Tag Archives: diversity

SLAY by Brittney Morris

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SLAY by Brittney Morris
Simon Pulse, 2019.

So I’m a middle-aged white lady librarian but I was really gripped and enlightened by this book about Black videogaming and would thoroughly recommend it to teens interested in a different slant on gaming.

17 year-old Keira Johnson is one of only eight Black students at Jefferson Academy, along with her sister Steph and her boyfriend Malcolm. She is an Honors student and is excitedly awaiting the admissions decision from Spelman so she and Malcolm can be together in Atlanta while he’s at Morehouse.

But, by night, Keira takes on the role of Queen Emerald in SLAY, a virtual reality MMMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), intended only for Black people. But, more than that, she is the developer of this highly successful game along with Cicada, a young biracial woman who lives in Paris. 

However, when a teen is killed over a dispute in SLAY, the game makes headline news and not in a good way. The author cleverly contrasts the security of the game, where the players can recognize themselves and be authentic, with the way the white media misrepresents them as thugs and gangsters. Then a troll enters SLAY, threatening its very existence as a safe haven for black gamers.

Most of the story is told from Keira’s first person point of view but there are some chapters from the perspective of others who are involved or become involved with the game. The author also uses her characters to show different perspectives of Black people from the pragmatism of Steph to the Black (Male) Power ethos of Malcolm. The two main white characters, ostensibly well-meaning siblings Harper and Wyatt, show the micro (and not so micro) aggressions that the Black students at Jefferson are subject to. 

Ms Morris has created a gorgeous immersive vision with SLAY and the nuts and bolts of the game as players duel each other are enthralling and I learned much from her perspective on race and gender in gaming. And while some of the plotting and characterization is a bit wobbly, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book one bit.

The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert

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The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert
Disney-Hyperion, July 2020

Set over the course of Election Day 2020, this delightful two-hander starts when activist Marva and laidback musician Duke, both 18, meet cute at a polling station.

Over the course of the day, as Marva helps Duke get to vote and they look for Marva’s lost cat, social media celebrity Eartha Kitty, the author skillfully builds her characters, often using sidebar “About” chapters to fill in background information about other people important to them.

Though this presents as a smooth and easy romance, it’s something of a Trojan horse (in a good way!) Inside the charming exterior, the author doesn’t let the reader off the hook: the injustices against people of color and women are central to her characters’ passionate belief in the crucial need to vote to get change.

Alternating narration, the two lead characters, controlling Marva and laidback Duke come from ostensibly different backgrounds. Marva come from a comfortable middle class home, is one of only 8 black students at her fancy independent school and dates the charismatic (but ultimately villainous) white Alec. Duke’s family was shattered when his older brother, activist Julian, was killed and Duke has been learning how to deal with that loss ever since. But they are an attractive couple and it’s no surprise that after their initial decision to help Duke vote, their political dedication and commitment leads their relationship to develops quick.

The novel is apolitical in the sense that names and parties are not named, though I’m not sure how you could read this and vote Republican. Will it be enough to get Bernie elected? Likely not, but it might encourage a few readers to get out there and take their place in the democratic process.

Thanks to Disney-Hyperion and Netgalley for the digital review copy.

Admission by Julie Buxbaum

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Admission by Julie Buxbaum
Delacorte, May 2020

This lightly fictionalized, timely and very enjoyable version of 2019’s Varsity Blues college admissions scandal takes the point of view of one of the students involved and examines the ideas of privilege and entitlement along with culpability.

So I have skin in this game in several ways. Firstly, I work at a fancy independent high school whose students frequently go to some of the most elite colleges – none were involved with the Varsity Blues scandal though many have the legacy and extremely wealthy cards to play. Also, one of our neighbors was involved and it is to my eternal prurient regret that when I heard a kerfuffle at 6am on March 12, 2019 I didn’t look out the window to see the FBI. And as I write this, my son and I are in Southern California looking at colleges for him. We are a very privileged family and he is a smart kid who goes to a school that gives him lots of advantages though we probably couldn’t donate much more than a picnic table. We even toured USC (which he LOVED of course) and had a bit of a snigger about the water polo trophies.

Anyway back to the book!

Chloe Berringer is the daughter of sitcom star Joy Fields and is thrilled when she gets into prestigious Southern California College against all the odds. But when the FBI arrest her mother for fraud it emerges that Chloe’s acceptance was based on a false claim that she’s a top pole vaulter and an SAT score that she didn’t achieve on her own.

The narrative is split into what happened leading up to the arrest and the aftermath. Chloe is at top notch Woods Valley private school where her grades are not stellar and she feels dumb compared to her best friend Nigerian American Shola (the author really loads Shola up as the face of the victims of the college scam – she is super smart and comes from a low income family who are depending on financial aid for her to get into college and she is waitlisted by SCC) and her crush Levi. It’s not clear to us (or her) if she’s not smart or maybe just doesn’t work that hard, but, either way, getting into SCC feels amazing until it becomes humiliating.

This novel attempts to answer the two questions which were on everyone’s lips at the time. Firstly, why did the parents do it? Though the answer seems to be simply because they can, for Chloe there’s a bit more to it. Did they think she was stupid? Her parents just say that they wanted the best for her but did they really? The idea of prestige is certainly briefly touched on and I’ve got to tell you how much that looms in many parents’ lives despite assurances of “whatever is the best fit”.

The second question we were all asking at the time, is how did the students not know what was going on. Chloe spends a lot of time examining the idea of her culpability – she didn’t know what her parents were doing, but she did have her suspicions and does nothing. She knows she doesn’t have ADHD but allows her new “college counselor” to get this certified to give her extra time on the SAT. And why are her parents making such an enormous charitable donation to this counselor’s pet charity? Chloe concludes in retrospect that she was “aggressively oblivious” as the clues (not to say actual evidence) were there but she chose to willfully ignore them.

There is also some discussion, as there was at the time, of the legal “backdoor” ways that very rich (white) people use their money and privilege to secure college places for their children through large donations, and the unfairness of legacy is also lightly touched on (hey we feel that too! Both my husband and I are British and legacy isn’t a thing there).

There is a lot about Chloe’s privilege using Shola as both a mirror and mouthpiece. Once again Chloe is blithely oblivious of the depths of her privilege and accepts what is handed to her on a plate without much thought. Her microaggressions against Shola are numerous and Shola pushes back more times than you’d hope she’d have to do in real life before realization would set in, though in Chloe’s case, it never really does.

Buxbaum manages to keep Chloe mostly sympathetic and her family is charming but also outrageously privileged. As a contrast to this, offstage, we have Cesar, Chloe’s 1st grade reading buddy whose mother is undocumented. This is something that gives Chloe genuine fulfillment and a place where her parents money has made a difference – it is perhaps a light at the end of a very dark (but comfortably padded) tunnel.

There is of course some delightful and vicarious schadenfreude to be had from this book, but it also gives teen readers some support that if the worst happens, you will survive it and maybe even thrive on your new path. Particularly if your family is well off.

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital ARC.

This Boy by Lauren Myracle

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This Boy by Lauren Myracle
Walker, April 2020

Just before the start of freshman year, Paul and Roby meet up and then become friends once they start school: bonding over a mutual disdain for the girl-hazing bros in their year. Though they fall out over a girl, Latina Natalia, the ties of best friendship hold over the years of high school. Much of the book is a realistic and assured portrait of 21st century high school life for a boy: negotiating friends, girls, hurt feelings, alcohol and drugs, different family structures, different social and economic circumstances, and contemporary gender and sexuality mores. All this is done really well and effortlessly.

But then, because this is a YA book, Something Happens during senior year and the narrative takes a sharp turn from the quotidian to something much higher pitched though well within the bounds of everyday high school life. It is still skillfully written and resolved but I could have done without the extra drama as I was just enjoying living the life.

Paul and Roby are great, well-drawn characters – not in the popular gang but also not in the lower strata. In some ways, they are a step to the side, marching to the beat of their own drums, and I really enjoyed spending time with them. This is a lovely portrait of regular lives which can so easily slip awry, but with heart and support can get back on track.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees by Susan Kuklin with photographs by Susan Kuklin

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In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees by Susan Kuklin with photographs by Susan Kuklin
Candlewick, May 2020

Inspired by her grandparents’ flight from Russia and Ukraine, author Kuklin (We Are Here to Stay, 2019) puts a human face on the plight of refugees through the stories of five migrants who have come to live in the United States after fleeing war, violence, and slavery.

Using their own words, with occasional authorial interjections to give context, the refugees, originally from Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Iraq, and Burundi, give their moving and often harrowing descriptions of life in their native countries (Yazidi Shireen’s account of her abduction by ISIS is particularly raw and upsetting) along with the long and frustrating process required to become a refugee in the US. Resettled into Nebraska, the refugees and their families show resilience, optimism, and grit as they face the challenges of a new and unfamiliar country and the book includes many joyful photographs of the refugees in their new homes.

Backmatter is determinedly apolitical with information about the refugee process, extensive notes, timelines, further resources, and information about the Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska resettlement agency (which put the author in touch with her interviewees), but does not mention the Trump administration’s “travel ban” on immigrants from 13 countries, nor the reduction in the US refugee ceiling to a low of 30,000 in 2019.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi

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My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi
Dutton, 2019.

My second novel review about a space-obsessed middle grade girl set in the 1980’s! 

Zoboi’s (Pride, 2018) middle-grade debut is set in Summer 1984 when 12 year-old Ebony-Grace Norfleet has been sent from Huntsville Alabama by her mother to stay in Harlem with the father she hardly knows. It’s never made very clear why Ebony-Grace is sent, but there are hints that her grandfather is in some sort of trouble.

Encouraged by her Grandaddy, a pioneering black engineer for NASA, Ebony-Grace spends most of her time in her “imagination location,” living out Space stories inspired by Star Wars, Star Trek, and superheroes. In these stories, he is the heroic Captain Fleet, she is Space Cadet E-Grace Starfleet, and they have intergalactic adventures in the Mothership Uhura.

But this “crazy” behavior has isolated her in her hometown and now threatens to do the same here, even with her friend Bianca who had been a willing game participant three years ago. Bianca is now a rapper and breakdancer with the ice cream-themed 9 Flavas girl crew and when Ebony-Grace tries to behave like a “regular and normal” kid and fit in with them, they dismiss her as a “plain ol’ ice cream sandwich! Chocolate on the outside, vanilla on the inside.” The alien environment of Harlem with its graffiti, loud music, crowds of fast-talking people, breakdancing, and double Dutch pushes her further back into her comfort fantasy zone. Ebony-Grace presents as neurodiverse, though this is never made explicit, and her social struggles feel overwhelming and unresolvable, though the ending suggests that she may be on the road to change. 

Though I found the plot confusing and muddled and the resolution to be problematic, the author does effectively evoke the spirit of mid-80’s Harlem with many musical, cultural, and news references. Readers who enjoyed Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer (2010) may appreciate the period feel of this book too.

Review based on an ARC.

Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos

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Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
Wendy Lamb Books, 2019.

It’s 1986 and 12 year-old autistic and nonverbal Nova Vezina and her older sister, Bridget, have been in 11 foster homes in 7 years. But now Bridget has disappeared and Nova has been placed with kind and thoughtful Francine and Billy. Nova has to start at yet another school and undergo yet another round of testing which will inevitably conclude “Cannot read. Does not speak. Severely mentally retarded.” Bridget has always protected Nova from this hateful label, saying she’s smarter than people think and that she’s a “thinker not a talker” and the author does a wonderful job of showing the truth of this. Alternating chapters from a third person POV and letters that Nova writes to Bridget (just “scribbles” to everyone else) take the reader inside Nova’s head, giving an empathetic account of her rich thought processes as well as their external manifestations as she settles into her new home and classroom.

Bridget, and hence Nova, is deeply interested in space exploration, and Nova, clutching her NASA Bear and listening to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, counts down the days to the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger with the First Teacher in Space. But she’s also waiting for Bridget to keep her promise to be there for the launch though the reader may begin to suspect that there’s more to her absence than Nova understands. It’s only when Challenger explodes that the pieces fall into place for Nova.

A couple of concerns. As middle grade readers may not be aware of the Challenger disaster, it may come as a significant shock to them and tip what is already a very sad story into one that carries too much weight. Setting it in 1986 means that there was less understanding of Nova’s condition and less options to help her communicate; Things have changed (as the author explains in a note) but readers may not be aware of this and though both Bridget and her new foster family resist the term “retard” it is still used by responsible adults, even if they are signaled as lacking understanding.

I feel that there’s really could be two novels here: one about Nova and Bridget and one about the doomed Space Shuttle, and though the author does a decent job of making it one novel it does feel a little overstuffed. Nonetheless, the author’s personal experience and her professional experience working with autistic kids brings authenticity to this poignant slim volume. 

Review based on an ARC.

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

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The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
Putnam, 2019

In 1890 Atlanta, Jo Kuan, a 17 year-old Chinese American girl, has just lost her job with a milliner for being a “saucebox”, so she has little choice but to return to work at the Payne family estate as a lady’s maid for the disagreeable daughter of the house. 

Jo and her guardian Old Gin have lived for many years in a secret abolitionist basement under the print shop of the Bell family’s newspaper, the Focus, and she eavesdrops on them through a disguised vent. Even though the Bells are not aware of their clandestine lodgers, Jo feels they have helped raise her and helped her education. When she learns that the paper is failing and needs to increase circulation to keep going, she has an idea that will allow her to let off steam publicly and boost the circulation of the Focus: she will write a satirical column on contemporary topics affecting women and people of color. Immediately the identity of the anonymous “Miss Sweetie” as well as her radical views become the talk of the town. 

Through Jo’s biting wit and sharp intelligence in both her narration and her newspaper articles, the author effortlessly braids in historical information about the contradictions of late 19th century Atlanta society, the position of Chinese and black people in the South, and the emerging white suffragist movement. As post-Reconstruction Atlanta drifts into the Jim Crow era, the events all come to a head, after a flurry of revelations (one of which is exceptionally convenient), propelling Jo’s understanding of the importance of marginalized people having and owning a voice, celebrating a message that is as relevant today as it was then. 

Historical fiction can be a hard sell, but Jo’s humor, sass, and resilience will make this an appealing read for teens who enjoy exploring different facets of America.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw

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Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
Scholastic, 2019

I really enjoy British dystopias – they are so much grungier than American ones – so I was excited to see this novel (originally published in the UK in 2018) on the review table. It reminded me a little of Maggot Moon, which I adored, and also of the communist East German regime which I was immersed in recently on a holiday in Berlin.

In a near-future England, the Coalition has brought in Brexit on steroids: nobody is allowed in or out of the country. The Coalition looks after you from cradle to grave and for your safety (of course!) they want to know where you are at all times, so all citizens have a chip embedded in their necks.

12 year-old Jake had led a happy and unremarkable life with his parents who were scientists for the Coalition, but when they both die in a car accident he is taken away to a Home Academy – a boarding school/prison for parentless children. But his parents had made him promise that if anything happened to them, he would make his way to his grandparents in Scotland accompanied by his dog, Jet.

Jake manages to escape from the Home and rescue Jet from his neighbors, but he can’t shake the pursuing “hub police” because of his chip. Just in time, he is rescued by a group of outwalkers: teens and children who have removed their chips and want to escape over the New Wall to Scotland. This motley group of seven, all white except dark-skinned Poacher, are richly characterized and are the heart of the novel.

As they crisscross England avoiding capture, the plot crackles along at a high intensity pace with occasional, welcome moments of slack. The group has its harsh rules for survival: no technology, be outside, be hidden, and obedience to the gang; any infractions and you’re out. Jake is initially uncomfortable with the outwalkers, and the feeling is mutual, but they gradually let him into their motley family.

However, the kids do seem to be unfeasibly lucky in getting out of apparently no exit situations and a late turn of the plot adds in a new character. This takes the focus from the personal and sets up an unnecessary sequel, a development of which you just know I’m not a fan. 

The author has used current events and attitudes and turned up the jets of speculation to create a grim but very plausible world. The Coalition’s promotion of jingoistic nationalism, its manipulation of the media and the narrative, the social hierarchy based on wealth and privilege, and the restricted access to healthcare will feel as familiar to American readers as it does to British ones.

I’ve seen some criticism of this book – Poacher, the only black character is the only one whose speech is written in dialect, one of the other characters uses “throws like a girl” as an insult – and these are fair objections. Nonetheless, I found myself thoroughly gripped and invested in the quest for belonging made by these characters and would recommend it to teen readers who enjoy bleak speculative fiction.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Aurora Cycle _01
Knopf, 2019.

The authors of The Illuminae Files kick off a new action-packed sci-fi series in which a squad of teen “legionnaires” protect a girl recovered from a spacecraft that went missing back in the early days of Earth’s expansion into space.

Legion Squad 312 consists of straight arrow leader, dishy blond Tyler, his persuasive diplomat sister Scarlett, tattooed ace pilot Cat, genius but socially awkward dark brown-skinned Zila, along with two “aliens” geeky Betraskan Finian and noble Sydralthi warrior Kal. Added to this mix is “half-Chinese” mystery “girl out of time” Aurora who has visions and gradually emerging powers. 

Surprises and twists abound as this group of misfits come together with much snarky banter while learning to rely on each other’s individual strengths as they are pursued across space by the menacing Global Intelligence Agency who are determined to capture Aurora. 

The narration of the seven teens as well as pages from an iPad-like “uniglass” all add to the world-building. Set in 2380, it seems that some things have changed – there are now 475 known civilizations, though most of them seem to be variations of humans but with different numbers of appendages and different color skin – and some things haven’t – humans still want to colonize, refugees are still despised, economic disparity persists, and nerdy boys still think they have a chance with hot girls. 

High energy and tautly plotted all the way through, as the squad eventually uncovers the fearsome threat to all life in the universe and Aurora’s role is revealed, the authors leave us gasping for the sequel.