Where They Came From

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Southern Goth-Ick

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

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

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

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

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

30 Minutes Every Day…

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

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

Who can participate?

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

What counts as “reading?”

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

How does the program work?

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

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

I like prizes! How do I sign up?

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

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

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

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

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

Lizzy Legend by Matthew Ross Smith

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

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

Beast Rider by María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads and Tony Johnston

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

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

Dreadnought by April Daniels

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

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

XL by Scott Brown

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

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

Versailles of the Dead by Kumiko Suekane

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

Must-Reads of 2019 So Far…

I’ve never recapped my personal best-of reading list so early in the year before, but 2019 is already off to such a great start I’m making an exception. The biggest silver lining of February’s snow show was getting more time to read. Here are just a few of my faves so far, in no particular order because these books are amazing and I refuse to rank my favorite children books.

Watch Us Rise by Renée Watson & Ellen Hagan
Recommended for fans of Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu.

I’m convinced I will always 100% love everything Renée Watson writes. This book hit so many high notes and addressed so many topics important to me that I really just want to read it again.

Best friends Jasmine and Chelsea are fed up with the way female students are treated at their supposedly progressive high school, so they start a Women’s Rights Club. Poems, essays, and videos go into their club’s online blog, Write Like a Girl. The blog goes viral, but online trolls escalate tensions in real life and the blog gets shut down by a condescending school administration. Jasmine and Chelsea aren’t ready to go quietly into the night–not when they know they are reaching other students who are facing the same misogynist treatment. How will they balance their need to help and be creative while not further angering their school’s administration?

The way that feminism, racism, body shaming, and everything else is addressed was just 10/10 perfect. The essays, poems, and playlists that the characters create for the Write Like a Girl blog were my absolute favorite part. It was like getting a very rad nonfiction bonus in my fiction book.

I fought for them. I cried for them. I cheered them on and didn’t want their story to end. These are multidimensional characters written authentically and I’m so here for it.

Cold Day in the Sun by Sara Biren Recommended for fans of The Cutting Edge and The Everett Silvertips.

This book is for anyone like me who was completely obsessed with the film The Cutting Edge–where a hockey player and a figure skater are paired up for the Olympics–who also wanted a sequel to be about hockey.

Holland is the only girl on her high school’s hockey team and she’s used to holding her own skating with the guys–even though it means dealing with the misogynist insults from the small hockey town’s good ole’ boys. But when she’s selected to represent her team on national television to help sway the public to vote for a major hockey tournament to be held in her hometown, Holland will have to confront her own self-doubts and fears that she might not be good enough to be on the boys’ team.

Oh, and she’ll also have to deal with her changing feelings towards her bossy team captain who she’s starting to realize might not be her frenemy after all. Maybe, just maybe, her frustrations stem from strong romantic feelings for him that she’s ignored for too long.

Cold Day in the Sun is full of feminism, the Midwest, small-town life, and a romance that will hook you and not let you go.

The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye
Recommended for fans of historical fiction with a sharp social justice edge.

As soon as I finished this smashing book I immediately missed the residents of The Paragon Hotel. Especially Blossom. And Max. And Nobody. And okay, everyone. It’s literally everyone.

I spent several days utterly invested in this story of a white woman who goes by the name Nobody. She flees the Mob in 1921 after having to fake her death. Rescued by a concerned train porter, she is allowed to stay in an all-African American hotel in Portland. The Paragon Hotel’s residents are reluctant to welcome her, as having a white woman in their rooms will only draw negative attention from the bigoted community. Soon these fears become reality. Nobody and the hotel’s staff and residents are thrust under the KKK’s magnifying glass as they all search for a missing 6 year old foundling they’ve all been collectively raising from infanthood.

The pacing is great, dipping back into Nobody’s past when relevant, and showing how she learned to survive. The author turns phrases like pancakes and if I were highlighting all the clever passages the pages in my copy would be nearly solid yellow.

This book destroyed me in a good way.

Even though this is fiction, I learned a lot of disturbing things about the KKK’s nonfictional influence in Oregon. I’m likely to start digging into the Northwest Room for more information about this time period in Oregon’s past.

Death Prefers Blondes by Caleb Roehrig
Recommended for fans of Leverage, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and heist novels.

I was immediately hooked at the premise of a heist novel starring teenage drag queens, and it only went up from there.

Margo isn’t your typical teen. By day she’s a socialite the paparazzi can’t get enough of. By night she’s a highly successful cat burglar. She and her four best friends, all of whom are teenage drag queens, each have their own reasons for doing what they do. The one thing they have in common? They’re damn good at stealing. But when a routine job goes wrong, they’ll need all their skills, training, and friendship to not only survive but to stop the mastermind who is determined to out them all.

There’s love, sex, violence, friendship, redemption, and huge helpings of both snark and bonding. If you’re looking for a fast-paced wild ride of a novel–look no further.

So let’s hear it. Which books have hit the tippity top of your favorites so far this year? Leave your recommendations in the comments. Who knows? Maybe one of your favorites will hit my next best-of list. Which judging by the way this year is shaping up might be sooner than we both expect.

Here’s to the Scientists and Monkeys

Every once in a while, I read a book that must have been made for me. I don’t mean one that just aligns with my interests. I mean there’s an underground lab somewhere filled with white coated technicians experimenting with plot formula and monkeys with typewriters tapping away, all working on the singular mission to create books perfectly tailored for my taste.

That’s the only explanation I can think of for Amy Rose Capetta’s The Brilliant Death. Released in October. I only found this book last week. As I’ve read it, I’ve been increasingly impressed by the work of this cabal of scientists and monkeys that call themselves “Amy Rose Capetta” and increasingly annoyed that it took me two months and a decent amount of dumb luck to stumble upon it.

9109wewh-qlThe Brilliant Death is set in a kingdom filled with murder, intrigue, and stories of magic wielding strega. Teodora di Sangro has grown up with ample firsthand experience of violence and viscous plots. Her father is the head of one of five families that rule the kingdom. Like the mafia, these families rule through an intricate web of extortion, intimidation, and retribution that keep the people fed, clothed, and thoroughly subjugated.

Teo also carries a secret. The stregas of childhood legend are more than bedtime stories. They are real, and Teo is one of them – possibly the only one. She has always kept her magic secret, but has used it to help her family. When an enemy, rival, or other problematic person threatens them, she is quick to secretly transform them into pretty trinkets that now line her bedroom’s shelves.

Then one day, Teo’s entire world is shaken. First, her father is poisoned and falls into a coma. The new capo, who rules the five families, claims credit for the assassination attempt and summons a family representative to the capital. Teo believes she is the best choice among her father’s children to assume this task – after all, she has been secretly defending her family for years. However, Toe is also a daughter in a world where her gender effectively disqualifies her from leadership.

Yet on the same day her father falls, Teo meets Cielo. Cielo is beguiling, witty, and possibly quite dangerous. Like Teo, Cielo is a strega. And a gender fluid strega at that! Cielo’s appearance, combined with their ability to completely transform their appearance, give Teo hope that she too can transform, allowing her to travel to the capital and confront the capo. With the help of Teo’s brilliant younger brother Luca, she and Cielo set off for the capital in an uneasy alliance, one that will need to be unbreakable to survive the deceit, cruelty, and corruption that await them.

The Brilliant Death is full of mythical magic, fantastical world-building, and political intrigue in a kingdom stuffed with dastardly criminals and dashing rogues. It also prominently features queer romance, a thoughtful approach to identity, and complicated presentations of family, loyalty, and betrayal.  I’m not saying it’s a perfect book, but for me it comes pretty darn close!

Attention Hollywood

It’s been a really great year for YA movie adaptations. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda was made into the charming and sweet (if poorly renamed) Love, Simon. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before which took Netflix by storm. And The Hate U Give was a critical hit at a timely moment. It’s a bit of a reach, but I’d even argue that Black Panther was a YA adaptation considering where we shelve the comics. But am I satisfied? Never! I want to see more of my favorite characters head to the screen so I can fret that Hollywood will ruin them and rejoice the few times that they do not. Luckily for all the producers, project developers, and screen writers out there, I’m happy to do the leg work for them. I want Nic Stone’s Odd One Out to be the next big thing.

81A39u7iP5LOdd One Out follows three teens, Courtney, Jupiter, and Rae, each of whom narrates a section of the book. Courtney is the first narrator. A high school basketball phenom, he lost his father to a tragic accident years ago and lives with his single mother. He is well-adjusted, kind, and introspective. He is also secretly, hopelessly, and madly in love with Jupiter, his longtime best friend. Jupiter is  quick-witted, Freddy Mercury obsessed, and an engaged activist and community leader. Though Courtney and Jupiter share almost everything, he can’t bring himself to tell her about his feelings. In addition to risking their friendship, it would be an exercise in futility. Though Jupiter deeply loves Courtney, it could never be romantic. Jupiter is gay.

As the book follows Jupiter and Courtney into their junior year of high school, they are thrown a curveball. Rae is a bright, bubbly, and endearing student who has just moved to town and transferred to their school. She quickly becomes an integral member of their group, but she also creates the friction that might destroy their friendship. From the moment Rae shows up it is clear that Jupiter has feelings for her. And as Courtney desperately attempts to get over Jupiter, he begins to like Rae as well. And Rae? Rae might just be falling for both of them! I hesitate to use the phrase “love triangle” because it feels cheap and hackneyed, but if the shoe fits….

What follows is a fun, dramatic, and sometimes stressful series of adventures and misunderstanding for these three teens, including a strange but emotionally resonant side story featuring a long-forgotten children’s entertainer. I fell deeply in love with all of the characters in this book, and I lived and died with their every triumph and defeat. But Stone’s work is also a deep, moving, and well constructed consideration of identity, sexuality, and the expectations placed on teens. In the author’s note, Stone explains why she wrote Odd One Out:

“It’s a book I needed at twelve, when I was skittish at slumber parties and worried about playing truth-or-dare because I didn’t want the other girls to know about the fire I felt below my navel when I watched them kiss each other and stuff. I needed it at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, when I would change for cheer practice separate from the other girls because I didn’t want anybody to catch me looking. (Flee temptation! My Bible said.) I needed it at twenty-one, when trying to navigate intense romantic feelings for a female friend. And I need it now as I continue to waffle between labels. (Am I bisexual? Pansexual? Queer? Herteroflexible? All of the above? None of the above?)”

I’m confident that it’s still a book that tweens, teens, new adults, and grown-ass adults still need, whether they’re questioning their own identities or could just use a window into the lives of others to build empathy and be better allies. Of course on top of all that, it is also a fun, satisfying, and smart story that I could not put down. Now someone make me my damn movie.

Oh Mother Where Art Thou?

I always enjoy the little surprises that books can provide. Recently, I finished a fantastic book while on vacation. It followed a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and a tumultuous, changing world. It was the kind of book that stays with you, suppressing any desire to begin something new. I needed a book for the rest of my trip but had no idea what I wanted. Luckily I was visiting two friends with strong opinions and great taste. They clued me in to another incredible novel, this one about a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and….you guessed it, a tumultuous, changing world.

Despite this coincidence, these books both feature rich, nuanced characters in very different circumstances. It was a pleasure to stumble into their lives one-after-the-other, and to have the opportunity to discover the links between them as their stories unfolded.

51ru-JNuaDLIn Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Deming Guo is introduced as a boy living with his mother and her boyfriend in the Bronx. Deming’s life is far from perfect- his family has little money, he struggles in school, and he argues with his mother. But they love each other fiercely and seem to have an unbreakable bond. This makes it all the harder when Deming’s mother suddenly disappears without explanation, leaving him shattered and alone. Eventually Deming is put in foster care then adopted by a well-meaning but aloof white couple who take him to live upstate and, hoping to help him fit in, change his name to Daniel.

The narrative follows Deming both as a child, coming to terms with his mother’s disappearance and his strange new life, and as Daniel, a recent college dropout desperate to make a name for himself among the ultra-cool of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. As Daniel’s life begins to unravel, the narrative also expands to include the story of his mother, how she came to America, and the real reason she disappeared from Daniel’s life.

The Leavers is a painful but redemptive story of family, immigration, assimilation, and identity. Ko methodically reveals Daniel’s and his mother’s stories, bringing careful attention to their struggles, their triumphs, and their flaws. Daniel repeatedly finds himself on the outside looking in. In upstate New York he feels too Chinese; among New York City’s hipsters, he feels like an impostor from upstate. When he finally visits China, he feels conspicuously and inescapably American. Ko’s narrative may be at its strongest when Daniel is puzzling through his questions about identity, but through Daniel’s birth mother’s story, Ko also deftly brings attention to the cruelty and inhumanity of America’s militarized immigration enforcement system.

saleemhaddad-guapaOn its face, Guapa, by Saleem Haddad, is a very different kind of story. Guapa follows a young man named Rasa who lives in an unnamed Arab country during and after the Arab Spring. Like Daniel, Rasa struggles to escape his memories of his mother, who disappeared when he was a child. Rasa is also facing a crisis point. His grandmother just discovered him in bed with his boyfriend, who is also about to get married. To a woman. Rasa struggles to salvage this romance while keeping his identity under wraps in a society where knowledge of his sexuality is a legitimate danger to his life.

As Rasa struggles through a truly terrible day, his story shifts through time revealing details of his childhood and the circumstances that led his mother to abandon him, his years as a college student in New York where he struggled to explore his sexuality and not be pigeonholed because of his ethnicity, and his traumatic days protesting during a period of revolutionary unrest in his homeland. Haddad also explores generational conflict in the Arab world. Rasa is one of many young people determined to change their country, but frustrated at every turn by a mix of oppression, extremism, and bureaucracy. On a personal level, Rasa struggles to understand his grandmother’s adherence to traditional values, particularly the idea of shame.

As Rasa’s day lurches towards decisive confrontations with the two largest figures in his life, his grandmother and his boyfriend, he contends with his own past, his country’s future, and the nagging fear that he may not have a place in the world around him. Rasa is a compelling character who seems caught in impossible circumstances, with the oppressive constraints of identity, expectations, and cultural norms bearing down on him with heart-wrenching weight.

I wish that Rasa’s New York could bleed into Daniel’s and the two could meet. While they come from very different circumstances, and want different things from their lives, they are both linked by the vacuum left behind when their mothers disappeared. Daniel might understand Rasa’s despair as he navigates his queerness and Arabness in a hostile homeland. And Rasa might understand the way that Daniel feels stretched as he tries to shed his Chinese heritage to please his adoptive parents while remaining desperate to reconnect with his mother and her roots. I, for one, felt lucky to discover these two young men and get lost in the murky, tumultuous years of their youths.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Who is Vera Kelly?

Student, activist…spy? Who is Vera Kelly? is a spy novel by Rosalie Knecht published earlier this week by Tin House Books. It’s also a question I asked myself many times while reading this engrossing novel of intrigue and identity. What Vera Kelly is not is your typical school girl, and she’s definitely not your typical spy.

1966 is a dangerous time to be living in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For those of you who may have forgotten your world history, events in the summer of 1966 sparked the Argentine Revolution that overthrew the government and began a long period of dictatorship. Up until 1966 Vera was supplementing her low-wage radio station job doing occasional weekend surveillance jobs for the CIA, but the Buenos Aires job would be quite different. I’ll let Vera explain herself:

My handler pitched it to me in January 1966, in a diner where he liked to meet on East Fifty-Second Street. The Argentine president was weak, there could be a coup anytime, and KGB activity had picked up in Buenos Aires. I would have to do infiltration work as well as surveillance. I would be gone indefinitely, months or a year, and I would have to quit my job. For this they would pay me thirty-five thousand dollars.

You math nerds and currency freaks will realize how much thirty-five thousand dollars was in 1966, but I’ll spell it out so the rest of us can understand. According to one inflation calculator I consulted, that would be over $270,000 in today’s dollars. For someone scraping by at $38/per week at her day job (about $259 in today’s dollars) it was kind of a no-brainer financially for Vera to accept the job.

But even more than the money, Vera has found a sense of accomplishment in her work with the CIA. The satisfaction of a job well done in service to her country is what helps make the rest of her lonely existence worth getting up for every morning. I say lonely because Vera is a closeted lesbian and in the 1960s it wasn’t impossible to find female companionship in New York City, but doing so could possibly jeopardize her security clearance. This is a sad way of telling you that Vera suppressed a lot of her identity in service to her country, but she wasn’t always so noble.

The chapters alternate between Vera’s present-day espionage and her formative years growing up in Chevy Chase, MD. Vera’s battles with undiagnosed depression eventually led to a suicide attempt. This is revealed in the very first paragraphs of the book (you’ll get no spoilers from me, but do consider this a trigger warning for a suicide attempt right at the top of the story). Vera’s recovery shut her off even more from a world that didn’t understand her, and would eventually lead to heartbreak and a brush with the law. That sounds very depressing, and it is! But it does steer her down a winding path to the CIA and her life of adventure.

Vera spends much of her time surrounded by other people, and though it’s the nature of the job as a spy to lie to people and not trust what she’s told in return, Vera is essentially a woman alone. It’s hard to make friends when you’re a spy and it’s even harder to find romance or even simple physical companionship when you don’t fit into society’s prescribed heteronormative expectations and ideals.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give more of a taste of the espionage portion of the plot because if this book’s plot were a pepperoni pizza, the spy parts are the cheese and the character development is the pepperoni. It’s got a good sprinkling of character development, but every bite is covered in the cheese of espionage.

The best books make me scattered in my retellings. Just take my awkward pizza metaphor as the gold star this book deserves!

Once the coup in Argentina begins, Vera’s plans go up in smoke and she’s forced to improvise in order to escape the police state and survive. This is where Vera surprises both the reader and herself as she depends entirely on her instincts and cunning to get herself home.

There are secrets, betrayals, weapons, and kisses. This is a book that really does have it all.

I’m not usually a fan of character-driven literature, but apparently if you throw in an engrossing spy plot and some witty dialogue I will fall at your feet in worship. My girl Amy Stewart blurbed this book as “The twisty, literary, woman-driven spy novel you’ve always wanted to read. Dazzling.” And of course she’s right. Vera Kelly is 100% the spy I’ve always wanted. Thank you, Rosalie Knecht, for bringing her into my life.

Now please, please, PLEASE tell me this will be a series?! Because like all great literary characters, after meeting Vera Kelly I’m not ready to say goodbye.

Celebrate Pride and Read a Book

June is all about LGBTQ pride. I am proud to be a part of this community and for me, it is a time to celebrate who I am and remember all of those who have fought for LGBTQ rights. It is not just a time of celebration, but also a time of reflection. Pride celebrations are often held in June to mark the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Snohomo Pride had their pride celebration on Sunday June 3 at Willis Tucker Park. Pride events will happen throughout the entire month of June in Seattle.

Going to events and parades is one way to celebrate pride. I am celebrating pride this year by reading newly published LGBTQ books throughout the month of June. The list below includes a variety of titles for adults, teens, and children.

Adult:

tina allen

Hiding Out: A Memoir of Drugs, Deception, and Double Lives by Tina Allen

Tina Allen grew up the youngest of thirteen children in a strict Catholic family with her father “Sir John” at the helm. It was the 1980s and they lived in suburban Maryland where her father ran a travel agency that focused on tours to the Holy Land and the Vatican. Tina knew she liked girls from a young age and hid the secret until her father found out when she was eighteen. She expected her father to disown her, but instead he revealed that he was gay as well. This revelation brought them much closer and together they hid their secret from the rest of the family. The story becomes even more twisted when Tina discovers another facet of her father’s life.

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Hollinghurst has written a novel that spans multiple generations starting in 1940 to the present day. It focuses on the pivotal relationship between David Sparsholt and Evert Dax who meet when they are students at Oxford during World War Two. The story captures shifts in social mores through specific events: a Sparsholt holiday in Cornwall, eccentric gatherings at the Dax family home, and the adventures of David’s son Johnny. This beautifully written work will capture readers with its emotional depth, complex relationships, and detailed history.

memoir

Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms by Michelle Tea

This book is unlike any other that Michelle Tea has written before. She is well known for her memoirs, but this book explores the lives of other people such as Valerie Solanas and a troubled lesbian biker gang. Parts of Tea’s life are actually revealed through the documentation and exploration of other queer people.

lucky

So Lucky by Nicola Griffith

Mara Tagarelli is a force to be reckoned with: she is the head of a national AIDS foundation and an accomplished martial artist. Everything drastically changes in the course of one week when she is left by her wife and she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Griffith explores the inhumane way in which disabled and chronically ill people are treated in America. She also explores survival and creates a sense of hope for what can happen when you start listening to yourself.

Children and Teens:

leah

Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

You must read Leah on the Offbeat if you read Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda because this is the sequel. Leah is Simon’s best friend and she is in the throes of her senior year dealing with friendships and romance.

Leah knows she is bisexual and so does her mom, but she hasn’t shared this with any of her friends including Simon who is out. The stress of her senior year is palpable with the upcoming prom, college and the surprising feelings she has developed for one of her friends.

prince

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Prince Sebastian’s parents are worried because they have not found a potential bride for him. This is the last thing on the prince’s mind because he is hiding a secret that he holds dear. He loves dresses and at night he puts them on and goes out into the streets and clubs of Paris. He soon becomes the “it” girl of Paris and is referred to as Lady Crystallia. The person who makes all of this possible for him is Frances, a dressmaker. She has always dreamed of being a famous designer, but she must hide in the wings as one of the prince’s secrets. This graphic novel for tweens and teens explores identity, romantic love and family relationships.

true way

One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock

The year is 1977 and Allie’s parents are going through a divorce. She has just moved to a new town with her mother and is starting middle school. She meets Sam on the first day of school and they instantly become friends. Sam is gregarious, athletic, and liked by everyone at school. Allie and Sam soon realize that they have feelings for each other. This book explores how they navigate their relationship with their families and the community. Sam comes from a very religious family and her sexuality is ignored. Allie’s mom is reticent at first, but through conversation and sharing she becomes more comfortable with the idea of her daughter having a crush on a girl. Allie and Sam also find support in the community from the local minister and a lesbian couple who both happen to be teachers at her school.

knight

Prince and Knight by Daniel Haack

This picture book in rhyme is great for kids who love fairy tales. The prince is not interested in any of the young ladies he has been introduced to by the King and Queen. He leaves the kingdom to do some soul searching and in the process he meets a knight. Together, they slay a dragon who is threatening the royal family. They fall in love, marry, and the prince’s family is thrilled.

pride

Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders

This informational picture book celebrates the 40th anniversary of the pride flag. It traces the origins of the flag from when it was first thought of in 1978 by activist Harvey Milk and a designer named Gilbert Baker. It is a great book to share with kids when introducing them to the history of pride.