Monthly Archives: February 2018

Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert

9780316349000

by Brandy Colbert
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Suzette, aka Little, has just arrived home in L.A. after spending her sophomore year of high school at a boarding school in Massachusetts. She was sent away by her mom and not-quite-stepdad, Saul, so they could focus on taking care of her not-quite-stepbrother, Lionel (Lion). Suzette and Lionel were as close as two siblings could be, but Lion’s bipolar diagnosis changed things between them. Though she’s a year younger, Suzette can’t help feeling responsible for and protective of him. Now that she’s home for the summer, they’ve fallen into their old patterns with a couple of new twists – besides Lion going off his meds, he’s also dating a girl Suzette is into, too, though she starts dating her close friend, Emil. Suzette also has a lot of thinking to do about how her secret relationship with her roommate, Iris, dissolved, and how to make things right. There is a fair amount of drinking, a little smoking pot, and some detailed sex scenes.

Suzette is the very definition of intersectionality. Saul and Lionel are Jewish (and Caucasian), and Suzette and her mother (who are black) converted years ago. Suzette also had a bat mitzvah, though she never wore her Star of David necklace at boarding school (keeping multiple identities under wraps). She speaks of feeling left out of Jewish spaces and friendships because she doesn’t fit into other people’s boxes. Though the author makes much of how connected Suzette feels to Judaism and her love of celebrating Shabbat (done quite artfully), Colbert seems to go out of her way to mention how Suzette and her family don’t keep kosher without addressing it at all. (They eat chorizo, prosciutto, and shrimp, off the top of my head.) Don’t get me wrong, there are many Jews who don’t keep kosher, or who pick and choose what feels meaningful to them in terms of dietary laws, but to not address it at all just seemed odd. The other odd thing was about the fictional Avalon, Massachusetts. I pictured it to be near the real town of Avon, MA, which is not far from Boston, but it is described as a place where drivers are chill and don’t honk or yell at each other, which definitely does not describe most of the towns near Boston. It’s possible Colbert pictured Avalon being in Western MA (like Northampton), where people are more chill, but that part made me wonder if Colbert had ever even been to Massachusetts!

But my nitpicking aside, this is a solid story with refreshingly complex characters, real dilemmas (especially how Lion blackmails Suzette to not tell their parents he’s off his meds), and a realistic and satisfying if not complete ending. It tackles both bipolar disorder and bisexuality and their many nuances with ease and grace and completely deserved to win the Stonewall Award this year. Now, if only I could figure out how to live in Suzette’s amazing house (and turret bedroom)…!

Paperboy by Vince Vawter

9780307931511

by Vince Vawter
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Set in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1959, this is the mostly autobiographical story of Victor, aka Little Man, who has a stutter and doesn’t talk a lot. He sticks to people he’s most comfortable with: his best friend, Rat (Art, but Rat is easier for him to say), and his maid/nanny/speech therapist, Mam. When Little Man is 12, Rat goes away for all of July, leaving him in charge of Rat’s paper route for the month. Over the four weeks, Little Man lets us into his world, explaining how he gets around words that are hard for him to say: substituting words with easier starting sounds, starting hard words with an extra s on the front, and typing instead of speaking.

Little Man also gets to know some of his neighbors in Memphis, including Mrs. Worthington, a beautiful but tragic alcoholic trapped in an abusive marriage; Mr. Spiro, who always takes time to talk (and listen) to Little Man; and, eventually, another boy who is also different and becomes a friend (spoiler: he’s deaf, and Little Man discovers that he can talk with his hands without stuttering). Little Man’s paper route, while challenging on collection day when he has to talk to people to collect money, also brings to a head his interactions with his neighborhood’s colored junkman, Ara T. He asks Ara T to sharpen his pocketknife so he can use it to cut open the newspaper bundles and Ara T just keeps it for his own, but eventually Mam gets involved and gets it back in a dramatic and somewhat violent scene. Little Man also discovers that his father isn’t who he thinks and grapples with that for much of the month. The ending is not neat but is satisfactory, and Little Man’s growth is satisfying.

American Panda by Gloria Chao

9781481499101

by Gloria Chao
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Seventeen-year-old Mei Lu is a freshman at MIT (because her parents said so; she skipped a grade and they dictated the college); pre-med (because her parents said so; she’s a germophobe), effectively an only child (because her parents said so; they disowned her brother), but also, American (because her parents said so; they sacrificed everything for her and her brother). But when her American identity clashes with their very strict, very traditional Chinese beliefs, there’s trouble ahead. Big trouble. And not all of it is named Darren Takahashi, a fellow freshman who steals her heart.

Mei also has to forge her own relationship with her brother, change her major from pre-med to, well, almost anything else (as long as it involves math, which she loves), continue to dance and teach dance, and pursue a relationship with Darren – all without her parents finding out. If they find out, she’ll be disowned just like her brother, Xing. Of course, she starts off the book being an obedient (if conflicted) daughter, so these are not her goals at the outset, and her journey to having the strength to go against her parents is the fascinating part. I loved watching Mei grow and also feel like my own compassion for my Taiwanese friends has taken on new depths. One, a college roommate, is now an artist and I can’t imagine what she had to go through to get where she is today. I also enjoyed watching Mei and her roommate, Nicolette’s, relationship grow. Best of all, I loved hearing Mei narrate what goes on for her when she dances, even times when dancing fails to help her work through whatever’s got her down. And of course, I enjoyed seeing MIT’s campus and Chinatown here in Boston through Mei’s (and Chao’s) eyes.

There is much discussion (though not graphically) of sex and STDs, as Mei shadows her campus health center gynecologist for the day. The gynecologist, a young doctor named Tina Cheng, is an interesting if not entirely believable character, so timid she is able to be pushed around by Mei into letting her shadow for the day when some issues of patient confidentiality come up. Mei’s relationship with Darren is limited to kissing and nothing else, so there’s not much there that’s unsuitable for younger teen readers (I’d even give it to some precocious middle schoolers, honestly).

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

9781681191058

by Renee Watson
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

A young adult librarian listserv I’m on frequently shares recommendations for books that are important to have on our radars and this one came up as an alternative to (but touted as much better than) The Hate U Give. I expected it to be roughly the same storyline, where a girl witnesses a traumatizing event of police brutality to someone close to her. However, that’s not where Watson’s story draws its power. Yes, Jade describes a case of a teen girl in her area brutally beaten by police and hospitalized, and she and her community are shaken deeply. But that is just one aspect of Jade’s junior year of high school that affects her, and this story encompasses all of them. Like Jade’s amazing collage artwork, stepping back and looking at the whole reveals its beauty and power.

Jade takes us through her junior year at a private (read: white) school in Portland, Oregon. She is black, and a scholarship student (and Watson does not lose this opportunity to show us opposing examples of how those two things are not mutually exclusive at St. Francis), and is invited to participate in a two-year-long mentorship program for smart, young, black women. She and her mentor get off to a rocky start, and soon she is ready to quit the program. While she and Maxine are both black and went to the same high school, they seem to be worlds apart in terms of SES and how they understand the world. More than that, Maxine dated a friend of Jade’s uncle. So, things between them are complicated and uneasy to say the least. But she doesn’t quit, and things do turn around for her eventually.

My favorite parts were her descriptions of Spanish class, especially her relationship with her Spanish teacher. Jade went to this school primarily because of their promise of study abroad opportunities, and when it looks like she won’t get them, she takes matters into her own hands – which happens to be the biggest lesson she learns over the book. Jade’s friendship with a fellow scholarship student, a white girl who rides her bus, also has some very touching learning moments. One last issue that is just briefly touched on is Jade’s body image – she is heavyset and at one point overhears a group of boys rating her and other women in a fast food restaurant. That she receives a 5 (out of 10) is the first indication of her looks, and the reader is as devastated as she is. Jade’s mother is another interesting character; she and Maxine initially also get off on the wrong foot in a power struggle of sorts, but she eventually comes around to Maxine.

There’s a lot in here (an incident in a store, another with a teacher at school) that can really shine a light on how it is for black people navigating white spaces and friendships with white people, in a way that is a lot more subtle than The Hate U Give – neither way is right or better, they’re just different. Overall, I wholly agree with the original recommender on the listserv – this is a hugely important book, and also one that is likely to be sadly overlooked in the fervor over Thomas’ timely and bold work.

Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag

9781338089516

by Molly Knox Ostertag
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Aster lives with his large extended family in a big old house at the edge of the woods. He and his cousins are all homeschooled, mostly in the ways of witchcraft (for the girls) and shapeshifting (for the boys). These roles are strictly adhered to with recent evidence of disastrous outcomes if the lines are blurred. The problem is, Aster wants to study witchcraft instead of shapeshifting, which his cousins all tease him for and his parents, aunts, uncles, and grandmother strictly forbid. He runs away and finds a new, non-magical friend, a girl named Charlie. When his male cousins start disappearing, Aster uses his ability to shapeshift and do witchcraft, combined with Charlie’s physical femaleness, to save the day.

My book club read this one along with Drum Dream Girl and Boy and the Bindi. (While none of the characters in these books are transgender specifically, I used that tag because it’s about gender roles.) The overwhelming feeling was that Boy and the Bindi could have used more explanation about what a bindi is (and why it’s used, officially); I mostly stayed out of that but feel guilty at not raising the idea of the explanatory comma, which I first learned about through NPR’s Code Switch podcast. But I’ll give my two cents here: I think if you know what a bindi is, this book is for you. If don’t know what a bindi is, go learn, and then this book can be for you too. And also, it’s okay if not everything is for you. I think it’s important for kids with minority identities have things that are just for them and don’t get into too much explanation for delicate white palates.