YA Review: When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

When I Was the GreatestWhen I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

From GoodReads: A lot of the stuff that gives my neighborhood a bad name, I don’t really mess with. The guns and drugs and all that, not really my thing.
Nah, not his thing. Ali’s got enough going on, between school and boxing and helping out at home. His best friend Noodles, though. Now there’s a dude looking for trouble—and, somehow, it’s always Ali around to pick up the pieces. But, hey, a guy’s gotta look out for his boys, right? Besides, it’s all small potatoes; it’s not like anyone’s getting hurt.
And then there’s Needles. Needles is Noodles’s brother. He’s got a syndrome, and gets these ticks and blurts out the wildest, craziest things. It’s cool, though: everyone on their street knows he doesn’t mean anything by it.
Yeah, it’s cool…until Ali and Noodles and Needles find themselves somewhere they never expected to be…somewhere they never should’ve been—where the people aren’t so friendly, and even less forgiving.

Another winner from Jason Reynolds. Clearly he likes to write stories that take place in Bed Stuy. Reynolds is really good at creating a sense of place. He describes the setting so well it’s easy to picture yourself standing around seeing the neighborhood. And part of the setting are the neighbors. There is always mention of the people who live around the neighborhood and around the main characters of the book and they really help bring the story to life.

When I Was Greatest was actually pretty exciting, not something I always expect from realistic fiction. Even though the trouble Ali and Noodles get into doesn’t happen until relatively late in the book (maybe a little past half way through) you just know it’s coming and you can’t help wanting to tell them what a bad idea their plan to go to this party is. But the beauty of the story is when Ali reflects back on whose fault everything is and he takes as much blame as he places on Noodles. As an adult reading it (and probably teens will pick up on this too) there isn’t really any one person to blame. Plus they’re 15, they make bad choices sometimes, but those shouldn’t have to place them in the danger they find themselves in.

When I Was Greatest is less introspective than The Boy in the Black Suit, but Ali and Matt have their thoughtfulness in common. Greatest is a lot more about the friendship between Ali and Noodles and Needles and their brotherhood. There are also themes of parent-child relationships and Ali’s relationship with his sister which contrasts with the sibling relationship between Noodles and Needles. This would be a great book for boys to pick up, but anyone interested in more contemporary, urban fiction should give Reynolds a try. At 230 pages I’m not sure it’s exactly the book for reluctant readers, but it’s exciting enough that they might stick with it. Plus the dialog and setting might draw in readers (this is no Victorian classic).

If I have one quibble it’s with the cover. First of all there is a gun in the story, but I wouldn’t say it has an especially prominent or important role. Not particularly. I would have suggested some boxing gloves. But really the yarn covering the gun is crocheted and Needles knits. A minor quibble, but a quibble nonetheless.

YA Review: The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

Boy in the Black SuitThe Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

From GoodReads: Matt wears a black suit every day. No, not because his mom died—although she did, and it sucks. But he wears the suit for his gig at the local funeral home, which pays way better than the Cluck Bucket, and he needs the income since his dad can’t handle the bills (or anything, really) on his own. So while Dad’s snagging bottles of whiskey, Matt’s snagging fifteen bucks an hour. Not bad. But everything else? Not good. Then Matt meets Lovey. She’s got a crazy name, and she’s been through more crazy than he can imagine. Yet Lovey never cries. She’s tough. Really tough. Tough in the way Matt wishes he could be. Which is maybe why he’s drawn to her, and definitely why he can’t seem to shake her. Because there’s nothing more hopeful than finding a person who understands your loneliness—and who can maybe even help take it away.

I know some people really hate when reviewers say a protagonist is relatable, especially when they are non white, because it implies that only likable characters are worth reading about and as if white audiences will only read books about people of color if they can relate. I get it, but I’m going to describe Matt as relatable. And not because he’s a decent kid living in a bad neighborhood. He’s relatable because he’s pretty average. He does fine in school; he has a two parent household; he lives in a house; he has a best friend; and he likes girls. Obviously these things don’t describe all kids, but it was refreshing to read a story about a kid who was coping with his grief, but was otherwise unremarkable and hadn’t been dealt six other horrific and terrible things that he had to work through.

I read another review of the book that thought it was creepy and weird that Matt decides he likes sitting in on funerals, but I completely disagree. Matt is grieving for his mother and he finds solace in knowing he isn’t the only person hurting. Matt’s sitting in on funerals isn’t about a fixation with death, just an inability to move on in his grieving process and a part of that process. As I said, Matt is an average guy and the whole funeral thing doesn’t consume his life nor is it an indication of anything but his mourning process. When he meets Lovey at her grandmother’s funeral she doesn’t seem to be hurting the way he is and that draws him to her. He thinks she holds some magic key to letting grief go. Ultimately it’s the fact that she is and isn’t hurting that helps Matt learn how to move past deep sadness. She is a good friend and great relationship for him to cultivate at the right time and I think that’s a really powerful message and example.

Reynolds can clearly write. The book was fantastic. He even managed to pull off something I find incredibly irritating, which is using slang in dialog. Oftentimes you have slang that contrasts with the narrative prose of the rest of the book and it feels awkward. Not so here. Reynolds has also created characters that are so easy to want to get to know and that you root for. There was also a twist that I didn’t see coming. Not a twist like a murder mystery, but some plot lines converged in a surprising and unexpected way that was jarring and awesome at the same time.

I think high schoolers, and even middle schoolers, will simply like Matt and they will understand what he’s struggling with. They’ll connect with his story and want to follow him through his grief out to the other side where he can live his life. Based purely on setting I would give this to fans of How It Went Down, but The Boy in the Black Suit is a book about a normal kid having a hard time coping with something that gutted him. While not every kid loses a parent so young, every kid understands both how hard that could be and how one thing can change everything for you. Give this to kids who like character-driven realistic fiction that feels modern and fresh.

YA Review: March Book 1 by John Robert Lewis

MarchMarch: Book 1 written by John Robert Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

From GoodReads: March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.

Book One spans John Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, and their battle to tear down segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins, building to a stunning climax on the steps of City Hall.

This is such an amazing history book. I was not familiar with who John Robert Lewis is or his role in the Civil Rights Movement, but I was aware of the lunch counter sit-ins. I know I rant about this all the time, but our history classes, if they even get as far as the 60s (because I never had a history class make it past 1945), tend to gloss over a lot and Martin Luther King, Jr. is the primary focus of these cursory Civil Rights studies. He was certainly important, but there was A LOT going on at the time.

March does an incredible job of weaving Lewis’s personal history in with the history of the movement. In doing this the book becomes incredibly accessible. You don’t have to know much if anything about the era or Civil Rights. It’s all so seamlessly woven in and told through Lewis’s life story. He lived the discrimination. He lived the frustration. And he lived the decision to take a stand and break down barriers for people of color.

I would love to see this book taught in a history class. It would be awesome to use it in conjunction with other texts about the Civil Rights Movement. Not to mention the graphic novel format makes it a lot more accessible and interesting than any text book. The art is wonderful as is the storytelling and it completely brings the story and history alive right before your eyes.

There have been a lot of books recently published that tackle the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and while many of them are excellent, this is a shining example as well as one of the few intended for older audiences.

YA Review: House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle

House of Purple CedarHouse of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle

From GoodReads: “The hour has come to speak of troubled times. It is time we spoke of Skullyville.” Thus begins Rose Goode’s story of her growing up in Indian Territory in pre-statehood Oklahoma. Skullyville, a once-thriving Choctaw community, was destroyed by land-grabbers, culminating in the arson on New Year’s Eve, 1896, of New Hope Academy for Girls. Twenty Choctaw girls died, but Rose escaped. She is blessed by the presence of her grandmother Pokoni and her grandfather Amafo, both respected elders who understand the old ways. Soon after the fire, the white sheriff beats Amafo in front of the town’s people, humiliating him. Instead of asking the Choctaw community to avenge the beating, her grandfather decides to follow the path of forgiveness.

I take back everything I said about Tim Tingle. He is an incredible writer. I wish I had read this book before I read his others. It’s now very clear that the other books show his skill, but are still hi-low books and don’t showcase the full range of his abilities. I also don’t think I can do the book justice with this review. I certainly can’t without giving a lot of it away and I think it’s better to read and savor it just knowing it will be worth the time.

In all honesty, this is probably an adult novel with YA appeal. Rose is telling the story as someone preparing to die, nearly 60 years after the events happened. Rose, in the story of Skullyville, is eleven or twelve, but it’s clearly from a reflective standpoint looking back over the events that lead to her crossing out of childhood.

The story focuses around Rose’s grandfather being hit by the town marshal. Amafo decides he is going to take the path of forgiveness in hopes that others in the town will see the marshal for who he is. This seems to anger the marshal even more and he decides he wants to hurt Amafo again by hurting Rose. This sets more events into motion that drag Rose’s best friend and her family into the violence and danger. Others also fall victim to the marshal’s temper and anger and are sucked into events our of their control.

House of Purple Cedar is definitely a serious book, but it’s not without its humor either. There are plenty of scenes (the attempted bank robbery especially) that lighten the mood. The book meanders a bit in a lovely sort of way, but Tingle does a beautiful job of tying it up perfectly at the end. Which isn’t to say there’s a Disney ending, just that all the pieces come together and you realize nothing he’s told you, no matter how off topic or slow it seemed, was extraneous. You get a very clear picture of life at the time and an excellent sense of place. The characters are all beautifully crafted and you even get glimpses into many of the secondary and tertiary characters.

There is also a bit of magical realism introduced through Choctaw mythology. The panther on the cover arrives almost at the end of the book and is a protector not a danger. Rose also begins by sharing a dream she has had since this period in her early life. And as she prepares to die Rose sees the end to her vision and learns to let everything that happened, to let all the fear, anger and hatred she’s held onto, go.

Being historical fiction it has the feel of an old west novel, but this isn’t plup fiction. This is a beautiful novel about forgiveness, everyday life, and how there is not one thing that leads to an event, just a series of interconnected lives. The setting, some of the people, and certainly some of the themes remind me of True Grit.

Graphic Novel Review: Sita’s Ramayana

Sita's RamayanaSita’s Ramayana written by Samhita Arni, illustrated by Moyna Chitrakar

From GoodReads: This version of The Ramayana is told from the perspective of Sita, the queen. After she, her husband Rama and his brother are exiled from their kingdom, Sita is captured by the proud and arrogant king Ravana and imprisoned in a garden across the ocean. Ravana never stops trying to convince Sita to be his wife, but she steadfastly refuses his advances. Eventually Rama comes to her rescue with the help of the monkey Hanuman and his army. But Rama feels he can’t trust Sita again. He forces Sita to undergo an ordeal by fire to prove herself to be true and pure. She is shocked and in grief and anger does so. She emerges unscathed and they return home to their kingdom as king and queen. However, suspicion haunts their relationship, and Sita once more finds herself in the forest, but this time she is pregnant. She has twins and continues to live in the forest with them.

I stumbled upon this one in the library about a week ago. I’m not a big browser at the public library (long enough to read list already!), but there was a screw up with the library my book request was sent to and it went to the library my daughter knows. She insisted on showing me around the children’s section and there it was calling to me on the shelf.

I am only familiar in passing with the Ramayana. I knew it was part of Indian folklore and I know a few of the characters, Hanuman mostly, but look at that cover! It’s lovely. And then I opened it up.

Sitas Ramayana 1The art is stunning and, it turns out, done by a traditional artist as a Patua scroll. The Patua scrolls would be used much as we use picture books for storytelling. The storyteller holds the it and uses it to jog their memory of the story and to show the listeners parts of the story that are illustrated. The publisher broke up the scroll and put it into the left-right format Westerners use for books.

I actually read aloud the first 30 pages or so to my three-and-a-half year old and she was into it. The art pops beautifully and the story is incredibly exciting. Kidnapping a princess, an honorable prince (well, until later), a trickster monkey, battles, an excellent villain. My only complaint would be that Sita does a lot of telling. It’s primarily narrated with little dialog, but ultimately I think it works. The pictures support the story where it might drag and it allows there to be a lot more reflection and commentary made by Sita than we would get otherwise. And she often has wise things to say.

The story, as the title implies, is told by Sita and this gives is a very feminist bent. You see how she is expected both to remain pure and is doubted by her husband later. She shows how wrong it is that she can be used as a pawn in the war, but she is also incredibly sensitive to other’s pain and suffering, even the enemy. Many times she remarks that all this war takes loved ones from everyone. Apparently the Ramayana usually focuses on Rama being the hero and the man protecting his honor by rescuing his wife, but that isn’t the focus in this story. This isn’t a new approach, according to the notes at the back, and dates back at least as far as the 16th century.

As far as audience I don’t see why anyone should be excluded. It would fabulous for reluctant readers who like the graphic novel format. There are a couple breasts in one or two of the illustrations, but they’re not super prominent and I think if you approach them frankly and as if they are no big deal (they aren’t) kids will too. (But I know some parents may object.) The reading level is a little high and some of the narration does a story within a story which might make it a little difficult, but I would say fourth grade and up can handle it. The book would be awesome for a folklore study or for kids looking beyond the traditional German fairy tales. I would even hand sell it to kids who are into fairy tales and don’t know they can branch out from the western tradition.

YA Review: Like Water on Stone by Dana Walrath

Like WaterLike Water on Stone by Dana Walrath

From GoodReads: It is 1914, and the Ottoman Empire is crumbling into violence.

Beyond Anatolia, in the Armenian Highlands, Shahen Donabedian dreams of going to New York. Sosi, his twin sister, never wants to leave her home, especially now that she is in love. At first, only Papa, who counts Turks and Kurds among his closest friends, stands in Shahen’s way. But when the Ottoman pashas set their plans to eliminate all Armenians in motion, neither twin has a choice.

After a horrifying attack leaves them orphaned, Shahen and Sosi flee into the mountains, carrying their little sister, Mariam. Shahen keeps their parents’ fate a secret from his sisters. But the children are not alone. An eagle named Ardziv watches over them as they run at night and hide each day, making their way across mountain ridges and rivers red with blood.

I couldn’t finish this one. It wasn’t because it wasn’t any good either. It was just too depressing. Plus the youngest girl that’s on the run is five and it was just a little too close to my own daughter’s age and I couldn’t help projecting.

The book is actually a novel in verse and the author says in her note in the back that this choice was intended to place a barrier between the reader and the horror of the situations. This is exactly what Andrea Pinkney Davis said about her book The Red Pencil. And I think it is very effective. Walrath also adds in an eagle as a narrator who witness some of the most horrific parts of the story of the genocide. This too puts a bit of a space between the reader and the horror. It also allows there to be a little more history and broader perspective that sees war coming before it arrives.

Like Water on Stone is written beautifully and certainly the beginning 100 pages that focus on life before the genocide began are beautiful, featuring scenes of everyday life in the rural village. I skipped ahead and read a few of the poems much later in the book and it seems there is hope at the end of the book. I just couldn’t make it through the terrible stuff to get there. I highly recommend giving it a try and not letting my inabilty to finish it deter you if you are interested in the Armenian genocide or are looking for an excellent novel in verse.

This is clearly for high school as there is talk of rape and murder. But it would also be a good history book (despite being fictionalized). This is yet another part of history, a shameful one, that is skipped over in history classes. We often focus so much on the genocide of WWII and of the Jews that history classes lose sight of the other genocides during this century. Even prominent figures today lose sight of other genocides. The pope called the Armenian genocide the first of the 20th century and it wasn’t. The massacre of the Herrero people by the Germans a good 10 years earlier was the first. If you liked this book or want something a little less hard to take, I suggest Ruta Sepetys Between Shades of Gray. It’s a totally different time period, but it has the same feel to it.

MG Review: X by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekela Magoon

XFrom GoodReads: Malcolm Little’s parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that’s nothing but a pack of lies—after all, his father’s been murdered, his mother’s been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There’s no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer.

But Malcolm’s efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory when what starts as some small-time hustling quickly spins out of control. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he’s found is only an illusion—and that he can’t run forever.

X follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today.

I know very little about Malcolm X. He wasn’t included in any of the history classes I took and honestly in all my US history classes we were lucky to make it past WWII. That being said, this book was still fantastic. No need to have a good grasp on who Malcolm Little went on to become.

I’m always amazed by life back in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Teens and people in their twenties seemed to have a lot more freedom and were able to go off and get jobs fairly easily. The way Malcolm was able to move to Boston and start picking up jobs, making money, and going places brought to mind Mare’s War and how Mare was able to pick up and leave her hometown and join the Women’s Army Corps, make money, and go out. The two stories are very different and take place at slightly different times, but that freedom for young people is present in both and, I think, has a lot of appeal for teen readers.

X is probably best suited to upper middle school and high school. There is a fair amount of marijuana smoking and dealing as well as drinking and some off page sex. Heads up, too, there is a fairly liberal use of the “n” word. It’s used in thoughts and memories of Malcolm who is realizing all the weight the word carries, so it’s use is not just as slang from the time, but as commentary on the status quo and how Black people were (and are) kept as second rate citizens. All this makes the book sound terribly inappropriate, BUT Malcolm struggled. He makes bad decisions and he needs guidance, but doesn’t want to have to answer to any authority. This theme in the story I think would be incredibly attractive to young men (or young women) having a hard time. All teens struggle with these problems to one degree or another so Malcolm, despite how famous and active he became, is a relatable person as a teen. The book also continues into his time in prison where Malcolm makes a complete turn around. X certainly is an honest look at his younger life, but it’s set up as a lesson not an example.

Another excellent part in the book is the relationship Malcolm has with his murdered father. He really struggles with not having a father figure around and he is angry both at the people who murdered him and at his father for stirring the pot and getting killed for it. Shabazz and Magoon really capture the angst and emotional logic of kids in their mid teens. Malcolm also tries to shake all the teachings his father believed in about Black power. You can see the tension of Malcolm wanting to believe in it, but also struggling to see how it can work and wanting to reject the teachings simply because he’s so angry with his father.

As a side note, I’m a little confused as to who wrote what in the book and how Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon wrote this together. If they alternated writing sections it’s incredibly seamless. And however they did it, it doesn’t really matter. The book is really well written and incredibly compelling.

YA Review: How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

How It Went DownFrom GoodReads: When sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson dies from two gunshot wounds, his community is thrown into an uproar. Tariq was black. The shooter, Jack Franklin, is white.

In the aftermath of Tariq’s death, everyone has something to say, but no two accounts of the events line up. Day by day, new twists further obscure the truth.

Tariq’s friends, family, and community struggle to make sense of the tragedy, and to cope with the hole left behind when a life is cut short. In their own words, they grapple for a way to say with certainty: This is how it went down.

How It Went Down is certainly (and unfortunately) a timely book with all the police brutality cases that are coming to light in the mainstream. The story is more like the Treyvon Martin case as the police are not actually involved in what went down, but it’s reflective of all the current turmoil over race relations.

Each chapter of the book moves further and further from the actual shooting. A whole cast of characters from the guy who lives down the street to Tariq’s best friend, to the girl who tried to resuscitate him at the scene. All their lives intertwine through the events set in motion that day.

I think the flap copy is a little misleading. It’s pretty clear what happened with the shooting, although there is some question about whether or not Tariq had a gun. But even that isn’t too unclear. What most of the book wades through is everyone figuring out who Tariq was or who they thought he was. Was he a guy on the straight and narrow undeserving of being shot? Was he thinking about joining the local gang? Was he already in it and had it coming? The questions go on. Even more interesting is that through their perceptions of Tariq and through their reflections on the shooting, on the neighborhood, and on the aftermath, what the reader really learns is what the people who surrounded Tariq were like.

What makes the book really shine is that nothing is black and white, except maybe the tragedy of the shooting. The people in particular are portrayed as people. People who often have few, if any, choices and who try to make the best of things any way they can. Sometimes they make poor decisions, but that doesn’t mean they are bad people. Just people trying to survive. I can’t speak to how well Magoon captures living in a poor neighborhood, but it certainly felt like a real place. One character in particular, who was lucky enough to get out of the neighborhood and thrust into a new, wealthier, more privileged life, does a really good job of showing just how hard it is to make it out of impoverished neighborhoods and how the political, social and cultural systems are set up to both keep people there and are prejudiced against them. His story juxtaposes well with those still in the neighborhood hoping to, trying to, and dreaming of getting out, getting a better life.

There is some drinking and drug use (marijuana) and the violence makes this better suited to high school readers. The book deals with controversial political ideas as well as race which may make some readers uncomfortable or angry. It is, though, an important book that looks at some very important issues we’re facing as a nation today. It would be interesting to see this used either in a history or current events type class or even an English class. Reluctant readers might even enjoy it for the sensation of the story and because it’s an extremely compelling read. But be warned it isn’t short and there are a lot of characters so I wouldn’t call it an easy read.

Monthly Author: Kekla Magoon

This month I choose Kekla Magoon as my monthly author. Several years ago (maybe 5?) I read her debut novel The Rock and the River and thought it was fantastic. Clearly the woman could write! If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you pick it up. Although I hate these types of comparisons, because obviously the novel stands on its own, it’s a more mature One Crazy Summer (another fantastic book)One of the most interesting things about it is the time period and history it uses as a backdrop. The novel is really about family and brother relationships, but Magoon has couched them in the Black Panther movement. It’s a piece of history you don’t see all that often and see even less in young adult literature.

By the time the companion novel came out I was reading other things (and may have been a new mother) so I didn’t get around to reading it. I also didn’t get around to reading it this month either, but Magoon had two other novels come out in the past few months that I was really interested in reading. It’s always, so many books so little time, right?

Here’s a link to her website. Definitely check it out, it’s awesome and has a lot of info: http://keklamagoon.com/

Schedule for the week:

Tuesday: How It Went Down

Wednesday: X

Thursday: Camo Girl