On the Come Up

Is it possible to wait months for a book’s release, get an advance copy, geek out about getting an advance copy, forget about said advanced copy, get bogged down in work projects, read some less-fulfilling books, wait on the hold list for the now newly-released book, finally get your turn with the book, then remember the advance copy buried on your desk? Yes, it would appear that this is possible and I can prove it. That’s why I am only now gushing over Angie Thomas’s (relatively) new novel On the Come Up.

On the Come Up is set in Garden Heights, the same neighborhood as Thomas’s incredible debut novel, The Hate U Give, and follows a teenaged aspiring rapper named Bri Jackson. Bri’s childhood has been informed by several traumatic events. As a young girl Bri lost her father, a rapper on the cusp of stardom, when he was murdered in front of her house. This terrible event devastated Bri’s mother who subsequently suffered from a years-long battle with substance abuse and addiction. As a result, Bri and her older brother spent a significant portion of their childhood living with their strict, god-fearing grandparents before their mother was able to regain her sobriety and reunite with her children.

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At age 16 Bri is an incredibly precocious rapper and somewhat ambivalent student with a quick-fire temper and a burning desire to make it big and earn the money to help her family. When a video of her battle rapping goes viral, Bri realizes that her dreams of hip-hop stardom could become reality. But the closer Bri gets to realizing her goal, the more slippery it becomes. A racially charged incident with school security leaves Bri suspended, then some of her angrier lyrics lead to misinterpretation, overwrought outrage, and media hysteria. Bri must also decide who to trust with her career – her devoted aunt with a penchant for neighborhood trouble or her father’s slick talking former manager.

At the same time that Bri is trying to jumpstart her career, she is also dealing with plenty of personal issues. From family conflict, to the stresses of poverty, to discrimination and bigotry at school, the challenges of everyday life are fraying Bri’s nerves. And then there are the boys! There’s Bri’s best friend who she has long had feeling for. But he just started dating someone else. And Curtis the wise cracking jerk who nobody takes seriously until Bri notices that he is hiding depth behind his jackass facade. As Bri’s personal life, family history, and rap god aspirations begin to collide she must contend with not only neighborhood beefs and career goals, but figuring out how to stay true to herself in a world determined to tear her down.

Angie Thomas is an incredibly skilled writer able to deftly balance the gross injustices of structural inequality, the unrelenting traumas of being a black woman in America, and the less weighty but still-urgent drama of teenage life. All of her characters are both relatable and realistic, and she has mastered the critical skill of capturing the voices of young people in a way that never feels contrived. Thomas was an aspiring teenaged rapper herself and Bri’s raps are as impressive as Thomas’s prose. In fact, I’d recommend listening to Thomas deliver some of these lyrics, as you can in this video, to get a better sense of the skill that Thomas possesses as an MC and writer. My favorite part is the dexterity of her flow when she rhymes coroner with corner. And if you’re looking for a soundtrack while you read, we have CDs by many of the artists Bri mentions in the book, including J. Cole, Rapsody, Kendrick, and Eric B. & Rakim, and you can stream or download a ton more for free with Hoopla!  

Enter the Grishaverse

I usually try to approach book-to-screen adaptations with a fair bit of skepticism. Sure, they sometimes work out, but I’m a levelheaded guy who controls his impulses and manages his expectations with Jedi-like discipline. Just kidding! I never learn my lesson. Every time I hear about a new adaptation, my hope spirals out of control. Why keep your cool and be pleasantly surprised when you can build unrealistic expectations and experience utter devastation?

This might explain why I’m ecstatic that Rick Famuyiwa will direct Children of Blood and Bone. And why I refuse to worry that Brian K. Vaughan’s Y, the Last Man (already shortened by FX to Y, which definitely isn’t a bad sign, right?) will use CGI for Ampersand the monkey. And when Netflix announced an adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, I really lost it. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited for a TV show.

So, what exactly is the Grishaverse? Leigh Bardugo has written seven books in this world so far, with at least one more in the pipeline and rumors of several more to follow. This world is first introduced in Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy: Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising. These books are set in Ravka, a land both on the brink of civil war, and facing encroaching threats from powerful nations at its borders. Complicating matters further, Ravka’s military is divided into two groups. The first of these is a pretty straightforward army. But Ravka’s Second Army is composed of magic wielders known as Grisha and led by the Darkling, a mysterious, ambitious, and charismatic young man who also happens to be the world’s most powerful Grisha. Like many misunderstood groups, the Grisha have long suffered abuse in Ravka and other nations and the Darkling seems bent on not just defeating foreign enemies, but also securing permanent power for himself and Grisha dominance throughout society.

This trilogy focuses on a young orphan named Alina. When her powers as a Grisha manifest, it becomes clear that she has a unique and legendary gift. She quickly finds herself in an elevated position, both courted and mentored by the Darkling. Alina quickly learns that she will need to navigate many dangers: jealous rivals, court intrigue, foreign assassins, and the Darkling’s morally ambiguous schemes, while learning to develop her power and determining which decisions she makes might save her country and which might lead to its ruin.

While I love Alina’s story, it isn’t necessarily where I recommend readers begin. My first foray into Bardugo’s thrilling work was the duology composed of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. These stories take place after the events of the Grisha trilogy, and follow a ruthless, scrappy, and irresistible group of criminals when they take a job breaking into an impenetrable fortress and rescuing a scientist who possesses incredibly powerful and dangerous knowledge. I don’t want to say a lot more about these books – they’re filled with twists, betrayals, and cliffhangers that I don’t want to risk ruining. I will say, however, that the characters in these books are immensely likable, their relationships are complicated in ways that are both satisfying and maddening, and that Bardugo’s work in this series is as strong as any fantasy writing that I’ve read. The best description I’ve seen for these books is Game of Thrones meets a heist movie. If that doesn’t have you chomping at the bit, check your pulse.

King of Scars, Bardugo’s latest work, is the first book in a new duology. Virtually any details about this novel would spoil the earlier books. Suffice it to say, this new release follows a cursed king as he deals with dangerous new threats, a returning menace, and two very, very badass Grisha. For fans of deep dives, there is also The Language of Thorns. This collection of short stories brings to life the myths and fairy tales of the Grishaverse. This is a worthy read, and ties in nicely with the traditions that crop up throughout all these books.

It’s been a pleasure to read (and re-read) these books and watch as Bardugo’s sharp and witty writing has matured. Over the course of these seven books, she has built a world filled with magic, intrigue, and adventure. I eagerly await more Grishaverse novels, and will be following every update on the miniseries with bated breath. Don’t screw this up, Netflix.

How to Win Children and Influence Parents

One of the truly great no-downside parts of my job is that I get to share pop culture enthusiasm with young people every day. Whether we’re ranking Harry Potter, judging each other’s floss skills, or kvetching about that darn pigeon, it’s often the highlight of my day. But I also love introducing young readers to their next obsession. This is great when it happens in the library, but I also enjoy being the one to swoop in with under-the-radar recommendations for the children of my friends and family. While I prefer to tailor my suggestions to the reader, I’ve found that there are certain books that rarely fail. And for the low cost of free.99, you too can be the hero of the next family gathering or dinner with friends! Here are a few of my favorite “wise-guy” picks.

9780316483018_p0_v1_s550x406It’s relatively new, but Bob Shea’s Crash, Splash, or Moo! has become the first book I grab when I have a chance to read a story aloud. This is a lightly plotted picture book formatted as a game show. The host is, of course, Mr. McMonkey and the audience’s task is simple: watch ACTION CLAM and (plain, old, boring) Cow complete in a series of increasingly preposterous stunts and predict whether they will end with a crash, a splash, or a….MOO. Like many of Shea’s books, it’s filled with bright, engaging colors and stuffed with jokes and delightfully silly scenarios. I love that this book both encourages a ton of audience participation and leaves everyone (including the reader) cackling with glee. It’s as much fun as I’ve had with a story in a long time and even when I have to read it several times in a row (by popular demand) I never get sick of it.

743b09a15d28ca3221e153270b710b93I have to make a confession about Ms. Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera. This is a stolen recommendation. My mother, who is a remarkable children’s librarian in her own right (as was her mother before her – I seem to have entered the family business) clued me in to this middle grade chapter book. Ms. Rapscott’s Girls follows the titular Ms. Rapscott, the headmistress of a “school for girls of busy parents.” These poor children are sent there because their parents simply do not have the time to care for and raise them. If that sounds awfully dark for the intended audience, fear not! Primavera builds a world that is equal parts whimsical and absurd as Ms. Rapscott and her charges embark on a series of misadventures. And my goodness, this book is at its hysterical best when it is roasting adults. I will leave you with this description of one student’s parents:

Her parents, Dr. Loulou Chissel and Dr. Lou Chissel, were very busy. They had started out in the cinder-block business and slowly but surely had worked their way up to become prominent cosmetic surgeons. In a stroke of genius Beatrice’s father, Dr. Lou Chissel, had even devised a way to fill our wrinkles and lips from the raw materials he had used to make his cinder block.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Dr. Liu often said.

But the Chissels didn’t stop there. Dr. Loulou Chissel had shortened her daughter’s name from Beatrice to Bea to save time, because Dr. Chissel was very busy experimenting with ways to grow hair on cinder blocks.

“Just think of the possibilities,” she crowed.

Dr. Lou rubbed his bald head, “Just think.”

As you can imagine, all this thinking required a great deal of quiet. But their daughter, Bea, was always wanting something -like breakfast- and she was always asking questions like, “What’s a birthday present?”

When no one answered she would get louder and louder, until she would shriek at a decibel loud enough to shatter glass:

“What’s a birthday present?!!!!!!”

This is how Beatrice Chissel became Known for Being Loud.

jason-reynolds-spidermanYA is one of my favorite areas to read, so I have many go-to books for teenagers. I was tempted to talk about Nic Stone, but I’ve blogged about both of her novels before. I thought about mentioning Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books, but I’d rather devote a future post to them. So I’ll go with my favorite, an author I talk about nearly every day but don’t write about enough, Jason Reynolds. While all of his books are transcendent, the recent popularity of Marvel’s animated film, Into the Spider-Verse, makes this a wonderful time to give a teen Miles Morales: Spider-Man.

This book follows Miles through a particularly tough stretch of his junior year of high school. His uncle just died, as has Peter Parker, his spider-sense is on the fritz, and, oh yeah, his history teacher? He might be a super-villain. Add to that the stress of school, family pressure, and his crush on a classmate and Miles has his work cut out for him! I love that this book is appropriate for a wide range of teens – I’m as comfortable recommending it to sixth graders as I am to high school seniors. Reynolds is also simply a phenomenal writer, exploring serious issues like race, class, and identity, while also flashing a masterful ability to create realistic teenage characters. Don’t take my word for it – I’m currently discussing All-American Boys, which he co-wrote with Brendan Kiely, with a high school book club and the students all agree that he nails teenage dialogue. I have little doubt that Miles is the Spider-man we need right now and I can think of no one better than Jason Reynolds to do him justice.

Here’s to the Scientists and Monkeys

Every once in a while, I read a book that must have been made for me. I don’t mean one that just aligns with my interests. I mean there’s an underground lab somewhere filled with white coated technicians experimenting with plot formula and monkeys with typewriters tapping away, all working on the singular mission to create books perfectly tailored for my taste.

That’s the only explanation I can think of for Amy Rose Capetta’s The Brilliant Death. Released in October. I only found this book last week. As I’ve read it, I’ve been increasingly impressed by the work of this cabal of scientists and monkeys that call themselves “Amy Rose Capetta” and increasingly annoyed that it took me two months and a decent amount of dumb luck to stumble upon it.

9109wewh-qlThe Brilliant Death is set in a kingdom filled with murder, intrigue, and stories of magic wielding strega. Teodora di Sangro has grown up with ample firsthand experience of violence and viscous plots. Her father is the head of one of five families that rule the kingdom. Like the mafia, these families rule through an intricate web of extortion, intimidation, and retribution that keep the people fed, clothed, and thoroughly subjugated.

Teo also carries a secret. The stregas of childhood legend are more than bedtime stories. They are real, and Teo is one of them – possibly the only one. She has always kept her magic secret, but has used it to help her family. When an enemy, rival, or other problematic person threatens them, she is quick to secretly transform them into pretty trinkets that now line her bedroom’s shelves.

Then one day, Teo’s entire world is shaken. First, her father is poisoned and falls into a coma. The new capo, who rules the five families, claims credit for the assassination attempt and summons a family representative to the capital. Teo believes she is the best choice among her father’s children to assume this task – after all, she has been secretly defending her family for years. However, Toe is also a daughter in a world where her gender effectively disqualifies her from leadership.

Yet on the same day her father falls, Teo meets Cielo. Cielo is beguiling, witty, and possibly quite dangerous. Like Teo, Cielo is a strega. And a gender fluid strega at that! Cielo’s appearance, combined with their ability to completely transform their appearance, give Teo hope that she too can transform, allowing her to travel to the capital and confront the capo. With the help of Teo’s brilliant younger brother Luca, she and Cielo set off for the capital in an uneasy alliance, one that will need to be unbreakable to survive the deceit, cruelty, and corruption that await them.

The Brilliant Death is full of mythical magic, fantastical world-building, and political intrigue in a kingdom stuffed with dastardly criminals and dashing rogues. It also prominently features queer romance, a thoughtful approach to identity, and complicated presentations of family, loyalty, and betrayal.  I’m not saying it’s a perfect book, but for me it comes pretty darn close!

Attention Hollywood

It’s been a really great year for YA movie adaptations. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda was made into the charming and sweet (if poorly renamed) Love, Simon. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before which took Netflix by storm. And The Hate U Give was a critical hit at a timely moment. It’s a bit of a reach, but I’d even argue that Black Panther was a YA adaptation considering where we shelve the comics. But am I satisfied? Never! I want to see more of my favorite characters head to the screen so I can fret that Hollywood will ruin them and rejoice the few times that they do not. Luckily for all the producers, project developers, and screen writers out there, I’m happy to do the leg work for them. I want Nic Stone’s Odd One Out to be the next big thing.

81A39u7iP5LOdd One Out follows three teens, Courtney, Jupiter, and Rae, each of whom narrates a section of the book. Courtney is the first narrator. A high school basketball phenom, he lost his father to a tragic accident years ago and lives with his single mother. He is well-adjusted, kind, and introspective. He is also secretly, hopelessly, and madly in love with Jupiter, his longtime best friend. Jupiter is  quick-witted, Freddy Mercury obsessed, and an engaged activist and community leader. Though Courtney and Jupiter share almost everything, he can’t bring himself to tell her about his feelings. In addition to risking their friendship, it would be an exercise in futility. Though Jupiter deeply loves Courtney, it could never be romantic. Jupiter is gay.

As the book follows Jupiter and Courtney into their junior year of high school, they are thrown a curveball. Rae is a bright, bubbly, and endearing student who has just moved to town and transferred to their school. She quickly becomes an integral member of their group, but she also creates the friction that might destroy their friendship. From the moment Rae shows up it is clear that Jupiter has feelings for her. And as Courtney desperately attempts to get over Jupiter, he begins to like Rae as well. And Rae? Rae might just be falling for both of them! I hesitate to use the phrase “love triangle” because it feels cheap and hackneyed, but if the shoe fits….

What follows is a fun, dramatic, and sometimes stressful series of adventures and misunderstanding for these three teens, including a strange but emotionally resonant side story featuring a long-forgotten children’s entertainer. I fell deeply in love with all of the characters in this book, and I lived and died with their every triumph and defeat. But Stone’s work is also a deep, moving, and well constructed consideration of identity, sexuality, and the expectations placed on teens. In the author’s note, Stone explains why she wrote Odd One Out:

“It’s a book I needed at twelve, when I was skittish at slumber parties and worried about playing truth-or-dare because I didn’t want the other girls to know about the fire I felt below my navel when I watched them kiss each other and stuff. I needed it at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, when I would change for cheer practice separate from the other girls because I didn’t want anybody to catch me looking. (Flee temptation! My Bible said.) I needed it at twenty-one, when trying to navigate intense romantic feelings for a female friend. And I need it now as I continue to waffle between labels. (Am I bisexual? Pansexual? Queer? Herteroflexible? All of the above? None of the above?)”

I’m confident that it’s still a book that tweens, teens, new adults, and grown-ass adults still need, whether they’re questioning their own identities or could just use a window into the lives of others to build empathy and be better allies. Of course on top of all that, it is also a fun, satisfying, and smart story that I could not put down. Now someone make me my damn movie.

Star Trek, Soccer, and Ancient Persian Kings

From the opening pages of Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut Darius the Great is Not Okay, it is painfully clear how much truth there is in the title. Darius Kellner, the sweet and immediately endearing teenage narrator, is struggling. For starters, Darius is a target at school. His taste in pop culture gravitates towards the nerdy, he is somewhat obsessed with tea (provided it is properly brewed and unsweetened), his medication makes him gain weight, and he is half-Persian, exposing him to the lamest and cruelest Islamophobic taunts the bullies at school can concoct.

Darius-the-Great-Is-Not-OkayIf these problem aren’t enough, Darius is also feeling isolated from his family. His mother’s side lives in Iran and while his mom and little sister speak Farsi, Darius’s language skills are undeveloped. Whenever they gather around the computer for a video chat, Darius can’t help but feel like an outsider. He also fears that he perpetually disappoints his father. Darius seems to have inherited very little from him: not his fair all-American looks, his math skills, nor his ability to blend-in and “be normal.” They only have two things in common, clinical depression and a love for Star Trek. As the gulf between father and son widens, Darius sadly reasons that his younger sister is his replacement – a chance for his parents to get things right.

When his grandfather’s health takes a turn for the worse, Darius’s parents decide it is time to travel to Iran and meet his mother’s family. Darius is apprehensive about this trip but also eager to discover connections to his family and his people’s history.  In Yazd, the city his family calls home, Darius continues to struggle to find acceptance. His grandfather and uncles tease him about his weight and are puzzled that a healthy young American boy would need medication (antidepressants) to be happy. In Yazd, Darius also makes a friend, perhaps his first best friend, a teen named Sohrab who lives down the street. Sohrab has had his own struggles with intolerance and oppression and he seems to understand Darius and embrace his individuality. His friendship with Sohrab allows Darius to see himself in a new light – as someone who might belong. But he is aware that their time together is running short and he must figure out how to reconcile the version of Darius he has discovered in Iran with the life waiting for him at home.

This is a special book on several levels. Khorram notes in the book’s afterword that he “wanted to show how depression can affect a life without ruling it” and he strikes that balance masterfully. I appreciated that it is just one small part of who Darius is. It does not define him. Novels that deal with mental illness often focus on diagnosis and characters’ struggles to win their lives back. Many of these works are compassionate, essential works for young readers, but it is also important for youths to have books like this one where depression is a detail in the story, not the story itself.

Khorram also skillfully weaves family history and Iranian cultural heritage into his book without ever distracting from Darius’s powerful struggles with identity and self-worth. Like real relationships, those in this book are nuanced, weighed down by past hurts, miscommunications, and words left unsaid. But this book is also about a loving family, determined to reconnect and support each other despite sometimes not knowing how to do so. Rooting for Darius as he bonds with his grandparents and navigates Iranian customs, family politics, and traumas big and small is incredibly rewarding. Darius is a character you won’t want to leave and won’t soon forget.

Oh Mother Where Art Thou?

I always enjoy the little surprises that books can provide. Recently, I finished a fantastic book while on vacation. It followed a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and a tumultuous, changing world. It was the kind of book that stays with you, suppressing any desire to begin something new. I needed a book for the rest of my trip but had no idea what I wanted. Luckily I was visiting two friends with strong opinions and great taste. They clued me in to another incredible novel, this one about a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and….you guessed it, a tumultuous, changing world.

Despite this coincidence, these books both feature rich, nuanced characters in very different circumstances. It was a pleasure to stumble into their lives one-after-the-other, and to have the opportunity to discover the links between them as their stories unfolded.

51ru-JNuaDLIn Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Deming Guo is introduced as a boy living with his mother and her boyfriend in the Bronx. Deming’s life is far from perfect- his family has little money, he struggles in school, and he argues with his mother. But they love each other fiercely and seem to have an unbreakable bond. This makes it all the harder when Deming’s mother suddenly disappears without explanation, leaving him shattered and alone. Eventually Deming is put in foster care then adopted by a well-meaning but aloof white couple who take him to live upstate and, hoping to help him fit in, change his name to Daniel.

The narrative follows Deming both as a child, coming to terms with his mother’s disappearance and his strange new life, and as Daniel, a recent college dropout desperate to make a name for himself among the ultra-cool of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. As Daniel’s life begins to unravel, the narrative also expands to include the story of his mother, how she came to America, and the real reason she disappeared from Daniel’s life.

The Leavers is a painful but redemptive story of family, immigration, assimilation, and identity. Ko methodically reveals Daniel’s and his mother’s stories, bringing careful attention to their struggles, their triumphs, and their flaws. Daniel repeatedly finds himself on the outside looking in. In upstate New York he feels too Chinese; among New York City’s hipsters, he feels like an impostor from upstate. When he finally visits China, he feels conspicuously and inescapably American. Ko’s narrative may be at its strongest when Daniel is puzzling through his questions about identity, but through Daniel’s birth mother’s story, Ko also deftly brings attention to the cruelty and inhumanity of America’s militarized immigration enforcement system.

saleemhaddad-guapaOn its face, Guapa, by Saleem Haddad, is a very different kind of story. Guapa follows a young man named Rasa who lives in an unnamed Arab country during and after the Arab Spring. Like Daniel, Rasa struggles to escape his memories of his mother, who disappeared when he was a child. Rasa is also facing a crisis point. His grandmother just discovered him in bed with his boyfriend, who is also about to get married. To a woman. Rasa struggles to salvage this romance while keeping his identity under wraps in a society where knowledge of his sexuality is a legitimate danger to his life.

As Rasa struggles through a truly terrible day, his story shifts through time revealing details of his childhood and the circumstances that led his mother to abandon him, his years as a college student in New York where he struggled to explore his sexuality and not be pigeonholed because of his ethnicity, and his traumatic days protesting during a period of revolutionary unrest in his homeland. Haddad also explores generational conflict in the Arab world. Rasa is one of many young people determined to change their country, but frustrated at every turn by a mix of oppression, extremism, and bureaucracy. On a personal level, Rasa struggles to understand his grandmother’s adherence to traditional values, particularly the idea of shame.

As Rasa’s day lurches towards decisive confrontations with the two largest figures in his life, his grandmother and his boyfriend, he contends with his own past, his country’s future, and the nagging fear that he may not have a place in the world around him. Rasa is a compelling character who seems caught in impossible circumstances, with the oppressive constraints of identity, expectations, and cultural norms bearing down on him with heart-wrenching weight.

I wish that Rasa’s New York could bleed into Daniel’s and the two could meet. While they come from very different circumstances, and want different things from their lives, they are both linked by the vacuum left behind when their mothers disappeared. Daniel might understand Rasa’s despair as he navigates his queerness and Arabness in a hostile homeland. And Rasa might understand the way that Daniel feels stretched as he tries to shed his Chinese heritage to please his adoptive parents while remaining desperate to reconnect with his mother and her roots. I, for one, felt lucky to discover these two young men and get lost in the murky, tumultuous years of their youths.