments!

Chicken is Chickens!: Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

A Review of Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

Wendy Lamb Books (Random House), 2012

By REBECCA, August 20, 2012

Rebecca Stead Liar & Spy


Georges (the S is silent): lovely, observant, sincere (but not saccharine) seventh-grader you totally want to be friends with

Safer:  a coffee-swigging, super-observant, home-schooled spymaster and dog-walker

Candy: Safer’s younger sister, she occasionally does recon spy work for the cause

Pigeon: Candy and Safer’s older brother who is very avian-oriented

Bob English Who Draws: an unexpected school friend, he knows all about spelling reform

Georges’ dad: communicative, and supportive dad who is always up for Chinese food, yay!


When Georges moves in to his new Brooklyn apartment, he quickly joins Safer in a building-wide surveillance of the mysterious Mr. X, who Safer says must be evil. His dad lost his job, his mom is always at the hospital where she works, and a gang of boys at school have painted Georges with a target, so he likes hanging out with Safer . . . until Safer’s spy demands start to go a little too far.


Georges has only moved twelve blocks away from the house he and his parents were forced to move out of when his father lost his job, but it gives him totally different vantage point on his Brooklyn neighborhood. Georges’ neighborhood, school, and apartment building are the world of Liar & Spy and Georges moves through them with familiarity and affection, observing delightful things and thinking delightful thoughts:

“We’re playing volleyball, with an exclamation point. Ms. Warner has written it on the whiteboard outside the gym doors: Volleyball!.

The combination of seeing that word and breathing the smell of the first floor, which is the smell of the cafeteria after lunch, creates some kind of echo in my head, like a faraway shout.

In the morning, the cafeteria smells fried and sweet, like fish sticks and cookies. But after lunch, it’s different. There’s more kid sweat and garbage mixed in, I guess. Or maybe it’s just that, after lunch, the cafeteria doesn’t have the smell of things to come. It’s the smell of what has been” (3).

Georges’ voice is strong and extremely relatable—I totally wish I lived in his apartment building and would get to chat with him in the lobby or the basement. It’s a world where things are both rife with mystery and shockingly clear; where kids’ play has complete power and yet is powerless against larger fears and threats. Every character feels fully-realized, even the gym teacher or a girl with a crush who appear for but a few sentences, which makes me feel like I live in this world, too, and am merely hearing the story of someone else’s view of it.

When You Reach Me Rebecca SteadLike Stead’s previous novel, When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy is about middle-school-aged kids, but is plenty rich to appeal to older audiences, for sure. For a short novel (180 pages in my copy), Liar & Spy covers a lot of ground. The plot isn’t complicated, but it’s a book with a lot of components, all of which feel like they are in their right place. It’s the same feeling I had when reading When You Reach Me (which I love love loved): that I was reading a book by someone who really knew what she was doing. Stead makes it feel effortless. Pre-teen boys, a potential serial killer, bullying, how taste works, spelling reform, candy, the nesting habits of parrots, umami, phobias, home-schooling, Brooklyn restaurants—all the pieces orbit each other like a perfectly balanced mobile, and at the end you realize that without every one of them it wouldn’t be the same beautiful whole.

Plus, did I mention it’s wicked funny? It is. Here’s a story from Safer and Candy’s brother, Pigeon, who doesn’t eat birds:

“‘So one day when I was totally little, Mom, Dad, and I are driving along this road up in Connecticut and we see these cows. And I’m like, what are cows for? I mean, what do they do, you know? And Mom’s trying to give me the easy answer, so she tells me, “Cows are for milk, remember? Cows give us milk.”

‘But then Dad pipes up, “And meat.” And I’m like, “What do you mean, meat?” Then he tells me that hamburgers are cow meat. And this lightbulb goes on in my head, and I start thinking about all the foods we eat, and I’m asking, what about dumplings, and what about bacon—and they’re telling me, pork dumplings are from pigs, blah blah blah. I was real interested in all of it. It’s one of those things you remember—you’re just a little kid, and you’re finally clueing in to the real world, you know? And so then I say, “What about chicken? Where does chicken come from?” And right then this other lightbulb goes on in my head, and I start screaming, “Chicken is Chickens?”‘ (62-3).

what are this book’s expectations? does it live up to them?

Harriet the Spy Louise FitzhughYes! (that was the second question first, but I got really excited.) In a lot of ways, Liar & Spy kind of reminded me of what it might be like to be friends with an altera-verse Harriet the Spy. It’s not that the book is similar to Harriet the Spy, but that Georges’ experience being friends with Safer feels like glimpses into what Sport might feel like hanging around with Harriet when he really wants to be playing baseball (or, in Georges’ case, watching it) instead.

I think, too, that there is something about the experience of growing up a kid in New York (my mom is a Brooklyn kid, like Georges, although Harriet lives on the Upper East Side) that tinges books set there. The kids’ relationships with neighborhood-ishness really appeal to me (I love placey places). They approach a neighborhood Chinese restaurant or the newsstand at the entrance to a certain subway stop with the same particular ownership and favoritism that non-city kids would the park on the corner, and for whatever reason I find the idea of a kid having regular interactions with the people who run these places really delightful.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884

So, throughout Liar & Spy, we get the feeling that there are things going on in the background that aren’t addressed head-on (you know, like in real life). This gives a real richness to the book, and also prompts the kind of questions that might feel trite in a novel with older characters, but feel exactly right in a novel with middle-school-aged characters. Georges is named after Pointillist Georges Seurat, his parents’ favorite artist, and like the Seurat poster hanging in Georges’ living room, at the end of Liar & Spy, you can look back at the big picture of the book and see all the little pieces come together, and it’s really lovely. Stead masterfully embeds hints to what is going on that make sense when looked back on.

Liar & Spy is available NOW!

personal disclosure

I had the pleasure of getting my book signed by Rebecca Stead at BEA, and she was extremely lovely and gracious, and liked that our blog was called Crunchings & Munchings because she, too, loves Gurgi. I feel this needs to be said because I have a particular dread of meeting people that I admire, for fear that they will be disappointing. Check out this post over at Rookie on the topic.

Rebecca Stead rocks!


Skellig David Almond

Skellig by David Almond (2000). Like Georges, Michael, the protagonist of Skellig, has recently moved into a new home, where he meets a home-schooled girl who teaches him new things. Michael finds a bird-man-angel who eats Chinese food dripping with bugs in his shed. It’s a short, simple story, but has an elliptical, fantasy quality (what is the bird-man-angel? what is really wrong with Michael’s baby sister?). Lovely and lyrical.

What They Always Tell Us Martin Wilson

What They Always Tell Us by Martin Wilson (2008). Brothers James (a senior) and Alex (a junior) are close in age but not in much else—James is an outgoing overachiever and Alex has withdrawn into depression and is questioning his sexuality. But when the brothers make friends with their oddball 10-year-old neighbor, they find common ground they didn’t know they had.

When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009). I know maybe it’s cheating to put an author’s own book on the readalikes list, but in the case of When You Reach Me, I’ve included it because although the books share very little in terms of plot they are very close in style and worldview, so I think someone who liked one would really enjoy the other. Also, seriously, this book is amazing. I can’t say any more for fear of spoiling it. Don’t read anything about it; just read it. Now. It’s short. I swear you’ll thank me.

procured from: ARC from the publisher at Book Expo America

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You: But When?!

A Review of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron

Picador (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2007

By REBECCA, June 22, 2012

Someday This Pain WIll Be Useful To You Peter Cameron


James Sveck: smart, sensitive James hates people his own age, dog parks, and “dead, meaningless language” like nice to meet you, too

James’ mom: thrice married, she owns an art gallery and is very particular about things

James’ dad: into keeping up appearances, he wants to be supportive but just ends up pissing James off

James’ grandmother: One of the few people James likes, she encourages him to think about lunch instead of woes

John: a co-worker at the gallery and James’ first crush

Dr. Adler: James’ therapist (mandated after a slowly-revealed incident), she is very therapist-y


It’s the summer after high school and James is working at his mother’s art gallery in Manhattan. His pretentious sister is dating a professor named Rainer Maria, his mother ditched her newest husband during their Vegas honeymoon, his father believes that he should never order pasta as a main course in a restaurant because it isn’t manly, and about the only people James can stand are his grandmother and his coworker, John. This is James Sveck’s life, and it’s kind of going to shit.


I cannot overstate how brilliant the voice of this book is! James Sveck’s (I love that name) voice is awesome, yes, but Peter Cameron’s tone throughout the book is hilarious, smart, and deliciously pathos-soaked. The tone borders on satire, but this is an effect of seeing the world through James’ eyes, I think. James is a very sweet, intelligent guy who would likely be considered to over-analyze the world. Rather, I think, James simply does not take it as a given that things that are important simply because of their established value; instead, he tries to figure out what he really wants, what he thinks is really important. He does not, for example, have any interest in going to college because he hates people his own age and believes he can learn more by reading on his own; he doesn’t see any reason to come out to his family as gay because it’s not like anyone comes out as being heterosexual.

My inclination here is to quote you huge sections of the hilario-genius of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You to convince you of its amazingness . . . but I’ll just give you medium-sized chunks, instead. In this scene, James’ sister has decided to begin pronouncing her name with a hard-g sound and their mother has returned from her honeymoon sans husband:

“‘Gillian!’ my mother said. ‘Please.’

‘It’s Gillian,’ said Gillian.

‘What?’ my mother asked.

‘My name is Gillian,’ said Gillian. ‘My name has been mispronounced long enough. I have decided that from now on I will only answer to Gillian. Rainer Maria says naming a child and then mispronouncing that name is a subtle and insidious form of child abuse.’

‘Well, that’s not my style. If I were going to abuse you, there’d be nothing subtle or insidious about it.’ My mother looked at me. ‘And you,’ she said, ‘why aren’t you at the gallery?’

‘John didn’t need me today,’ I said.

‘That is not the point,’ said my mother. ‘John never needs you. You do not go there because you are needed. You go there because I pay you to go there so you will have a summer job and learn the value of a dollar and know what responsibility is all about. . . . Please remove that plate,’ she said to me. ‘There is nothing more disgusting than a plate on which a fried egg sandwich has been eaten'” (8-9).

what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You is a character piece, and James’ thoughts and observations make up the meat of the story. But Cameron is amazingly deft at sketching even the minor characters, so the atmospheres of the Manhattan art scene, James’ father’s office building, James’ therapist’s waiting room, and an ill-fated class trip to D.C. are totally realized.

In the partner’s dining hall of Jame’s father’s office (after James’ dad instructs him that pasta is not a manly option), James informs his father:

“‘I can’t bear the idea of spending four years in close proximity with college students. I dread it.’

‘What’s so bad about college students?’

‘They’ll all be like Huck Dupont.’

‘You’ve never met Huck Dupont.’

‘I don’t need to meet him. The fact that his name is Huck and he got a full hockey scholarship to the University of Minnesota is enough for me.’

‘What’s wrong with hockey?’

‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘if you like blood sport. But I don’t think people should get full scholarships to state universities because they’re psychopaths.’

‘Well forget Huck Dupont. He’s going to Dartmouth. You’re going to Brown. I doubt they even have a hockey team'” (34).

It’s not all fun and semantics, though. James behaves badly on the Gent4Gent dating site, and has to go to the therapy mandated after the terrible D.C. incident, which is interspersed in flashbacks. All in all, I really have nothing but good things to say about Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You: Cameron is a hell of a writer; the story is engaging and moving; the characters are funny, ridiculous, clueless, and sad. It’s a perfect slice of a teenager’s life, and James Sveck is a character that I think about often—indeed, he feels so real to me that I can imagine more and more books that follow him as he gets older. Probably (at least a little bit) because . . .

personal disclosure

. . . It is truly uncanny how much the landscape of James’ mind resembles my own at certain moments in this book: “I see,” James’ therapist says. “I hate when people say ‘I see.’ It doesn’t mean anything and I think it’s hostile. Whenever anyone tells me ‘I see’ I think they’re really saying ‘Fuck you'” (87). I almost feel that by recommending it I’m saying, here, read about me!, which seems super self-involved. Mostly, though, I was just really delighted to read a character whose thought processes and obsessions kind of a little bit seemed familiar, if at times neurotic. I don’t remember what made me pick the book up. I had read a few other of Cameron’s novels, but didn’t remember that at the moment. Probably I just liked the title, and I was doing this summer program in Ithaca and I didn’t know anyone yet, so obviously I was hanging out at the library and Barnes and Noble.

I went back to the room I was subletting, which had no air conditioning and was right off both the kitchen and the laundry nook (translation: the fires of hell could not burn hotter), and started reading, and I did not put the book down until I had laughed and cried my way through the whole thing. My room also had a door opening into the bathroom, so whenever one of the other people who shared the house came down to use the bathroom I would muffle my laughter/tears so they couldn’t hear me. This is a major reason that I live alone. Anyhoosier, that was the same summer that I read The Hunger Games, and James Sveck absolutely held his own alongside Katniss in my memory.


When You Don't See Me James Timothy Beck

When You Don’t See Me by Timothy James Beck (2007). The writing team of Timothy James Beck (2 Timothys, a James, and—you guessed it—a Becky) have a series called Manhattan, which comprises a loosely-connected set of characters, and this is the fourth in the series, but it can totally be read as a stand-alone. 19-year-old Nick Dunhill left his parents and twin bro in the Midwest to come live with his uncle in NYC, where he struggles to get by and get over being a little traumatized in the wake of a 9/11-related subway incident. When You Don’t See Me tracks Nick through multiple jobs and friendships, as he learns what (and who) he wants, and figures a boatload of stuff out in the process.

The Freak Observer Blythe Woolston

The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston (2010). The Freak Observer is more brutal than Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, but Loa, like James, is a merciless observer and truth-teller about the people she meets and the things she experiences. A totally gorgeous book with a truly unique protag + bonus points for best cover ever. Read Tessa’s review here.

Leave Myself Behind Bart Yates

Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates (2003). Noah and his mom start to renovate a dilapidated house after Noah’s father dies suddenly, and Noah falls in love with the boy next door while his mother slowly loses it in the background. Noah is smart and snarky, and I feel like if he and James met in real life they would either fall in love instantly or decide that they hated each other before falling in love later. You can read my full review here.

procured from: bought in Ithaca

Slices of Life: No Crystal Stair and The Watch That Ends the Night

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

illustrations by R. Gregory Christie

carolrhodaLAB, 2012

The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic

Allan Wolf

Candlewick Press, 2011
review by Tessa


No Crystal Stair

Lewis Michaux, headstrong, driven man who wanted to make sure African-Americans knew the history of their people

Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, Lewis’ brother, a famous preacher

Mary Michaux, wife of Lightfoot, disapproving of Lewis

The FBI, wants to keep tabs on this bookseller in Harlem

Malcolm X, a friend of Lewis

The Watch that Ends the Night

The Captain, the Businessman, the Refugee, the Shipbuilder, the Iceberg, the Dragon Hunter, the Immigrant, the Navigator, the Gambler ,the Telegraphist, the Socialite, the Lookout, The Stoker, the Tailor the Tailor’s Son, the Junior Officer, the Violinist, the Baker, the Ship Rat, the Undertaker, the Postman, the Cook…


The most world-changing bookstore you never knew about, told by the people who were there. The most well-known disaster at sea, told by the people who were there.


I chose to review these two books together because they take a similar tactic in dealing with their particular historical investigations. No Crystal Stair calls itself a “documentary novel”, and so I’d call The Watch That Ends the Night a “documentary novel in poems”. Neither are billed as non-fiction, but both explore real historical figures and events. And neither are straight novel or straight poetry, but rather novelistic in scope and varied in voice and structure.

a photo of Michaux’s store, via Harlem World Mag

One of the fun and frustrating things about history is that there’s always another way to look at something.  Even if you were there, a witness to an event, it would often be difficult for you to authoritatively say what happened.  Nelson and Wolf exploit and expand on this aspect of history by breaking their narratives up into voices.

Nelson’s are very much in the talking-head style of a documentary, except written down in paragraphs on the page: “All those black books! I’ve never seen anything like it. The Howard University bookstore had some black books but mainly textbooks. When I walked into Lewis Michaux’s bookstore and saw all these histories, biographies and autobiographies, fliers and posters, it was mind-blowing.” (96).

Wolf’s voices speak in poems. Some are letters and telegrams. Some are free-verse and could just as well be prose.  Some are free verse and let the poetry work for them, playing with imagery, slipping into concrete poetry, and even using lack of capitalization and punctuation to underline the lost voice of a toddler:

“the barber shop is a razor.

the barber

he wants to shave at papa’s mustache.

so i cry.

too many things are gone.

papa is a mustache.

and papa is pockets.

with biscuits. with bullets.

and a pistol. bang. bang.” (180).

Some (the iceberg) have actual rhyme schemes: “James Dobbins (last to die), not jumping clear, / while he himself Hail Marys and huzzahs, / is crushed by timbers as the people cheer.” (14).

What was the book’s intention and was it achieved?

Each author’s use of the documentary style lets the reader into history without letting history fade into the background. Unlike a historical novel, where a character just happens to be at the right historical place in the right historical time, whether by working for a famous historical figure or being the right age/sex to get drafted into war, in these books the characters are there because they already had a part to play, and that is being documented.  The narrative is helped by the leeway that fictional interpretation can give.

it’s the watch that ended the night! get it?? photo by flickr user digiblue

This is most apparent in The Watch that Ends the Night and less so in No Crystal Stair. Any filigree of yearning, ambition, light romance, or life that Wolf gives to his characters serves to make them mourned should they not survive the night. The book would be propelled by a sense of doom whatever Wolf did, but he plays it up in his poems, too, doling out foreshadowing judiciously like a stoker would manage the coals in the furnaces of the ship.  Wolf’s not playing around with any of the facts of what happened,  he’s using his poetic license to play with our emotions.  And in doing so, he’s making the facts stick.

No Crystal Stair is similarly researched and it includes historical asides, photographs, and news clippings.  Better that it does, because it’s telling a story that should be more widely known, but isn’t.  Earlier this year, the New York Daily News published an article about East Harlem getting its first bookstore.  It failed to mention Harlem’s original bookstore (located in the Mount Morris Historical District, as far as I can tell from Wikipedia), which was built and run by Lewis Michaux, despite much struggle on his part.

This was the National Memorial African Bookstore on West 125th Street. It was an institution dedicated to informing black people about their history and the works of their forebears and peers.  Malcolm X frequented it and spoke in front of it.  And it was eventually forced out of its home by developers. The story follows Michaux from his childhood, where he was outshone by his famous brother, a preacher, through his first idea of having a bookstore, through the long years of getting the project off the ground, to its success (leading to a thick FBI file on his activities which was forced to conclude that he was no threat to national security).

photo by flickr user aoyenda

Although Michaux and his family are sometimes not easy to like, he didn’t let anyone give him any guff and it’s plain to see that the man did admirable work and was an admirable person.  And boy, did he know how to speak in a memorable soundbite: “Until the neglected and the rejected are accepted and respected, theres gonna be no damn peace… nowhere! Only a tree will stand still while it’s being chopped down.” (127).

Lewis Michaux was the great uncle of the author, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, who says that she “visited the store only once, when I was fourteen and, regretfully, didn’t realize the store’s significance until years after it had closed and my uncle had passed away” (166).  While Wolf’s research on the Titanic proved challenging because there was too much written on it too soon, allowing for a wealth of rumor, research on No Crystal Stair had the opposite challenge for Nelson, with “nonexistent and conflicting information complicat[ing] the project” (166).  It’s easy to see why Nelson turned to the format that makes up No Crystal Stair, leaving room in the imagination for what could not be verified in research.

However, the research she did do became marred, in my reading, when I found that one of the most affecting personal stories of a bookstore customer was revealed in the endnotes to be a full fabrication.  There was so much to be impressed by with the story of the bookstore that I found myself wishing that it had been left to stand on its own.  The extra story ended up feeling like too much manipulation, a failsafe in case the story couldn’t speak for itself.

Despite that small letdown, No Crystal Stair is a work that should be read and enjoyed by people who have an interest in the history of New York, bookstores, black power, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps stories, or any student that wants to have an especially interesting Black History Month research project. And The Watch That Ends the Night is a great suggestion to fans of the film Titanic, fans of stories in poems, or morbid-minded people who want to get a little weepy.  After these two reading experiences, I hope more authors explore the documentary novel as a form.



Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village

Laura Amy Schlitz, illus. Robert Byrd

A Newbery Medal winner from 2008, this book uses poems to illuminate the world of medieval England, using 22 distinct voices.

Crossing Stones

Helen Frost

Helen Frost is the MASTER of the novel in poetic voice. This particular book is set during World War I in the American heartland, and has four main characters who do the speaking. Its poems are deceptively straightforward, but trust me, don’t skip the explanation of their structure at the end.

World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks

So, this is a history of things that have never happened.  But it sounds just like what oral histories sound like – a little dry, but exciting because it really happened (please read some Studs Terkel if you don’t know what I’m talking about)! Only this never happened. But there are zombies!

Disclosures & Digressions

I wish there were more R. Gregory Christie illustrations in No Crystal Stair, and more Jon Klassen in The Watch That Ends the Night.  Illustrations 4-evah!!!

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