YA Review: Mother of the Sea by Zetta Elliott

Mother of the SeaMother of the Sea written by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: When her village is raided, a teenage girl finds herself on a brutal journey to the coast of Africa and across the Atlantic. Her only comfort is a small child who clings to her for protection. But once they board the slave ship, the child reveals her rebellious nature and warns that her mother—a fierce warrior—is coming to claim them all.

While I love all books by Zetta Elliott, the cover alone on this one would have convinced me to buy it if I hadn’t known who she was. It is gorgeous. You will draw readers in just by placing it cover out on the shelf (you do do that, right?).

This is the kind of book that should be read in history classes and English classes. Elliott is a world class author and her language is beautiful. There is no reason not to study the book from that angle. There is also an important perspective and piece of history that is not typically studied in social studies curriculums. The slave trade is mentioned in history class, but in a very clinical, sterile kind of way. A way that ignores the humanity of the people captured and forcibly brought here. That’s probably to make white students, families, teachers, and text book authors more comfortable with their white guilt, but it is neither fair nor wise. White students need to look at their own complicity in a system that was built on that trade and students of color, particularly black students, need to see people like them in books depicted as human. Elliott does that here in a way that we don’t often see in traditional publishing or school.

The subject matter is difficult here and rape is referenced in an oblique way. Mother of the Sea brought to mind two other books, one a picture book and the other another YA novel. In the Time of the Drums by Kim Siegelson deals with slaves drawn into the water to return home. Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun begins in the same brutal way with the Middle Passage.

While you could hand this to just about anyone who enjoys historical novels or magical realism, Mother of the Sea is perfect for reluctant readers. Suspense, beautiful language that draws you in, short, and captivating readers won’t want to put it down. High school libraries or libraries with high school age populations absolutely must have this on their shelves. These stories are important and Elliott is a top-notch writer. While a brutal story, she lulls you with the beauty of her words and her craft as a storyteller. Middle school libraries, well, your mileage will vary. I personally don’t see a problem with having this on your shelves. Most middle school American history classes discuss slavery and the slave trade, so clearly it isn’t a taboo subject (and it shouldn’t be anyway, preserving innocence of students only protects white privileged students, no one else). But I also recognize that it could be an uphill battle if this book gets challenged by a disgruntled parent. You as a librarian will have to make that call.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.

YA Review: The Blazing Star by Imani Josey

Blazing StarThe Blazing Star written by Imani Josey

From Goodreads: Sixteen-year-old Portia White is used to being overlooked—after all, her twin sister Alex is a literal genius. But when Portia holds an Egyptian scarab beetle during history class, she takes center stage in a way she never expected: she faints. Upon waking, she is stronger, faster, and braver than before. And when she accidentally touches the scarab again? She wakes up in ancient Egypt—her sister and an unwitting freshman in tow. Great. Mysterious and beautiful, Egypt is more than they could have ever imagined from their days in the classroom. History comes alive as the three teens realize that getting back to the present will be the most difficult thing they’ve ever done. Stalked by vicious monsters called Scorpions, every step in the right direction means a step closer to danger. As Portia and the girls discover that they’re linked to the past by more than just chance, they have to decide what it truly means to be yourself, to love your sister, and to find your way home.

I am a sucker for books with Ancient Egypt. I fell in love with Ancient Egypt in sixth grade and pursued Egyptology in my undergraduate years going to far as to spend a semester abroad in Cairo. I’ve even taken Middle Egyptian and learned to read and write hieroglyphics. I’ve been to the Pyramids, to the Valley of the Kings…you get the point. Before I could get there and study Ancient Egypt, though, I read about it. And to be honest a lot of what’s out there is ridiculously inaccurate, silly, colonial, or some combination of those. And yet I still have a soft spot for all those books and when I come across new ones I’ll still read them. Call me sentimental.

One thing I only recently realized about all these books I devoured as a kid, though, is that all the main characters are white. Either those existing in Ancient Egypt or those looking back at it (or even traveling back to it), which of course would not be the case at all. Call that prewoke reading if you will.

I think I found The Blazing Star through following the author on Twitter and however I found it, I am so glad I did. The book features a black girl going back in time with her twin sister and another black girl. And the people they meet are not white. They’re given appropriate skin colors and heritages. It was eye opening to contrast it with everything else I have read (and loved, as problematic as it all is). For all those kids, and girls in particular, who are not white and have fallen in love with Ancient Egypt they deserve to see that they are more closely linked with Ancient Egypt than people that look like me are. This is a book for them.

I appreciated that Josey appears to have done her research. The clothes, activities, and places are much more reflective of what Ancient Egypt would have looked and felt like than a lot of other books out there. The story follows the Ancient Egyptian calendar. They speak another language. Even the weather gets a mention. Sure, it ends up diverging from the reality of what Ancient Egypt would have been for the sake of a plot, but in the context of the book that’s okay. She kept what she could and embellished it in a fun and suspenseful way.

This one is definitely worth having on your shelves, especially if you have Egypt fanatics. While I would call it YA because it features some very light romance and because the girls are 16 years old, there’s nothing in it that would make it inappropriate for younger audiences (seven and eight grade). The reading level and length might deter some kids, but don’t rule it out simply because you serve a middle school population.

One complaint about the cover. Two actually. First are the Pyramids silhouetted in Portia’s head. Everyone thinks of those when they think of Egyptian history, but by the time most Egyptian history people know about (Ramses, Tut, etc.) and by the time this book takes place, they were already very, very old. Yes, they’re iconically Egyptian, but it’s not historically accurate. I know, I know. Nit-picky. Also the menes forming around Portia’s head was not a headdress worn by just anyone. It’s something worn by male pharaohs. Again, nit-picky. Otherwise, this cover is going to suck in readers. It’s lovely and screams Egyptian adventure.

Be sure to purchase The Blazing Star and keep your eye out for sequels. I know I will be.

YA Review: The Ash Mistry series by Sarwat Chadda

Savage Fortress

City of Death











World of Darkness



Ash Mistry Series by Sarwat Chadda

Book 1: Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress

Book 2: Ash Mistry and the City of Death

Book 3: Ash Mistry and the World of Darkness

From Goodreads: Ash Mistry hates India. Which is a problem since his uncle has brought him and his annoying younger sister Lucky there to take up a dream job with the mysterious Lord Savage. But Ash immediately suspects something is very wrong with the eccentric millionaire. Soon, Ash finds himself in a desperate battle to stop Savage’s masterplan – the opening of the Iron Gates that have kept Ravana, the demon king, at bay for four millennia…

I really, really enjoyed this series. Growing up, like many kids, I was totally into Greek and Roman mythology. Then I found Ancient Egyptian mythology and culture. Back then there were was very little YA and MG literature that I could get my hands on that featured good Ancient Egyptian content (I eventually started reading the Elizabeth Peters mysteries, which had a lot of romance and stuff that I wasn’t all that interested in) or even really Greek and Roman mythology and history. Now that Rick Riordan has written all those Percy Jackson books there’s plenty of Greek content out there. There are also the Kane Chronicles. And now it looks like Norse mythology is catching on. I think it’s great that there is a lot out there for kids who are interested in mythology and ancient cultures, but it’s really mostly focused on the Greeks and Romans. Which is why I think series like this one are awesome.

Ash Mistry is based around Indian mythology and it’s so rich. It helps that Chadda appears to know his Indian mythology, ideology, and history inside and out. It’s so seamlessly woven into the story of Ash. From Ash’s rebirths to the Carnival of the Flesh that appears in the third book. It all plays such an important role in the story. Chadda never panders to the Western audience by having asides that explain various aspects of the mythology, but there is explaining. You don’t need to know Indian mythology to understand and follow the story.

I did find the third book moved more slowly for me. I don’t know why. It was by far the most violent in action and depiction. Otherwise the books move along at a nice clip. They are full of action, but aren’t just plot driven. Ash grows and changes through the series into a wiser character. There’s a tiny bit of romance. Ash has a crush on a girl and there is something brewing between him and Parvati, but it’s never really the focus of the story and there’s only one kiss at the very end of the series. Ash is also incredibly devoted to his family which I thought deviated from the standard YA hero story and was a nice touch.

The series is definitely for older audiences. I had originally picked up the first book to see if it was something I could get for our fifth grade students. I don’t think it’s the best fit. There is a lot of violence. A lot. And it’s a lot more graphically depicted than, say, the Riordan books. That makes me think these books are really more YA than middle grade. Darn. They’re so good. I’m mulling it all over. Since we don’t have anything else that features Indian mythology I would consider having the first book on our shelves. That one is probably the least violent or graphic. I highly recommend this for libraries with middle school and high school age patrons. It’s so engrossing and mythology is certainly a popular subject.

There is one big, big problem with the series, though. Only the first two books have been released here in the U.S. I got the first two books from my public library and had to buy the third from a British dealer on Amazon. Why would the publisher do that? It was incredibly frustrating.

Middle Grade Review: Half a Man by Michael Morpurgo

Half a ManHalf a Man by Michael Morpurgo

From Goodreads: From a young age, Michael was both fascinated by and afraid of his grandfather. Grandpa’s ship was torpedoed during the Second World War, leaving him with terrible burns. Every time he came to stay, Michael was warned by his mother that he must not stare, he must not make too much noise, he must not ask Grandpa any questions about his past. As he grows older, Michael stays with his grandfather during the summer holidays, and as he finally learns the story behind Grandpa’s injuries, he gets to know the real man behind the solemn figure from his childhood. Michael can see beyond the burns, and this gives him the power to begin healing some of the scars that have divided his family for so long.

This was such an interesting book. It was a very simple, but very deep. It looked at World War II from the perspective of its lasting impact on veteran’s families. Michael’s grandfather was badly burned while fighting in the Pacific and both his mental trauma, particularly how it made him feel about himself, and his physical change, make his life a struggle. People are afraid of him, his wife leaves him, and he is frequently angry. His daughter was afraid of him and at first his grandson was too.

But here is where the story really takes off. Michael, in visiting his grandfather, begins to look past the scars and taciturn attitude. He realizes they share a lot in common including a love of being together quietly. The grandfather becomes a friend to Michael and finds some redemption for the botched childhood of his daughter and his failed marriage. He begins to share his wounds and his regrets with Michael and his mother. I wouldn’t say life becomes grand and rosy, but the two find a deep connection and love that is the star of the story.

World War II books seem popular at any level, but I would say it’s best suited to middle and high school. Even adults could enjoy it (I certainly did). There isn’t anything overly gruesome in the story, it’s just deeper than I think most young readers are going to read and I don’t think they’ll find it particularly interesting.

Middle Grade Review: Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

ZahrahZahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

From Goodreads: In the northern Ooni Kingdom, fear of the unknown runs deep, and children born dada are rumored to have special powers. Thirteen-year-old Zahrah Tsami feels like a normal girl—she grows her own floral computer, has mirrors sewn onto her clothes, and stays clear of the Forbidden Greeny Jungle. But unlike other children in the village of Kirki, Zahrah was born with the telling dadalocks. Only her best friend, Dari, isn’t afraid of her, even when something unusual begins happening—something that definitely makes Zahrah different. The two friends determine to investigate, edging closer and closer to danger. When Dari’s life is threatened, Zahrah must face her worst fears alone, including the very thing that makes her different.

The world building in this book was incredible. Okorafor is so clever in the things she weaves into new worlds. There isn’t just a layer of magic or technology laid over our own world. And it isn’t some vaguely medieval setting. In the Ooni Kingdom plants are an integral part of their world. They are used to make technology (the old ebooks are a special kind of leaf), they are used to make buildings (they are literally hollowed out or shaped as they grow to create skyscrapers and libraries), and then there is the Greenie Jungle that lurks just on the outskirts of their world.

When Zahrah’s best friend falls into a coma she has to face both who she is and the Greenie Jungle to save him. I loved that Zahrah was not necessarily brave and she is fighting a lot of her demons, but her voice was never irritating. She is afraid, but she doesn’t throw up her hands and whine about how she can’t do it. She has been picked on at school and people think she’s strange for her hair. This has hurt her, but she doesn’t throw up her hands and let other people tell her who she is. It was refreshing, first to have a girl saving a boy, but also to watch a girl who come into her own without being a “chosen one”. The story is really about Zahrah finding her inner strength. She does have a special power, but she really only draws on it in a major way at the very end, and even then not in a deus-ex-machina way.

Zahrah’s journey also includes elements of discovering the world around her and questioning everything she has been taught. She comes to realize that maybe her people have been closed minded and afraid. I think a lot of adolescents go through this kind of discovery process where their worlds open up around them, at least in an intellectual sense. Zahrah’s transformation from timid girl to confident young woman is one a lot kids will want to relate to and watch. As an introvert I appreciated that, although she gains confidence in herself and discovers how to use her new skill, she doesn’t become a different person. She is still quiet and thoughtful, she just now has an inner strength.

The reading level and length make this much more of a book for middle school age kids, which is too bad because it was awesome and I would have loved to put it in my library. I may still. Buy this if you have fantasy fans in your library. Buy it if you are in an elementary library that has really strong readers. We need more variety in our fantasy and not another book set in a thinly disguised Europe.

Biography Review: Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson

CarverCarver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson

From Goodreads: George Washington Carver was born a slave in Missouri about 1864 and was raised by the childless white couple who had owned his mother. In 1877 he left home in search of an education, eventually earning a master’s degree. In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to start the agricultural department at the all-black-staffed Tuskegee Institute, where he spent the rest of his life seeking solutions to the poverty among landless black farmers by developing new uses for soil-replenishing crops such as peanuts, cowpeas, and sweet potatoes. Carver’s achievements as a botanist and inventor were balanced by his gifts as a painter, musician, and teacher.

This was an incredible and eye-opening book. Unsurprisingly I learned nothing about Carver in my history classes and I’m pretty sure no one is explicitly studying him in any of our current social studies curriculums. Such a shame because he was a fascinating figure. While relegated to terrible jobs on chicken farms because of the pervasive racism at the time he did some incredible research into soil science and farming. All of it was inspired by a desire to help poor black people raise themselves out of poverty and do a better job farming. Carver is best known for peanut butter, I think, but there was SO much more to his studies.

I love novels in verse and this was an wonderful way to open up the history here. Carver really came to life on the page as did the times he lived in. Nelson’s work is always worth reading, but especially this book.

A heads up: the n-word appears in one (possibly two) of the poems. In context I think it makes sense, so it isn’t gratuitous use of the word. The inclusion of the word didn’t make or break my decision not to purchase the book, either. I do hesitate, however, to have materials with slurs or with stereotyped/racist content and depictions on our shelves because our students are not having conversations around that material, particularly the materials they pick up in the library (they take them home, read them on their own, and return them). Instead of learning about the power of words (or images) and how hurtful they can be and how they can be used intentionally to hurt and oppress others, they are simply internalizing those images and words. And that is insidious. It eats away at their ability to call out racism (and other -isms) and see how it truly influences our world.

More to the point, though, for buying this for an elementary school library, is the reading ability required to follow the narrative. The poems aren’t totally straight forward. It’s free verse, but the mix of narrators and settings made it a little harder to follow. This makes for a deep reading experience, but one that I think is above even my fifth grader’s heads. Sometimes I can make the case that strong fourth grade readers and fifth graders can handle a book that is more middle school (Almost Astronauts for example, or Moonbird), but with the verse format in Carver, I think they would really struggle.

I would have no hesitation buying this book for a middle or high school library, however. I would highly recommend it for an English and/or history class to use too. There is so much good information and history and writing here. So much!

YA Review: Peas and Carrots by Tanita S. Davis

Peas and CarrotsPeas and Carrots by Tanita S. Davis

From Goodreads: In this new YA novel by Tanita S. Davis, the Coretta Scott King Honor author of Mare’s War, a white teen named Dess is placed into foster care with a black family while her mother is incarcerated.

Dess has had a hard life. And things have gotten more complicated since her mother is incarcerated for her own protection. She is going to be a witness against Dess’s father, an abusive drug dealer who her mother has been tied to for years by her drug habit and children. Dess has endured years of abuse and neglect and has a baby brother she has tried to help care for, but ultimately they were put into the foster care system. Dess struggles with being separated from her brother and with the sudden appearance of controlling adults.

Dess has a grandmother, but she is just too old to care for Dess and her brother, something Dess doesn’t understand and cannot forgive her for. After causing trouble by running away from the group home, the family that took in Dess’s brother has offered to foster her as well. Now Dess has to recenter herself in this new family and find her place in it.

As much as the story is about Dess, it’s also about Hope, the biological daughter of the foster family who is the same age as Dess. The two really struggle to build a friendship and sisterhood with Dess constantly sniping at Hope and Hope’s selfishness.

Despite sounding like an incredibly depressing read from that description, it’s not! Peas and Carrots was a quick, fun read. Hope and Dess both come across as teenage girls and as an adult I kind of wanted to slap them both, but you understand where they’re coming from. This would be a great book to hand to girls who like girl drama and friendship in their books. They get in some funny jabs and Dess is totally bowled over by Hope’s handsome uncle which is hilarious.

I am not wild about the cover. I think it’s not particularly interesting and the font and colors are kind of an odd choice, BUT it did make me check my biases! I assumed that Dess, the foster girl, was the black girl (the description from Goodreads above was not the one I had read) on the cover. Ouch.

As always, Davis has delivered a fantastic book about family, friendship and finding yourself.

Summer Reading Round Up Part 1

I did a fair amount of reading this summer for fun and wanted to get some quick thoughts up about the books I read. The following books are from the upper end of what I read.

Painted SkyUnder a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

I had really mixed feelings about this one mostly because of my own personal reading preferences. While reading the book I was totally into it. The writing was wonderful and the story engaging. I liked the characters. But, it’s essentially a romance and I’m not feeling romances right now. Maybe on a less personal-preference note, why do all these books have to have a romance in them? Maybe I’m just an old married lady, but do teens want romance in everything? (This is definitely a teen book with an attempted rape or two.) I think the story would have been plenty interesting enough without the romance in it. Two girls, one Asian, one black, trying to make it across the U.S. during the period of Western Expansion? That’s a good story with a lot of problems without the complication of love and squishy feelings. Still, while I was reading it I really enjoyed it. Well worth adding to a library collection or simply picking up to read. Also the cover is beautiful.

RivalsRivals in the City by Y.S. Lee

I absolutely love this series. It’s a fun, quick mystery with some other interesting character development going on. Mary is half Lascar, but can pass as white and often does. She was also orphaned very young and has a checkered past that’s given her a lot of baggage. I thought this was a great conclusion to the series and read it in day. The question is, why do I accept the romance in this one, but not other books? I don’t know. I suspect because despite some of the issues they tackle these books are lighter in tone. It’s also definitely not a focus, but still a major plot point, if that makes any sense at all. Lee obviously has a love of this time period and I would give the series to any middle or high schooler who likes Victorian England and mysteries.

CottageThe Cottage in the Woods by Katherine Coville

Jane Eyre is my all-time favorite book. I reread it once every year or so and still love it after reading it the first time my freshman year of high school. The Cottage in the Woods is Jane Eyre meets fractured fairy tales. It is beautifully written and just really well imagined and executed. That being said at 400 pages and with a younger feel with the fantasy/fairy tale aspect it might have a niche audience. Still, it’s brilliant and everyone should read it.

PoetryHow I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson

I love novels in verse and this one didn’t disappoint. We picked up a copy at ALA in June and talked a bit with Nelson (she was delightful). Apparently she lived in Sacramento and, according to her book more than once, which added a nice personal connection. This is a memoir of her childhood growing up moving around the country as an Air Force family and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights Movement. I think her personal awareness of the time period really adds something to the history and I think the book would make a great read aloud or read together for any class that studies it.

American AceAmerican Ace by Marilyn Nelson

Another great novel in verse from Marilyn Nelson. We got the ARC of this at ALA and I wanted to preview it before I passed it on to any of the kids in my lower school library. American Ace covers some of the history of the Tuskegee Airmen through a boy who has learned that his grandfather was not actually his grandfather. There is both the history of the Airmen and a lot of personal details about how Connor and his family take this news. I think we skipped this bit of history when I took American history THREE TIMES. Jeez, Louise. That’s ridiculous. Let’s get wonderful books like this into kids hands so we don’t have to rely on textbooks to give us a broad picture of our history. The book is totally appropriate for upper elementary (simply based on reading level) on up into high school.

RazorhurstRazorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

Holy crap this book was so, so good. It’s also incredibly violent. But so, so good. Larbalestier can write. She really brought the neighborhood to life and it’s a character of its own in the book. There is a lot of tension and suspense, but there is a ton of character development. And these characters are damaged. Their baggage drives the story as much as the action does. I love ghost stories too and the addition of Kelpie’s ability to see ghosts was My one “complaint” was that I didn’t realize it takes place over the course of one day.

New Adult Review: My Name is Jason. Mine Too. by Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin

My Name IsMy Name Is Jason. Mine Too. poetry by Jason Reynolds, art by Jason Griffin.

From GoodReads:

Our story. Our way.

A poet

An artist

One black

One white

Two voices

One journey

I would have loved this book in my early twenties. I probably would have wanted to copy the idea of combining poetry and art. That isn’t to say I don’t like it now. I loved it now, I just wish I had had it back then too.

Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin were college roommates who were lucky enough to become close friends. When they got out of college they moved to New York together where life was not easy. This cemented their relationship even more.

Together they put together this slim book that combines poems written by Reynolds and art done by Griffin. The art and poems weave beautifully together to tell the story of how hard those first years out of college were and how hard it is to be young adult. I could certainly connect with their fears and anxieties about not knowing if they would make rent, worrying that they had made poor career choices, and wanting to find somewhere to belong. This is the book I would give to someone graduating from college. It so perfectly captures that weird stage between the relative safety of college and the time when you can look back and realize you’re really an adult making it in life. It’s also a wonderful glimpse into how strong the friendships and relationships you make at this stage in your life are. I think older high schoolers might find comfort in it too knowing that it’s okay for them not to figure it all out in college. Certainly the book skews toward a more middle class experience, but I don’t know what kind of SES either Reynolds or Griffin came from. Reynolds finished his college degree, but Griffin did not and he talks very honestly in the opening and ending of the books (two dual voice longer poems) about that decision and the doubts he had about it. I think it’s refreshing to see a perspective that didn’t take the college path and still managed to turn out just fine.

I know there is all kinds of vitriol about the new adult label, and I agree that it’s silly that it’s essentially come to mean steamy YA, but this is really what new adult is and should be. It’s a book about how difficult and confusing life can be after college. Especially since you’re sort of expected to strike out on your own (only failures live at home! which is of course not true at all) and know exactly what you’re doing. I’m really glad Reynolds and Griffin put their difficult experiences out there for others to draw comfort and strength from.