Tag Archives: own voices

Akata Witch (Akata Witch #1)

unknown

12-year-old Sunny moved to Nigeria from New York City three years ago. Albino and sensitive to the sun, she can’t do what she wants.  Which is to play football in the sun with her brothers, avoid her father’s temper, and have a friend at school.  But instead, she is left out of the games, beaten by her father when he is displeased with her, and constantly bullied at school for being different.

Until the day after she sees the end of the world in the flame of her candle. Her classmate Orlu sides with her during her daily humiliation at school, standing up to the bullies, and then takes her under his wing.  He suspects what she is and introduces her to Chichi and Sasha and Anatov, and suddenly Sunny learns that all her strangeness and differences mean one thing: she is a Leopard Person, and she has power. Great, mystical power.  As part of this ancient community, she is finally accepted, even sought after, for who she is.

This novel is fantastic. An African-based fantasy in which learning and reading are rewarded, where tradition is interwoven with fantasy and magic, and the main character is an athletic, curious girl who goes against all stereotypes and expectations, without any of it seeming forced.

Sunny has had a life of challenges. She looks different, feels different, and must be treated differently that the other children her age. She has to carry an umbrella to shade her skin from the sun, and her pale brown skin stands out from the ebony of her classmates and family. Her classmates call her “akata” which means “bush animal,” slang for foreign-born blacks.

But when Sunny realizes that she is different, that she has magic and knowledge that is restricted to a very few, she handles it pretty much how any normal 12-year-old would.  She has moments of fear and disbelief, she lets it take over in a moment of anger, she learns the responsibility that comes with it, and she embraces the opportunity to learn and grow.  I love her.  She leads a double life as she studies juju and magic and learns to call her spirit face, all the while still going to school and keeping her new-found abilities a secret from the Lambs, or non-magical population.

All the characters aside from Sunny have distinct personalities and roles which move the story along while building the group of friends into a coven of power.  Chichi is blunt and superior but underneath understanding of Sunny’s reluctance and nervousness. Orlu is the peacemaker and the surprisingly powerful yet humble member of the foursome, while Sasha is the brash American, sent home to Nigeria to keep him out of trouble, which gives him great opportunity to find new mischief.

Leopard Knocks, the gathering place of the Leopard People, is a world within a world and is world-building at its absolute best. Visitors to the mystical town must summon their spirit faces, or true selves, in order to see the bridge that leads in.  Once across it, there are shops and cafes to visit, buildings that look like only magic can keep them from toppling over and the Obi Library containing knowledge and power. The people who both live there and visit understand the power of the Leopard People, and celebrate the differences that make everyone unique.

All the while there is an element of danger just below the surface. Not only is the four’s coven tasked to hunt down a serial killer, but even the training they go through can be deadly. But to counter the darkness is light, falling bronze chittim (magical currency) when a new skill is learned, a football game with other Leopard children that strikes a blow for girls’ rights, and an artist wasp that creates sculpture and craves applause and praise.

I love how author Nnedi Okorafor included Fast Facts for Free Agents, a book-within-a-book that Sunny reads to learn more about the Leopard People and her own powers. Written in a patronizing and arrogant tone, the informative book gives Sunny a starting off point for catching up with all she needs to know about herself, while also providing background for the reader without it seeming like an info dump.

This is a coming-of-age story about a young girl discovering power within herself. Sunny learns what she is capable of even as she learns what it means to be part of a community and family. These are common elements enough to any YA or middle-grade fantasy story, but Okorafor takes them and writes twists to make the story surprising and fresh.

Akata Witch was published April 14th, 2011 by Viking Children’s Press.

Advertisements

Bronx Masquerade

unknown

At the end of a month of studying Harlem Renaissance poetry, high school English teacher Mr. Ward assigns an essay to class to break down what they’ve learned. One student, Wesley, hands in poems instead, and Mr. Ward asks him to read aloud one of them. The students’ response to Wesley’s words lead to an open mike poetry reading every week in class, where all students are offered the chance to read their original work. Each student takes advantage of the opportunity to tell the world something personal about themselves and how they see their place in society.

Bronx Masquerade is a novel written in 18 different voices. The story follows a year in the life of a classroom of high school students in the Bronx as they learn to express themselves through poetry and learn to look beyond the facades that their classmates present to the world. Each student has a chapter which ends in their poem, and as the year of poetry progresses the students realize that although on the surface they are all so different – black, white, Latinx, male, female, teen mother, heavy, thin, bold, shy, beautiful, athletic, artistic – they all face similar challenges and experience similar feelings.

The themes of difference and community and future resonate throughout the novel and the poems. Each of these teens experiences individual versions of loneliness and isolation; each has feelings of not fitting in, or of standing out for unwanted reasons (whether it be Janelle’s weight or Devon’s basketball prowess or Judianne’s fashion or Chankara’s black eye or Porscha’s mom dying of an overdose). But as they sit and really listen to each other speak, they all begin to realize that they are part of a community, and have more in common than perhaps they first thought. That said, each poem and poet is unique.

In the beginning, thoughts of the future are hazy for most of the teens. Hope is a foreign concept.  Most have lost friends or family members to gun violence, while some have just left. But as the kids come together and see they are not alone, the future becomes something attainable. Dreams are ok.  Dreams might come true, with hard work and focus.  Hope is ok.

This isn’t a book with a strong plot or story line. With 18 different narrators, it takes a few chapters to get into the flow of the style and keep characters straight, and you aren’t getting a chance to follow one teen through a year of development and change.  What you do see, rather, is snapshots of the students’ lives and how they react to the changes and revelations of others.

Coretta Scott King Award winning author Nikki Grimes has written a novel that sends an important message to teens to not judge each other, to get to know people beyond preconceived ideas, and to always hang on to hope.  I loved this book, but read a lot of reviews from people (generally adults) who did not.  The main criticism seems to be the lack of continuity of a main character. And while I grant that it is a choppy style to read, the book does a fabulous job of showing what lies beneath the surface is not always what the observer expects to find.

Bronx Masquerade was published December 31st, 2001 by Speak.

If I Was Your Girl

unknown

18-year-old Amanda Hardy is the new senior at Lambertville High School in Tennessee. She just moved down there to live with her dad, after her time at her previous school ended in a suicide attempt and left her scarred and too terrified to return. High school should not be dangerous, but for Amanda, it is. Because she was born Andrew.

But Lambertville is a new chance, a new opportunity to fit in and make friends and have a life beyond Saturday evening take-out with her mom. As the new girl, she is automatically intriguing to both boys and girls alike. And not only does she make a circle of friends in the close-knit conservative town, she also meets the boy of her dreams. But how close friends can they be, when she can’t be honest with them?

This is the story of a girl who wants to fit in, have a “normal” high school experience, and not have to look over her shoulder. It is the story of family. And it is a fun boy-meets-girl-and-they-fall-in-love story. It is the story of a girl who hasn’t received a lot of love and respect in her life, and is now surrounded by friends and family who give it to her. And what is awesome is she realizes she deserves it.

Despite a suicide attempt and some quite graphic violence, the novel isn’t that dark.  It has moments of light and joy and humour, and real-life high-school experiences that took me back to those years, hanging out with friends, shopping for prom dresses with giggling girls, first kisses.

There are tons of characters that surround Amanda in the novel – her mom and dad, the girls who make up her circle, Bee, Grant, Parker, and so many more. The friends run the gamut from religious to fashionista to closeted lesbian to bi. Some are judgey, some accepting. Grant is sweet and protective. Her parents are present throughout, and although her mom struggles at first to understand, in the end just wants her child alive and happy. Dad takes longer to accept her and vacillates between feeling self-righteously unsupportive one moment, and in the next, trying to find a way to accept and protect his child.

The big reveal was well done and not in the way I expected. And as much as I always want closure, the open ending is perfect for this story.

This is a story about a trans girl written by a trans woman, with a cover that features a beautiful trans model. Read the author’s notes at the end. She writes separate messages to both the trans and the non-trans community and explains her motivations for writing the novel the way she did. Incredible.

Is the portrayal of Amanda’s life as a trans woman realistic?  Not totally, according to author Meredith Russo, but life can be difficult enough for trans teens, and perhaps reading something that is not 100% true to most experiences can give hope, and offer the belief that life can get better and there can be acceptance.

If I Was Your Girl was published May 3rd, 2016 by Flatiron Books.

One Half from the East

unknown-1

Happy 2017, everyone!! Here’s to a great year of reading.

In many places, life is just easier if you are a boy. For you and for your family. Afghanistan is one such place.

10-year-old Obayda lives in Kabul with her mother, father and three older sisters. She loves to go to school and wear dresses and dance and swing her beautiful hair around. Her father is a respected policeman, and the family is content and prosperous. Her future looks bright. But the future cannot always be predicted. 

One day, as she waits outside the pharmacy for her father to pick up a prescription for her illness, a bomb blows up and changes everything. Her father lost a leg and his will to live, and the family had to leave their life in Kabul to move in with his family in a small village.  Life is so different now. Her father refuses to leave his room and barely speaks to the girls.

Obayda’s aunt, the nosy, bossy one, has an idea to change the family’s luck. Obayda is to becomes Obayd, a bacha posh, or girl who dresses and acts and becomes, for all intents and purposes, a boy.  Because a boy in the family brings luck. And maybe, just maybe, Obayd can turn the family’s bad fortune around.

This is a fascinating story, and I wasn’t sure whether it was based in fact, or was just an incredible idea. I had never heard of such a thing. But a quick google search gave me a ton of information. (I do miss the trek to the library to research, I have to admit, although my would-rather-spend-a-snowy-day-inside-in-pyjamas self has no complaints about the internet). Having a bacha posh in the family is not an unusual practice in Afghanistan. Not to say that every family does it, but it is not uncommon.

In Afghanistan, decisions are made by men. Women and girls have comparatively less value, and an Afghan girl is born with little control over her own life. She looks forward to a life of essentially servitude, having her life in the hands of first her father, then her brothers or husband. This would affect a family with no sons. So in some families, mothers dress a daughter as a boy, give her a short haircut and boys’ clothing, and treat her as a son. To the world outside the home, and even within the home, bacha posh are boys.

For the Afghan girl chosen to become a boy, a whole new world is before her. She can now get a job, run around without an escort, play sports, go to school. She gets to live a life unknown to Afghan women.

Obayd is one such bacha posh. She becomes he, not only in the eyes of the village, but in her family’s as well. He is given the first choice of meat at the table at dinner, is not expected to help with chores, but to run off and explore and play. He goes to school with boys, he is a boy. But at first, it is not that easy. Obayd is sure that everyone knows, and, having no brothers and an absentee father, is unsure how to behave. But then he meets Rashim, who knows at a glance what he is, and the two become inseparable. Rashim teaches Obayd how to be a boy, how to embrace the freedom, and Obayd enters a world he never knew existed.

Author Nadia Hashimi got right into the mind of a young girl and her portrayal of the conflicts that Obayd/a faces are honest and poignant. With Obayda’s change of clothes and hairstyle, she also gets a change in perception and potential. She can now do things that before no one thought her capable of trying. Sports, designing and building a crutch for her father, shopping in a store by herself. But with the new advantages also comes a certain loss; she can no longer be one of the sisters, she is now more worthy than they and their former close comradery is ruined. Obayda sees the oppression she lives under with new eyes, as she gets the rare chance to leave it behind and live it from the other side. Her character has the true flaws and childishness that makes her authentic, she has the excitement of trying something otherwise forbidden. The new experience also gives her a new maturity to face her life when she realizes the freedom may end.

The other characters were as well drawn and real as Obayda, and round out her experience beautifully.  Her sisters go from close confidants to remote roommates. Her father takes a new pride in her, her mother sees the problems and the rewards.  Her friends are wonderful; while they may suspect her true nature, they treat her as a boy without question.

Hashimi also transports the reader right into Afghanistan with her impeccable and polished prose. The story is told without ever obviously dumping information, but rather minute details are woven throughout about the culture and traditions and landscape that bring the novel and the people within to life. She draws vivid pictures of the dusty roads and crowded market, the separate buildings for boys and girls to attend school, the religious practices, the mealtimes and division of chores, and the visceral terror the population has of the warlord that reigns over the village.

The pacing of the novel is equal to the characters and setting; it moves quickly through Obayda’s transformation and education as a bacha posh, the freedoms attained as a boy, the realization that it might not last, and the desperation to make the newfound liberty permanent.

The questions this book raises about gender and perception and equality are relevant for any age to consider. While this is a middle-grade novel, it is a fantastic read for everyone. I couldn’t put it down.

One Half from the East was published September 6th, 2016 by HarperCollins.

My Name is Not Easy

unknown

In 1960’s Alaska, many communities had no educational system and the children had to leave home to attend school. Sacred Heart was one such institution, populated by children who had no school in their remote northern homes.

On Luke’s first day at Sacred Heart, hundreds of miles from his home on the tundra in the Arctic, the 12-year-old learns that his Inupiaq language is forbidden. He has the marks from Father Mullen’s ruler across his hands to remind him. So he leaves his language and name behind, keeping only his 10-year-old brother Bunna with him as a reminder of home and a different life.

But while the cafeteria and classes start out divided, Luke and Bunna now stand beside Amiq, Sonny, Junior, Chickie and Donna, a new family made up of Indian, Eskimo, and white children. All are trying to figure out their own place not only at the school but also in the world that is changing at such a fast pace. And they find that they are stronger together.

This book has been sitting in my head for a couple of weeks now. It is challenging to find the words to review it (although you know I’m going to ramble on for quite awhile anyway) because it tells so many stories that it is difficult to know where to start.

This book is semi-biographical; author Debby Dahl Edwardson based it on her husband’s own real-life experiences growing up in the 60’s in northern Alaska, and going off to school hundreds of miles from home. He was Luke. And Bunna was his brother. Edwardson’s love of the land and people are shine through in her writing. She handles the subject of Native and Inuit children forced to leave their homes with sensitivity and honesty.

There are so many heartbreaking moments in the story, from the loss of little brother Issac through a forced adoption, to words of anger between brothers as they go their separate ways for the first time in their lives, to the moment when the children at the school finally recognize the injustice they are forced to live.

In equal measure are the uplifting moments. The development of a family at the school, discovering skills they didn’t know they possessed, the realization that each has the others’ backs, learning that they are capable of inciting change if they stand together.

The school is a microcosm of the world at large in the 60’s. There is change happening at such an incredible rate that no one seems able to keep up. Even the Fathers and Sisters that run the school seem lost and confused at times when faced with situations unfamiliar to them.

The novel tells so many stories at once, with so many different narrators, that I often lost track of who belonged to which one. It jumped around in time and tense, and I learned very quickly to note the date at each chapter heading, or a lot of the novel would not have made sense to me. It seems almost as if Edwardson had more stories than she had pages to fill, and had trouble choosing which were most important. But understandably so. Each character is distinct and comes to the school from a unique background, bringing a particular perspective to the story.

The disjointed feeling I had while reading, however, is an amazing way to illustrate even a faint echo of the feeling the children must have experienced when taken from their home and family and forced to turn their backs on their own language and culture. Where do I turn, who do I trust, why am I here? I do not think I am overstating it to call it a form of cultural genocide.

A lot of the experiences seemed disconnected, with no obvious outcome or result. And the final chapters, with the huge climax, seem to come out of left field.

All that said, the author’s notes at the end of the book tie it all together nicely. She gives historical facts and background to a lot of the events that are missing from the book, most likely because they would have been difficult to fit in from the childrens’ perspectives. They wouldn’t have had access to a lot of the information first hand.

It is a complex story about events in history that have been but a footnote in most texts. It should be read by everyone.

My Name is Not Easy was published October 1st, 2011 by Skyscape.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

unknown

This book has been around for about a decade and probably doesn’t need my feeble attempts to review it, but I read it in one sitting and then couldn’t get it out of my mind for days afterwards. Alternating between hilarity and heartbreak, this novel covers every emotion out there. The very things that make you laugh also make you cry.

Junior is 14 years old, part white, mostly Indian, and living on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Born with hydrocephalus, he has a large head and weird eyesight and big hands and feet. He has faced mental and physical challenges his whole life, but he knows he is smart and that there is more to his life than the mocking and beatings he takes daily at the reservation school. The other Indians on the rez call him retard and faggot and after he transfers from Wellpinit High to a high school in Reardon, an apple – red on the outside, white on the inside. He’s the only Indian at Reardon, an all-white town school 22 miles from home. Well, the high school mascot is an Indian, and the name of the school sports teams is the Redskins. You can imagine how welcome he feels.

But the one thing that Junior has is hope. He doesn’t want to spend his life in an alcoholic haze, he doesn’t want to attend funerals every other week, he doesn’t want to settle for a life that is laid out bare in front of him. And he manages, through his brains and basketball skills, to make a name for himself at his new school. Which, by the way, is Arnold there.

Through it all, the good and the bad, Junior never loses his sense of humour and irony. The story of this one year in his life is about strength in the face of adversity, resilience when he is emotionally and physically knocked down once again, and finding the joy and laughter in life, even in times of sorrow and tragedy. Junior faces poverty and prejudice and death, and survives with his sense of self intact. He understands that poverty begets poverty, which in turn leads to hopelessness and belief that the life is deserved and can never be challenged or changed. He knows there is no dignity in it; the dignity must come from within the person.

Author Sherman Alexie is Spokane. He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and attended Reardon High as the only Native student. This story is based on his life, and is written with a humour and honesty that so beautifully shows Junior’s relationships to his family and friends (both new and old) and the people on his reservation. His love and understanding for his family and his devotion to friends are just facets of the kindness and strength that hold him up. The reservation itself, with the generations that have lived on it and those to come, plays a prominent role in his development and outlook on his life and future.

The illustrations done by Ellen Forney throughout bring the story to life even more so. Junior spends his life drawing to express himself, and I love the various styles – the more realistic portraits of his family, honest depictions of how he views each member, and slightly more cartoonish ones for situations when he wants to express feelings and impressions.

This book is full of mature themes, and may be tough for readers at the younger end of the YA range. But it offers educators and parents the opportunity to open many avenues of discussion. It should be on everyone’s to-read list.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was published September 12th, 2007 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers