5 Reasons I’m Provisionally Enjoying Star-Crossed (and a few reasons I’m not)

A Review of Star-Crossed, created by Meredith Averill

The CW, 2014

Star-Crossed

by REBECCA, April 10, 2014

Star-Crossed, as the title suggests, is a science fiction Romeo and Juliet. Ten years ago, in 2014, an Atrian starship crash-landed in a small town in Louisiana. Six-year-old Roman (Romeo) takes shelter in the shed of Emory (Juliet) when the shooting starts, and they form a bond in the few minutes before soldiers rip them apart. After a bloody battle, the Atrians are interned in a camp called the Sector. Now it’s 2024 and, as the result of an integration program that has long been in the works, seven teenage Atrians are going to begin attending a human high school, to test whether Atrians and humans have the potential to integrate.

romeo-and-julietSo, I’ve mentioned before how much I generally loathe adaptations. There is NO reason why this needed to be an overt Romeo and Juliet—in fact, it really hampers what Star-Crossed can do by telegraphing what are going to be the major issues and stakes of the show. I will say it again. I just do not understand why people cut off narratives at the knees like this?! In the case of Star-Crossed, it seems likely that either the CW thinks sci-fi is low art and needed a little cultcha or that they worried that sci-fi would turn off their core teen female audience unless they very overtly announced that it would be a romance. Either way, it was a stupid move. Also, can we please agree that, in 2014 (and definitely in 2024), Romeo and Juliet is really not the only text that comes to mind when we think about people from different worlds whose social situation dictates that they not be together. In fact, it’s become something of a cliché at this point—a story that’s concretized into utter predictability. So, yeah. WHAT THE?

Tami-Julie-friday-night-lights-4533494-2560-1920More bad news. Emory, played by Aimee Teegarden, aka Julie Taylor from Friday Night Lights, has the unfortunate fate of being a really boring character. No idea why they’re writing her like this when most of the other characters are more interesting, but Emory is completely blah and has no real chemistry with Roman, or with Grayson—yeah, sorry, they’re going with that whole love triangle thing, at least for a little while. (Grayson is played by Grey Damon, also from Friday Night Lights, and another character, Zoe, is played by Dora Madison Burge, who played Becky on Friday Night Lights, so while you’re thinking how boring Emory is, what a bad actor Grey Damon is, and how much makeup they’ve slathered on poor Zoe, you can just close your eyes and think of how good Friday Night Lights was).

That bad news aside, Star-Crossed has, so far, been a pretty enjoyable watch, if you go into it eyes open. I mean, it’s a CW show, so. Here are a few reasons I’ve enjoyed the first eight episodes.

1. Civil Rights Conversations. The morning the Atrian 7 start school with the humans their bus pulls up to the school where there is a mass of protesters who harangue them and throw things at them. It’s a citation of the morning the Little Rock 9 enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Little Rock 9 star-crossed

As in any aliens-landed-on-earth tale, there are people who believe that the Atrians are a threat to earthlings, those who are fascinated by their culture, and those in between. Emory and her best friends, Julia (a delightful Malese Jow, who played Anna on The Vampire Diaries) and Lukas (Titus Makin Jr. who was one of the Warblers on Glee) are excited to befriend the Atrians, but there are many who antagonize them from the beginning. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but, to my mind, any show that is having explicit conversations about the ways that fear of the unknown leads to prejudice, which leads to violence, which leads to retaliation, which leads to war, is succeeding, at least in some small measure.

The Atrian 7 disagree about what integration means, too. There’s one scene where the Atrian 7 are lectured about how they have to be a model minority, which some embrace and some revile. Roman, at one point, thanks Julia and Lukas for helping him and Lukas replies “We minorities have to stick together,” and Roman says, “You guys are minorities?” (they’re non-white); Lukas replies, “Before you got here.” So, there are some useful conversations going on, and I hope things will get more complicated as the show goes on.

2. The Atrians! Once you get over the fact that the Atrians look exactly like humans except for their tattoo-like birthmarks and the fact that they are all OVERLY ATTRACTIVE, the Atrian 7—well, we only know four so far—are pretty delightful characters. Roman (our Romeo) is played by Matt Lanter, who I’ve never seen in anything (though he did play Edward Sullen in a satire of Twilightesque movies that apparently exists?) but who I find strangely compelling. No, not just because he used to be a model. There’s something natural and straightforward about the way he plays Roman, which turns a character that would otherwise be chokingly goody-two-shoes into one who seems mature and interesting.

Teri & Drake

Teri & Drake

Sofia (Brina Palencia) is the wide-eyed, human-loving optimist who wants to make human friends because she doesn’t fit in that well with the Atrians. Teri (Chelsea Gilligan) is her opposite. She’s a fierce, badass fighter who doesn’t take any shit. Her mother is the leader of an Atrian splinter group that is willing to use violence to overthrow humanity. Last is Drake (Greg Finley), a bruiser who wants to be tough, but isn’t quite sure where his loyalties lie.

3. Plants. The Atrians’ main sources of power, as well as their main weapons, are plant-based, and one tribe of Atrians is particularly skilled in that regard. Cyper, for example, is a plant that can both heal and kill, and if humans found out about its properties when mixed with Atrian blood, they’d kill for it. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’ve decided that this was inspired by the centrality of herbs in Romeo and Juliet. Even if it’s not true, it’s an interesting choice.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 10.40.18 PM4. Pansexuality! In a show that is based on Romeo and Juliet and, therefore, pretty much tells us who the main romantic drama will concern, we learn that Atrians are pansexual, which at least opens up some possibilities for the plot going forward. I mean, we were all pretending that Roman and Drake were together anyway, right?

5. Star-Crossed. Come on. That’s actually a really excellent name for a show that is about Romeo and Juliet and aliens who came from SPACE! (I can’t think of a fifth thing that’s actively good.)

SO, have you all been watching Star-Crossed? What do you think? Do the good things make up for the dopey CW-elements, or will these violent delights have violent ends?

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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.

An Amazing New Series: Gives Light

A Review of Gives Light (Gives Light #1) by Rose Christo

Self-Published, 2012

Gives Light Rose Christo

by REBECCA, January 6, 2014

Friends, today I’m reviewing Gives Light, the first in the Gives Light series. I’m thrilled to announce that the author, Rose Christo, will be joining us on Wednesday for an interview about the book. Check back!

Sixteen-year-old Skylar St. Clair has been mute since his mother died eleven years ago and he was injured. After his father disappears unexpectedly, Skylar goes to live with his only remaining relative, a grandmother he has no memory of, living on Nettlebush, a Plains Shoshone reservation. “Adapting to a brand new culture is the least of Skylar’s qualms. Because Skylar’s mother did not die a peaceful death. Skylar’s mother was murdered eleven years ago on the Nettlebush Reserve. And her murderer left behind a son. And he is like nothing Skylar has ever known” (Goodreads).

People, alert, alert: Gives Light is the first in a four-book series. I started the first book one afternoon and by the next evening I was forcing myself to take tea break after tea break just so that the series wouldn’t end. In short, Gives Light (well, the whole series) was an utter joy.

Skylar, our narrator, is a wonderful character. He’s sensitive and kind, and he’s been through a lot. Because he doesn’t speak, Skylar is used to feeling disconnected from people. It never really bothered him; in fact, he’s always been kind of relieved not to have to talk about himself or his past. But when Skylar meets Rafael Gives Light, everything changes. Rafael is intense, moody, and everyone on the reservation keeps their distance from him. Because Rafael is the son of the man who killed Skylar’s mother and left Skylar mute.

As Skylar and Rafael strike up a tentative friendship, they realize they have a connection unlike anything either of them have ever experienced. Skylar feels understood even without speaking and Rafael finally feels accepted and at peace with someone. Little by little, their friendship becomes the most important thing in Skylar and Rafael’s lives, and slowly turns into love. Their relationship is a total joy to read: they’re goofy, tender, sweet, and insightful, each of them seeing a side of the other to which the outside world isn’t privy.

Their relationship plays out against the backdrop of Nettlebush, and the reader gets to experience it right along with Skylar, who had lived there as a child, but remembers little about it. It’s a huge change for him and one of my favorite things about the book is the detailed descriptions of the different parts of the reservation, and the preparation of food and crafts. But while Skylar finds himself relaxing into the routines of his new home, it’s the people of Nettlebush who really change Skylar’s life. They accept him, though he’s been living outside the reservation, and they give him a place among them.

Gives Light Rose ChristoGives Light is a love story, but not only between Skylar and Rafael. It’s also about these characters love and respect for their history, and Christo deftly weaves the stories and customs of the Shoshone people into their daily habits. Every dance learned or recipe taught is a piece of culture explained, a piece of history preserved for the future. It’s also a story about how Skylar and Rafael learn to love themselves, for their own dark histories are the current running beneath Gives Light, and they both have a lot to heal from. This makes Gives Light my favorite kind of love story, too: it isn’t a story in service of getting two people together, but a story about lots of different issues and relationships. There is a ton going on in this book (and in the series) and it’s Skylar and Rafael’s relationship that is the constant—the one thing they can count on as the outside world challenges them.

Gives Light is a beautiful and fascinating read with complex, fully-developed characters, fascinating descriptions of Plains Shoshone culture, and extremely interesting discussions of race, ethnicity, history, and politics. Rose Christo’s prose is lovely. And did I mention this is only book one in an amazing series?!

It’s such a joy to find a book by a self-published author that is truly amazing, and I’m so happy to review it here, in the hopes that others will love it as much as I did.

Join us back here on Wednesday when we’ll be chatting with author of Gives Light, Rose Christo!

Boo, Banned Books; Yay, Band Books! 10 Books About the Power of Music

A List of 10 Books About the Power of Music

Pump Up The Volume

by REBECCA, September 25, 2013

So, it’s Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read/time when a number of people discuss the value of the books that a bunch of yahoos have banned. Scads of smart people have written about the issue of censorship; I wrote about it last year HERE, and Tessa wrote about it HERE. These are all valuable conversations to be having.

But rather than rehash what others have said, I’ll just keep it simple. There is no situation in which I think banning books is anything other than misguided, small-minded, ineffectual fascist fretting and I don’t have anything else to say about it. So, this year, I’m going to focus on the positive: there are some awesome books about how powerful and necessary a form of self-expression music is. This year, instead of banned books, I give you BAND BOOKS WEEK: a list of 10 Books About the Power of Music! All descriptions from Goodreads.

Sister Mischief by Laura GoodeSister Mischief by Laura Goode

“Listen up: You’re about to get rocked by the fiercest, baddest all-girl hip-hop crew in the Twin Cities—or at least in the wealthy, white, Bible-thumping suburb of Holyhill, Minnesota. Our heroine, Esme Rockett (aka MC Ferocious) is a Jewish lesbian lyricist. In her crew, Esme’s got her BFFs Marcy (aka DJ SheStorm, the butchest straight girl in town) and Tess (aka The ConTessa, the pretty, popular powerhouse of a vocalist). But Esme’s feelings for her co-MC, Rowie (MC Rohini), a beautiful, brilliant, beguiling desi chick, are bound to get complicated. And before they know it, the queer hip-hop revolution Esme and her girls have exploded in Holyhill is on the line. Exciting new talent Laura Goode lays down a snappy, provocative, and heartfelt novel about discovering the rhythm of your own truth.” My review is HERE.

Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. GoingFat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going

“Troy Billings is seventeen, 296 pounds, friendless, utterly miserable, and about to step off a New York subway platform in front of an oncoming train. Until he meets Curt MacCrae, an emaciated, semi-homeless, high school dropout guitar genius, the stuff of which Lower East Side punk rock legends are made. Never mind that Troy’s dad thinks Curt’s a drug addict and Troy’s brother thinks Troy’s the biggest (literally) loser in Manhattan. Soon, Curt has recruited Troy as his new drummer, even though Troy can’t play the drums. Together, Curt and Troy will change the world of punk, and Troy’s own life, forever.” My review is HERE

If I Stay by Gayle FormanIf I Stay by Gayle Forman

“Mia had everything: a loving family, a gorgeous, admiring boyfriend, and a bright future full of music and full of choices. In an instant, almost all of that is taken from her. Caught between life and death, between a happy past and an unknowable future, Mia spends one critical day contemplating the only decision she has left. It is the most important decision she’ll ever make.” It’s music that brings Mia back to life and music that she lives for.

The sequel, Where She Went, is told from Mia’s boyfriend Adam’s perspective. “It’s been three years since the devastating accident . . . three years since Mia walked out of Adam’s life forever. Now living on opposite coasts, Mia is Juilliard’s rising star and Adam is LA tabloid fodder, thanks to his new rock star status and celebrity girlfriend. When Adam gets stuck in New York by himself, chance brings the couple together again, for one last night. As they explore the city that has become Mia’s home, Adam and Mia revisit the past and open their hearts to the future-and each other.”

Just Listen by Sarah DessenJust Listen by Sarah Dessen

“Last year, Annabel was “the girl who has everything”—at least that’s the part she played in the television commercial for Kopf’s Department Store. This year, she’s the girl who has nothing: no best friend because mean-but-exciting Sophie dropped her, no peace at home since her older sister became anorexic, and no one to sit with at lunch. Until she meets Owen Armstrong. Tall, dark, and music-obsessed, Owen is a reformed bad boy with a commitment to truth-telling. With Owen’s help, maybe Annabel can face what happened the night she and Sophie stopped being friends.”

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-MillsBeautiful Music For Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

“‘This is Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, on community radio 90.3, KZUK. I’m Gabe. Welcome to my show.’ My birth name is Elizabeth, but I’m a guy. Gabe. My parents think I’ve gone crazy and the rest of the world is happy to agree with them, but I know I’m right. I’ve been a boy my whole life. When you think about it, I’m like a record. Elizabeth is my A side, the song everybody knows, and Gabe is my B side–not heard as often, but just as good. It’s time to let my B side play.” Beautiful Music For Ugly Children gets an automatic Band Books Week bump for being about a radio show and therefore being associated with Pump Up the Volume’s Hard Harry! My full review is HERE.

War For the Oaks by Emma BullWar For the Oaks by Emma Bull

“Eddi McCandry sings rock and roll. But her boyfriend just dumped her, her band just broke up, and life could hardly be worse. Then, walking home through downtown Minneapolis on a dark night, she finds herself drafted into an invisible war between the faerie folk. Now, more than her own survival is at risk—and her own preferences, musical and personal, are very much beside the point. By turns tough and lyrical, fabulous and down-to-earth, War for the Oaksis a fantasy novel that’s as much about this world as about the other one. It’s about real love and loyalty, about real music and musicians, about false glamour and true art. It will change the way you hear and see your own daily life.” My full review is HERE.

Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony JohnFive Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

This one’s about the power of music even for someone who can’t hear it. “The Challenge: Piper has one month to get the rock band Dumb a paying gig. The Deal: If she does it, Piper will become the band’s manager and get her share of the profits. The Catch: How can Piper possibly manage one egomaniacal pretty boy, one talentless piece of eye candy, one crush, one silent rocker, and one angry girl? And how can she do it when she’s deaf? Piper can’t hear Dumb’s music, but with growing self-confidence, a budding romance, and a new understanding of the decision her family made to buy a cochlear implant for her deaf baby sister, she discovers her own inner rock star and what it truly means to be a flavor of Dumb.” Tessa’s full review is HERE.

The Lucy Variations by Sara ZarrThe Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Lest we forget about classical music: “Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. The right people knew her name, her performances were booked months in advance, and her future seemed certain. That was all before she turned fourteen. Now, at sixteen, it’s over. A death, and a betrayal, led her to walk away. That leaves her talented ten-year-old brother, Gus, to shoulder the full weight of the Beck-Moreau family expectations. Then Gus gets a new piano teacher who is young, kind, and interested in helping Lucy rekindle her love of piano — on her own terms. But when you’re used to performing for sold-out audiences and world-famous critics, can you ever learn to play just for yourself?”

Lament Books of Faerie #1 by Maggie StiefvaterBooks of Faerie series, Maggie Steifvater

Book one is Lament. “Sixteen-year-old Deirdre Monaghan is a painfully shy but prodigiously gifted musician. She’s about to find out she’s also a cloverhand—one who can see faeries. Deirdre finds herself infatuated with a mysterious boy who enters her ordinary suburban life, seemingly out of thin air. Trouble is, the enigmatic and gorgeous Luke turns out to be a gallowglass—a soulless faerie assassin. An equally hunky—and equally dangerous—dark faerie soldier named Aodhan is also stalking Deirdre. Sworn enemies, Luke and Aodhan each have a deadly assignment from the Faerie Queen. Namely, kill Deirdre before her music captures the attention of the Fae and threatens the Queen’s sovereignty. Caught in the crossfire with Deirdre is James, her wisecracking but loyal best friend. Deirdre had been wishing her life weren’t so dull, but getting trapped in the middle of a centuries-old faerie war isn’t exactly what she had in mind . . .” My full review is HERE.

Ballad Books of Faerie by Maggie StiefvaterBook two is Ballad. “In this mesmerizing sequel to Lament, music prodigy James Morgan has joined his best friend, Deirdre, at a private conservatory for musicians. James’ almost unearthly gift for music has attracted the dangerous attentions of Nuala, a soul-snatching faerie muse who fosters and feeds on the creative energies of exceptional humans until they die. Composing beautiful music together leads James and Nuala down an unexpected road of mutual admiration …and love. Haunted by a vision of raging fire and death, James realizes that Deirdre and Nuala are being hunted by the Fey and plunges into a soulscorching battle with the Queen of the Fey to save their lives.” My full review is HERE.

Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys Weetzie Bat #3 by Francesca Lia BlocCherokee Bat and The Goat Guys (Weetzie Bat #3) by Francesca Lia Block

“Once there was a slink-chunk, slam-dunk band called The Goat Guys. Cherokee Bat danced and sang. Witch Baby, Cherokee’s almost-sister, pounded the beat on her drums. Raphael played the guitar, and Angel Juan kept the rhythm on his bass. They made music that sparkled like fireworks, and audiences loved them. But with success came power, and power was a dangerous thing. Cherokee and The Goat Guys were swept up in it-and soon it was threatening to destroy them. Until Cherokee realized that it was up to her to save them all . . .” This is the third in the Weetzie Bat series and it totally stands on its own!

BONUS Francesca Lia Block duo that has music at its core: Ecstasia and Primavera.

Ecstasia by Francesca Lia BlockEcstasia: “Siblings Calliope and Rafe, along with Dionisio and Paul, are Ecstasia—the most popular band in Elysia, a city of jewels and feathers, of magic and music, where the only crime is growing old. Then Calliope’s visions take her to Under, where the Old Ones go to die, and where her parents had vanished long ago. Rafe joins her there, in search of the Doctor, who can bring back the dead to ease their loved ones’ broken hearts. And that is when rapture turns to nightmare.”

Primavera by Francesca Lia BlockPrimavera: “From the very moment she was born, Primavera’s songs made water flow and flowers blossom. She brought new life to the desert where her family lives. But even in Paradise there are dreams that cannot be fulfilled. Primavera is in love with a man who can never be hers–so when a handsome stranger offers her the gift of a horse-headed motorcycle, Primavera leaves home in search of the magical city of Elysia. But in Elysia, Primavera discovers that she has left behind everything she truly needs, everyone she truly cares about—and, if the city has its way, she will never find her way back home.”

Happy Band Books Week, my lovely readers. Tell me about your favorite musical YA reads in the comments. TALK HARD!

Oy Vey: Heck Yes, Proxy!

A Review of Proxy (Proxy #1) by Alex London

Philomel, 2013

Proxy by Alex London

by REBECCA, July 22, 2013

hook

As a Patron, Knox has and does anything 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.

worldview

denver-skylineIn the world of Proxy, the city where Syd and Knox live (where Denver once was) is considered the only real seat of civilization left on the continent, and the Proxy system the only thing preserving that civilization. The barrier between wealthy Patrons in Upper City and Proxies in the trash heap of Lower City is as wide as it is literal, and Syd and Knox both know that their positions are fixed. Knox has to live up to his father’s bloated corporate legacy and Syd has to play by every rule he’s given if he hopes to live out the last two years of debt that he incurred when he was rescued as an infant—then maybe he can have a life that’s a little more of his own making.

Knox has all the latest gadgets and he and his friends spend their time hacking, drugging, teching, and partying. Syd can fix anything, and lives in a tiny room off Mr. Baram’s shop. The day Proxy opens, Knox steals a sports car and takes it for a deadly joyride, and Syd tries to concentrate at school, but gets outed by his teacher in front of the whole class, including his crush. Both boys are feeling pretty rough, and things only go downhill from there.

Proxy by Alex London and my cat

I was trying to show you how the cover is metallic, but look at my cute cat.

Proxy‘s world is vividly rendered and Alex London deftly implies volumes about its rules and textures within a few chapters. Nothing is wasted; nothing is left unexplained. There are the typical markers of class divide, from the food to the technology, but it all feels particular to this world and—Hallelujah!—it’s a world that isn’t based on a set of suicide-inspiring misogynistic stereotypes, thank you Alex London.

Indeed, gender is something that Proxy gets very refreshingly right. It’s not the point of the story, but there are characters of all types, genders, and sexual orientations here, and reading it made that place in my heart that is defensively tensed when I start every new book unclench a little.

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

After Syd finds out he’s been sentenced to pay the debt for a life taken, Syd, Knox, and a friend set out on a cross-country journey that is part rebellion, part quest, and part desperation. I’m not saying much about the plot because it’s a joy to watch unfold and I don’t want to ruin anything. Suffice it to say, it’s fast-paced without sacrificing detail, and shies away from annoyingly predictable choices even when it hits its comfortably in-genre stride. There are risks, there are stakes, and it all feels worth it.

Proxy isn’t a perfect book. It starts out alternating between Syd and Knox’s points of view, but once they meet, each chapter combines their POVs, which is confusing and, I think, a missed opportunity for learning more about their characters, which, while they definitely develop over the course of the novel, are more based in attributes than in voice. But I hope that will develop in the sequel. The writing is solidly invisible and despite the few weaknesses, Proxy soars.

Proxy by Alex London and my cute cat!

And now she is being sucked into the book. Noooooo!

In a market glutted with dystopias, Proxy is a very unique book and a really fun read, despite its grim subject matter. There are a lot of awesome details that I’ve not mentioned, like a strand of Jewish mysticism, some awesome biotech stuff, a rebel movement (always my favorite part of dystopias!), and some definitely snappy patter. My favorite detail: in this society, orphans are named after literary characters, a demonstration of how little value books have in Proxy‘s present), so there are shout-outs to famous lit all over the place—Syd’s full name is, tellingly, Sydney Carton, the Charles Darnay look-alike from A Tale of Two Cities. Delightful.

It’s also wonderful to find a gay character of color in a major YA dystopia. While we’re seeing more and more complex queer characters, race is something that YA dystopias have mostly left alone, except when it’s majorly stumbled. Alex London writes race and class into the world of Proxy and it’s much appreciated. Can’t wait for the sequel!

Not convinced? You can download the first three chapters of Proxy for free HERE.

readalikes

The Culling by Steven dos Santos

The Culling (The Torch Keeper #1) by Steven dos Santos (2013). Speaking of there being more queer characters in YA fiction, I loved The Culling, which I try hard not to call the gay Hunger Games because that makes it sound derivative, but really it’s like the gay Hunger Games in all the best ways! My full review is HERE.

Magic to the Bone (Allie Beckstrom #1) by Devon Monk Magic in the Blood (Allie Beckstrom #2) by Devon Monk Magic in the Shadows (Allie Beckstrom #3) by Devon Monk

The Allie Beckstrom Series by Devon Monk (2008-2012). The Allie Beckstrom books aren’t necessarily similar to Proxy in terms of plot or style, but Devon Monk’s urban fantasy series is based in a similar proxy system. In this world, set in an alternate Portland, every act of magic exacts a price from the user, and the wealthy (and the immoral) offload that cost onto people who have contracted to take it or have been forced to do so. The series went off the rails a bit after the first few books, but it’s a lot of fun and doesn’t often crop up in YA circles, since Allie Beckstrom is in her early twenties.

procured from: bought! That’s how excited I was to read Proxy. And I’m glad I did, because the cover is gorgeous.

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

pantherbaby

Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion & Reinvention

Jamal Joseph

Algonquin Books, 2012

review by Tessa

Characters

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.

Hook

Worldview

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 http://www.newsreel.us/panthers/index.htm

Jamal Joseph speaking about the Black Panther 21 case on the green at the University of Vermont – Burlington, Vermont – 1971 photograph by Roz Payne http://www.newsreel.us/panthers/index.htm

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.

Readalikes

rockandriver

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.

OCS

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.”

colvin

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.

mapofireland

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!

 

Dear Diary: A Review of Skim, A Graphic Coming of Age Story

A Review of Skim by Jillian Tamaki & Mariko Tamaki

Groundwood Books, 2008

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko Tamaki

by REBECCA, December 19, 2012

“Dear Diary, today Lisa said, ‘Everyone is unique.’ That is not unique!!”

Skim is a teenage Japanese-Canadian Wiccan goth in Catholic school in Toronto in 1993. Basically, I feel like all I need to do is write that one sentence and everyone will see why they want to read Skim. Skim is written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki (cousins!). The writing is dry, it’s thoughtful, it’s lyrical, and it’s a little bit angry; the art is gorgeous: a variety of pen and ink images with sweeping black washes, detailed landscapes, smug expressions, and the kind of minimalism that only the truly self-assured narrative can pull off.

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko Tamaki

Skim’s only real friend is Lisa, but as Skim begins, Skim is feeling disillusioned with Lisa, and thinks everything she says is annoying. Around the same time, one of her classmates’ ex-boyfriends kills himself and her whole school falls into a kind of exaggerated mourning. Skim finds herself slowly falling in love with, Ms. Archer, her mysterious, flowy-skirted, tea-drinking rambling-house-living English teacher.

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko Tamaki

One of the things I like best about Skim is the way that the words and images are in tension with one another: the words will be bitter and aggressive while the image is calm and minimalist, or the words will be wry and sarcastic while the image is depressing and sad.

“I had a dream/ I put my hands/ inside my chest/ and held my heart/ to try to keep it still”

Also, I really love that none of the characters are pretty—they all have blank expressions and turned-up little noses and wonky eyebrows. It lends the book a level of realism and specificity.

Skim Jillian Tamaki Mariko Tamaki

Skim is a beautiful coming of age story: sexuality, race, body image, gender, spirituality, friendship—this is a book that has it all. I can’t overstate how beautifully paced, drawn, and written this book is. I highly, highly recommend it.

Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

A Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, (2012)

By REBECCA, July 23, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Beasts of the Southern Wild for months, now, and I am thrilled to report that it did not disappoint.

The film is based on Lucy Alibar’s one-act play “Juicy and Delicious.” Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 5 when she auditioned, and beat out thousands of other Louisiana locals) lives with her father, Wink, on a Louisiana island called The Bathtub, on the wrong side of the levy. Hushpuppy’s mother left years before, and her father (played by Dwight Henry, another first-time actor who happened to own the bakery next to the casting offices where director Behn Zeitlin often bought bread) is ill and drinks all the time. When violent storms threaten to flood The Bathtub, many locals pack up and head out, leaving a small cadre behind, who have to survive in the wake of the flood, which kills animals and plants, and floods their homes.

Beasts of the Southern Wild Hushpuppy and the AurochsHushpuppy narrates the film and both the script and Wallis’ performance are haunting in their emotion and simplicity, as is Dan Romer’s score, which reviewers have compared to a kind of stripped-down Arcade Fire. Guided by her voiceover, we experience the events of the film through Hushpuppy’s eyes: after her teacher tells the children about the aurochs, great beasts trapped under the ice, Hushpuppy incorporates the aurochs into the landscape of The Bathtub, finally identifying as a beast herself in sympathy with them; when Hushpuppy hits her father, we see him fall down, as if the fury and hatred she feels toward him actually have the power to slay him. Beasts is magical realism, then, inasmuch as Hushpuppy’s reality is our access point to this world.

Waterworld Kevin Costner

Waterworld

More interesting, though, are particularities of the film that aren’t magical but are composed from a hodgepodge that seems almost post-apocalyptic: Hushpuppy and Wink putter through the floodwaters in a boat made out of the bed of a blue pickup truck atop floaters, grabbing fish straight from the water for food; they live in ramshackle huts that appear to be constructed of layer upon layer of detritus gathered from their surroundings; in the evenings, they drink and socialize with the other denizens of The Bathtub, eating crabs, shrimp, and crawfish by the bucketful and knocking back liquor as the waters lap their feet.

Despite its overwhelming critical success (it won this year’s Grand Jury Prize in drama at Sundance) Beasts of the Southern Wild has been criticized for what some see as a kind of cultural tourism in which the lives of poor Southerners are exoticized and made magic, rendering them curiosities instead of complex characters. While I recognize the impulse behind this critique, I found the film’s genre—a kind of magical realism meets regional adventure piece—to argue against it. Rather than using Hushpuppy, Wink, and the other inhabitants of The Bathtub to generalize about a group of rural Southerners, Beasts uses the intricacies of the region itself to portray one particular coming of age story. Throughout the film, Hushpuppy works to make her personal mark and archive her existence, drawing her story on the wall of her cardboard box hiding place and speaking it to us in the voiceover: “In a million years,” she tells us, “when kids go to school, they’re gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild Hushpuppy and WinkSimilarly, Beasts has also been held up as an example of a director aestheticizing poverty, as the film finds exquisite beauty in scenes dominated by dirty, broken places, and muddy, hungry people. This critique is by no means a new one, and rests, it seems, on the troubling assumption that just because a place is poor it is necessarily immune to beauty. Further, this critique seems to reveal an anxiety on the part of viewers that they might find the suffering of others beautiful, be it Wink’s ever-further protruding cheekbones that catch the dim light like a wood carving in Beasts, or those of the concentration camp prisoners in Schindler’s List. Rather, the cameras of Beasts’ director and cinematographer seem to unfailingly find precisely the beauty of The Bathtub and its inhabitants that makes Wink and the others who stay cling so ardently to their home, despite the attempts of all forces to drive them from it. It is beauty, yes, but a fierce and treacherous beauty that betrays all attempts to control it—a sublime beauty, like the cleaving of the immense glaciers that Hushpuppy imagines frees the aurochs from their icy prisons.

Beasts of the Southern WildNot tourism, then, nor aestheticization, but a kind of joyful tramp—as only children can—through the mud connecting Hushpuppy’s home, her school, a much-maligned rescue center, and a floating paradise of catfish and women that brings Hushpuppy a kind of peace, finally allowing her to return to The Bathtub on her own terms rather than her father’s, a pack of fierce and loving girlfriends around her.

At its most explicit, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a critique of the institutionalized blindness to the populations of certain regions and the hypocrisy of rescue-efforts that value the lives they would choose for those people over the lives those people choose for themselves. More subtly, though, it’s a story of how we make our own homes and our own histories despite—or perhaps because of—the attempts to obliterate them. Does it have moments of sentimentality? Yes. Echoes of other films with innocent or young protagonists? Sure. But Beasts is very much its own movie. I highly recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild, whether you’re in it for its politics, its story, its beauty, or its characters.

 

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

Characters

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…

Hook

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.

Worldview

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.

Readalikes

 

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!!!

YA Book Ratings: Just Another Brick in the Wall

Why YA Book Ratings Are Not Just A Terrible Idea, But An Insidious & Sinister One

By REBECCA, May 25, 2012

Censorship by Eric Drooker

As some of you have likely seen, this week has ushered in the threat discussion of whether YA literature needs a rating system. Sarah Coyne, a professor in the “department of family life” at Brigham Young University, conducted a study of the 40 bestselling children’s books on the New York Times‘ list in June-ish, 2008, and found—gird your loins, friends—more than 1,500 “profane words”! For this reason, in addition to her sense that some of these books, were they to be made into movies, might receive R ratings, Coyne believes that a rating system on book jackets should be instituted. To be clear, Coyne states that she thinks “banning books is a terrible idea,” but believes that “a content warning on the back” would “empower parents.”

So, with that in mind, today I want to talk about some of the things that we’re really doing, implying, accepting, and dictating when we implement “ratings systems” and “content warnings.”

Types of Normal1. Normalization. First and most importantly, any system of evaluation or rating necessarily tells us what we are supposed to think is normal. To rate something is to place it closer or farther away from what the person doing the rating believes is normal. If you are a reader, it tells you what you are supposed to be able to handle, what you are supposed to want, or what you are supposed to fear based on huge generalizations that someone has made about the demographic they think you belong to. The words, behaviors, or situations that fall under the category of “content warnings” tell us that we should judge those words, behaviors, or situations as outside the normal realm of what a certain demographic—in this case, the young adult demographic—should embrace. This translates into huge swathes of behaviors, desires, fears, and experiences that readers are told are abnormal, just by looking at the jacket of a book.

More insidiously, what of the things that are tacitly coded as being normal and appropriate because they are not included in content warnings and they do not cause a book to be rated “mature”? Things like fat phobia, limited expressions of beauty, patriarchy, tokenizing, and the choking invisibility and systematic obliteration of many identities, cultures, and worldviews? As if teenagers aren’t already struggling enough with wondering if their thoughts, feelings, desires, and fears are normal! Do we really want to infect even the places they go for answers with judgements about how they stack up to these vague and arbitrary norms?

Speak Laurie Halse Anderson2. Ab-Normalization. Because let’s be honest: it’s not swear words that are really at stake here, right? If we think of which things are going to make the list of “content warning” or bump a book into “mature” territory, we are talking about precisely the things that are most difficult for many teens to think through, cope with, or get help with via other avenues: abuse, gender identity, religious doubt, myriad desires, shitty or controlling parents, incest, drugs, eating disorders, rape, death, passion, obsessive friendships, cruelty, shame. That means that the teenager who was raped last year and is browsing in the Young Adult section in the library might pick up Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and be told by the content warning, “rape,” on the book that what he or she experienced is something that should not be freely talked about, but rather must be warned against. Check out LHAnderson’s awesome blog post on how YA lit about such topics saves lives here and Lucas J.W. Johnson’s post about the YA Saves phenomenon here, including an amazing array of tweets using the #YAsaves hashtag testifying to how books like Speak helped them heal:

#YAsaves

#YAsaves

The Trouble with Normal: Sex Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life Michael WarnerAnd where do we draw the line, anyway? Will “homosexuality” be a content warning, and thus implicitly placed in the same category as “rape” or “extreme violence”? It seems likely that those who would want a ratings system would want it to be. And what about a content warning of “violence” or “crime” on a book about a teenager whose class background puts her in violent situations or necessitates theft or crime to get by? These stories will contain warnings, suggesting to readers that the people who live such stories, too, are to be warned against.

Who Watches the Watchmen?3. Who Watches the Watchmen? And who are these people that decide what is normal and what should be warned against, anyway? And what recourse have we once those ratings or warnings are printed on our books? To say nothing of the detrimental monetary effect that certain ratings or warnings could have on sales by the authors who write wonderful, important, risky books, what of the concomitant pressure on those same authors to write different books? What if publishers, fearing the bottom line, had discouraged Andrew Smith from writing Stick, Tomas Mournian from writing Hidden, Sapphire from writing Push? Everybody loses! Here again, we are in the position of handing over the power to decide what is normal to . . . whom? Industry execs? A morality brigade? A crew of concerned parents? Well, yes, actually: parents.

YA Saves tshirt!4. Parental Guidance. A ratings system is nearly always said to be in service of parents deciding what is appropriate or suitable for their children to read. As Coyne states, the goal of such a system is to “empower parents.” Bypassing the obvious fact that many of the readers of YA fiction are not young adults, the notion that rating systems are about parental guidance has several problems. First (and most foundational), the logic behind such systems suggests that we should only be concerned with kids who a.) have parents and b.) have parents who give a particular kind of shit. (This seems totally illogical, given than so many teens read books looking for answers or ideas about things because they don’t have adults that they feel they can trust.) But this means that it would be a rating system explicitly geared to a specific, small group of people. This, of course, means that such a ratings system would likely be organized around what that small group of people would find desirable and appropriate. And, you know what we call it when one small social, religious, or political faction is able to dictate what is appropriate for the rest? We call it totalitarianism.

Further, what’s really at the root of the notion that we should hand the reins to parents is the extremely conservative belief that children should believe what they were raised to believe rather than making up their own minds; that they should replicate the political and social beliefs of their parents. This nuclear familial structure is, in and of itself, an inherently conservative one and has, of course, had a normalizing cultural force. But the second that it steps outside of itself and begins to dictate art and literature to people outside its structure it has, in my opinion, grievously overstepped.

Crunchings and Munchings! We talk about books!5. We Have the Technology. As it happens, we already have ways that concerned citizens can look at what books contain without emblazoning books with scarlet letters: Goodreads, Common Sense Media & Parental Book Reviews (if one is of that type), and wonderful YA book blogs like those in our blogroll all provide huge amounts of information about books. Further, they contextualize content that ratings systems and content warnings can only ever isolate and stigmatize. So, whether you are a creep who wants to brainwash everyone into thinking like you, a genuinely concerned citizen who wants to suit the book to the reader, or a rabid reader with specific desires about what you read and super self-actualization about your limits, you all want more information, not less. Oh wait, the only one who actually does want less (and easier-to-control) information is the creep.

Comics CodeOne-letter/number ratings or one-word content warnings don’t actually inform—they rather assume. Assume that the powers-that-rate are reading the book the way the readers will. Assume that readers are similar rather than different. Assume that young readers should be warned away from potentially challenging material rather than guided through it or encouraged to read it, think about it, and ask questions about it. Assume that books are quantifiable and summarizable based on content rather than that the reading experience is complex, affective, and personal.

So, for me, what underlies the question “is it time to rate young adult books” isn’t whether or not I think we should help parents buy better birthday books for their kids. What underlies the question is the desire of certain people to tell us what is normal, what is acceptable, what we can handle, what we should want, what we should fear, and whom we should love. And to that my answer is clear: go fuck yourselves.

You're just another brick in the wall

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