The Poet X

Words have power, even before they’re spoken.

33294200Xiomara Batista is many things – high school student, twin to Xavier, never quite good enough daughter, and closet poet. She’s being raised in a strict religious household by a mother who really wanted to be a nun and dad whose idea of being a good father is to close off his past life, stay silent and go along with mom. Xiomara is dealing with a lot – questioning her connection to the religion her mother forces on her, trying to be a good friend and ally to her brother who has secrets of his own, dealing with the unwanted attention men feel free to aim at her womanly body, and despite her mother’s harsh lectures about the dangers of dating, accepting that there’s nothing wrong with being attracted to boys. Her only outlet is her poetry; she writes it just for herself, trying to make sense of her thoughts and feelings. Eventually she’s persuaded to join the Spoken Word Poetry Club at school and, with the support of new friends, gains the confidence to share her words. After her first performance at an open mic everything changes. Xiomara’s journey is difficult but she learns how to live within her family while still being herself. Now, she understands that her words serve as both armor and weapon.

This book’s story in verse format serves the narrative very well, successfully making what looks spare on the page truly dense in meaning. The weaving of the overall story with Xiomara’s poetry is emotional, heartbreaking, joyous and powerful. Fully rooted in her Dominican culture, Elizabeth Acevedo paints a moving picture of this young woman, working to filter all the messages directed at her, on her way to discovering her true self.

Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X, Harper Teen

 

 

Monday’s Not Coming

How can a girl disappear and no one notice?

35068534Claudia and her best friend Monday do everything together. They keep each other’s secrets, and even have their own language. When Claudia comes back from spending the summer with her grandmother in Georgia she can’t wait to catch up with her friend. But Monday’s phone isn’t working, and when Claudia knocks on the door of Monday’s house, her mother screams that she’s not there and Claudia needs to leave. When the first day of school – then week, then month – go by and Monday still hasn’t shown up, Claudia is worried but she seems to be the only one. She can’t get a straight answer from anyone, just excuses and deflections. Even when she sees Monday’s older sister she can’t get any information. After being told so many stories – Monday is being homeschooled, is at her father’s, is with an aunt – Claudia slowly comes to understand what really happened; the painful, horrifying truth about her best friend and about herself.

When you read this book, prepare for a roller coaster ride. The structure works brilliantly to convey the story. The chapters cover Before, Before the Before, The After, Later On and several specific months. The writing is so skillful we live inside Claudia’s confusion and frustration but never lose the thread of the narrative. As we and Claudia come to learn the truth, everything falls into place with heartbreaking clarity. We are forced to confront how race and class affect attention to issues involving young girls of color, and how important it is for communities of color to destigmatize taking care of mental health.

Tiffany D. Jackson, Monday’s Not Coming, Katherine Tegen Books

Freedom Fighting Kids – and Dinos

Never underestimate the power of a child on a dinosaur.

38276982This historical fantasy is set during the Civil War and draws on actual events: the New York City draft riots and the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum in July of 1863. In this version of that time, dinosaurs are still around, having been domesticated and put into use for various tasks. The story revolves around Magdalys Roca and her friends who live at the Colored Orphan Asylum. During a field trip to a theater they get caught up in the draft riots and find their orphanage has been burned to the ground. Even scarier, they are almost captured by the Kidnapping Club, a group of men who abduct colored people and sell them south into slavery. Magdalys, (who discovers she can somehow psychically communicate, understand and control dinosaurs), and the other orphans along with a few performers from the theater fight their way to safety aboard a brachiosaur. They find a safe house on Dactyl Hill, named for the pterodactyls who nest there. The crew learns that the Kidnapping Club has captured most of the colored orphans and is planning to sell them into slavery. With the help of a few adults and some powerful dinos, the children lead the battle against the kidnappers to free their friends.

Older successfully tells a story of brave children set inside the brutal reality of abuse of people of color by pro-slavery profiteers, riots, lynchings and the Civil War. The inclusion of dinosaurs ratchets up the excitement in the most dramatic scenes. The narrative doesn’t sugar coat the threats to the characters of color present during that time, but still makes the issues accessible to younger readers, say 10 and up. I admit to giving a side eye to the idea of dinosaurs + civil war, but I have to say, it really works.

Daniel José Older, Dactyl Hill Squad, Arthur A. Levine

Note: You can find this book at your local bookstore on September 11th.

 

A Gift You Don’t Want – But Sometimes Need

What’s worse than the school to prison pipeline?  The school itself becoming the prison.

36142487Morris “Moss” Jeffries is a high school student in Oakland, CA.  As a young child Moss witnessed his father being killed by police, leaving him subject to severe panic attacks. His close friends and family understand and support him, helping him through episodes. Moss’s school is underfunded: stapled, photocopied pages instead of bound textbooks, classrooms in disrepair, and students having to go without basic materials is the norm. Yet somehow there is enough funding for “student safety,” which begins with a police officer on staff who conducts random, mandatory locker checks. A confrontation between a trans student and the officer turns violent when he finds the student’s medication and, assuming they are a drug dealer, gets physical. The administration blames the student for the altercation and responds by escalating their tactics. Students are now forced to enter the building through metal detectors. Thanks to the incompetence – and enthusiasm – of the officers monitoring the detectors, a disabled student is severely injured. Despite being the very type of situation that triggers  Moss’s panic attacks, he finds himself helping to lead the charge to fight back against the school’s policies. His mother has a background in community activism. After her husband’s murder she’d stepped back, but engages again to help Moss and his friends draw on community support to plan peaceful protests. Those peaceful protests turn deadly, thanks largely to a combat ready police force. The event which finally leads the school to “reevaluate” the prison like practices is deeply cynical and absolutely realistic.

Author Mark Oshiro’s narrative accurately reflects the complexity of teens’ lives, deftly blending relationships, queer first loves, activism, and mental health issues.  The characters are well crafted, relatable and realistically diverse in culture, class, sexuality and gender identity.  An increasingly militarized police force, an overwhelmed, underfunded school system and the everyday issues teens face are woven into a story that at times reads much more like non-fiction. Even the weapons and tactics the police force uses on protesters reflect actual practices. This book broke my heart, made me angry, and inspired me.  I work in a public school and am blessed with a safety officer whose actions have repeatedly proven she cares about our students. Sadly I have observed other schools where the idea of safety was perverted into punitive rather than protective policies.

This story is sometimes painful to read, just as it should be. But the story is so well told and ideas within so important and inspiring, it should be read by young people and anyone who cares about them.

Mark Oshiro, Anger Is A Gift, TOR Teen

 

 

 

 

 

If The Dress Fits…

Being true to yourself is easier said than done.

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In this lovely graphic novel, Frances, an aspiring designer makes an outrageous dress for a young woman attending a prince’s ball. The prince is captivated, not by the princess but by the dress.  Prince Sebastian is gender fluid, some days feeling fine in traditionally male clothing, other days loving wearing his mother’s dresses and feeling like a princess. Frances dreams of creating costumes for the Paris ballet and loves designing with drama. Prince Sebastian secretly employs Frances as his seamstress, and together they create Lady Crystallia, Sebastian’s alter ego who soon becomes the fashion icon for the young women of Paris. Secrets like this are hard to protect, especially when Sebastian’s parents have been presenting him with princess after princess, pushing him to get married. At the same time Frances grows frustrated because she cannot be recognized for her work. Eventually they both have to make some difficult decisions in order to move ahead. Jen Wang’s illustrations, in both style and tone, beautifully express the delight, drama and sadness the characters experience. Each chapter is introduced with an illustration of a pattern piece, a nice touch. Overall, this is a moving exploration of balancing what others expect of you with your own dreams. I was surprised to hear some “gatekeepers” saying this graphic novel is for high schoolers. The story is fine for middle schoolers; in fact, it’s important for them to see stories like this. They are in the midst of figuring out who they are, and seeing different ways of being helps sort out the confusion that comes with this journey.

The Prince and The Dressmaker, Jen Wang, First Second

The magic inside

When our magic is destroyed, can we do what it takes to bring it back?

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Generations ago, Sky Mother blessed her children, all deities, with mastery over life and death, dreams, the elements, health and disease, time, and animals. In turn, the deities created maji, their human children of blood and bone who could wield the powers. A king who hated magic ordered a raid; all the maji were killed and only divîners, young people capable of magic but whose powers have not yet awoken, were allowed to live. He also made sure to dispose of the sacred objects which awaken their ashê and connect the maji to Sky Mother. Many years after the raid one of the magical objects, a scroll, has resurfaced and is in the king’s possession. After witnessing a brutal act which reveals the scroll’s power, the king’s daughter Princess Amari steals the scroll and runs away from the castle. She meets Zélie, a divîner, and Zélie’s brother Tzain. They learn that the three of them are destined to take the scroll and make a way to reconnect divîners to their gods, bringing magic back. To do this they must stay ahead of Prince Inan – Amari’s brother who is charged with finding her and the scroll. He is committed to proving himself to his father the king, but struggles with a secret of his own – somehow, he too is a divîner.

This is an incredible book. The narrative, rooted in West African culture,  is dramatic and action packed, filled with uneasy alliances, ever present danger, and magic.  The world building is stellar, so rich, detailed and cinematic you become fully immersed. Complex characters make the story even more engaging. One especially nice element is the maji and divîners’ appearance. All of them have white hair; it’s straight when they are divorced from their magic, and as the connection gets stronger, their hair grows more coiled (think Angela Bassett in Black Panther.) Each chapter is voiced by either Amari, Inan, and Zélie, so we are always party to the internal conflicts each face when thrown into difficult, confusing situations. Kudos to the cover designer – the visual truly communicates the drama inside the book.

I love this book so much it’s causing me to reverse a firmly held opinion – I am no longer tired of trilogies! I am thrilled that this story will continue in two more books, the next, Children of Virtue and Vengeance, due out in early 2019. Is it too soon to stand outside of the bookstore and wait for it to be delivered?

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi, Henry Holt

 

 

 

Scary Creatures, Scarier Humans

Sometimes the humans are just as threatening as the creatures.

27414411This chilling sci-fi horror story brings together Tuck Drake, who woke up from a 400 year stasis and realized he was one of the only non-mutated human survivors on his ship, and Laura Cruz, a hacker aboard a ship which just crashed into Tuck’s. Laura is part of a crew of  shipraiders, archeologists who search the cosmos for  remains of Earth so they can build sustainable life on a new planet. Tuck’s ship holds what’s left of Yosemite National Park; these seeds of new life are exactly what Laura’s team needs. In trying to protect the remains of Yosemite, Laura and Tuck have to fight off  some of the scariest creatures I’ve ever read about, avoid being destroyed by rogue technology, and even scarier, defend themselves against a rival family who go to alarming lengths to undermine their efforts.  Latinx characters – by description, language and cultural references – are center stage, a welcome change from standard sci-fi fare. Characters are well constructed, and the scary, intriguing narrative delivers some interesting plot twists. The fear this book delivers is unrelenting.  If this were a movie it would be too scary for me to watch, but as a book…yesss!!

Pitch Dark, Courtney Alameda, Feiwel & Friends