Read to Your Children (About Race!)

It’s never too early to begin reading to your baby! This is why we love our board book collection. And why we offer storytimes for children as young as three months. It’s also never too early to start talking to them and reading to them about race and racism in America. Just as reading to children will help them succeed later in life, so will early exposure to stories that explore diversity, inclusion, prejudice, and our shared history. And there are urgent reasons to begin early. Racial preference and prejudice sink their teeth into us almost from birth. While researching a different topic, I stumbled upon some alarming statistics. Studies have found that infants as young as three-months have exhibited preference for faces of their own race, while children may begin to embrace and accept racism around three years in age. If this feels as dire to you as it does to me, there is good news too! We have part of the antidote to this insidious threat right here in the library. Each year, more and more books are published that talk about these issues in nuanced and accessible ways, while even more are coming out that feature people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds living their lives. I’d like to share a few of my favorites. 

Intersection-Allies-CoverIntersection Allies: We Make Room for All by Chelsea Johnson, LaToya Council, Carolyn Choi, and Ashley Seil Smith is a relatively new picture book that has quickly become a favorite to share with families and friends. From the carefully thought out ‘Letter to Grown-Ups’ at the beginning to the final pages’ rallying cry, this book is both masterfully poignant and thought-provoking. Written in rhyming text, the book celebrates young people of different races, religions, abilities, and experiences while also demonstrating how we can all cherish, value, and protect one another. In less expert hands, a book like this might feel clunky or over-stuffed, but the evident care and passion that went into its creation allow the message to shine without compromising the reading experience. 

81OxQJ1yf-LWhen I first saw Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham, the title made me nervous. The phrase “not my idea” felt too close to an excuse for me, so I was relieved when I read the book and discovered that it does not promote this message. This book begins with a young person watching a news story that involves violence then explores the privilege whiteness can afford and the ways that white people can leverage this privilege to fight for a more just future. The messaging is simple and direct, and Higginbotham deftly threads the needle by encouraging readers to critically examine the world around them while also encouraging self-care and forgiveness. She explains:

Racism is still happening. It keeps changing and keeps being the same. And yet…just being here, alive in this moment, you have a chance to care about this, to connect. But connecting means opening. And opening sometimes feels…like breaking.

I love that Higginbotham goes so far to acknowledge the fear and pain that can surface when confronting racism, while also portraying this mission as both urgent and redemptive. 

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Many other books confront and counter prejudice by telling stories that feature characters who are black, indigenous or people of color. Even when these stories focus on things that might be unique to a group of people, they also highlight our shared humanity and help expand the world that is accessible to young readers. Many of these stories focus on family. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson follows a young boy and his nana on a bus ride across town. It would be easy to pair this book with Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña’s My Papi Has a Motorcycle which also follows a young person on a ride across town. This time lovingly recounting a young girl’s late afternoon cruise on the back of her father’s motorcycle. 

Food, family, history and identity all come together in Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez Neal while A Different Pond by Bao Phi and Thi Bui finds a father and son fishing in the early morning, while also connecting this ritual to the father’s own childhood in Vietnam. Nicola I. Campbell and Julie Flett’s beautiful A Day with Yayah is a gentle story of an Interior Salish family foraging in a meadow while an elder passes down knowledge to her grandchildren that fans of Blueberries for Sal are sure to love. And Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s Drawn Together spends a day with a boy and his grandfather who do not speak the same language as they discover a different way to communicate through a shared passion. 

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Other books discuss hair care and head-wear for different people around the US and the world. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James, and My Hair is a Garden by Cozbi A. Cabrera take different approaches while celebrating the love, attention, and community connection that can go into hair care. The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad and Hatem Aly and Mommy’s Khimar by Jamiliah Thompkins-Bigelow and Ebony Glenn explore different but affirming experiences connected with the headcoverings worn by some Muslim women.

The Boy & the Bindi by Vivek Shraya and Rajni Perera beautifully tells the story of a young South Asian boy who loves his mother’s Bindi and wishes he could wear one as well. And Sharee Miller’s Don’t Touch My Hair follows a young girl who loves her hair but does not love all the people around her who touch it without even asking. This book feels like it should be required reading delivering powerful messages about personal boundaries, being othered, and finding one’s voice, while somehow still feeling playful, whimsical, and silly. 

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We can certainly all relate to the fear of a young boy on a pools high dive, like that experienced by Jabari in Gaia Cornwall’s Jabari Jumps. And the joy that art can bring to a community, like Mira discovers when she meets a muralist in F. Isabel Campoy, Theresa Howell, and Rafael López’s gorgeous story Maybe Something Beautiful

I love Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael López’s The Day You Begin. This story of new students from different cultures beginning school together is incredibly accessible. On some level we can all understand the experience of being the new person, not quite fitting in, and absorbing negative attention because of our differences. But it is also a powerful story of inclusion, reminding us that our differences make us stronger and that a healthy society welcomes all kinds of people. Mustafa by Mary-Louise Gay also focuses on uncertainty and new friendships, telling the story of a young refugee exploring his new home and making a friend.

And finally, Breanna J. McDaniel and Shane W. Evans’ Hand Up! is wonderful. In an author’s note, McDaniel explains that she worried that her own niece, a black girl, would only connect negative emotions with the phrase ‘hands up.’ So, she created a beautiful, simple book that celebrates the many things we can do with our hands in the air, from playing peek-a-boo, to dancing, to protesting injustice. 

The publishing industry has come a long way, but all of us who work adjacent to children’s literature still have a tremendous amount of work to do. As the infographic below created by Sarah Park Dahlen and David Huyck demonstrates, we still desperately need more books that center young people from diverse backgrounds. Children and caregivers in our communities need more books that reflect their own heritage, culture, race, and experiences. This is why movements like We Need Diverse Books are so important and powerful. 

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Needless to say, the books I mentioned above are not a complete survey by any stretch of the imagination and I am surely missing incredible books exploring and celebrating many different backgrounds. If you have a favorite that is not featured above or is not in our library, please leave a comment and let us know! 

Favorite Authors Jackpot!

I have a rule that’s hard and fast. If Nic Stone has a new book, I’m going to read it as soon as I can. Same goes for Elizabeth Acevedo. There aren’t many other authors I’d say this about, but both of these novelists write about important and timely issues in unique and compelling ways. They capture the voices of youths in ways that feel incredibly authentic to me while also resonating with the young people I meet. This year, I’ve been lucky enough to get thrilling new projects from both of them, which is reason enough to call 2019 a great year for books.

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First out was Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High. Her YA debut, the verse novel The Poet X, is a tour de force, one of my favorite novels, and the winner of the National Book Award among many other honors. With the Fire on High proves that Acevedo will remain a literary force for a long time. The book follows a young mother named Emoni as she navigates her senior year of high school. Emoni lives with her grandmother and is hyper-focused on providing stability for her young daughter while balancing school, work, family time, and her tenuous co-parenting relationship with her child’s father. Along with her fiercely loyal best friend, she has pushed back against the stigma of getting pregnant as a freshman but has also become extremely guarded about the people she lets into her life. Emoni has set aside her own dreams for her future, believing they were derailed by her unplanned pregnancy and focuses instead on making her daughter’s life as happy as possible, even at the expense of her own. 

Emoni is also a talented chef, who can’t help but find solace, community, and joy in the time she spends in the kitchen. All her carefully constructed walls threaten to tumble down when a new Spanish cooking immersion class at school offers her an unexpected opportunity to explore her restaurant dreams, and a new student’s persistent interest in Emoni is coupled with an undeniable connection between them. Emoni must decide how to advocate for herself, reach for the future she deserves, and let people in, even if it means risking personal disappointment and adds stress to her family life.  

If I had any concern that Acevedo’s beautiful writing, which I had only previously read as verse, would not translate to prose it was forgotten in the opening pages of With the Fire on High. Emoni is a loveable yet complicated narrator, and Acevedo deftly layers her inner dialog and conversations with the people in her life to give the reader insight into her past and current struggles and stresses, but also her resilient and caring spirit.  

Next up was Nic Stone’s latest, Jackpot. Stone’s previous novels both blew me away, but for very different reasons. Dear Martin is a story of race, police violence, and youth activism that is an impeccably written punch to the gut. Her follow-up, Odd One Out, is a queer love story that explores social pressures, identity, and friendship in nuanced and original ways. It made me realize how much I love a good rom-com, which also makes me question the assumptions that I make about people. So, yeah, I was excited for Jackpot.

81XI1rKQRILJackpot follows Rico, a young woman whose family is going through an extraordinarily difficult time. She lives in a small apartment with her overworked, underpaid mother and her younger brother. Rico is determined to make sure her brother has a more stable childhood than her own and works as many hours as she can manage at a convenience store to try and help make ends meet. It still isn’t enough – her family is constantly on the verge of eviction and live in fear that a small financial hiccup could push them over the edge. When the store she works at sells a winning lottery ticket, Rico becomes convinced that she sold the ticket to a sweet elderly woman on Christmas Eve. As time goes by, and the winning ticket remains unclaimed, Rico becomes increasingly sure that somewhere in town there is a little old lady who has forgotten to check her ticket. And as her family’s situation continues to deteriorate, Rico grows more and more desperate to find the winner, convinced that if she can change the winner’s life, they might reward her for helping. 

The only problem with Rico’s plan is that she needs help. And that help is going to have to come in the form of Zan, who seems to be different from Rico is every way. He is light skinned, she is dark skinned. He is filthy rich, she is dirt poor. He is uber-popular, she is invisible. Shockingly, Zan isn’t just game to help, he also seems very interested in Rico. Almost too interested. And while he sometimes behaves in ways that infuriate her, he is also far more intriguing than she could have ever imagined. As they move closer to uncovering the mystery of the lotto winner, Rico must try to figure out how to keep her family afloat, what she wants for herself, and what she wants from Zan.  

Stone continues to show an incredibly deft touch for exploring difficult subjects in her stories. Jackpot dives deep into America’s economic divide, the barriers it can create, and how devastating small problems can be for people living in poverty or living with housing insecurity. And yet, she also manages to make Jackpot a flirtatious romp, a light mystery, and a story of resilient young people finding their way through difficult times.  

Nic Stone and Elizabeth Acevedo are writers of immense talent telling wonderfully imaginative stories featuring people who represent and reflect the diverse experiences of young people today. I am grateful to be able to give books like theirs to young readers in our community and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

It’s Like “The Sixth Sense.” But Good.

Great news! I have the perfect book for this Halloween season and I’m only two weeks late! That might not seem particularly helpful now, but all things being equal, this is the perfect book for any season, especially the wet, cold, and dark days of November through…(sigh) May. Leigh Bardugo is a name I’ve mentioned here before. Her Grishaverse novels are among my favorites, so I was ready to love Ninth House, her debut for adult audiences. Yet even with high expectations, it left me incredibly impressed and desperate for a sequel. 

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Alex Stern can see dead people. While this might seem neat to the gothically inclined, it makes Alex’s life a nightmare. For as long as she can remember, ghosts have lurked around her, decorated with the grisly evidence of their unseemly demises (semi-decapitated heads, gunshot wounds, etc.). Her grim ‘ability’ drives her in a dangerous direction – she is a teenage runaway under the influence of drugs, alcohol, and selfish, manipulative men. And yet, when she wakes in a hospital after a violent and tragic night, a tidy gentleman is waiting by her bedside suggesting that her power might open doors to a fresh start in an unlikely environment – Yale University. 

It turns out that New Haven, Connecticut is a city brimming with potent magic. This supernatural resource is channeled by eight ancient houses at Yale which operate under the guise of secret societies, while playing a huge role in world affairs, from throwing elections, to manipulating securities markets, to boosting pop star’s careers. This magic, however, can be extremely dangerous which is why a ninth house, Lethe, was formed to monitor the use of magic by Yale’s young elites. With her powerful connection to the supernatural, Lethe believes that Alex will make a valuable warden against the abuse of magic.  

Alex is assigned to train under the wing of Darlington, an uptight but brilliant and charismatic senior. Darlington has high standards and is skeptical that Alex has the necessary character or background to thrive in this world. At first, Darlington appears to be correct. Alex struggles to learn the rites and history that Lethe demands of her, while also suffering from the academic pressure of student life at Yale and the weight of managing a secret life as a college freshman. Just as she begins to get a feel for her many different roles at Yale, everything falls apart. Darlington disappears under strange and sinister circumstances and a young woman is murdered on campus, with Alex suspecting involvement by at least one of the houses. Alex is left to deal with magical forces she is only beginning to understand, indifferent bureaucracies, and rich, privileged, students who are empowered by a heady mix of supernatural power, generational wealth, and good old-fashioned toxic masculinity. Oh, also someone definitely wants Alex dead, and is not being shy about it. 

Ninth House is told in a non-linear fashion. I’m an impatient reader, and I am often annoyed by this style of storytelling, but not when a master of the genre like Bardugo is at the helm. Alex is an incredibly fun protagonist to follow – she is both self-aware and self-destructive, incredibly capable, but not unrealistically so, and a narrator of very questionable reliability. Bardugo is not just a deft writer, but also a thoughtful one. She is able to take a thrilling story of magic, power, and corruption and weave in a mediation on the destructive power of trauma without a whiff of heavy-handed moralizing. Books with magic can be a tricky proposition, especially for adult audiences, but Bardugo manages to make the magic in Alex’s world both frighteningly powerful and almost laughably mundane, grounding the supernatural in the onerous burden of everyday reality. Ninth House has already been picked up as a potential streaming series, which is why I looked up from the book and exclaimed to my partner “they have to cast Danny DeVito as Anderson Cooper!” But you’ll have to read the book to understand why.

Take to the Sky

It’s impossible to keep up with all of the incredible comics that come out each week. There is a constant stream of exciting new projects from industry heavyweights and emerging talents re-imagining beloved characters or creating entirely new stories, from the fantastical to the deeply personal. Whenever I talk about comics with another reader, I walk away with far more recommendations than I can hope to get through, leaving me with a “to-read” list a mile long. Recently I happened to enjoy two debut volumes, both about young women who can fly, that I’m quite eager to push into the hands of my friends and colleagues who love comics as much as I do. 

Riri Williams, aka Ironheart, is the comic book successor to Tony Stark’s Iron Man, but she is also so much more than that. Sure, she has the rad suit, the scientific brilliance, the loner instincts, and the quick quips, but that’s where the similarities with Tony end. Riri is a young woman from Chicago with some serious trauma in her recent past – she lost both her step-father and her best friend to violent crime. She also built her suit with far more limited resources than Tony had at his disposal. Riri managed to create her armor while a student at MIT, basically using supplies that she could discreetly pilfer from the school. 

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Eve Ewing’s Ironheart vol. 1: Those With Courage picks up after this origin story. Riri is now a graduate student at MIT and an ascending super hero, trying to maintain her privileged lab access while also preserving some semblance of control over her work and avoiding the intrusive meddling of school officials. She is clearly grieving the losses in her personal life and struggling to process the trauma she has experienced, while often refusing the help and counsel of those who care about her. And these are just Riri’s “small” problems. A new and mysterious threat has emerged that jeopardizes both the greater world and some of the people closest to her. 

I was thrilled when I found out that Ewing would be writing Ironheart. Ewing is, among other things, a brilliant playwright and poet. Electric Arches, her collection of visual art, prose, and verse about the city of Chicago, identity, and much more, is a stunning and beautiful work. I appreciate that Marvel has hired more black writers who bring new and important perspectives to these comics, but who also come from different writing styles and traditions. This of course includes Ta-Nehisi Coates, who did incredible work on Black Panther and is now writing Captain America, but also Roxanne Gay’s work on World of Wakanda and Nnedi Okorafor’s Shuri comic. 

PrintJoe Henderson’s Skyward is not quite as new – the first volume, My Low-G Life, came out a little over a year ago. Willa Fowler was born shortly before G-Day, the day on which Earth’s gravity abruptly and drastically reduced. This day was tragic for many people who were caught outside and floated off, never to be seen again, including Willa’s mother. But Willa, and many others her age, embrace life in a low gravity world. Rather than suffer through life as an earth-bound being, they are able to soar from building to building, enjoying a life without the constraints of gravity. 

 Yet all is not perfect in Willa’s life. She is disastrously awkward around her crush, she is desperate to see more of the world but is stuck in Chicago, and – worst of all – her father is agoraphobic. He has refused to leave their house in the twenty years since G-Day. Then, in an instant, everything changes. Her father reveals a secret that threatens to completely upend the only world Willa has ever known, a secret that puts Willa and the people she cares about in immediate and grave danger. 

I’ve only read the first of Skyward’s three volumes, but I was immediately taken by the world Henderson builds. There is an interesting treatment of class and corporate greed – the rich all wear gravity boots that allow them to live as if G-Day never happened, for a price. And the new threats and challenges that emerge from this world, such as growing food and preventing people from floating off to their deaths, are interesting and creatively presented. While I’m unsure of the scientific soundness, I also love the way that rainstorms are presented as a new, strange, and terrifying threat that I don’t want to spoil with more details. I can’t wait to continue Willa’s adventure and dive deeper into the weightless, yet menacing world that Skyward has built. 

Even as I write this, new comics are hitting our shelves, demanding attention. I’m eagerly awaiting Simon Says, a Nazi-hunting revenge story, Star Wars: Tie Fighter, which follows a group of the Empire’s elite pilots as they begin to question the Empire’s methods, and Wynonna Earp, following a descendant of the famous Wyatt Earp as she takes on new threats of the paranormal variety. I’d love to hear what comics other fans are excited about right now. Leave a comment and help me make my reading list impossibly long!    

The Best Literary Critics in the World

I think all of the youth services librarians I know would agree – we get some of the best recommendations from the enthusiastic young readers we chat with every day. The feedback we receive is not only invaluable in helping us choose our next reads, but also shapes the suggestions we make to patrons and informs the decisions we make when building our collections.

This year we introduced a new opportunity during our summer reading program. We invited youths to fill out book review forms, telling us why they loved, disliked, or were excited about the books that they read over the summer. We received over fifty incredible reviews from budding critics between third and ninth grade. They were all incredible, and you can check them all out in our Teen Zone, but I’ve chosen a few to share here. I will warn that there are spoilers in some of these delightful and thoughtful reviews. Enjoy, and leave a comment telling us about the books you’ve read this summer!

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Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart

I liked the book very much. Lily/Timmothy is transgender. Her father does not want her to be. Dunkin/Norbert meets lily. Then Dunkin makes friends with the kids who are mean to lily. Dunkin tells lily about his bipolar disorder and lily tells Dunkin about being lily. While trying to save Bob. I likes how it was an example of how individuality no matter how differen makes everyone normal and extrordinary.

Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz

Jasmine is an immigrant senior in her last year of high school. She tries her best to get great grades and to make her parents proud of her. It’s helping her to get scholarships to get into college. But all of that turns upside down when she learns the truth about their family: their illegal. This could mean deportation and scholarships that cannot happen anymore. But she also has met Royce Blakely who she’s looking for but may lose him at any possible moment. This book is a great read and could connect us to the real world. It has so many details and connects to people that might need to do the same thing. I would recommend this book because it’s a novel like no other.

Max and the Midknights by Lincoln Peirce

the main charakters are max, millie, simon, and kevyn. max is a girl who looks a lot like a boy. the story is about max’s uncle, who is a troubedor and he and max enter the kingdom of byjovia. it used to be ruled by conrad the kind until he “died.” they realized everything is nasty! they live several adventures together. in the end they find…if you want to know, read the book! I highly recamend this book.

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The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer

I love the book series the land of stories because it is all about a different dimension where fare tales come from and after you read the first couple of paragraphs you learn that “happily Ever After” is just the begginning of the story! Example.

Red Riding Hood isn’t a 8 year-old-girl giving treat to her grandmother, she’s a woman in her twenties and Queen of the Center Kingdom. It is a brilliant page-turner that you Have to read!

Echo’s Sister by Paul Mosier

Echo’s Sister is about a girl named Laughter, but like to be called El. El has a little sister named Echo. On El’s first day at a new school her dad picks her up. She knows something is wrong because she was supposed to walk home herself. Her dad takes her to her favorite restaurant and tells her horrible news. Her little sister Echo has cancer.

After I read the book I wanted to help real kids with cancer.

The book is awesome.

The only bad thing is its only 20 chapters long. 😦

P.S. Echo survives

Fire & Heist by Sarah Beth Durst

Fire & Heist is about Sky Hawkins, a wyvern (human capable of turning into a dragon) who’s mother recently went missing. As she leads her first heist to steal a jewel from her ex-boyfriend’s father, it could either restore her family’s rank in society or get them all banished forever.

I like the characters and the plot twists. Its funny, charming, and all in all a great story!

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Refugee by Alan Gratz

This book is about 3 Different Storys of refugs. The first story is a Jewish Boy fleing nazi germany on The Ship The St. Lois going to Cuba But gets Dinid entry. His father go’s insane and jumps off The Boat…, IziBel lives in cuba in 1994. The goverment has crashed and people are starving ween her father Lead a revilotion and fales. her family and friend’s family must flee to florida…, Mahalia live’s in Seria But wen his home is Disstrod in a Boming rade he and his famliy flee, yoo will lernd more ween you read This Book.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Mysterious Benedict Society is an exiting novel keeps you hooked on every word. The story starts out in the city of Stonetown, near Stonetown harbor. The story follows 11-year-old Raynard “Renie” Muldoon and opens when a strange ad leads Renie into danger. Following the ad, Renie takes a test, and winds up having to save the entire world.

This book is my all time favorite, and that’s saying something. I have often looked over at my clock, and wondered where the time went while reading this book. In my opinion, there is nothing not to like about the Mysterious Benedict Society.

READ IT, I INSIST!!!

Cleopatra in Space 05, Fallen Empires by Mike Maihack

I like these books because the graphics are nice and how sometimes there are pages where it’s only pictures. What I Also like about this series it has the past and some of the future (There is probably no modern time because it is kind of boring). I like the difference between the newer and older ones! Because the older are not as scary and the newer ones are suspensful and nail biting. And finally I like this series because of its awesome cliffhangers. Somethings I dislike about these books is that sometimes it is a little rushed and sometimes it is kind of confusing! It is about Cleopatra the 1st when she was a teenager. The other 4 books describe how how she came to the future to lead to her one on one battler with her former best fried to worst enemy Xaius Octavain. I recomend this book for ages 8 and up.

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.