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.

Heartwood 7:5 – One Out of Two by Daniel Sada

When their parents die suddenly in a highway accident, Gloria and Constitución, young identical twin sisters, vow to live their lives as a pair, sharing everything equally. They grow up with an aunt until the girls are ready to strike out on their own, which they eventually do, settling in Ocampo, a small town in northern Mexico, where they set up a tailoring business. They work hard, which seems to suit them and to offer its own rewards. They also find their work can shield them somewhat from participating in the town’s typical gossip and chatter, though they still have occasion to point a knitting needle to the sign they’ve posted: “We are busy professionals. Restrict your conversation to the business at hand. Please do not disturb us for no reason. Sincerely: the Gamal sisters.”

Of course, a vow to live inseparably is going to receive challenges, and the biggest one comes when their aunt invites them to the wedding of her son, Benigno. In her invitation she notes that this will be a great opportunity for them to meet men (she has been after them to find men and get married from the moment they moved out of her house). The twins flip a coin, having decided only one of them will go and the other will stay to keep on top of their many sewing orders.

Constitución wins the coin toss and prepares, among quite a bit of muted strife, to go to the wedding. Constitución does indeed meet a man there and he comes to see her in Ocampo one Sunday, the first of what turns out to be weekly visits. The twins eventually decide that they will take turns dating him, surreptitiously, on alternate Sundays. This weekly dating arrangement goes on for months and it introduces some jealousy and suspicion into the lives of the twins. I began to wonder how Oscar would not have discovered the fact that Constitución had a twin in a town noted for its busybodies and gossip, and he does indeed learn this near the end of this novella.

There are other things in this story that are clearly unrealistic, such as middle-aged twins who still choose to dress and wear their hair identically, and the deal-breaker their vow would place on individual development. So, I don’t know how I was so won over by this quirky and far-fetched story but there is something immensely satisfying about this little book. It’s partly due, I’m sure, to Sada’s warm and unusual style, which grew on me more and more as I read. But more than that, it’s the wonderful characters he has created in the twins, the sacrifice and impossible bond of their vow to be “one in two or two by now in one,” and the timeless quality of their small town life. Finally, the book is something of a paean to work: the duty of it, but also the shared, ongoing pleasure the seamstress twins seem to take in the restorative act of bringing together, of making whole and sound what had been (or could have been) torn or separate.

A Piece of the World

Christina Baker Kline’s most recent novel, A Piece of the World, is set against the backdrop of the remote coastal town of Cushing, Maine. It is the location where Andrew Wyeth created his famous masterpiece Christina’s World. To gain a better understanding of the artist I checked out Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In by Nancy Anderson. I found this informative book with photos of Wyeth’s work fascinating, adding to my enjoyment of the novel. This was furthered as I listened to A Piece of the World on audio book and read by Polly Stone whose hypnotic voice was like a tonic.

Kline’s novel primarily follows the life of Christina Olson the subject of Wyeth’s painting. The author draws from historical facts and imagination to paint a portrait, no pun intended, of Christina Olson. Christina lived her entire life in her family home which dates back to her mother’s Hathorn side of the family. In her youth Christina was vibrant and full of determination, choosing to not let her physical disability keep her from enjoying life. It is during this period that Christina’s parents seek medical treatment for her in anticipation of finding a cure for their daughter’s crippled leg. But a day’s journey by buggy in the hopes of finding a remedy turned sour when Christina refused to be seen by the physician. Her father was furious. At age 12, still eager to continue her education, Christina’s dreams are overruled by her father and she is forced to stay at home, assisting her fragile mother with chores and attending to her younger brothers.

The story, like Wyeth’s painting of curtains lifting off the window frame by ocean breezes, swings between alternating seasons in Christina’s life, exposing light and air followed by darkness and disappointment.

It is during mid-life that Christina, fairly isolated and bitter, meets a young Andrew Wyeth by way of her young neighbor and friend Betsy. Wyeth is sensitive and enthusiastic yet a bit hesitant to take the spotlight. During his first visit to the homestead he is instantly taken with its character and makes a studio in an upper bedroom. The young couple fall in love and are married; they will remain a part of the Olson’s life for years.

I’ll admit that I’d all but given up on completing this post until I spotted an advertisement for a Wyeth exhibit coming to SAM. I’m even more thrilled to discover that the companion book to the exhibit can be checked out from the Everett Public Library: Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect.

I don’t know about you, but this sort of crazy coincidence (reading a good historical novel that piqued my appetite to learn more about the artist and then having the opportunity to go see his work) is simply thrilling!

The Red Estate

When people call me a writer I get uncontrollable giggles, like when I’m walking around the grocery store and find that aisle where a weird guy’s been hanging out for fifteen minutes belting out The Best of Celine Dion even though there’s no Muzak playing. Or when someone gets on the elevator with you at the hospital and they immediately open up about their upcoming hemorrhoid surgery.

I don’t consider myself a writer. At all. It makes me feel like a fake even though I spend a couple of hours writing every day.

In Lauren Karcz’s The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, Mercedes Moreno knows exactly what I mean. She’s finishing out her senior year in high school and not sure if she even considers herself an artist or not because she hasn’t created anything since her last piece won first place in an art show. She’s in love with her best friend Victoria, her grandmother has had a stroke and is dying in a hospital in Puerto Rico and her mother leaves, sending back word that while sitting at her mother’s bedside she saw her hand move. Mercedes knows this is wishful thinking because things do not look good for her grandmother whom she and her sister Angela are close to, having spent whole summers with her.

Rex, their landlord and next door neighbor, checks in on them and feeds them. One morning, a piano shows up on their front lawn. Her fourteen year old sister Angela has always wanted to learn how to play the piano (me too if just to annoy my brothers by playing Chopsticks for three hours straight). Mercedes and Angela haul the piano inside and make room for it. Soon, Angela can barely be torn away from it. Mercedes is trying to come up with a painting that rivals her award-winning Food Poisoning #1 (that title alone is a winner with me) but she’s feeling less than artistic as she waits for news from her mother about their grandmother, deals with her unrequited crush on her best friend who will be auditioning for Julliard (and no doubt getting in because she’s that good of a ballet dancer) and wondering what she’s going to do with her own life after high school.

Go to art school? Go to a local university? She sees her future as pretty grim, never leaving home and “playing” at her art, never seeing her best friend Vic again (or even acting on the chance that there might be more to their friendship). Life, as Mercedes knows it, feels all lived up and worn out. Until Rex announces that he has a new renter, a young woman named Lilia Solis. “She’s a painter like you!” Rex announces (insert slow eye roll here). Since Mercedes and Angela are on their own, Rex invites them over to eat and get to know Lilia. Mercedes is taken with her at first sight, this woman who’s only a few years older than Mercedes and a painter, living her life exactly the way she wants.

Lilia shows some of her work to Mercedes and says there’s this building called the Red Mangrove Estate where many artists rent space to work: painters, musicians, anyone who needs a place to unleash their creativity. I like that idea. I normally write sitting in the middle of my bed with my writing music on shuffle and then spend 45 minutes changing songs because that song doesn’t fit with my current mood of writing and then I scrap writing altogether and watch Netflix. Mercedes goes with Lilia to the Estates. She hears bands in other rooms rehearsing and looks through partially open doors snatching glimpses of other writers in the throes of creation: that place all artists go to where time has no meaning and they often look up and breathe deeply as if they’ve been underwater and now have to resurface.

The ten foot thick steel door in Mercedes’s head that has been holding back her art creaks open and she begins to create losing time, losing herself, and losing her worry over her grandmother. Her head becomes clearer. But like most obsessions that seem fantastic at first, the Estate begins to take on a life of its own. It’s all Mercedes can think about. She unthinkingly takes Vic there one day, even though outsiders and hangers-on are not allowed. She kisses Vic. She kisses the best friend she’s in love with.

But she soon finds that the Estate is truly a world of its own, a different one. There’s the life lived and created in the Estate and there’s the world outside of it where Mercedes didn’t kiss Vic. These two worlds begin to perilously overlap, especially when Angela, who has become an amazing piano player, goes to the Estate and begins playing with a band who wants to take her on tour. Meanwhile, the news from Puerto Rico is not good. Their mother spends every minute in the hospital with their grandmother who is in a coma. She is slipping further away by the minute.

Mercedes must decide what to do: continue living two lives with one in the Estate where she can create mind-blowing art or come back to the real world and continue trying to create while secretly thinking she has not a talented bone in her body.  In the end, she makes a choice that ripples through many lives, changing her own future.

There’s one part of the book near the end that blew my mind but I’m not into spoilers (thanks Internet for ruining The Walking Dead for me; yeah, I’m still bitter about that) so I won’t mess things up for you, reader. Let’s just say author Lauren Karcz weaves a tale full of Florida heat, cigarettes chain smoked, the NEED to create bursting through every vein and nervous system, and family. The Gallery of Unfinished Girls is about who we are and what we think we will become in the future. But of course, unless you’re psychic (if you are you should have seen this next sentence coming) you have to let life be lived as it unfolds.

Now, I gotta boogie. I have a favorite cardboard box in the driveway I like to write in. What? It’s all I could afford.

Ban This Book

Finally, it’s time for Amy Anne to check out her most favorite book in the whole world from the school library. Her school librarian, Mrs. Jones, has this rule where you can only renew a book twice before it has to be returned and sit on the shelf for five days to give other students the chance to check it out. After waiting those five looooong days, Amy Anne is ready to re-read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. But when she gets to the H-N shelves in the school library the book isn’t there waiting for her. Thinking maybe another student checked it out, Amy Anne asks Mrs. Jones who delivers unbelievable, devastating news: Amy Anne’s favorite book has been banned from the school library.

Thus begins Ban This Book by Alan Gratz.

As Amy Anne learns more about book banning and the potential fate of her most favorite book, she decides for once that she will stand up and use her voice. After all, at the school board meeting where the book banning will become official, someone has to speak up on behalf of the accused. The problem is in the heat of the moment her insecurities and fears about speaking in public and standing up to authority overpower her better judgement and she remains silent.

Her parents are pretty upset about this. They rearranged their entire family’s schedule in order to take her to the school board meeting, but when her father sees her crying in the car on the way home from the meeting he stops off at the bookstore and buys Amy Anne her very own copy of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Amy Anne is happy to have her very own copy, but she knows this is bigger than just one book for one kid. What about all the other kids at her school? Not all the kids know about the book and definitely not all kids have parents who will drive them to the bookstore and buy them their own copy. One single parent on the PTA is denying access to hundreds of kids just because she didn’t want her son to read a particular book!

As she contemplates the implications for her fellow students (and re-reads From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler again) she decides she’ll bring her copy of the book in to school to let her friend borrow it. Another student overhears their exchange and asks if he can borrow it after that. Amy Anne agrees, but that’s not where our story ends.

Soon the PTA parent who demanded From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler be removed from the school library demands another book be removed. And another. And then an entire shelf is missing from the school library and Amy Anne is both confused and upset because she can’t think of a single thing wrong with any of the books being removed from the library.

As the list of removed books grows, so does determination. Amy Anne’s friends have copies of some of the books and Amy Anne buys a few others with money she’d saved from her birthday. Soon she posts a list of the banned books on her locker which is immediately noticed by the school administration, who demands she remove the sign from her locker.

Amy Anne complies but only for appearances. She replaces the list with a school spirit poster that has the books on the reverse side. Here’s where people can see which books are checked out and which are available for them to read. Then they make arrangements with Amy Anne to read it and then pass it on to the next student.

Amy Anne has accidentally started the Banned Books Lending Library from her locker!

The list of banned books grows and Amy Anne gets bold. I won’t tell you what happens next–you’ll have to read it for yourself and find out.

Kids and adults alike will enjoy this book. I highlighted so many passages! Amy Anne is my new favorite champion of the First Amendment.

My favorite part of the story was the banned books themselves. The titles are there for any kid to track down, a veritable bibliography hiding in plain sight. As the author’s note states, all the books that are banned in this book have actually been challenged or banned recently in America. I hope this information, coupled with Amy Anne and the other students’ enjoyment of reading these books in the story, will lead readers to check out these other books and explore perspectives and stories they might never have found on their own.

As libraries across the country celebrate Banned Books Week this week, we celebrate the freedom to read. And what better way than to read a banned book? Here’s the list from Amy Anne’s Banned Books Lending Library. Which one will you read?

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankeiler by E.L. Konigsburg
The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
All the Junie B. Jones books by Barbara Park
All the Captain Underpants books by Dav Pilkey
All the Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine

Real Friends

Some things in life come easy to me. I’m excellent at pattern recognition, reading way past my bedtime, functioning on very little sleep (could these two things be related?) falling up the stairs instead of down (always fall up), and having reflexes that work way faster than my brain. I didn’t have to work too hard at honing these skills and I’ve probably always taken it for granted that I don’t have to think about the process when I’m using them. There’s no concentration involved and things just seem to magically fall into place.

That’s never been the case with making friends. That’s always been something I’ve struggled with. If you met me today you probably wouldn’t guess that I was an extremely shy child. I didn’t approach strangers, would sometimes not even approach extended family members, and preferred to hide in my older brother’s shadow while he made things happen for me. However, he was never able to make friends for me; that was definitely a solo-Carol job, so when I did stumble into a friendship I held fast even if, in hindsight, it was unhealthy.

Reading Real Friends by Shannon Hale slammed me right back to that playground where I made my first friend who also later turned out to be the most unhealthy thing for me.

Real Friends is the story of a young Shannon, who recounts the series of friendships she had growing up and the impacts each made on her life. I was surprised to open the book and discover it’s not a graphic novel but actually a graphic memoir. As Shannon recounts her early school years through a series of friends she had, I was thrown back in time to the mid-late 80s when I was going through the same things Shannon did in the late 70s/early 80s. Some things are just universal. While this book is aimed at middle-grade readers I think anyone can find relatable moments.

I found myself in different friend roles growing up. Sometimes I was an Adrienne. My family would move or I would change schools and I would lose touch with my friends and have to start over again. Sometimes I was a Jen, although I never made people line up and be ranked in the order of who I liked the best (what a cruel thing to do!). Once or twice I’m sure I was a Wendy. I was the only girl in my family and sometimes I just couldn’t take the nonsense and would totally snap and lash out at my brothers. Then there was exactly one time I was a Jenny. To this day I regret acting the way I did, but nothing can change what’s in the past. We can only move forward and learn to choose kind.

But for the majority of my childhood I was a Shannon: shy, quiet, not sure how to make friends but knowing that I really, truly wanted someone to talk to and experience life with. I also made up games and was sometimes bossy or just oblivious when others were bored or left out completely when I became self-absorbed in the creative process.

I realize the name-dropping I’m doing here isn’t very helpful if you haven’t yet read the book, but it does illustrate the vastly different characters, aka real friends from Shannon’s past, that leap off the pages of this book. It’s amazing to me that within just a few panels the reader can get a deep sense of what kind of friend each girl was and the reader has a chance to see a bit of herself (or not) in each, too.

You’re gonna get the feels and if you’re lucky enough to still have a bestie from childhood you’re gonna want to call them as soon as you’ve finished reading.

School is Coming

I’m hoping somebody can tell me where the summer went. Between visits from family, the Summer Reading crush, Eclipse excitement and (SURPRISE!) two weeks of Jury Duty, the summer has been a whirlwind and a half. With kids out of school looking for entertainment and excited to do some pleasure reading this is my favorite season in the Library. It is also by far the most exhausting.

So while it is bittersweet to see all of our young patrons head back to school this week, I will confess that I am looking forward to the structured schedule of the school year. It also happens that a lot of books I love are steeped in the petty grievances and serious identity crises that come with starting at a new school. Here are a few of my favorites:

25701463Whitney Gardner’s You’re Welcome, Universe centers on a young woman named Julia. Julia is deaf, and has always been surrounded by the deaf community: her best friend is deaf, as are both of her parents, and she attends a high school for the deaf. When Julia is betrayed by a friend, however, she is expelled from her school and faces the daunting task of attending a public school where the vast majority of students and teachers struggle to communicate with her, where she has to use a (really annoying) translator, and where no one knows her or seems terribly interested in getting to know her.

But Julia has even bigger problems. A budding graffiti artist, Julia is chagrined to find that another painter is changing her works, adding to them but also improving upon them. Julia feels humiliated and violated by this challenge to her art and sets out to best this mysterious new tagger all while navigating her new school, making new friends, and confronting old ones. Gardner does something very clever to help the reader understand Julia’s communication frustrations. When people try to talk to her and she struggles to read their lips, dialog will have some words missing, replaced with “——-.” This decision ingeniously drops the reader into Julia’s shoes, forced to decipher meaning based on surrounding context.

y648Like Julia, Riley Cavanaugh, the narrator of Jeff Garvin’s Symptoms of Being Human, has a lot going on. Starting at a new high school is bad enough for Riley who is already prone to anxiety attacks. But on top of that are the expectations of Riley’s father who is running for reelection in a hotly contested congressional race. Between the pressure to make friends, blend in, “act normal” and not screw up, it’s no wonder Riley is feeling stressed. But Riley is also dealing with something else – a secret that only Riley’s therapist knows. Riley identifies as gender fluid. A far-too-simple explanation would be that sometimes Riley wakes up feeling male, and sometimes Riley wakes up feeling female. But as Riley says “…it’s not that simple. The world isn’t binary. Everything isn’t black or white, yes or no. Sometimes it’s not a switch, it’s a dial. And it’s not even a dial you can get your hands on; it turns without your permission or approval.

To try to cope, Riley starts a blog and is shocked when posts start going viral. Riley begins to settle in, make a few friends, discover a potential romantic interest, and find some respite from all of life’s external pressure. But good things never last. A blog commenter seems to have uncovered Riley’s identity and is threatening to out Riley. Now Riley must decide whether to shutter the blog and betray those who have come to depend on Riley’s posts or to stand proud and risk the judgment of friends and family as well as possibly ruining Riley’s father’s political career.

30256109In American Street, by Ibi Zoboi, Fabiola Toussaint is a young Haitian immigrant who lands in Detroit ready to embrace the American dream. From the start, however, things do not go as planned. Her mother, who was supposed to accompany her, is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in New Jersey and Fabiola arrives alone, meeting her aunt and cousins for the first time. American culture and expectations to assimilate immediately overwhelm Fabiola, but her resilience and determination ensure that this is not a derivative fish-out-of-water story.

Fabiola’s fierce cousins, known as the three Bees (brains, brawn and beauty), are respected and feared affording her a measure of protection in the neighborhood while also helping her find her place in school. Fab quickly begins to settle in, but is torn between her desire to conform and her devotion to her Haitian identity. She also begins to realize that her aunt and cousins might be involved in some unsavory dealings and that in order to help her mother, she may need to betray the family that welcomed her in Detroit. Though her mother is far away Fab is never alone. All around Detroit Fab sees lwas, Vodou spirits, who help guide her and warn her of impending danger. These visions give American Street a surreal mysticism that edges towards magic realism while also lending authenticity and depth to Fabiola’s immigrant experience.

One of the reasons I love YA fiction is the way its talented writers impart empathy in their work. I’m fortunate to have decent hearing, I’m not an immigrant, and until I read the Symptoms of Being Human my understanding of gender fluidity was rudimentary at best. All three of these works do a masterful job of weaving diverse perspectives into their work, helping the reader to understand the lives of others without overpowering their works’ compelling narratives.

deadlyAnd now for something completely different! In the ongoing series, Deadly Class, Marcus is a homeless teenager simply trying to survive. Sure he has some demons in his past and the police would like to speak with him, but otherwise he seems like a decent guy.  A new world is opened to him when he is invited to attend King’s Dominion High School for the Deadly Arts, a school dedicated to training young assassins. Suddenly Marcus finds himself thrust into a world of precocious young killers, the children of gang leaders, mob bosses, drug kingpins, and genocidal dictators. Marcus must learn to carefully navigate the halls of this school unsure of who to trust because he is certain that if he can survive he can take revenge on the people who destroyed his own family.  This beautifully illustrated comic is profane, thrilling, hilarious, and incredibly difficult to put down.