Category Archives: Books

Salvage the Bones: Tough World & Then Katrina Hits

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn WardSalvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is a brutal novel:

  • Teen sex that might not be rape but isn’t exactly consensual
  • Dog fights
  • Teen pregnancy
  • A mom dying in childbirth
  • An overwhelmed, distant and alcoholic single father
  • Rampant poverty

And then Katrina comes down and blows everything to hell.

It’s a tough read (good thing I didn’t read it; the audiobook was very well done). But it’s also got heart. It won the 2011 National Book Award and there is some light that shines through the darkness: the language was poetic, the 14-year-old pregnant narrator loved the Greek myth of Jason and Medea, and when the action did pick up it had a great pace and feel.

But getting through it all was tough.

Sometimes books are like that. Sometimes life is like that.

Doug TenNapel’s Cardboard & Comic Book References

In Cardboard, the creator of Earthworm Jim (Doug TenNapel) gives us a graphic novel about cardboard creations that come to life. It’s full of heart and off-beat quips.

I’m slowly getting into comic books and graphic novels, thanks to Gene Luen Yang and G. Willow Wilson most recently, but also the longtime influence of Ben Edlund (The Tick!) and TenNapel.

One thing I’m loving about comics that I can also see being a big downside is the referential nature. Here’s a perfect example from Cardboard that I just loved:

Cardboard by Doug TenNapel: "Speak 'Friend'--then pull the trigger!"

Of course if you’re not down with Tolkien, you’ll be completely confused by the Lord of the Rings reference. But it’s kind of hilarious in the off-beat, quirky hero tone of Cardboard. Good stuff.

Grasshopper Jungle: Funny/Honest Teen Novel Meets Mutant Insects!

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew SmithGrasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith is the greatest novel you’ll ever read about six-foot-tall praying mantis soldiers devouring a small town in Iowa.

It might also be the best book you read all year. It’s funny, weird, rambling, and full of the profanity and sex you’d expect from a 16-year-old narrator.

It starts off as another story of an outcast teenager, struggling with life and his attraction to his girlfriend and gay best friend. But it turns into apocalypse by experimental mutant insects. It gets there (and holds together) thanks to the wonderful narration of 16-year-old Austin, a wannabe historian who lays it all out and explores the weird connections and fascinating underbelly of an economically depressed community in rural Iowa.

While the premise is incredibly weird/awesome, I think it’s the voice of this searching, yearning, experimenting teen that makes it so good. Here’s the perfect example sentence:

“History provides a compelling argument that every scientist who tinkers with unstoppable shit needs a reliable flamethrower.”

It’s as if my two favorite genres—funny yet painfully honest teen novel and post-apocalyptic sci-fi—got together to create a genetically modified hybrid super-genre that kicks every other book’s ass.

Micro-Loans & Bangladesh in Rickshaw Girl

Rickshaw Girl by Mitali PerkinsRickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins is a short children’s novella that gives a glimpse into the life of a girl in Bangladesh, struggling against poverty and gender stereotypes.

Naima wants to help her family earn more money, but her ideas don’t always work out and she laments, “If only I had been born a boy.”

We also get to see the art and beauty of Bangla culture through the alpana, geometric and floral patterns painted by women during celebrations. The sparse, black and white illustrations in the book give a good taste, but a quick Google image search really shows the beauty, intricacy and exactness of the art.

Rickshaw Girl is a window into a different culture and illustrates the power of micro-loans as empowerment over poverty.

8th Grade Super Zero Explores Homelessness & Dorkiness

8th Grade Super Zero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-PerkovichThe history of writer Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich alone had me hooked: Nigerian father, Jamaican mother, married to a man of Croatian descent, she studied writing with Paula Danziger and Madeleine L’Engle.

The book—8th Grade Super Zero—was good too, not blowing me away, but offering a solid story of a struggling teen that felt very real and didn’t shy away from real issues. Reggie, the main character, is dealing with his father’s unemployment, his church youth group is a major influence on his life and he starts going to a homeless shelter as a one-time project and it becomes something so much more.

Reggie is this dorky, outcast kid who isn’t always perfect but finds a way to struggle through and make the right choices. Continue reading 8th Grade Super Zero Explores Homelessness & Dorkiness

Diversity Is Not Enough

“We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism.” (“Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing”)

In many ways it comes down to white privilege (that phrase can be difficult to digest—this is the best explanation of white privilege I’ve found). The white establishment (i.e., people like me) doesn’t understand what people of color face.

People like me are blind to all the small things that are stacked up against people of color. Each one on its own seems small, but together it creates institutional racism. The result is things like the Noah movie using an all white cast as “stand-ins for all people” because “race doesn’t matter.”

If you don’t see anything wrong with that, that’s white privilege.

If you watched the Noah movie and didn’t think it odd that everyone was white, that’s white privilege.

Or any movie.

As G. Willow Wilson commented, “Where are all the black people in Middle Earth? The answer is ‘In Laketown,’ apparently.” Extras in the Laketown scenes in the second Hobbit movie were the first non-white human characters in the Lord of the Rings movies.

If you think it’s political correct garbage to want racial diversity in a fantasy movie, that’s white privilege.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

It reminds me of the book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas where the 9-year-old Bruno is oblivious to the German Holocaust, even though he lives outside the gates of Auschwitz. He befriends a Jewish boy, Shmuel, but is completely unaware of the ostracism and hatred his friend endures.

Bruno is not antisemitic. He’s not even aware of the German propaganda about Jews, and when he hears it he doesn’t believe it. But he’s blind to all the barriers Shmuel faces as a Jew in 1940s Germany.

It’s not an ideal comparison. But it feels familiar. When people don’t understand the need for diversity or insist that we’re beyond racism, it reminds me of Bruno.

Complicating the Single Narrative

At last week’s Festival of Faith and Writing I was pleasantly surprised that the conversation wasn’t limited to the Christian faith. I don’t know about the extent of the diversity, but I did hear from one Muslim writer and one Hindu writer.

Why is that important? Because, as Muslim comic book writer G. Willow Wilson said at the Festival of Faith and Writing, “If a belief system is worth anything it should offer value to those who don’t believe it.”

Our society is so polarized right now I think it’s more important than ever to hear from voices that are different from our own. It’s too easy to become overly homogenous and clueless of anything that’s different. It allows all sorts of negative things to blossom.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of the single story in her 2009 TED talk, when we allow a single narrative to tell the entire story of something we don’t understand. It happens all the time when the continent of Africa is turned into a single country. It’s what we do to Islam when we assume all Muslims are conservative or even terrorists.

Wilson also said that she’d never been to a mosque that separated men and women until she came to the U.S. The most liberal mosque she’d ever been in was Iran.

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, it is that they are incomplete,” Adichie said. It’s not that there aren’t conservative Muslims (and even extremist Muslims), but that’s only a tiny sliver of the truth. Just as the Westboro Baptist Church does not represent all of Christianity.

Swati Avasthi, a Hindu writer who spoke at the Festival of Faith and Writing, said that in order to disrupt this single story notion, we need to make it more complex. We need to explore the wider narratives and understand things more fully.

Two great examples are Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang and Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins. Both stories explore deeply divided issues—the Boxer rebellion in 1900 China and persecuted refugees in Burma today, respectively—from two conflicting perspectives. The result is a more deeply nuanced narrative. It’s not a simple, one-sided story.

I think we need to pursue those multiple narratives, the more complicated threads that start to give us fuller picture, a more honest glimpse of the truth.

Don’t be content with a token bit of diversity. Don’t assume one story about Nigeria will tell you all you need to know. Don’t be so jaded as to think a single refugee story gives you insight into the experience of all refugees.

“Let’s tell stories that humanize, rather than demonize,” said Eliza Griswold, who has done a lot of work in Afghanistan and seen firsthand the result of our single narrative. She disrupts that narrative herself with this book of poetry by Afghan women.

Today is Reading Day

The kids were both home from school today and so I declared it reading day. No TV. No whining all day. But lots of reading.

How’s that work?

At random points during the day I’d shout, “Reading break!” And we’d gather on the couch to read some books. I promised we’d hit the bookstore or the library, but that will probably come tomorrow.

We got through six books:

  • On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne – A fun and cleverly written picture book about the life of Albert Einstein that introduces a lot of science concepts in a simple way.
  • It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate – A picture book about the outsider art of Bill Traylor, who didn’t start creating art until his 80s.
  • Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert by Gary D. Schmidt – A picture book telling the story of this mixed-race Peruvian saint.
  • Bird by Zetta Elliot – A longer picture book that tells the story of a younger brother dealing with his older brother slipping away to drugs and street life.
  • Olivia Kidney by Ellen Potter (we’ve been reading this one out loud for a week or two, but weren’t quite halfway through) – A chapter book that starts out with an Alice in Wonderland-ish flair for the random and bizarre, but eventually comes around and everything connects.
  • Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel by Nikki Grimes – A quick early chapter book about a spitfire of a girl in a new town welcoming another new and not so eager student to school.

And then started a seventh: The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Clearly (going old school).

Our Favorites?

Milo: Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel and Bird

Lexi: Olivia Kidney

Me: On a Beam of Light, It Jes’ Happened and Martin de Porres were all pretty good

Searching Out Diversity

I keep coming back to the conversation about diversity in literature. I think it’s important. I heard it several times during the Festival in Faith and Writing and today I came across an article about how to get more diversity in your YA fiction.

That piece has some good advice. You have to actually search out diversity, recommend it and support it. It doesn’t happen automatically: Search, share, support.

Lately I’ve been trying to search out more diversity. If I don’t, my shelves are mostly full of white folks. It’s the same with my music collection. I don’t like most hip-hop, and the alt-rock and punk genres are pretty homogenous. So I’ve been working at it.

You also have to recommend it, and it’s something I need to be doing more. Though I should be clear this isn’t about simply recommending stuff because of the diversity, but because it’s good. So here are a couple recommendations, something I’ll try to do more consistently:

Books

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow WilsonAlif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
The hacker youth culture of a Cory Doctorow novel meets an Arab security state and slips into a fantasy world worthy of J.R.R. Tolkien. The mix of realism and fantasy was pretty great. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of fantasy, but I really enjoyed the glimpse into the Muslim world.

Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul CurtisBud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
This is a YA classic but somehow I’ve never read it. An orphaned boy goes in search of his long-lost father in Depression-era Michigan. An early scene of Bud being abused by foster parents made me physically angry, but the story moves to tenderness as Bud encounters more warm-hearted people on his journey.

Music

Music seems like it should be easier to find diversity. But I’ve always been a rock fan, and aside from a few big names, rock isn’t very diverse. I’m not a fan of hip-hop, so that leaves my musical horizons pretty limited.

Thanks to Spotify, I’ve been researching more diverse voices.

“You Can’t Be Told” by Valerie June
This foot-stomping single is a bit different from the rest of her album, but I love her rootsy voice, regardless of anything else.

“Sister Rosetta (Capture the Spirit)” by Noisettes
This one has a swing-dance style that’s just fun. The band has some more recent stuff, unfortunately it’s only available in the U.K.

The Difference Diversity Makes

That whole ‘diversity in literature’ conversation keeps coming up and I think it might help some people to understand why it’s so important.

If you’re never confronted with it, if you’re always finding people who look like you in your entertainment, then it’s a question you might never think about. It helps to step outside of ourselves and see a different perspective.

I came across exactly that perspective in Deza Malone, a character in Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Mighty Miss Malone:

When I was in Gary and would read novels I used to put myself right in the middle of the story. I knew it was a great book when it felt like the author was writing about me. Some of the time I’d get snapped out of the book when I read things that I couldn’t pretend were about me, even if I had the imagination of Mr. William Shakespeare.

Words like “her pale, luminescent skin” or “her flowing mane of golden hair” or “her lovely, cornflower-blue eyes” or “the maiden fair.” I would stop and think, No, Deza, none of these books are about you. Continue reading The Difference Diversity Makes