Where They Came From

A few days later, the vacation ended. I flew back to pine trees, over-cast skies, and a Michigan winter that could sputter till May. My tan faded. My tongue forgot the taste of tocino and Tagalog. I stepped out of tsinelas and back into my suburban life as if I had never left.

This is how Jay Reguero, the narrator of Randy Ribay’s profoundly moving Patron Saints of Nothing, recounts readjusting to his life in America after a visit with his Filipino family. Though Jay was born in the Philippines, his parents moved to the US when he was a young child and he has only been back once. Jay’s life has been very comfortable, and very stereotypically American – now a high school senior, he is preoccupied with friends, girls, video games, and angst over his collegiate future. 

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This all changes in an instant, however, when Jay’s father drops a bomb in his lap. Jay’s Filipino cousin Jun has been killed. Jun and Jay are the same age and had been long time pen pals before eventually falling out of contact. Jay is upset to hear about Jun, but the circumstances surrounding his death make things far worse. His father explains that Jun had run away from home, begun using and selling drugs, and was killed as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s extreme, brutally violent “war on drugs.” Jay cannot reconcile this version of Jun with the sweet, caring young man he knew and is frustrated by his extended family’s refusal to divulge more details about Jun’s death. Jay decides to take matters into his own hands, travelling to the Philippines on his spring break to stay with his family and learn more about the last years of Jun’s life and the events that led to his death. 

In Manila, Jay butts heads with his uncle, a powerful pro-Duterte police officer, and finds himself increasingly disgusted by how quickly his family has buried all memories of Jun. Jay is also haunted by guilt for letting his friendship with Jun fade away, and both ashamed and frustrated to discover how little he knows and understands about the country where he was born. As Jay makes connections and begins to untangle the mysteries of Jun’s life and death, he must also reckon with his own family history, his disconnection with Filipino culture, and his own role in deciding his future. 

Ribay is a beautiful writer with the rare ability to immerse the reader in a specific time and place. In Patron Saints of Nothing, he deftly explores and illuminates many of the complicated, nuanced ideas connected to identity and perceived otherness that immigrants are forced to contend with daily. Jay, who has a Filipino father and a white American mother, must contend with the all-too-common microaggressions at home, yet is not “Filipino enough” in the eyes of his family in the Philippines. It is perhaps this feeling of being caught in the middle that explains why Ribay’s dedication for this book reads “For the hyphenated.” 

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Jay’s experiences returning to the Philippines reminded me of another incredible book I read earlier this year. Sabina Khan’s The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali is an intense, propulsive book about a young woman caught between cultures and the expectations they place on young people. Rukhsana is the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants. She is a talented student of physics, eager to attend a top university program in California even if that means going against the wishes of her parents who want her to stay closer to home. Rukhsana has gotten adept at balancing the pressures of her life and the demands of her traditional Muslim parents. Though it bothers her that her brother often gets preferential treatment, she plays the role of dutiful daughter while also making plans for her future and sneaking out to parties with her friends. 

Rukhsana’s carefully constructed world crashes down when her mother catches her in the worst possible scenario – making out with her girlfriend. Her parents had no idea that Rukhsana is gay and they refuse to accept this reality. To say they do not handle it well is an understatement. They start with prayers, threats, and plans to arrange a marriage for Rukhsana, then push things further, sending Rukhsana to live with family in Bangladesh under false pretenses while they train her to be a dutiful wife and find her a suitable husband. 

This is all traumatic and terrifying for Rukhsana, who has suddenly lost the girl she loves, her dreams for the future, and any illusion that her family supports her. But Rukhsana is extremely resilient and a bit of a bad-ass, and soon finds allies in Bangladesh as she searches for a way to stand up to her family, save her future, and thwart their wedding plans. While in Bangladesh, Rukhsana seizes the opportunity to learn more about Bengali culture and the things that her parents have endured and fought through in their lives. While Khan does not hold back when criticizing the violent homophobia and misogyny that persist in Bangladesh (and unfortunately are still mirrored here in the United States), she also uses Rukhsana’s difficult journey to highlight the brave people who fight to make society more equitable and accepting for all people. 

Both Jay’s and Rukhsana’s stories are deeply upsetting at times. They also have incredible redemptive arcs that show the power of family and community to learn, adapt, and become more accepting in both small and large ways. Though not the primary focus of these two stories, both books also deal with the sacrifices that immigrant families make and the ways they face adversity and build community in a new homeland.  At a time when language targeting immigrants is being weaponized to target our friends, family, and neighbors, I will be pushing myself to reinforce that the Library is a safe and welcoming place for everyone, and to read more stories about the people who strengthen our communities with their presence.

A Southern Goth-Ick

Kristen Arnett is one my favorite people to follow on Twitter. She’s a librarian and author whose sharp-witted posts are laced with a healthy dose of dark humor. Whether she is talking about interactions at her library, the writing process, love for her local 7-11 or even non-convenience-store-centered relationships, her posts leave me cackling (and squirming when they hit too close to home). So it was no surprise that I devoured her exquisite and unsettling debut novel, Mostly Dead Things

2d4c8fb365e1620f-ARNETTheadshotcolor2017Mostly Dead Things follows Jessa, a taxidermist in central Florida, whose life is teetering on the precipice. The main thread of the story finds Jessa struggling in the wake of her father’s suicide. Though her father was in many ways a negligent parent to Jessa, he was also a massive presence in her life. He taught her that taxidermy is more than a grisly chore, that there is art in taking dead animals and recreating moments that capture the full beauty of their lives. He also passed her the routine, expectations, and burdens that came to define her life. After finding his dead body and dealing with the mess he left behind, Jessa is eager to bury herself in her work, focusing on the dead things she can fix not the gaping wounds in her own psyche. She drinks too much, limits relationships to a steady stream of casual hook-ups and struggles in vain to claw free from the ghosts of her past.

Jessa finds no solace with her surviving family members. She has long had a complicated relationship with her brother, Milo. They share a deep almost unspeakable pain that traces back to the day that Milo’s wife, Brynn, abandoned him and their children. Before Brynn was Milo’s wife, she was Jessa’s best friend and secret lover. This dynamic did not change when Milo and Brynn wed. Jessa loved Brynn deeply and Brynn seemed to enjoy both siblings’ adoration and attention. Though Jessa helps take care of Milo’s two children, their own relations remain tenuous at best. 

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Jessa’s mother is a different issue altogether. Following her husband’s death, she has found solace in creating new displays out of his taxidermy projects. These works sexualize and contort the animals in strange and grotesque ways. For Jessa this upsetting and disrespectful treatment of her father’s work is incomprehensible and borders on blasphemy. And this is just where Jessa’s troubles begin. Her mother begins to work with a local gallery owner to display her art for a wider audience. Jessa is determined to stop this show, but is also slipping into a contentious romantic relationship with the gallery owner. Jessa continues to drink too much and struggles to keep her business afloat, while her niece and nephew embrace the family business with too much enthusiasm and too little concern for laws and ethics. With her mother’s gallery opening fast approaching and old wounds reopening in all of her relationships, Jessa must figure out how to regain some semblance of control and balance in her increasingly messy life.  

I’m a pretty squeamish guy and I will admit that this book includes descriptions of the taxidermy process that were outside my comfort zone. Yet even the goriest narratives felt natural and well-placed coming through Jessa’s voice. Arnett does not hold back. Her descriptions of love, sex, aging, and Jessa’s work are raw and often glamorless. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Jessa has endured years of emotional abuse at the hands of both her father and Brynn, and has suffered dearly as a result. With her wry voice and unique humor, it is impossible not to root for Jessa even at her lowest lows. And it is equally difficult to resist marveling at Arnett’s wrenching but sardonic meditations on love, loss, and abandonment and her ability to make both the saddest and the grossest of situations laugh-till-you-cry hilarious. Arnett recently tweeted a one-star review of her book that simply read “Dead Animals.” So I will end by saying five stars: dead animals.

30 Minutes Every Day…

Document (1)Summer is one of the busiest – and most exciting – times of year at our library. In Youth Services, we spend a lot of time focusing on our Summer Reading program. The basics are simple – we want youths to retain their reading skills while school is out, and research has found that reading for 30 minutes every day is the sweet spot. For this reason, we set a goal of reading for 24 hours by the end of the summer, and offer prizes for those who participate.

Have any questions about our reading program? We’ve got the answers!

Who can participate?

Our Youth Summer Reading Program is for anyone going into 12th grade or under. We also have a yearlong reading challenge for adults that you can learn about here.

What counts as “reading?”

We really like to emphasize that any form of reading counts including, but not limited to, reading on your own, stories read aloud by someone else, reading to younger siblings, listening to audiobooks, and, of course, reading graphic novels and comics. Because our program begins at birth, we also encourage parents to count time that infants and toddlers spend interacting with books, whether they are paging through them or just seeing what they taste like!

How does the program work?

We have reading logs for children and teens which can be picked up any time at our library. Readers can color in one star in the log for each half-hour of reading they do. Beginning July 1, participants can bring their logs back to the library and win prizes. Prizes are awarded at 12 hours and 24 hours, and will be available until August 31 (or until we run out).

At 12 hours, our readers get a color-changing pencil and their choice of a ticket to the Imagine Children’s Museum or a Seattle Storm basketball game in Everett. At 24 hours, they get a free book and entry in a grand-prize raffle. And if they finish by August 16, they are invited to our summer reading party which always includes exciting VIPs!

I like prizes! How do I sign up?

To sign up, just pick up a reading log at our Youth Services reference desk!

Every spring, our Youth Services Librarians visit Elementary and Middle Schools throughout Everett, promoting this program and getting students excited about the books they can read this summer. My visits center mostly on middle schools, where I see groups of sixth and seventh graders. These trips are exhilarating and exhausting, and are always one of the highlights of my year. Here are a few of the books I brought that students seemed especially eager to read:

The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away by Ronald L. Smith

Simon has always been obsessed with aliens, but now it seems that they are obsessed with him. Simon mostly keeps to himself – his dad is in the air force, so his family moves a lot, and he has trouble fitting in and making friends. To ward off loneliness, he lets his imagination run wild researching UFO sightings, convinced that many of them are real and determined to find a pattern in these alien encounters.

Then one dark night on a family camping trip, Simon is attacked. Although it seems that he was simply clawed by an owl, Simon knows better. This was alien work. And the gouge in his stomach isn’t a scratch from an owl, it’s proof of an alien implant. When Simon tells his parents what happened, they are beyond skeptical and take him to a psychiatrist, who in turn prescribes him some medication. But none of this helps Simon with his problems. As Simon falls deeper and deeper into his obsession, it remains unclear whether these events are actually happening or if Simon is losing his sanity. If you want to know which is the case, you’ll have to read it!

Lizzy Legend by Matthew Ross Smith

For 13-year old Lizzy, basketball IS life. She practices every free moment, obsessing over every part of her game and analyzing the greats. Someday she hopes to be a legend herself, but right now her goal is to make the boys team at her school. She manages to make the team and become the star player, but she also has some things weighing her down. She lives with her dad, who has trouble keeping a job, and debt collectors are always breathing down their necks.

Then one day she gets a strange call. It sounds like the kind of robo-call that promises a free vacation or new iPhone but winds up a total scam, except this call tells Lizzie that she is pre-selected for one free wish. She says the first things that comes to mind, then hangs up the phone and forgets the call. But something strange has happened. Lizzie soon realizes that her wish has come true and she can make any shot she shoots. Pretty quickly a viral video leads to a tryout for a professional team, and before she knows it, Lizzie finds herself on the court playing for a pro team against full-grown men, with her power on the fritz. There’s a big game on the line and her new team is counting on her, so Lizzy needs to find a way to beat the best.

Beast Rider by María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads and Tony Johnston

The beast is a massive, fast moving network of trains that snake through Mexico toward its border with the United States. It is a treacherous ride, on a route with many people who could leave you dead – deceitful criminals, violent gangs, and corrupt police. Manuel is a 12-year-old living in the Oaxaca region of Mexico who dreams of joining his brother Toño in Los Angeles. But to do so, he will need to ride the beast.

This book follows his three-year journey, with its many hungry nights, threats, near deaths, and cruel beatings. Manuel also meets many kind and caring people who help him along the way. As he slowly gets closer to LA, Manuel begins to wonder if he will survive to make it there and if he will ever be able to forget the terrible things that have happened along the way. This book is, at times, a thrilling adventure and a heartbreaking story of sacrifice. But it is also an account of the perilous journey that many people endure to seek a better life and it also explores the reasons why people take such giant risks, and the stories that they bring with them.

Dreadnought by April Daniels

Danny lives in the Pacific Northwest in New Port City. In her world, superheroes and supervillains roam the skies, waging epic battles between good and evil. It might sound cool, but for ordinary people like Danny it is just plain dangerous. So when she witnesses a battle up close, she tries to stay out of the way until the great hero Dreadnought crashes down next to her, mortally wounded. As he dies in her arms, Danny is both terrified and annoyed – because even a dying superhero manages to misgender her. Danny presents as male, but is actually a trans woman.

As Dreadnought dies, something unbelievable happens. His powers transfer to Danny, not just giving her super strength and the ability to fly, but also transforming her body into what it is meant to be, that of a young woman. Needless to say, this is a lot for Danny. For one thing, she wasn’t ready to come out to the world and now her true identity is impossible to hide. She also must figure out how to fit in with the Legion of superheroes and hunt down the evil cyborg, Utopia, who killed Dreadnought and is a massive threat to humanity. So Danny joins with another hero and must learn to navigate life with her new body and her responsibilities as a superhero in time to stop the evil Utopia before it is too late.

XL by Scott Brown

Will is disastrously short. I don’t mean just a bit short for his age – at 16, he is just 4’11.”  This is beyond an embarrassing height. It makes him miserable and he has tried every crazy trick, miracle cream, and superstition to try to grow taller. Nothing has worked. Luckily, he has his best friends by his side, his stepbrother Drew and Monica, a book-obsessed surfer, who Will secretly loves.

Then two things happen that throw Will’s life into chaos. First, he catches Drew kissing Monica. Not only does this break Will’s heart, it also sends their little group into chaos. And then, Will starts growing. And growing. And growing. At first this is great- he can reach the pedals in his car, he grab things off top shelves. Then he gets taller – even better! He can look DOWN on his classmates. He can dunk. Then he gets taller. His body hurts, he is always hungry, and people start treating him like maybe there is something wrong with him. And to make things worse, it seems that the taller he gets, the harder it is to stay friends with Drew and Monica. Without them, Will doesn’t have anyone to hold him back as he grows into a bigger and bigger jerk. What’s a 7-foot tall ego monster to do?

Versailles of the Dead by Kumiko Suekane

Marie Antoinette is on her way from her native Austria to France, where she will marry the future king, securing peace between their countries. In real life Marie is beheaded during the French Revolution, but not in this book! Zombies devour her instead. The only survivor of the attack is Marie’s twin brother, Albert. Albert continues to Versailles, hoping to take refuge with the court. When he gets there, the King, who is trying to fight off the zombie invasion and can’t afford a war with Austria, decides that Albert will disguise himself as Marie and marry the Dauphin (prince). Now Albert has a lot on his plate. He must trick the people into believing he is Marie, including many who are suspicious of him, wondering how he alone managed to survive the zombie attack. He also has to survive a court filled with deadly intrigue and deadlier romance, and fight a few zombies along the way.  This is a terrifically fun and ghoulish new manga series!

Art, Literature, and Incarcerated Youth

If you take a stroll through the Main Library past our DVD section, you might notice some bright, engaging art on display. Move a little closer and you can read about the artists who created these incredible pieces:

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For the past eight months, I have had the immense privilege of making monthly visits to the Denney Juvenile Justice Center, along with some of my colleagues, to work with incarcerated youth. Among other things, we bring new books to the Center’s library and talk about the ones that we think they will enjoy. Many of the students I meet with are enthusiastic and passionate readers who devour books in their long hours of down time. They have strong opinions about the books they read and are fearless in letting me know when I bring items that interest them and when the books I supply miss their mark.

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At times, these trips can be challenging. I have strong feelings about America’s criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to the treatment of youths. During and after each visit I am reminded that I get to leave the Justice Center, get in my car, and enjoy my comfortable life, while the teens I work with may not leave the center for months or years. I am also aware that I am seeing one part of their lives, and that while many of these young people might themselves be victims, others have made choices that have hurt people, choices that – were I to know the details – I would struggle to understand and would likely find difficult to reconcile with their warm smiles, quick wit, and playful demeanors. That said, I am fortunate to be in a position to meet with them where they are and engage them using the same energy I bring to meetings with teens in more conventional settings.

The introspection, resilience, and creativity of these young people continually impresses me.

There are many great books that deal with incarcerated youths, documenting their struggles, telling their stories, and highlighting some of the problems in our juvenile justice system. Among others, I’d recommend Susan Kuklin’s No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row and Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison. Rather than talking more about these books, however, I’d like to share a few of the books that have excited the students at Denney.

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Every class I see asks me to bring more books by Simone Elkeles. The Perfect Chemistry trilogy is especially popular. The first of these books follows Alex, a young man from the Chicago area. Alex has had a hard life, and has found both protection and a sense of family in the gang he joined at a young age. Brittney has a “perfect” life. But she also has a secret pain and turbulence in her life that she keeps buried away. When Alex and Brittney are partnered in science class, conflict quickly gives way to passionate romance and they both must choose whether to be together, even if it comes with great personal cost. The second and third books in this series follow Alex’s younger brothers Carlos and Luis as they navigate their own decisions around identity and romance. All three books contain plenty of thrills, passionate romance, and interesting explorations of the pressures young people face in their lives.

blog (3)Dark and dystopian thrillers also remain popular. I get frequent requests for Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me series that follows a young woman named Juliette, cruelly imprisoned because of her dangerous and uncontrollable “superpower.” The series follows Juliette as she escapes her prison and joins a rebellion against an oppressive, dystopian government. I have recently had requests for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and many others have requested Stephen King novels.

Other requests are for lighter material. Comics are often popular, particularly those featuring DC and Marvel heroes, along with manga, and laugh-out-loud romps like Big Nate and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Ann Brashares’ beach-read romances are popular with many students, and all of John Green’s books are in constant demand.

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Some of the requests I receive feel like they might be very specific to a certain teen’s experiences. When I asked teens to write down requests, one wrote that they’d “like to read more books about teens who are in foster care and they run away because they don’t like it.” Another requested Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, by Laurence Gonzalez. They wrote, “it’s a book about psychology. It teaches you about your brain. He writes stories from people’s lives and trauma they survived and why.” Yet another recently requested books on Esoteric Christianity, which means now I am educating myself about Esoteric Christianity.

I come away from each of my visits to Denney feeling that I have learned and grown from my time with these students. I hope that my visits have enriched their lives in some small way as well. Please take the time to stop by the Library and check out their powerful artwork while we have it on display. And if you see me, and have any questions about the work I do at Denney, please ask!

Every Day is Free Comic Book Day at the Library

This Saturday, May 4, is Free Comic Book Day! Every year, comic shops across the country team up with publishers to release a special slate of free comics to visitors. While there are typically around 50 free comics, many shops only receive some of the titles, so it is a great opportunity to visit several participating shops if you are able to do so. Everett Comics has generously shared with us some of the comics that they will be offering this year, and you can swing by the Main Library to pick one up. Our supply is limited, so we encourage you to stop by on the early side. Free Comic Book Day is also a great opportunity to support your local library and comic shop by borrowing and buying comics while you grab your free issues. Need some reading inspiration? Here are a few titles I’ve enjoyed recently.

81-ESBJPq+L.jpgLandry Walker’s The Last Siege is the perfect book to tide you over between the last few episodes of Game of Thrones. This limited run is collected in a single, savage volume. It follows the occupants of a medieval castle, filled with the last holdouts resisting a ruthless conquering army. As the castle’s defenders, who are completely out-manned, prepare for their final stand, interspersed sections of prose narrative deliver a backstory that connects the castle’s mysterious champion with the invading army’s leader, adding weight and drama to the impending clash.

The Last Siege is propulsive and addictive. As the story unfolds and a decisive battle looms nearer, it becomes increasingly difficult to give the artwork the time it deserves. And yet, the artwork demands attention. From the suspenseful drama of the opening pages, to the incredible wordless pages capturing the climactic battle, Justin Greenwood’s artwork is both beautiful and frightening, pulling you into a world filled with blood, death, and treachery.

91QDCZYyB9LChristopher Cantwell’s debut comic She Could Fly was far more of a gut punch (in the best way) than I was expecting. The book opens with a distant blur, a woman flying over the city of Chicago. Luna, a teenager who is struggling with her mental health, sees the flying woman and her curiosity with this phenomenon quickly blossoms into obsession. As her interest in the flying woman intensifies, so does Luna’s obsessive behavior. At the same time that Luna is spiraling down a flying woman rabbit-hole, there is also grander, deadly intrigue connected to the flying woman. It involves (deep breath) a disgraced scientist, his sex-worker girlfriend, Chinese spies, US Federal agents, and hitmen for hire. As Luna’s world collides with this larger conspiracy, she is pulled into a dangerous world of money, lies, and far too many guns.

Needless to say, there is a lot going on in She Could Fly, and it would be easy for such a story to feel unwieldy or disjointed. But Cantwell, the co-creator of the television show Halt and Catch Fire, develops this story with precise pacing and clear direction. And Cantwell’s masterful story management is supplemented by Martín Morazzo’s wonderful, strange, and engrossing artwork. I also appreciate Cantwell’s direct but sensitive portrayal of Luna’s mental health struggles. In interviews about this book, Cantwell discusses the fact that, like Luna, he has lived with Primarily Obsessional OCD so he understands the importance of carefully portraying Luna’s experiences. She Could Fly has a sequel in the works, and I cannot wait to spend more time in Cantwell’s disturbing and compelling world.

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With Free Comic Book Day also falling on May the Fourth, it would be criminally negligent not to mention some Star Wars comics. And there are so many creative and exciting new comics coming out of the Star Wars and Marvel collaboration. If you’re feeling Sithy, Darth Vader – Dark Lord of the Sith follows young Vader as he helps build the Empire following the events of Episode III.  Doctor Aphra, who has quickly become one of my favorite characters in the Star Wars universe, has her own series now! I’ve already raved about this incredible character, but if you haven’t discovered her yet now is the time. The Poe Dameron comics are incredibly fun, and they are catching up with the events of Episode VII, which makes things extra interesting. If you loved Donald Glover’s portrayal of Lando in Solo, be sure to grab Lando: Double or Nothing and revel in his ridiculous banter with his droid companion, L3. Then there is Thrawn. Grand Admiral Thrawn may be the best character in the old expanded universe, and bringing him back was an inspired, long overdue, decision. He was incredible on Rebels, unmissable in the Zahn novels (both the ones set in the old canon and the new) and is a delight in the comics based off Zahn’s more recent work.

Clearly I am amped for this Saturday. What will you be picking up this weekend? Which free comics will you be looking for?  Let us know in the comments!

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.