Tag Archives: diversity

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

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The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017.

In 2013, agender white high school senior Sasha fell asleep on the bus on their way home from school in Oakland. Black teen Richard was also on the bus, and, egged on by friends, used his lighter to set fire to Sasha’s skirt. Dashka Slater’s enormously thoughtful and well-written book (staring life as an article in the NY Times Magazine) looks at the before and after for both victim and perpetrator.

Short chapters move between Sasha and Richard and move between narrative and background information. Starting with the two young men’s backgrounds, the author shows that though both teens have loving families and close supportive friends in common, their differences are stark: Sasha’s family is comfortably off, he attends an independent school and has Asperger’s; Richard comes from a poor family and has lost many loved ones to murder.

It is never clear why Richard committed this terrible act – he tells the police it’s because he’s homophobic, but it’s not clear if he actually is or if he even understands what it means. Many people in the book put it down to him being a 16 year-old boy and all the lack of foresight that goes with that. It certainly appears that he had no thought of the implications or seriousness of his act.

Slater creates empathy for both her lead protagonists, though I found myself more engaged by Richard’s story than Sasha’s. Sasha, apart from the obvious physical trauma of being set alight and the pain of recovery, appears to be relatively unscathed by the attack and takes a sanguine and rational attitude as he heads off to MIT where he seems to settle in socially and intellectually. Richard, on the other hand, is tried as an adult  for committing a hate crime, though is able to serve his time in a juvenile facility. In fact it is likely that he will be released this year, having been a model inmate and used the time to study.

Ms Slater gives illuminating chapters on such contextual topics as the vocabulary of gender, sexuality, and romantic inclinations, and she explains clearly and concisely the judicial system including a sympathetic section on restorative justice. Her journalistic background shows in her exemplary use of sources including interviews, video, public records, and Richard’s two heart-twisting letters of apology that were not given to Sasha’s parents until fourteen months after they were written.

This is a short book and a quick read but provides rich material for thought, discussion, and even action.

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Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

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Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Balzer + Bray, 2018

The author creates an extraordinary world in this genre-mixing alternate history set after the Civil War.

After the battle of Gettysburg, the dead started rising and attacking the living, so the war between the states turned into the war against the restless dead. The country has turned into autonomous walled city states on the East coast and defended homes and towns elsewhere. The ruling Survivalist party believes that the reason for the dead rising is that the Civil War changed the “natural order” and that only by having White Christian men at the top and everyone else knowing their place would  America be made “safe again”.

This means that the “Negroes” (the official term, less official words used are “darkies” and “coons”) though enfranchised have been forcibly put through combat training school and made to work protecting individuals and cities. Seen as disposable, like animals, and often poorly equipped, they are slaves in another guise, while being told they should be grateful for being taught.

Our protagonist, 17-year-old Jane McKeene is about to graduate from the presitigious Miss Preston’s combat academy. She is dark-skinned and a typical feisty YA heroine who acts before she thinks and is thoughtful, smart, resourceful, and curious. She has her own code of loyalty and self-protection, and while it leads her into some difficult scrapes, the reader is always on her side. Of course she gets into trouble and she, her classmate and nemesis Katherine, a light-skinned beauty, and multiracial Jackson are forcibly sent to Summerland, a new model town which is being built as a model for shambler-free (ie undead-free) settlements everywhere. There are some dark secrets in Summerland and Jane is just the person to uncover them, all the while battling the ever-evolving restless dead.

The characters are all vividly and generously dimensional and there is plenty of thought-provoking parallels to contemporary American society wrapped up in an exciting adventure punctuated with some horrific zombie (though that word is never used) slaying. As the book ends, Jane and her companions are headed off on a new quest and, presumably, for a sequel.

Ship It by Britta Lundin

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Ship It by Britta Lundin
FreeForm, 2018.

Set in the world of comic cons and fanfic, this warm-hearted and funny debut novel takes a sharp look at identity and representation. High school junior narrator Claire is obsessed with Demon Heart, a TV fantasy show, and she writes romantic and explicit fanfiction about the two male leads, Smokey and Heart (in the vernacular, she ships SmokeHeart). Second narrator Forest plays Smokey and is openly appalled when Claire asks at a con panel about the possibility that his character is gay.

Over the course of several cons, both Claire and Forest evolve, understanding more about themselves and the importance of empathy. Claire’s connection with Demon Heart has grown from from her nerdy misfit loneliness in small town Idaho and her nascent understanding of her sexuality. As she finds more friends who get her and even tentatively starts a relationship with Tess, a black “homoromantic pansexual” she realizes there is more to real life than SmokeHeart going canon.

Forest is laser-focused on a career in action movies and believes  any suggestion of homosexuality in his role would be a death blow to his ambitions. But he come to (maybe unrealistically quickly) realize the importance of representation of all communities in the media and that once something is on screen it is up to the audience how they interpret it.

The support cast, including Rico who plays Heart, Claire’s somewhat overinvolved parents, and the PR team are all warmly supportive of Claire’s struggles. Tess is an interesting love interest – though seemingly sure of herself in many ways, she is also ashamed of her fandom and there are several missteps between the two young women.

TV writer Lundin creates a frothily manic, if slightly idealized world, informed by her knowledge of the realities of TV show production, social media, and the intense world of comic cons. She acknowledges the lack of diversity in mainstream TV shows and though the ending suggests that attitudes are changing, it’s probably slower in real life.

Ideal for teens who enjoy shipping their favorite TV and movie characters.

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

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What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera
HarperCollins, October 2018.

In this appealing YA romance, Arthur Seuss (written by Albertalli of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda fame) and Ben Alejo (written by Silvera who also wrote the wonderful They Both Die at the End) meet cute in a New York Post Office. Both are rising high school seniors: Arthur, from Georgia, is interning in a law office; Ben is at summer school trying to keep himself from repeating junior year.

But when they fail to get a way to contact each other, it looks like their romance is fated not to happen – and Fate is big in this book – but Arthur doesn’t accept that and finds a way. Though it does seem that the universe wants them together, in the end it can only do so much. Their romance stutters at first and they need several do-overs (also a theme) until they hit their groove. But there’s still problems as Arthur obsesses over Ben’s relationship with his ex, Hudson, and hanging over them is Arthur’s return to Georgia at the end of the summer.

Both boys have loving supportive parents and both have a “squad” of typical YA novel witty and delightful friends. The authors explore the idea of the complications for friendships when the friends begin to date especially when it’s each other. Ben wants to have both friends and a boyfriend but that doesn’t always seem possible.

There is something of a rose-tinted fantasy hue over this novel. New York is a gorgeous backdrop to their romance and Arthur is the gawping tourist who wants “that New York feeling like they talk about in musicals – that wide-open, top-volume, Technicolor joy.” With the exception of an ugly confrontation on the subway, it seems like New York has sprinkled magic dust over our couple. Though Arthur muses on the difference between Lonely Messy Real Arthur and Upbeat Instagram Arthur, it does feel like both he and Ben lived charmed lives.

An epilogue set fifteen months later introduces some hard reality, but it’s still soft focus enough not to break the spell. I was thoroughly charmed by this two-hander and I suspect fans of Albertalli’s and Silvera’s will be too.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

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Pride by Ibi Zoboi
HarperCollins, September 2018.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been used as the basis for many a retelling; in this “remix”, Ibi Zoboi sets her charming and breezy YA romance in present day Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Janae, Zuri, and their three younger sisters live with their Haitian mother and Dominican father, all squashed together in a rundown but joyous 2-bedroom apartment. For Zuri, home is “my parents’ love, my loud sisters, my crowded and cluttered apartment, and the lingering scent of home-cooked meals.”

When the black Darcy family moves into a remodeled mini-mansion across the road, the scene is set for Zuri to be prejudiced and Darius Darcy to be proud. But it also opens up the novel’s larger theme of the gentrification of neighborhoods: “Outsiders moving in to change things up and throw things away.” (And a recent Bloomberg headline “Brooklyn’s Bushwick Zooms Up the List of NYC’s Priciest Neighborhoods” bears Zuri’s fears out). Even though Zuri resents these, mainly white, incursions, she does concede “that the new people moving in, with their extra money and dreams, can sometimes make things better.”

With Janae just back from her first year at Syracuse and narrator Zuri getting ready to apply to Howard, these young women are far from the restrictions placed on the Bennet sisters of the early 19th century: “We’re thinking about our careers and goals and breaking barriers.” Their parents are also much more reasonable than the Austen Bennets: Mami is the life and soul of the block, cooking up a storm at the drop of a hat and Papi keeps the household going by working two jobs.

Darius and his older brother Ainsley (the Bingham love interest for Janae) have wealth and privilege and just don’t fit into Zuri’s idea of the neighborhood: they speak differently, they behave differently, and they seem to be negatively judging the people and the place. On the other hand, Warren, a young man from the neighborhood who headlines himself as “Black Teen Boy from the Projects with Absentee Father Makes It into New York City’s Top Private School” has a lot more appeal for Zuri: “There’s a little bass in his voice, a little hood, a little swag, not like these Darcy boys.”

Ms Zoboi stays close to the structure of the Austen plot, only taking a few liberties with characters’ relationships for the sake of brevity, and it works naturally and really well. Given that it is contemporary YA, Pride does not have the same leisurely pace and depth of character development as Pride and Prejudice, though to be fair most teens I know (and many adults) find Jane Austen interminably slow. And it isn’t really a spoiler to say that pride and prejudice are overcome in satisfying ways and resolution is reached without Zuri compromising her ideals.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.

Algeria Is Beautiful Like America by Olivia Burton; illustrated by Mahi Grand and translated by Edward Gauvin

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Algeria Is Beautiful Like America by Olivia Burton; illustrated by Mahi Grand and translated by Edward Gauvin
Lion Forge, 2018.

In this elegant graphic memoir, originally published in France in 2015, the white French author goes to Algeria to visit the places her settler family had lived in before they left in the 1960’s after the War of Independence. Olivia has her grandmother’s written memories to guide her along with a local contact called Djaffar.

The novel switches between the present day, her family’s time in Algeria, and Olivia’s and her mother’s early years in France. Olivia’s views on France’s presence in Algeria had been formed by her relatives’ rosy stories of their colonial past, but these were challenged by her school and college friends. It is only now, years later, when she is actually in the country that she can form her own perspective.

A map on the endpapers – clean at the front and marked up with the route and notes at the back – gives a guide to the trip. The detailed black and white illustrations, augmented with the occasional color “photograph” from Olivia’s trip, show the present and the past and their frequent overlap. The scenes of her quest capture the charms of the people, the buildings, and, with an occasional double page spread, the landscape of Algeria and she finally understands why her mother could never find anywhere to settle in France.

As Olivia and Djaffar drive into the Aurès mountains, they find many people who knew her family and are happy to show her their old houses. Even in Algiers, she is welcomed into the family who have lived in her grandparents’ apartment since they left.

Some of this historical background might be a bit challenging for Americans as it assumes at least a basic familiarity with France’s troubled relationship with Algeria, and though there are footnotes to help on specific points, there is no author’s note with some more general background. Nonetheless, it is an evocative memoir about uncovering the past and exploring how it has impinged on the present.

Autonomous by Andy Marino

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Autonomous by Andy Marino
Freeform, 2018

In this thought-provoking present day YA scific thriller, high school graduating senior William Mackler wins a top of the line Autonomous self-driving car prototype and also the chance to take his three best friends on the road trip to end all road trips before they go their separate ways.

The four kids in the car are the archetypal team from any number of action and heist movies: Melissa is the fixer, Daniel is the muscle, Christina the tech genius, and William is the wildcard (all the teens appear to be white with the exception of Guatemalan American Christina). They jokingly assign the role of brains to Otto little realizing how sophisticated its AI really is.

Each teen cultivates an image on social media and for each other, but they all have secrets and never show their real selves and the reader only sees this through their individual chapters, written from a third person POV.

The tech behind Otto and Christina’s hacking is fictional but credible, and as Otto mines his passengers every online communication he takes them at face value without understanding the nuances of their behaviors and interactions. This leads to revelations and potentially catastrophic events as they wind their way cross country from the top of New York State to the Moonshadow festival in Arizona.

Will appeal to readers looking for character-driven (no pun intended!) speculative fiction.