Tag Archives: diversity

Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

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Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Candlewick, 2018.

When Native American Louise’s Kansas high school theater announces a “color-conscious” production of The Wizard of Oz, the prejudices and lack of awareness of some of the school’s majority white community become apparent.

Last year, when Lou’s family moved to Kansas she fell into the social scene she had been used to in Texas – the popular jock-centered crowd. She dated one of the football team until he reveals his casual prejudice about Native Americans. Fast forward to senior year and Lou is determined to be more aware of the microagressions around her.

When Lou’s brother, freshman Hughie is cast as the Tin Man and two other students of color get major parts in the musical, the Parents Against Revisionist Theater campaign starts up, and the families gets hate letters, telling them to “go back to where you came from.” (Ironic, huh?)

Lou finds solace in her new family at Hive, the school newspaper and in the support of many teachers and students. She has all the idealism and self righteousness of her age but as she explores and solidifies her own Muscogee identity she finds that she herself can be unthinkingly prejudiced whether it is with her underprivileged friend Shelby or with her Lebanese-Scottish potential romantic interest Joey.

Though the novel can get a little didactic and there are too many underdeveloped secondary characters, Smith effectively brings to life a slice of Native American culture as well as exposing the often casual bigotry that people of color can face. Includes a Mvskoke-English glossary.

***Highly recommended by Debbie Reese***

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Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

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Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
HarperCollins, 2018.

Very occasionally I will read a book that just affects my mood for several days and this is one of them. Rising 8th grader Claudia Coleman returns from a summer with her grandmother, ready to see her best (and only) friend Monday so they can get back into their groove ready for school. Only Monday isn’t there. Claudia, against her parents’ rules, goes to Monday’s house on the wrong side of town only to be fobbed off by her mother. And that pattern persists – all the adults that Claudia talks to express concern but then do nothing about it. Even when Claudia goes to the police, she is dismissively shown a board covered with missing black girls and told not to waste police time if her friend isn’t really missing, and we are told that social services didn’t follow up requests for an investigation either. The theme, skillfully shown not told, is that the disappearance of black girls happens but nobody much cares.

As the novel moves back in time, we learn much more about the girls’ friendship and mutual dependency. Claudia depends on Monday to help her hide her learning disability and Monday spends time with Claudia’s family, so unlike her own broken one. There are already cracks showing in their friendship – Monday is much more interested in boys than Claudia is, and will do anything to make herself visible leading to some intense drama at school. In the present, Claudia quietly starts to find her own way, though never letting go of her quest to find Monday. She makes connections with some girls at her dance school and, after her grades plummet, gets help with her dyslexia.

Claudia’s desperation and frustration about her lack of agency in searching for her friend is what stayed with me from this wonderful and wrenching novel. Her kind and loving parents do their best to help her but there is so much they don’t know or don’t seem to understand, though they are not quite as clueless as they first appear.

While focused on Claudia and Monday, the novel also tackles some other substantial issues. The neighborhood in Washington DC where Monday lives is in upheaval as the gentrifiers want to evict the tenants and turn the neighborhood into something more pleasing to middle class white people. This puts tremendous pressure on an already ragged community, stressed by poverty and drugs.

One minor quibble: The novel has a complicated (and to me, unnecessary) time scheme and twist that goes with it. It didn’t add anything for me and just made things a little more complicated than I felt they needed to be. But that doesn’t in any way detract from this completely absorbing and important novel and I shall most certainly be seeking out Ms Jackson’s first novel Allegedly.

Doing It! by Hannah Witton

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Doing It! by Hannah Witton
Sourcebooks, July 2018

British vlogger Hannah Witton offers breezy, tolerant, and sex-positive advice and information for teens of all genders and sexual identities.

The book, more of a dip-in resource than a read from cover to cover one, has chapters on healthy relationships, virginity, sex ed, LGBTQ+, consent, masturbation, porn, bodies and body image, sexual pleasure, contraception, STIs, sexting, and sex-shaming.

The author’s style is chatty and informative and uses examples from her own life that are often funny and awkward, making this a reassuringly down to earth guide to the minutiae of sex, from the intricacies of putting on a condom to the age of consent in different states.

The text is broken up with bulletpoint lists, graphic patterns, and advice and anecdotes from other YouTubers and online personalities. As a cisgender heterosexual woman, Witton wisely opens the LGBTQ+ chapter up to many other voices to give their own perspective.

Unfortunately, some of the advice, for example on sexting laws (and, according a reviewer on Amazon, the delivery of STI results), comes from a UK expert but the principles are still applicable here and the resources given at the end are American.

While not as definitive as Heather Corinna’s S. E. X (Da Capo 2nd ed., 2016), Witton’s friendly and casual style offers an accessible alternative.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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.

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.