Xiomara and Nate

I’ve never minded our wet winters too terribly. I’m a grizzled native of upstate New York. I sneer at nor’easters and laugh off blizzards. I shoveled my driveway all winter every winter from the age of eighteen days to eighteen years. I walked to school uphill both ways in freezing rain while wearing flip flops. So now, a little northwest rain? That’s what real winter warriors like me call “cute.” Grossly exaggerated braggadocio aside, I still get excited for Spring. Peeks of sunshine, baseball games, blooming flowers, and best of all, a deluge of phenomenal new fiction. As usual I’ve been glutting on YA novels and while several have been standouts, two in particular have worked their way into my head staying with me long after I turned the final page.

Xiomara, the narrator of Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poet X, is an incredibly compelling and complex young woman who immediately won me over. She is fierce, independent, and loyal to her twin brother, but also struggling with questions about her identity and the conflicts between her own desires and the expectations of her Dominican parents. The relationship with her parents is particularly tenuous – while her brother is treated as a golden child, she has always felt like more of a problem than a blessing:

As issues with her parents come to a head and romance with a classmate grows complicated, Xiomara is desperate for a release which she finds through her poetry and a developing interest in slam performance. Xiomara has finally found a place where she belongs, but unless she can make her parents better understand her world, she may lose this precious chance to blossom through her craft.

CoverReveal_PoetXBeyond the beautifully crafted characters, this verse novel shines because of Acevedo’s fantastic writing. This should be no surprise as Acevedo is an extremely talented poet, but I was still struck by the sheer beauty of her storytelling. As an added bonus, this month’s Reading Challenge is to read poetry. All you need to do for a chance to win is to take a photo with the book you read and post it on social media with the hashtag #EverettReads. Poet X is a profound and compelling work that I am excited to suggest to the young readers I work with each day and it’s eligibility for the April challenge is the cherry on top!

While Poet X has stuck with me because of its wonderfully dynamic characters, S.F. Henson’s Devils Within has haunted me with its resonant, tense and chilling depiction of domestic terrorism. The story opens with a young man named Nate moving to a new town to live with his uncle. Nate wants nothing more than to keep his head down and remain unnoticed, but he has a past that will be difficult to escape. Nate is the son of a powerful white supremacist leader and was raised to carry forward his father’s hateful legacy. Despite a childhood filled with violent acts, indoctrination, and racist misinformation, Nate always felt that his father and his followers were wrong and yearned to be free of their poisonous influence. He eventually does escape, but it comes with a cost. During a frantic struggle Nate kills his father and spends time in both prison and a treatment center before being turned over to an uncle who believes his nephew is the same brand of bigot that Nate’s father was (and a killer to boot).

91NuLbodoFLNate is determined to keep his past hidden. He is deeply ashamed of the life he led and is terrified of being tracked down by his father’s vengeful and zealous compatriots. Nate begins school but struggles to adjust to his new social and academic surroundings. Over time Nate is offered a glimmer of hope. Brandon, a popular classmate, seems genuinely interested in befriending Nate and determined to help him find a place in his new town. Nate is amazed as Brandon is not only the first kind person he has met in the town, but also his first friend who is a person of color. As the ghosts of his past begin to fade Nate yearns to open up to Brandon, confessing the horrible things he has seen and done. But before Nate can take this risk his past begins to catch up with him, bringing with it the toxic hate and terrible violence he thought he had left behind threatening to destroy his new life and, even worse, putting his new friend in jeopardy.

Henson is unflinching in her portrayal of the racism and bigotry that is still pervasive in our society. While at times this book is a thrilling adventure, it is also a fever dream that I know is far too real for many Americans. As the novel approached an impending and climactic confrontation I wanted desperately to stop reading and yet could not put the book down. In my mind that is as high praise as I can give.

At first glance, there are not many similarities between the story of a Dominican girl in Harlem and a former white nationalist in Alabama. But as I dwell on both Xiamora’s and Nate’s stories I see many through lines in their lives. They’re both in conflict (albeit on very different levels) with the expectations and identities of their parents, desperate to find their own place in the larger world around them, and yet determined to live their lives by their own rules not by those forced upon them. I am so grateful to both Elizabeth Acevedo and S.F. Henson for creating these memorable young people and allowing me to see the world through their eyes.

Some Light Reading for the End of the World

I get a kick out of a story that can combine world-changing, terrifying, and sometimes supernatural events with a fairly traditional, mundane coming of age story. This is one of the many things I love about Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Shaun David Hutchinson also showed his skill with this kind of work in We are the Ants and he doubled down in his latest novel, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza.

At first glance, Elena Mendoza is similar to lots of teenage protagonists. School can be rough – she isn’t exactly popular, but she has made her own community. She loves her mom and younger siblings but hates her loser stepdad. I can keep going: her job sucks, Freddie, the girl she pines for, seems to have no clue she exists, inanimate objects often speak to her and she is the product of a virgin birth. Like I said, pretty typical.

81G6+tEFWqLSo about that virgin birth thing. Despite being shouldered with a “miracle child” moniker, there is a scientific explanation for Elena’s situation. She is the first proven human case of parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction involving an unfertilized egg. Other than some cruel classmates who nicknamed her Mary, Elena has largely been able to shed any spotlight that might come from the unique circumstances of her birth. Time heals all wounds and brings enough sensational news stories each day to allow hers to fade away.  

The voices Elena hears are a little harder to explain, but truth be told they give her advice that usually proves helpful so she has learned to live with them and hide them from the surrounding world, even from her mother and her best friend, Fadil. Then one day while at work she witnesses a classmate shoot Freddie and is told by the logo on a Starbucks cup to save Freddie’s life. Though it defies explanation, Elena is able to heal Freddie and her reputation as a miracle girl comes storming back, bringing Elena a mess of unwanted attention.

To make matters worse, the boy who shot Freddie disappeared in a ray of light right after Elena performed her “miracle.” The voices tell Elena that she must heal more people to save the world. Fadil, a devout Muslim, tells her to trust in God and plenty of others tell her she is either crazy or a fraud. For her part, Elena is sure there must be some sort of scientific explanation and she is reluctant to use her powers. But with so many people suffering around her, how can she resist? Unfortunately, every time she heals someone, people disappear in strange beams of light. And as her profile grows, more people seem to want to use her, from her selfish stepdad to shadowy government agents. So Elena is left with quite the needle to thread: save the world, avoid manipulation, solve this rapture mystery and figure out if Freddie likes her or resents her for saving her life. No sweat?

Hutchinson packs a lot into this book and in less capable hands this story could have gone off the rails or veered into religious speculation that just isn’t my taste. Yet Elena is a sensible, compassionate, and delightfully wry narrator who manages to keep this wild novel somewhat grounded. I loved her mix of optimism and pragmatism and her quick banter with Fadil, Freddie, and her ex-boyfriend Javi.  

More than anything else, however, I appreciate the way this book handles identity. I read a lot of YA fiction that features queer characters and I appreciate the thought and care with which so many authors today write about questioning or discovering sexuality, coming out, facing bigotry, and finding acceptance. I also believe, however, that we need stories like this one. Elena has lots of insecurities but is perfectly open and comfortable with her bisexuality. And that is also how she is treated by Hutchinson. Her identity is only addressed as it pertains to the story. It’s a fact of life, not a plot point. The same could be said for the treatment of Fadil’s religion and Elena’s Cuban-American heritage. Hutchinson’s matter-of-fact approach to diverse representation not only makes for great writing but creates a world that I want to live in. Even if it is on the brink of apocalypse.

Three Decisions

There is a moment in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, a book that I adore, when the narrator, Starr, is debating with her friend Khalil the merits of Tupac’s music. Khalil begins to excitedly talk about Tupac’s definition of Thug Life: The Hate U Give Little Infants F**** Everybody. It’s a deep and powerful moment, which obviously lends the book its title, but also serves as a thesis statement for the interactions of the books characters with each other and with the inequalities and discrimination that they face. Angie Thomas skillfully shows the power of hate and the terrible ways that it ripples through a community, impacting lives from birth to death.

Recently I’ve happened to read three incredible books, all in a row, that also deal with the impact that hate can have on young people. In each of these books a young man must come to grips with the violent deaths of loved ones and make a critical decision; whether to allow the hate they experience in the world to consume them or to find some other path forward. These are powerful, empathetic novels that I could not put down and am eager to share.

1101939494Nic Stone’s Dear Martin opens with a young black man named Justyce McAllister being handcuffed and detained by a police officer, all for the crime of trying to stop his girlfriend from driving under the influence. Justyce has no doubt that he has been profiled, but tries to channel his anger in a productive way by writing letters in his journal to the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. about his troubles, while trying to live his life as he believes the King would.

Justyce is a scholarship student at an affluent private school and often feels singled out both because of the color of his skin and the knowledge that he comes from a poor, underserved neighborhood. Despite his emotional maturity and keen intellect, Justyce struggles to live like Martin. When a terrible event throws his life into chaos, making Justyce a key figure in a national news story, he must decide whether to continue his fight, forcing the world to give him the respect and dignity he deserves or to give in and embrace the violence and strife that white eyes seem to expect of him.

91kb+HdA-hLTwelve year old Lolly Rachpaul faces a similarly difficult decision in The Stars Beneath our Feet by David Barclay Moore. Lolly’s older brother was recently murdered, leaving Lolly devastated by a mix of grief, anger, and guilt. Lolly finds himself lashing out at the people around him, taking pleasure in small acts of cruelty even though he knows these acts are wrong and fall outside his typical behavior. This is a terrible burden for Lolly, but he is also surrounded by adults who seem genuinely invested in his well being. When a Lego project he undertakes at his after-school program begins to blossom into a massive architectural project, Lolly begins to feel like himself again.

Unfortunately, outside forces conspire to mar his new joy. Lolly lives in a Harlem housing project and he and his best friend Vega face a daily mix of intimidation and coercion by members of various “crews.” The message they’re being sent is the same that many young people face across this county every day: You can’t survive on your own. Join us and we will take care of you. As the bullying worsens, Lolly and Vega’s choice becomes clear. They can continue to pursue their passions, even if it makes them targets, or they can succumb to the pressures that surround them and risk following Lolly’s brother’s violent path.

Jayson Reynolds’ verse novel, Long Way Down, feels like a combination of the experiences of Justyce and Lolly, distilled into harsh, mean truth. This is the story of Will, a fifteen year old who just lost his older brother to senseless gang violence. As Will explains, there are rules that dictate what comes next:

The Rules   

No.1: No Crying

Don’t.
No matter what.
Don’t.

No. 2: Snitching

Don’t.
No matter what.
Don’t.

No. 3: Revenge

If someone you love
gets killed,
find the person  
who killed

them and
kill them.

The Invention Of The Rules

ain’t come from my

brother,
his friends,
my dad,
my uncle,
the guys outside,
                the hustlers and shooters,
and definitely not from
me.

Another Thing About The Rules

They weren’t meant to be broken.
They were meant for the broken

to follow.

9781481438254_custom-d4b85ee7b3c6660233d89d931357c32bb6528316-s400-c85These inescapable rules lead Will, with his dead brother’s gun tucked into his waistband, to his building’s elevator that will take him down 7 floors. He will then walk to another building and wait for the man that he believes took his brother’s life. He will take his gun and kill that man. But first he must travel down these 7 floors. As it happens, on each floor Will encounters the ghost of someone in his life who has been taken by gun violence. And as he revisits each death, Will is forced to reckon with the destruction that is tucked in his pants and whether the violence he is about to bring into the world will set things right or will simply feed a beast that devours young people far too soon.

These books all deal with deeply upsetting events and are not easy reads. I worry that by writing about them together, I am contributing to an idea about violence in the lives of young people of color or at least the depiction of these young people in fiction. For this reason, I want to emphasize that all of these novels feature nuanced portrayals of their characters. In particular the violence in Dear Martin and The Stars Beneath our Feet is almost entirely secondary to the characters’ rich inner, social, and academic lives. These violent events, however, do help reinforce the terrible trauma that many young people experience and the ways that inequality, institutional neglect, and racism force too many people to make impossible choices every day.

Books to Love and Share

Even though we live nearly three thousand miles apart, I’m very close with my nieces and nephew. In my mind I’m the cool uncle who takes them on fun trips and gets them the most exciting presents. Of course when your uncle is a librarian the fun trips usually involve libraries or bookstores and those exciting presents are, well, books. Luckily for me, these kids are born readers so even if I’m not the cool uncle I am the uncle who gets asked for book recommendations and invited to class visits. I’ll take it.

Here are a few of the books that I’ve loved and shared with my young readers this past year.

methodetimesprodwebbin2146bf82-bd60-11e6-a53a-ca2ad7b229f9My youngest niece is almost two. She loves to laugh and is great at identifying animals, as long as it’s a dog or a bear, so I knew she would love Horrible Bear! by Ame Dyckman. Horrible Bear! follows a no-nonsense young girl who crashes her kite into a bear’s den. The sleeping bear rolls over, crushing the kite. The girl storms off furious at the bear, while the bear is filled with righteous indignation for being blamed. Behold, bitter enemies! Ultimately, the bear and the girl come to understand each other and this silly story delivers a meaningful yet subtle message about accidents and forgiveness. This is a great read-aloud with the girl and bear stomping around shouting HORRIBLE BEAR and HORRIBLE GIRL. It also features Dyckman’s signature humor and lively illustrations by Zachariah OHora.

A1CIvMxnmGL (1)I also read with my 3-year-old niece but of course a 3-year-old is sophisticated and requires more complex and devious narratives. This is why I recently sent her The Wolf, the Duck, & the Mouse by Mac Barnett. When a mouse is swallowed by a wolf, it seems like the end of the world – literally. But the mouse gets new perspective when it meets a duck who has made quite a lovely home in the wolf’s stomach. Their new haven is threatened when a hunter pursues the wolf and the mouse and duck must find a way to save their home. I love the sharp turn this story takes after its grim beginning and the way expectations are constantly subverted. This book also has the benefit of Jon Klassen’s illustrations, who could even make the phone book a twisted delight.

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Vera Brosgol’s Leave Me Alone! introduces a granny who feels straight out of a nursery rhyme. Living in a cramped house with her large family, she sets out to find a peaceful place to knit. She travels far and wide through harsh environments filled with terrible beasts, and even goes to space! This is another story that starts out with a slightly sardonic tone before settling into a heartwarming conclusion. Brosgol’s illustrations are pitch perfect, creating a story that feels like a loving and quirky tribute to Strega Nona.

9780545700580_mresRecently one of my cousins had her first child who is nicknamed Froggy. I’m using this as an excuse to give them Rain! By Linda Ashman. Rain! follows the parallel stories of an older man who is irritated to have to deal with wet weather and a young boy in a frog hat who is delighted to explore the rainy world. This is a sweet story with a wonderfully goofy conclusion. Rain! has the added bonus of featuring the brilliant illustrations of Christian Robinson. Robinson’s work has been on my radar for some time, but it was not until I saw him speak last year at a conference that I took the time to explore his work in-depth. He is a stunning artist who has quickly become a personal favorite.

9780545403306_mresFor the older readers in my life (ages 7 and 9) I like to introduce series that they can fall in love with. The challenge, of course, is getting these books in their hands before they hear about them from friends. This year these series included Whatever After by Sarah Mlynowski and The Ranger’s Apprentice by John A. Flanagan. The Whatever After series follows a young sister and brother, Abby and Jonah, who are swept away into the lands of various fairy tales such as Cinderella and the Frog Prince. This might be a delightful adventure for the young siblings if they didn’t accidentally intervene in these classic stories and jeopardize their traditional plots. Abby and Jonah must frantically save the day, delivering the fairy tale endings we all know so well. Some middle grade series do not hold up for adult readers. These do. Abby’s narration is laced with gentle sarcasm and the two siblings repeatedly delight by finding new and ridiculous ways to disrupt these established stories. Book one in this series is Fairest of All.

The_Ruins_of_Gorlan_(Au)The Ranger’s Apprentice is a slightly older series perfect for lovers of world building or medieval fantasy. These books follow a young man named Will who becomes (wait for it) a ranger’s apprentice helping to protect a kingdom from a multitude of dastardly threats both internal and external. I was nervous to suggest these books to my nephew as I had not actually read them myself, but my nephew has fallen deep into their world. I asked him to tell me what he likes about the series and he explained that he is enjoying the way that the story is told from different perspectives, not just one narrator. He’s also relishing all of the action and appreciates the details that go into the development of different characters. Book one in this series is The Ruins of Gorlan.

New (Enough) Series to Dive into

This winter will be my fifth in Washington, which I am pretty sure makes me an expert by Malcom Gladwell’s standards. But I don’t think I am breaking any news when I say that winter in the PNW is long, grey, and wet. It’s not my favorite weather but it makes for a great excuse to do some of my favorite reading: multi-book series.

I have a method when I jump into these series: Start too early and I can’t deal with the wait between books. Suddenly I have the patience of a two-year-old, without the charm or the excuse of actually being two. But if I wait too long I feel woefully behind the times AND I miss out on the sweet agony that comes with waiting for the final book or two in a series. If I start reading when the series is 2 to 3 books deep, I am golden. I find that this is when a lot of series really start to open up; the world-building has gotten some attention, characters gain complexity, and that one guy who got on your nerves has probably been killed off.

Do you agree? Want to prove that I’m terribly mistaken? Here are a couple of great series that are right at my sweet spot:

coverfullSabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes would have hooked me as a well written YA fantasy series. But throw in the fact that it is loosely based on the Roman Empire? I never had a chance. The Martial Empire is the only clear power in this world. Like the Romans, the Martials wield great power through overwhelming force and ruthless cruelty. Their most fearsome tool is their squad of elite soldiers, the Masks, who possess near-superhuman strength and cunning and execute the will of the Emperor with dispassionate and merciless efficiency. The greatest victim of the Empire’s excesses and greed are the Scholars, once a flourishing tribe that has been largely reduced to an oppressed lower class. Those who have not been slaughtered or enslaved exist in the margins, living in relative squalor and clinging to their traditions the best they can.

An Ember in the Ashes follows Laia, a young woman who finds herself working for Scholar resistance, and Elias, a Mask determined to flee the Martials and reject the dehumanizing and unjust duties that await him as an agent of the Empire. They find themselves thrust together, two players in a dark and dastardly plot that threatens the Martial Empire, the remaining Scholars, and quite possibly the order of the entire known world.

Needless to say there is a ton of great historical fantasy out there. What sets this series apart is the skill with which Tahir patiently develops her world. It is masterfully crafted, with fantasy elements that slowly expand over time and unexpected plot developments that upend genre conventions. There are currently two books published in this series with a third due out in spring of 2018. Considering that the second, A Torch Against the Night, was even better than the first, I’m dying to get my hands on the next book.

81YaK2aYQkLThe Darktown series, by Thomas Mullen, might be a fairly standard police procedural but for one fact: it is set in Atlanta in the late 1940s and 1950s and the cops? They’re the first black police officers in the city. Unsurprisingly, these police officers are forced to negotiate a tenuous existence. They are the pride of their community, burdened with high expectations and a mandate to be model citizens and officers. Their victories will be everyone’s, but so will their failures. And yet they are hamstrung as law officers. They cannot carry guns or drive squad cars and they are forbidden from arresting white suspects. They are also, at best, despised by their white colleagues. At worst, they are cheated, beaten and framed by these officers who are disgusted to serve in an integrated police force.

Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are two of the new officers facing these precarious circumstances. They make for a fun pair. Boggs is the dutiful son of a preacher while Smith likes a faster life, but they are both determined to do their duty and prove their place in the police force. When they begin to unravel the mystery of a young murdered woman and come to suspect a cover-up that involves white police officers and powerful politicians, they must find a way to pursue justice without jeopardizing the fragile and fledgling order that allows them to serve their city and protect their community.

I love the way that Mullen presents a classic detective story through racial and social historical lenses. I was reminded a lot of Richard Price’s police novels, but set in an earlier time where the lines between different communities were a little less blurred. Mullen clearly did his research, and brings a nuanced understanding of a fraught, divisive and transformative time in our history. Darktown’s sequel, Lightning Men, came out in September and I hope we will hear about a third book in the not-too-distant future.

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didn’t plan this, but the themes of otherness, power, and cruelty carry over into Southern Bastards, the third series I’ve been enjoying recently. Written by Jason Aaron, this comic is set in Craw County, Alabama where high school football is sacred and the local team’s legendary coach, Euless Boss, is somewhere between a god and king. The team’s unrivaled success has allowed Boss to run the county. The sheriff is his lap dog, he is widely feared, and he heads the local drug trade while using his players as goonish enforcers. Sometimes it is said that football coaches get away with murder. Euless Boss really does. Earl Tubb finds this arrangement unacceptable. Tubb, an aging, tough-as-nails veteran and former football star, returns to town with a haunted past and very little to lose. This sets the stage for a confrontation between two titans of Craw County, which truly is not big enough for the both of them.

This series is an over-the-top delight. Jason Latour’s illustrations perfectly capture a community rotting from the inside out, while Aaron tells a story that deftly snakes through the shared history of Craw County’s citizens. The focus of this series shifts several times, diving deep into characters’ lives to provide insight into their motivations and empathy for their actions. This is done with such careful precision that even a monster like Euless Boss might win you over. Southern Bastards currently has three published volumes, with a fourth due in February 2018.

Clearly I’ve had a hunger for dark tales of violence and corruption this fall. I promise I also read plenty of lighthearted and uplifting books. You know, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Be sure to sound off in the comments and tell us what series you’re going to dig into this winter!

Hard Truths in a Brilliant Book

When it comes to books, movies, song lyrics, or pretty much anything else, I’m not exactly known for the power of my memory. It’s why I’ve never nailed a movie quote, why I can’t get to the grocery store without the maps app on my phone, and why I’m 90% sure the new Thor movie stars Chris Hemsworth and not Christopher Walken but I can’t say for sure without Google’s help. This might also explain why my favorite books at any given time are often the ones I’ve read most recently-they’re so clear in my mind!  

And yet this year the book that I’m still talking about, that is crystal clear in my mind, is one that I read waaaay back in March. The reason is simple and it has nothing to do with the Ginkgo Biloba I forget to take every morning. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas wasn’t just the best book I read this year, but was among the best I’ve read in a long time.

the-hate-u-giveThe narrator of this novel is a teenager named Starr Carter. Starr lives in a neighborhood that is majority black, under-served, and impoverished. Starr’s family has deep connections to their community; her mother is a nurse and her father owns the local convenience-style grocery store. Starr’s father also grew up there and made many mistakes as a younger man that continue to follow him. Rather than hide his past, however, he speaks honestly and uses his own experiences as a catalyst to help the young people around him. Although they embrace their community, Starr’s parents also want Starr and her brothers to have greater opportunities and send them to an expensive private school in the suburbs.

The Hate U Give opens with Starr attending a party where she encounters a childhood friend, Khalil. The party is interrupted when members of rival gangs come into conflict and gunshots are fired. Starr flees the party with Khalil who offers to drive her home. They are pulled over by the police seemingly for no reason other than the color of their skin. This traffic stop ends like many that have made headlines and provoked outrage in recent years. Khalil, an unarmed young black man, is shot dead by a white police officer. Starr witnesses all of this and finds herself with a gun in her own face during the incident leaving her deeply traumatized, enraged, and terrified.

This shooting occurs very early in The Hate U Give and the rest of the story traces its effect on Starr, her family, and her community. Starr’s parents are fearful for their daughter and encourage her to avoid the news crews and the activists who show up in the wake of this tragedy. At the same time, Starr sees her old friend Khalil get linked to drug dealers and local gangs and unjustly blamed for his own death. Her loyalties are further fractured by pressure from people in her neighborhood and her love for her uncle, who also happens to be a cop. As Starr’s life lurches forward she must figure out how to speak the truth about Khalil’s life and death without tearing apart her family and neighborhood or jeopardizing her own future.

Thomas’s skillful and thoughtful storytelling combined with the circumstances of the lethal shooting guarantee that The Hate U Give is both a topical and emotionally charged read. While I appreciate and value this story, the book is also a masterful consideration of Starr’s full life as a young black woman. Starr spends a considerable amount of emotional energy concerned with her own identity, worried about how she presents herself in her neighborhood and in the affluent school where she is surrounded by white classmates and friends. She is aware of the way that she code-switches, altering her speech, mannerisms, and appearance to adapt to these very different environments, and she is burdened by the guilt of hiding parts of herself at school while keeping secrets about her school life from her loved ones.

Thomas also explores the emotional weight of Starr being her community’s representative at her school and the unfair responsibility Starr feels to defend Khalil, as if his death is only unjust if he led a mistake-free life. It is this final point that ties back to the unconditional, unapologetic statement that black lives matter and that the onus to actualize this idea in our communities is on all of us, not just those facing oppression. This is a statement that can be difficult and uncomfortable to accept but through Starr’s eyes it feels essential and undeniable.

Waiting for Kylo

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Thomas Paine wrote that during the difficult early years of the American Revolution. But he could just as well have been talking about my life in the months leading up to a new Star Wars film. The second full trailer for The Last Jedi was released this week and my excitement level is higher than Anakin’s midichlorian count. This. Movie. Looks. Amazing. While there are still two excruciating months until Episode VIII hits theaters, the past few years have seen the release of some phenomenal Star Wars content to help us all survive the wait. I want to tell you about a few of my favorites in our collection, but first a warning: if you’re new to Star Wars, there may be some spoilers below.

Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars opens in the early years of the Empire, on the Outer Rim planet of Jelucan. Ciena Ree and Thane Kyrell are two natives of this world leading very different lives. Thane comes from noble stock. His affluent family has plentiful Imperial connections. Ciena has far more humble beginnings. Belonging to a lower social caste, her family is proud and loyal, but also poor and marginalized. Thane and Ciena are brought together, however, by their love of flying and dreams of attending the Imperial Academy. 

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Through hard work and determination, they both make it to the Academy where they seem destined to rise through the ranks together. Despite their strong bond their relationship soon grows complicated. Ciena continues to take pride in the order and righteousness of the Empire while Thane begins to wake to the cruelty and oppression around him. As Ciena quickly rises through the ranks, Thane chooses to defect and join the fledgling Rebellion. Their linked paths thread through many famous battles and close escapes as the Rebellion grows and begins to find success. With the battle for the galaxy heading towards an ultimate confrontation, both Ciena and Thane are forced to decide between their convictions and their ties to one another.

Despite glowing reviews, I had low expectations for Lost Stars. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good YA romance, but that isn’t what I look for in a Star Wars novel. I was delighted and surprised to find that the romance in this book takes a distant backseat to Gray’s masterful retelling of many well-known Star Wars events from fresh perspectives. As such, this sprawling novel serves as a perfect companion to the films that are indelibly ingrained in my mind.

Zahn and Thrawn are two names that are inseparable and unforgettable for many Star Wars fans. Timothy Zahn is a legendary author, while the cunning Admiral Thrawn is his greatest character. Like many fans, I was crushed when Disney excluded these novels from the new canon. But Zahn is back! He has written a novel, aptly named Thrawn, that tells the story of this captivating alien’s rise through Imperial ranks and his struggles against the bigotry and other roadblocks he faces.

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Alternating between Thrawn’s perspective and those of two young Imperials who become key figures in his career, Thrawn reminded me of an interstellar Sherlock Holmes mystery. Thrawn is a brilliant tactician always several steps ahead of his rivals and enemies. He is often impeded, however, by his total lack of social graces and ignorance of Imperial politics. His assistant and companion, Eli Vanto, is a perfect Watson helping smooth the way when Thrawn’s unrefined manner is problematic, but also serving as an audience surrogate who allows Thrawn to flash his superior intellect. Finally, this book gives Thrawn his own Moriarty, a mysterious and brilliant smuggler turned Rebel, who will either bring Thrawn great glory or prove to be his undoing.

As someone who has read an awful lot of Star Wars books, Thrawn simply feels fresh. While helping build backstory from years before the Original Trilogy and providing clues for events yet to come, Zahn has shown that he is still among the giants of the Star Wars world.

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The inundation of new Star Wars books has also spilled over into the world of comics. Marvel has put out a string of wonderful volumes covering the Clone Wars, Lando Calrission’s early years, and everything in between. My favorite series is the Darth Vader run which takes place between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Faced with the failure of the Death Star, Vader has fallen out of the Emperor’s favor. In order to re-secure his place as Palpatine’s right-hand cyborg, Vader must face down many daunting challenges including angry Hutts, newly rebellious planets, and force-sensitive rivals. And then, of course, there is a certain lightsaber-wielding Death Star destroying young pilot. He is especially pesky. 

While all of these aspects of Darth Vader are superb, it is Dr. Aphra who steals the show. With apologies to Han Solo, Aphra is the closest thing the Star Wars universe has to an Indiana Jones: a pithy and sardonic young archaeologist who comes into the employ of  Darth Vader. Throughout the series she is constantly skirting the line between rescuing the Sith Master and meeting the wrong end of his lightsaber. Oh yeah, she also has two droids, Triple-Zero and BT-1, who aren’t that different from R2-D2 and C-3PO except that they are sociopathic killers.

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Murder droid? Murder droid!

I’m trying to keep this post shorter than an opening scrawl, but there are many more new Star Wars stories worth your time. Quicker than the Millenium Falcon on the Kessel Run here are a few more quick hits:

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The Aftermath Trilogy, by Chuck Wendig: These books meander at times but do a nice job traversing the years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. They introduce some key characters, revisit some old favorites, and contextualize the rise of The First Order. Perhaps most importantly, however, the third book has a brief aside revealing the sad fate of everyone’s favorite mistake, Jar-Jar Binks:

The clown, they called him “Bring the clown. We want to see the clown. We like it how he juggles glombo shells, or spits fish up in the air and catches them, or how he dances around and falls on his butt.”

The adults, though. They don’t say much about him. Or to him. And no other Gungans come to see him, either. Nobody even says his name.

612nq+bwYGL._SY445_Star Wars Rebels: This cartoon, about to enter its final season, is a thrilling look at the years leading up to the Original Trilogy. Focusing on a rag-tag group of outcasts who are fiercely opposed to the Empire, Rebels has all the droids, lightsabers, hapless stormtroopers and goofy jokes you could want. It’s the rare kid-friendly show that can hold its own with an adult audience.

We also have tons of Star Wars non-fiction, including character guides, Lego books, origami how-to’svintage action figure valuations, and even a Haynes manual for the Death Star. If you’re need something to tide you over until 12/15, stop in and we will find you a book or seven.

Just two months to go, so I feel pretty safe saying it: Alllllmost there…