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.

The Teenage Brain is a Frightening Place

School’s back! I guess I’m at a funny age. I’m old enough to fool myself into thinking I miss the excitement of a new school year, but I’m also young enough to remember all of the terror, uncertainty, and anxiety that I experienced throughout middle and high school. Because of my job, I’m also fortunate to spend a lot of time with tweens and teens, both in the library and when I visit schools, and I am constantly amazed at how many teens seem so much more articulate, organized, and driven than I feel now, let alone compared to my own teenage years. I guess all of this is to say, WOW the adolescent years can be weird!

61x0HVYEP9L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Noah Oakman, the 16-year-old narrator of David Arnold’s The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotikseems to understand this fact better than most. Noah certainly has his quirks: inspired by his favorite poets and philosophers, Noah has taken to wearing the same outfit every day, what his friends refer to as his “navy bowies” (navy pants and a David Bowie shirt). It’s not just that Noah likes these clothes. He also appreciates that they allow him to avoid wasting time and energy deciding what to wear. Noah also tends to get lost in his own thoughts and has peculiar obsessions which include an old man he sees walking the same route each day, a strange yet wonderful YouTube video, and a photo dropped by a local rock star. These are a few of Noah’s titular strange fascinations.

Outside of his unique interests, Noah leads a fairly normal life. He has loving parents, two great friends, seems just popular enough to float by in high school, and is a good enough swimmer to garner some serious scholarship interest from colleges. But Noah is also supremely stressed out. His senior year is beginning bringing with it the end of an era for him and his two long-time friends. He doesn’t fully understand his little sister and worries how she will fit in with those around her. And despite being a good swimmer, he secretly loathes the sport and has no idea how to tell those around him. Rather than confront this final problem he is faking a back injury, a lie that seems to be leading him into an ever-deepening hole of deceit.

All of these stresses are wearing Noah down, which is why he finds himself drinking far too much at an end of summer party and following home a strange young man who promises to help him “exit the robot.” When Noah wakes the next morning, everything seems to have changed: his DC obsessed friend now only reads Marvel comics; his mother has an old scar on her face that was not there the day before; his old, useless, and mute dog has regained its youth and its shrill yap. Noah does not understand what has happened and fears for his sanity. As he tries to gain some level of comprehension, he discovers that his fascinations seem to be the one constant between his old life and new. He hopes that understanding the connections between these fixations might be the key to a return to normalcy or at least the closest thing he has ever known to that.

Though at times Noah is a bit pretentious, perhaps even mopey, I found it easy to root for him. He is a bundle of anxiety and self-doubt and genuinely seems to struggle to understand the value he offers to those around him. Arnold has shown in his previous work that he has a keen understanding of the teenage years and the impact that the strange mix of social pressure, ennui, feelings of isolation, and turbulent emotions can have on a developing brain and this latest work is no different. It is as odd and disorienting as it is genuine and warm-hearted. If you’re looking for a strange trip through a teen-aged mind, buckle up and grab The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik.

New Picture Books for Children (and Adults) of All Ages

Each week, tons of new books hit our shelves from the strange, to the enchanting, to the very, very creepy. Usually I don’t have time to do more than check out the covers or read the dust jackets, but because I lead storytimes and help children and caregivers find books, I try to make time to read some of our new picture books as they come in. I’m always delighted by the wonderful artwork and nuanced, rewarding stories that I find in this collection. Even on my busiest day I can find five minutes to dive into a story that might take me on a fantastic adventure, make me laugh out loud, or help me understand someone who leads a life very different from my own. As the summer begins to wind down, I thought it would be a good time to take stock of a few of my favorite recent arrivals.

Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love follows a boy who absolutely loves mermaids. When he decides that he is in fact a mermaid himself and dresses up like one, he is unsure how his abuela will react. In addition to having a lovely message about acceptance, individuality, and intergenerational relationships, this is a lushly illustrated book. While the text tells Julián’s story through short simple sentences, Love’s beautiful use of color and meticulous attention to detail begs the reader to linger on each page.

I don’t particularly enjoy my own birthday, but I LOVE Julie Fogliano’s When’s My Birthday. This slim book takes the reader through a series of questions and excited statements about birthdays that run the gamut from sweet to silly. The theme of this book is sure to be a hit with many young readers, but for me the star of the show is Christian Robinson’s art. Robinson has long been my favorite illustrator and he once again delivers with his playful depictions of animals, children, cakes, and party accessories. Every book that Robinson works on is a homerun (I recommend them all) and When’s My Birthday does not disappoint.

Danny McGee Drinks the SeaI recently had the privilege of working with summer school students at Challenger Elementary. When reading to these students, certain books were hits with all classes no matter the grade. One of these was Danny McGee Drinks the Sea written by Andy Stanton and illustrated by Neal Layton. This hilarious book follows a young boy who boasts to his older sister that he can drink the entire ocean. After she doubts him, he rises to the challenge but does not stop with the sea:

“I will swallow it all!”
shouted Danny McGee. 
And he swallowed the sand 
where the sea used to be.

And he swallowed the mountains,
and every last tree.
And he swallowed the jungles. 
He did it with glee.

And he swallowed the people 
and that includes me. 
And I’m writing this book
inside Danny McGee.

This is the rare read-aloud that had all the students and teachers in the room cackling without fail. If you want to induce fits of giggles, I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

I love the short-but-sweet fairy-tale Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack and Stevie Lewis. When it is time for a kingdom’s prince to find his bride, he searches far and wide but fails to find the love of his life. Then, a fearsome dragon attacks and the prince must confront this beast in order to save his people. He is victorious, thanks in part to the help of a mysterious knight in shining armor. When the prince and knight meet, the prince realizes that he has found his true love and his family and kingdom rejoice! Lewis’s gorgeous illustrations and Haack’s gentle writing combine to present a romance that models loving acceptance without distracting from the rest of the story.


Full disclosure: Sarah Jacoby and I went to college together and I have long enjoyed following her career as an artist from afar. Yet I don’t think I’m acting with any bias when I rave about her debut book, Forever and a Day. Her breathtaking, richly detailed watercolor illustrations tell the story of a family on a trip. These pictures are then combined with a thoughtful meditation on the concept of time. By building an accessible narrative while introducing fairly complex concepts, Jacoby’s work is sure to draw in readers of all ages. 

A Different Pond written by Bao Phi is a perfect picture book for budding comic buffs. The illustrator, Thi Bui, is also the author of a graphic novel and it shows in both the style of her work and her occasional use of cells, which split a page to show several scenes. A Different Pond tells a universal story of a young boy and his father who set out on an early-morning fishing trip. Their close relationship takes center stage as they build a fire, bait hooks, and reel in a catch. The father also tells his son of his own childhood in Vietnam, hinting at the difficult circumstances that might have brought him to America. This is a careful, warm story of an immigrant family that will resonate with anyone who has shared special moments with a loved one.


Anyone gearing up for the school year will be sure to enjoy Ryan T. Higgin’s We Don’t Eat our Classmates. This book follows Penelope Rex who is surprised on her first day of school when she discovers that the rest of the students are children. She immediately eats them, of course, since children are delicious! After her teacher forces her to spit out the other students, Penelope must find a way to control her impulses and make friends. This was another book that got big laughs at Challenger this summer. It is written with a wicked but ultimately sweet humor, teaches empathy to readers, and shows that even the worst first days can lead to a happy and friend-filled school year.

My Hair is a Garden by Cozbi A. Cabrera tells another loving, warm story. When MacKenzie is teased for having wild, untamed hair, she flees to the house of her neighbor, Miss Tillie. Miss Tillie takes the time to teach her how to care for her hair. MacKenzie learns that by treating it like a garden and giving it loving attention, her hair will thrive. She comes to be proud of her hair and her heritage and realizes that she is beautiful for who she is. I love this gorgeous, tender story of self-love and affirmation.


Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is also about hair care. In this case, Derrick Barnes is eulogizing the barbershop experience. Accompanied by Gordon C. James’s vivid, life-like illustrations that celebrate black beauty, Barnes leads the reader through the experience of getting a haircut and the wonderful feelings and overflowing confidence that result. This book is filled with joy and is sure to excite even the most barber-averse reader.

The Best Book I’ll Read This Year

I talk a lot about books written for children and teens. They are the core group I serve at the library; I spend a lot of time with books intended for this audience. It helps ensure that I am prepared for any questions that come my way and that I can always hold my own and suggest new titles when I chat with our young readers in the library. None of this is a complaint – I greatly enjoy my time with children’s books, and firmly believe that some of the strongest, most important, and empathy-building literature today comes from the world of YA.

On occasion, however, I like to treat myself to a book actually intended for an adult audience. Usually these are books by authors I enjoy or novels belonging to genres I can’t resist, but every once in a while buzz builds around an author and I can’t resist the hype. It was mounting excitement for Tommy Orange’s writing that led me to his debut novel, There There. To say this novel blew me away is a massive understatement. By the second page of the prologue, I was hooked. By the beginning of chapter one, I was picking my jaw up off the floor.

OAFHYIS7MYI6RMVYBCSTRWO32YThere There centers on the city of Oakland, California in the days, weeks, and months leading up to a major powwow. It follows twelve different characters, all of whom identify as Native or come from Native descent and have had different experiences as Urban Indians in a gentrifying city. There’s a young boy who has learned traditional dances from YouTube and is determined to dance at the Powwow and a teenager whose life has been framed by violence and seems to be hurtling towards the Powwow at devastating speed. There are characters who have suffered from addiction and fought their way back, some who have fought for a country that has always sought to erase them, some raised around tribal tradition and others who are just beginning to discover their roots. Orange slowly but brilliantly weaves spider-webbed connections between these characters, masterfully uncovering how these disparate lives will come together.

Beyond the compelling narrative, there is so much to praise about this novel. Orange considers identity with a deft touch, making a difficult concept accessible without diminishing its complexity. Through his character’s experiences, he dissects the ways that Native people are made to feel too Indian or not Indian enough. He explores self-discovery and self-loathing, kindness and cruelty, abuse and tender love, all side-by-side but without condemnation. Orange is able to touch on traumas that many groups experience like bigotry, cultural appropriation, and gentrification, and make them feel simultaneously universal to oppressed populations and specifically and undeniably Indian. And he manages to weave together the history of Native activism in America, the many abuses that Native people have suffered, and the ever-evolving effects that generations of systematic and cultural genocide have had on a people.

Then there is the writing itself. I’m not sure I can do justice to Orange’s skill, his ability to write a paragraph that leaves me staggered without being ostentatious. There are writers who are praised for their terse, spare prose and others for their elegant and complex language. I’m not sure quite where Orange falls on this spectrum, but I know it is exactly where I want to be. As I previously mentioned, I knew I was reading something special early in the prologue. I can actually pinpoint the exact moment. While talking about migration to cities, Orange writes:

We did not move to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete, absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses—the city took us in. We were not Urban Indians then. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, which was and is exactly what it sounds like. Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn’t just like that. Plenty of us came by choice, to start over, to make money, or for a new experience. Some of us came to cities to escape the reservation. We stayed after fighting in the Second World War. After Vietnam too. We stayed because the city sounds like a war, and you can’t leave a war once you’ve been, you can only keep it at bay—which is easier when you can see and hear it near you, that fast metal, that constant firing around you, cars up and down the streets and freeways like bullets. The quiet of the reservation, the side-of-the-highway towns, rural communities, that kind of silence just makes the sound of your brain on fire that much more pronounced.

I recently heard Glen Weldon, a writer and critic for NPR, draw a distinction when talking about stories that represent diverse experiences. To paraphrase, he said that we shouldn’t talk about stories that haven’t been told before – even if they did not reach our ears, they’ve likely been told. Instead, we should talk about these as stories that we haven’t heard yet. There There tells a kind of story I hadn’t read before, and Orange tells it with intelligence, heart, dexterity, and a swagger that makes it feel absolutely essential.    

When School Ends, Summer Reading Begins!

As school winds down those of us who work with youth hit our busiest time of the year. Here at EPL, the youth services librarians visit as many schools as possible, introducing Summer Reading and getting students excited about all of the books that they can read over the summer.

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As always, any youths entering 12th grade or younger can sign up for Summer Reading. To sign up simply stop by one of our service desks and ask for a summer reading log. 

So what do we expect from our readers? We want participants to read for about 30 minutes every day, which we round out to 24 hours over the course of the summer. It’s worth noting that we count all interaction with books as reading including reading comics and graphic novels, being read to, listening to audio books, reading eBooks, and especially for our toddlers and preschoolers, paging through and playing with books.

Prizes are awarded at 12 hours and 24 hours and will be available until August 31 (or until we run out):

  • 12 hour prize: pick a prize from our Mystery Box! (available beginning July 2)
  • 24 hour prize: choose a free book! (available beginning July 16)

If they complete the full 24 hours by August 17, readers will also receive an invitation to our end of the summer party where they get to meet Mayor Cassie Franklin and they are entered into a drawing for a chance to win a grand prize which varies depending on their age.

On our school visits, we want students to hear about all these great prizes and get excited for Summer Reading but we also love to tell them about some of the wonderful new books in our collection. I mostly visit middle schools and I’m always surprised about which books elicit the biggest response from students. Here are a few of this year’s hits:

The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya

Arturo leads a pretty quiet life. He hangs out with his friends, plays basketball, works in his family’s Cuban restaurant, and explores his Miami neighborhood. He’s looking forward to a summer full of all these things when two events rock his world. First, a family friend moves into their apartment building. Carmen is smart, funny, and just a little bit mischievous and Arturo is desperate to impress her and willing to follow any schemes she cooks up.

The second person who comes to town is a lot less fun. A land developer plans to build a high-rise in the neighborhood, demolishing Arturo’s family restaurant in the process. Carmen, with her passion for activism, and Arturo, with his passion for Carmen, are determined to stop this from happening. Soon Arturo is wrapped up in a plan that – if it works – just might save the restaurant AND impress Carmen. But if it doesn’t work? Well that would definitely be an epic fail.

Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson

Bad news, Earth is gone. Last Day on Mars takes place about two hundred years in the future. When scientists discovered that the Sun was dying and that it was going to destroy the solar system, humans banded together, put aside their petty squabbles, and began to look for a new home. The first stop was Mars. Martian colonies proved to be a safe place to look for an inhabitable planet and build the technology to send billions of people there. A planet was found, so far away that the trip will take over 100 years, but that is just a blink of an eye for the future of humanity- they’ve developed stasis technology that will allow them to hibernate without aging.

The book opens on the last day before this voyage will begin. Liam and Phoebe are two tweens set to take the last ship from Mars. Their parents are scientists and are still working on tech to make the new planet more Earth-like. As Liam and Phoebe wait for their parents, strange things begin to happen that make them question their safety and whether humans are alone on Mars. Suddenly, their future is cast in doubt and Liam and Phoebe find the fate of all humanity in their young hands.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline

This book takes place in a post apocalyptic future version of North America. Global warming has wreaked havoc, leaving society on the brink of collapse. Perhaps even worse, people have lost the ability to dream and this seems to be driving them to madness, losing their minds and committing horrible acts.

The only people who can still dream are indigenous and native people and it seems that the difference is tied to the marrow inside their bones. It is believed that their bone marrow can be used to restore dreams to others, but the process of extracting the marrow is terrible and often fatal so indigenous people are hunted by deceitful, cruel, and greedy bounty hunters know as recruiters.

French is one of these indigenous people, a young Métis Indian on the run with a small group hoping to find others like them, for there is safety in numbers. As they flee, French’s relationship with one of his companions develops into more complicated feelings, but he also begins to realize that there might be a way to stop those hunting them and maybe secure the safety of those around him.

Scales & Scoundrels written by Sebastian Girner, art by Galaad, & lettered by Jeff Powell

Luvander is a rogue. She actually reminds me a little of Han Solo, except in a world of dwarves and dragons instead of one with droids and Death Stars. She’s a treasure hunter, but she’s found more trouble than treasure and she is wanted by the lawmen of the kingdom. So she sets out on a dangerous quest to find the gold that is supposedly at the bottom of the Dragon’s Maw, a notorious and dreaded underground labyrinth. Along the way she is joined by some companions including a dwarf and a prince, each with their own secrets. But none of their secrets are as powerful or potentially dangerous as the one that Luvander herself is about to unleash.

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

When Makepeace goes to sleep every night her battle begins. Makepeace has some special but dark abilities. She can see the spirits of the dead that roam the land and she is able to house them inside of her. Every night she must fight them off, lest she be possessed by these desperate ghosts. Makepeace lives with her mother in a small village but England is on the brink of Civil War so Makepeace is sent to live with father, a powerful nobleman. At the same time, Makepeace fails in her efforts to protect herself and is possessed by something far more powerful and wild than she ever imagined.

In her new life, Makepeace learns how deceptive she must be about her abilities. Yet her father’s family seem determined to use Makepeace in ways that could prove both terrible and dangerous. As Makepeace begins to realize that she is in grave danger with these people, she decides to run, preferring the dangers of a country at war to the deceptions of her “family.”  As she flees, she begins to collect an odd group of companions and learns to harness the powers that come with possession, rather than fighting them. Makepeace begins to realize she might have a larger role to play in the world around her. If she can survive long enough.

The Witch Boy written & illustrated by Molly Ostertag

Aster lives in a village where many families have magical abilities, including his own. But magic in this world works in rigid ways – all the boys develop powers that turn them into shape-shifters able to turn into different animals, while girls become witches with the ability to cast magical spells. Aster has never been able to shift and he’s realized that he can cast spells. He is terrified this secret will bring shame on his family, so he hides it from all but one friend.

Then, a couple of the other boys in the village go missing and Aster suspects that his powers are the only way to find them and rescue them from the dark forces who hold them. But in doing so, he will expose his secret and expose himself to backlash and perhaps even banishment. He must decide if doing the right thing is worth risking everything.

Don’t Judge a Book by its Zombies

We’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover. At this point it feels cliché, even if the words hold value. But more to the point, sometimes it can be good to judge a book by its cover! Dread Nation by Justina Ireland is a kick-ass book with a kick-ass cover. Judge away! But please, please do not judge this book by its zombies.

I’d never describe myself as a lover of the zombie genre, though I’ve read more than a few books featuring the undead. I understand why some readers are skeptical of these stories and I realize that it doesn’t really help my case to say “but this book isn’t really about the zombies.” I mean, that’s what everyone says, right? But listen…this book?  It isn’t really about the zombies!

283ca973-6947-478d-abe1-e941ef671538-dreadnation_hc-for-webDread Nation takes place in the years following the Civil War. In this version of history the dead began to rise during the war, forcing the North and South into an uneasy truce. The South was ravaged by dead soldiers who have risen from battlefields and agreed to end slavery in exchange for Northern support. However, like during the actual Reconstruction Era, many Northerners and Southerners in this version of history remain determined to punish people of color and pursue the interests of white (and only white) Americans. One way that white supremacy manifests in Dread Nation is through a reeducation act that forces native and black children into schools. They are taught how to fight the zombie hordes – called shamblers in this book – sacrificing their own well-being to ensure the safety and comfort of wealthy and white society.

Jane McKeene, Dread Nation’s narrator, is a student at one of these schools. She is training to be a lady’s attendant, expected to cater to the whims and needs of a member of high society while also lopping off the heads of any shamblers who come-a-shambling. Though Jane takes readily to combat training and has a brilliant mind, she struggles to follow rules, is disinterested in etiquette, and bristles at the expectation that she ‘know her place.’  When Jane and two of her friends wind up on the wrong side of some very powerful (and very racist) politicians, they are banished to Summerland, Kansas.

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Justina Ireland

Summerland is supposed to be the vision of the future: technologically advanced, morally pure, well defended, and structured to provide comfort to white society through the toil and suffering of people of color. But Jane quickly discovers that not everything in Summerland is as it seems and that the poisonous ills woven through the fabric of this ‘utopia’ threaten not just the people of Summerland, but the survival of the human race in the battle against the dead. It will take all of Jane’s courage, scrappiness, and intellect to find a way to escape from this flimsy house of cards before irreversible disaster strikes.

It is worth noting that Ireland uses upsetting language to describe some groups of people. To my knowledge, these words are used in a historically accurate way even if they are far beyond the pale of what is acceptable today. It can make parts of this book uncomfortable, jarring, and difficult to read, as it should be.

Dread Nation holds its own as a dystopian zombie novel with a fast paced and thrilling story filled with dark mysteries and some gruesome deaths. But this book also serves as an excellent work of speculative fiction: reimagining the Civil War, many of its famous people and events, and the societal forces that both led to this conflict and impeded any legitimate notion of equality long after the war’s end. Ireland uses this book to take a frank look at the ways bigotry and hate thrive, even as humanity struggles to survive. And, finally, Jane is a phenomenal narrator: witty, charming, plucky, and perhaps just a bit deceptive as she pulls the reader into her story. Like I said – it’s not about the zombies!

Children of Blood and Bone

81PwjK8tPCLSometimes everything comes together perfectly. When I first heard about Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi it was still several months from release. The description checked a lot of boxes for me and I was excited to eventually read it, but I wasn’t desperately waiting for its release. Then I saw the cover. And, I mean, look at that cover! I was definitely in. Once I saw Black Panther and – like everyone else – was blown away, I reached a new level of excitement for Adeyemi’s work. A new series about magic, oppression, bigotry, and class set in an isolated West African country? Ummm yes, please. Add in a complex and rich backbone of mythology and I never stood a chance. So when I finally had this book in my hand I was elated, but also wary. Could it possibly live up to the hype? You’ll have to keep reading to find out, but I’m writing about it so you can probably guess…

Children of Blood and Bone is set in the fictional kingdom of Orisha. Power in Orisha was once shared between normal humans and Magi, a subset of society gifted by the gods with powerful supernatural abilities. Years before the novel opens, however, these powers mysteriously disappeared and the ruthless King took advantage of the situation, slaughtering the Magi. The scattered and abandoned children of the Magi are known as Diviners and conspicuously marked by their white hair, but unable to summon any powers. Diviners are treated as the lowest caste at best derided, at worst abused and used as slave labor.  

Zélie is one of these Diviners. Forced to watch the murder of her Magi mother when she was just a child she is angry at the Empire, determined to strike back, and more than a little bit rash. Despite being something of a pariah, Zélie, along with her father and her brother, manages to eke out a modest life trading fish for a living and training for the day when she will have a chance to take her revenge on the King and his followers.

Zélie’s impulsivity, however, throws her life into chaos when she rescues Amari, a princess from the royal line who is on the run from her terrible father. The decision to help Amari sends Zélie and her brother on a perilous journey unsure of who they can trust and what terrible dangers might await them. But Zélie is also running towards something – Amari claims she has a scroll that can restore Magi magic. Zélie hopes that this would give her people have a chance to fight back, restore their dignity, and maybe even begin to restore balance to Orishan society. Yet to reach this future Zélie and her companions must first evade Prince Iman, Amari’s brother and heir to the Orishan throne. For his part, Iman is determined to capture his sister and Zélie not just to end the threat of magic but also to finally prove himself to his cruel and demanding father. Beyond the obvious lethal danger the prince poses Zélie and Iman quickly discover they have a strange and unbreakable connection, one that threatens both of their worlds in opposing but equally devastating ways.

There are a lot of glowing adjectives I could use to describe Children of Blood and Bone, but the one that repeatedly comes to mind is refreshing. I’ve read a lot of wonderful YA novels that move in the worlds of dystopia, fantasy, history and mythology, but the vast majority are based off Western or European traditions. Having this wonderfully rich, exciting series build off of African traditions and get the support it deserves from the publishing industry is as welcome as it is long overdue. In Zélie, Amari, and Iman, Adeyemi has created three compelling and complicated narrators who are both eminently likable and, at times, incredibly frustrating. I’ve read some criticism that Children of Blood and Bone reads like an author’s first novel (probably because it is) and drags at times. I understand where this criticism comes from, but it’s also quite simply a thrilling read with a captivating ending that leaves plenty of juicy questions for the rest of the series to tackle.