This Poison Heart

poison heartBriseis and her adoptive mothers run a flower shop in Brooklyn where she demonstrates a special a gift with plants. When in her presence, drooping plants perk up, dying plants get healthy again and, when she focuses, Briseis is able to grow an entire plant from just a leaf or seed. Neither she nor her moms understand this ability, but they accept it.

Briseis’s birth mother Selene, who died when Briseis was very young, had a sister, Circe, who no one knew about. The family gets the unexpected news that Circe just died and passed on 40 acres of land in Rhinebeck, upstate NY to Briseis. Briseis and her moms take the plunge and move there.

It seems everyone in town knew Briseis’s late mother and aunt. Briseis discovers that her gifts with plants is a family trait. Selene and Circe ran an apothecary, sourcing plants from their expansive gardens and greenhouses to provide locals with natural medicines. Now the locals expect Briseis to follow in Selene and Circe’s footsteps. As Briseis unravels the mysteries surrounding her new home and her abilities, she learns there is far more to her heritage than she ever imagined. 

Briseis finds messages from her aunt that lead her to a hidden section of the garden, filled with powerful, deadly plants. Though Briseis is immune to them, she is not immune to the danger she faces from people who would stop at nothing to get to them.

This story is inventive and clever, weaving Greek mythology and deadly botany into a tale about family secrets, deceit and power. BIPOC and queer representation is centered in the story. The emerging romance between Briseis and  Marie, a local who seems to know more about Briseis’s family than anyone, enhances rather than distracts from the plot. The narrative twists and turns add even more drama and suspense. The author, Kaylynn Bayron, (who also wrote the extraordinary “Cinderella is Dead”) has created another fascinating world and a moving story that does not disappoint.

Find This Poison Heart at your local bookstore.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

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Lily is a queer Chinese American teen living in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950’s. Although she has friends in her close knit community, her dreams take her elsewhere. Lily is one of only two girls in her high school’s advanced math class; she wants to go to college and become a “computer” at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA like her Aunt Judy.

The other girl in the math class, Kathleen Miller, wants to be a pilot. Lily connects with Kathleen and slowly discovers they are both interested in math, science – and each other. She and Kathleen cautiously move toward facing, examining and understanding the feelings they have. Lily is curious about The Telegraph Club, where male impersonator Tommy Andrews performs. Kathleen takes her there; for the first time Lily connects with women who aren’t afraid to express themselves and their queerness. Lily decides that, although it will be hard, she will fight to live her truth.

The narrative is well plotted and does not gloss over the racism, homophobia and sexism rampant at that time. Lily’s friends, family and the women she meets at the club all have depth, representing a variety of life experiences and points of view. The backstory of some of Lily’s older relatives provides a historical look at the many legalized forms of anti-Asian discrimination her community faced. Several incidents at The Telegraph Club show the harm done by homophobia, particularly as practiced by the media and legal system.

In the Author’s Note, Malinda Lo shares the extensive (and fascinating!) research she did into life in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950’s, and into life for queer women of color at that time. I appreciated her choice to use language –  Orientals, Negroes, etc.- to solidify the setting, even though those words are awkward now. Chinese dialog written with traditional characters brings us further into Lily’s world. Lo bases some characters on real people in an effort to highlight queer Chinese American women whose stories have been erased. A list of visual and print resources provides information for those who would like to learn more.

It’s interesting to reflect on what has changed and what hasn’t since Lily’s time. It’s a good reminder that just because we make some progress, it doesn’t mean the fight is over.

Find Last Night at the Telegraph Club at your local bookstore.

BONUS: If you really want to sink into the story, find the Spotify playlist Malinda Lo created, which contains music found in the book and inspired by the story. Listen while you read!

Blackout

BlackoutThis collection of stories celebrating Black romance comes from an all-star squad of young adult authors. Editor Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles), is joined in this delightful anthology by: Tiffany D. Jackson (Allegedly), Nic Stone (Dear Martin), Angie Thomas (The Hate You Give), Ashley Woodfolk (The Beauty That Remains) and Nicola Yoon (The Sun Is Also a Star).

In six stories, we meet thirteen young people in various locations throughout Manhattan. They’re all in the midst of dealing with different romantic quandaries – confessing attraction, revealing secrets, healing from a breakup, or daring to be vulnerable. Then, a blackout hits. This disruption dramatically complicates their various situations. Whether they are stranded on a stalled subway train, struggling with only their cell phone for light, awkwardly connecting with new people, or finding themselves stuck with an old flame, the teens can’t escape their romantic dilemmas.

Each story is unique, but they are all tied together; most of the teens know each other and they’re all trying to get to the same block party in Brooklyn. One of the stories is set in a senior living facility. A brief look at the residents’ various love stories and relationships adds warmth without overshadowing the teens’ experiences. The characters are all honest in voice and action. The inclusive representation across gender and sexuality means many teens will find romantic stories that will resonate with them – or allow  them to dream. The laser focus on the teens’ love lives — with no reference to whatever chaos may be going on around them — makes the blackout feel like a cozy blanket instead of a disaster. These funny, heartwarming, sweet and complex stories focusing on Black love, not trauma, come just when we need them.

I usually wait until a book has been published to review it, but I was so excited about this one I couldn’t hold off. Pre-order Blackout now or find it in June at your local independent bookstore.

Exploring Culture in Kids’ Comics

I recently had the opportunity to moderate a panel with three amazing graphic novel creators as part of San Diego Comic-Con’s Education Series. Each creator tells their story through the lens of their culture. Rumi Hara created  “Nori” which details the adventures of a mischievous, imaginative 4 year old living near Osaka, Japan. Jose Pimienta‘s “Suncatcher,” set in Mexicali, Mexico, is a  “devil at the crossroads” tale of a girl trying to pay a mystical debt and rescue her grandfather’s soul. In “Displacement” by Kiku Hughes a teen travels through time and memory to witness both her grandmother’s life as a Japanese American incarcerated during World War Two and the resulting intergenerational impact.

All three creators were fascinating and entertaining, as are each of their books!  Here’s the video of  our talk. I hope you enjoy it – then go read their books!

Find Nori, Suncatcher and Displacement at your local bookstore or comic shop.

The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History

Black Panthers

This graphic novel goes beyond accepted knowledge and myths about the Black Panther Party to tell a complex, well researched history. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was created in 1966 in Oakland, CA, but is actually rooted in the oppression of Black people in America, going back to the time of enslavement. The narrative draws a line from that time, through the Civil War to the civil rights movement, showing how the Panthers were inevitable.

In chronicling the history, author David F. Walker often breaks from the narrative panels and uses full pages to take a closer look at people and events. In addition to in depth information about pivotal figures Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, we learn more about less well known men and women who were essential to the Panthers’ founding. The narrative documents many of the Panthers’ successes, including launching free nutrition, clothing, education, and medical care programs. The book is equally clear about the Party’s violent acts and internal conflicts. Shifts in leadership and disagreements about priorities and tactics lead to power struggles. We also get an informative deep dive into J. Edgar Hoover’s Counter Intelligence Program. COINTELPRO, as it was known, was the covert, illegal domestic surveillance of political groups. Walker includes a memo outlining the secretive group’s goal of eliminating all organizations advocating for Black power or civil rights. He details how the FBI’s tactics – planting informants, inflaming rivalries between the Panthers and rival organizations and colluding with local law enforcement – significantly weakened the Party.

Marcus Kwame Anderson’s art supports the story beautifully. The realistic renderings bring the people and their experiences to life. The colors are muted but work well to depict both the successes and the struggles of the Party. Overall this graphic novel does a stellar job of conveying the complicated legacy of the Black Panther Party’s people and programs. An extensive bibliography with resources for further reading is included.

Find this compelling graphic novel at your local independent bookstore or comic book shop.

2020 Cybils Awards

The Cybils Awards are given by book bloggers to children’s and young adult authors and illustrators whose work has both literary merit and popular appeal.  I was honored to be a finalist judge for the 2020 Awards for Young Adult Fiction and Young Adult Speculative Fiction. Big thanks to fellow finalist judges Helen Murdoch, Wendy Gassaway, Rachel Patton and Dana Foley for the enjoyable collaboration!

Here are our winners:

Young Adult Fiction

Furia    

Furia
by Yamile Saied Méndez
Algonquin Young Readers
Purchase through IndieBound

Quiet, 17-year-old Argentinian Camila Hassan, lives at home in the shadow of her brother’s soccer career always watching her step so as not to set off her father’s volatile temper. Once she is free of the traditional expectations, she is the star of her futbal team transforming into ‘Furia’ and pushing the boundaries on the field with the end goal to be an American professional futbolera. With her perfect English, killer kick, and a showcasing championship in her sights, what could stop her?

Author Yamile Saied Méndez has created a beautifully complex book. She skillfully wraps issues of sexism, colorism, and violence against women in a story of athletic aspiration, capped off with a touch of romance. Méndez’s own background as a futbolera shines through in her exciting depiction of soccer matches. The compelling narrative is brought to life with strong characters and inclusion of Spanish dialog, which makes the story richer and helps cement the Argentinian setting. Just like the Cybils judges, readers will find themselves rooting wholeheartedly for Furia.

 

Young Adult Speculative Fiction

Cemetery Boys    

Cemetery Boys
by Aiden Thomas
Swoon Reads
Purchase through IndieBound

Deeply steeped in Latinx culture and folklore, Cemetery Boys weaves magic, identity, and family birthright into a compelling coming of age story. Yadriel is gay, transgender, and struggling to be accepted as a brujo by his tight-knit family. Yadriel’s community is diverse and vibrant, peppered with loud and lovable characters like his cousin Maritza. His family is loving, supportive, and complicated. This #ownvoices novel is a tender romance, a ray of hope, and a testament to the power of all kinds of love. Aiden Thomas has written a timely story that readers, both queer and straight, can relate to and see themselves in. The judges strongly felt that readers will enjoy the masterful balance of humor, suspense, and magic achieved in Cemetery Boys.

 

The Cybils honors books for early readers through young adult, picture books and graphic novels, fiction and non-fiction. To see the entire list of 2020 winners,  visit the Cybils blog. Happy reading!

Amari and the Night Brothers

Amari

Amari and the Night Brothers chronicles a quest that literally relies on #blackgirlmagic.

Amari is one of the only Black girls at her private middle school. She’s bullied and gets in trouble for standing up for herself. Amari’s worried about her older brother Quinton who went missing after spending time away from home in a leadership program. After being visited by Quinton in a dream, she is whisked off to join the same program. Amari learns it’s actually the academy where young people train to join the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs.

Each trainee has a natural talent which gets enhanced into a special power; for example, a creative person becomes a mastermind inventor. The Bureau’s specialized departments work together to manage relationships between the known world and the unseen supernatural beings all around us. Amari is determined to become an Agent in the Department of Supernatural Investigations so she can find her brother.

Amari is unsure of her talent and is shocked to learn her power is wielding magic. Magic is illegal and magicians themselves are considered evil  due largely to the Night Brothers. These wicked magicians wreaked havoc on their world in their quest for power. They were also involved in Quinton’s disappearance. Despite having this forbidden skill, Amari is allowed to stay, but finds herself subject to the same shunning and othering she experienced in school. However, thanks to her roommate, an aura-reading weredragon, and some adults who believe in her, she grows in confidence – and supernatural ability – overcoming some big challenges in her quest.

This story deals with real problems but wraps them in whimsy. There’s a lot of silliness which succeeds in making the book fun without side stepping the harder issues. The worldbuilding is solid and plot twists abound. Illustrated chapter headings enliven the story. Amari faces difficulties but also finds friendship and support in this delightful, mystical world. The ending is satisfying but leaves the door open for more adventure. Readers of this middle grade fantasy will be eagerly awaiting the next volume – I know I am!

Find Amari and the Night Brothers (in person or online), at your local bookstore.

 

Happy Holidays!

The holidays are upon us and and along with them, colder weather and for many, new shelter in place orders. Now more than ever books make good gifts. They have the ability to carry us away and help us cope with today’s realities. It’s also a good time to support independent bookstores. You can find your local bookstore here, or comic book shop here. Most stores can fulfill online orders, so don’t let not having a shop in your neighborhood stand in the way!

Here are a few suggestions. Click on the titles to find out more about the books and where to find them. In case you need a reminder, there’s nothing wrong with shopping for yourself!

PS Sign up to follow my blog and get more in depth reviews of great books and graphic novels!

For SciFi/Fantasy Fans

Suncatcher, by Jose Pimienta: Beatriz discovers the secret to her grandfather’s musical talent and realizes she must fulfill an unpaid debt. This graphic novel is a “devil at the crossroads” story with a Mexicali punk twist.

A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance and Hope, Patrice Caldwell, Editor – Sixteen top YA authors contribute to this anthology of thrilling scifi, fantasy and magical stories.

Seven Deadly Shadows, by Courtney Alameda and Valynne E. Maetani – Kira Fujikawa, keeper of her family shrine, must call upon ruthless shinigami (death gods), to save it from an attack by yokai demons.

Legendborn, by Tracy Deonn – Bree, trying to uncover the truth behind her mother’s death, finds a connection to a college secret society rooted in the centuries old legends of King Arthur. She soon realizes she’ll need to call on her own heritage of magic to find answers.

 

Looking For Romance?

This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story, by Kheryn (Kacen) Callender – Nate doesn’t believe in happy endings, especially after his best friend turned girlfriend breaks his heart. Things change when Nate’s childhood best friend Oliver moves back to town and – maybe – he can tell Oliver his true feelings towards him.

Opposite of Always, by Justin A. Reynolds – When Jack goes on a  college tour, he falls for his tour guide Kate. He learns she has a serious medical condition and tries to save her life. Somehow he finds himself reliving the moment they met and the subsequent weeks over and over. The circumstances are different every time as he tries again and again to save her.

This Is My Brain In Love, by I.W. Gregorio: Jocelyn Wu and Will Domenici are working together to save Jos’s family’s struggling restaurant. Will and Jos are attracted to each other but realize they have to manage their mental health issues before they can have a relationship. Both are children of immigrants; stigmas around dealing with mental health issues in communities  of color make it more complicated.

Bloom, by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau – In this sweet graphic novel, it’s summer, and Ari is stuck in the city working in his family’s bakery. He’s tired of it and wishes he could get away. Hector, who loves baking, comes to town and takes a job at the bake shop. Ari begins to see things differently as he and Hector grow closer.

 

Revisiting The Past

Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhha Lai – Hang is separated from her little brother as they try to escape Vietnam during the last days of the war. When she makes it to Texas 6 years later, she finds him but struggles to reconnect when she realizes he doesn’t remember her.

Outrun The Moon, by Stacey Lee – In 1906 San Francisco, Mercy Wong is determined to be admitted to a private school that usually accepts only wealthy white girls. She manages to get in only to have everything upended when the 1906 earthquake wrecks the town. Now on her own, she must find a way forward for herself and other survivors.

Lies We Tell Ourselves, by Robin Talley – Set in 1959, Sarah Dunbar faces serious harassment as one of 10 Black students integrating an all-white high school. When she and white classmate Linda Hairston are forced to work together on a project they try to understand their attraction to each other when there are so many reasons they shouldn’t be together.

 

Realistic, Current Day Stories

Not So Pure and Simple, by Lamar Giles: Del finally gets close to his crush Kiera – by accidentally joining a church group pledging to stay pure until marriage. Barred from getting proper sex education, the teens grapple with conflicting messages about relationships and sexuality while recognizing the toxic behaviors even “good guys” are guilty of.

This Time Will Be Different, by Misa Sugiura – CJ Katsuyama loves working in her family’s flower shop. A developer swindled her grandparents out of the business when they were sent to the camps during World War Two. After years of work, the shop is back in the Katsuyama’s hands.The business is struggling but CJ is determined to fight back when the same developer’s family tries to buy the building out from under them.

The Perfect Escape, by Suzanne Park – Scholarship student Nate Kim meets wealthy Kate Anderson when they both work at the Zombie Laboratory escape room. Nate’s family struggles financially and although Kate’s does not, her father uses money to keep Kate on a leash. Kate asks Nate to be her partner in the Zombiegeddon weekend-long survival challenge; the big cash prize could change both their lives. 

Turning Point, by Paula Chase – Best friends Rashida and Monique are both straining under imposed structures – Monique in a predominantly white, traditional classical ballet program, Rashida in her very rigid, conservative church. Both girls must figure out how to fit into the world around them without being completely stifled by the constraints.

 

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!

Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence

47493017Joel Christian Gill is the creator of the graphic novels Strange Fruit Volumes I & II, which tell the stories of unsung African Americans. He turns the focus on himself in his powerful graphic memoir Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence. His recounting of his young life is both brave and heartbreaking. He does not hold back in exposing the abuse and neglect he suffered and shows how it impacted the way he moved through the world. He admits how painful it was to recall these childhood memories – I can only imagine what it was like to live them, given how painful it was to read about them.

His father died when he was young, and his mother struggled to take care of him. He often had to stay with his mother’s friends or relatives, where he was sexually abused and neglected. School provided no refuge as he was also bullied by other children and mistreated by teachers. He was drowning but there was no one to throw him a life-line.  He had to swim his way out on his own. He shows how children subjected to violence in words and actions absorb it all; then, like sponges, they get filled up and start to “leak” that same behavior. Eventually he became like the children around him, a full vessel leaking abuse onto others.

He was kept afloat by the library, art and a few key friendships. Once he discovered how much he enjoyed drawing, he could lose himself in it. He struggled but made his way through middle school and high school. A decision he made at age 18 was surprising, but turned out to be life-saving.

Gill’s dramatic art, with saturated colors and expressive characterizations, brings you deep into his story and doesn’t let go. The scenes where he depicts his mistreatment manage to be simultaneously subtle, infuriating and devastating. Photographs from his early life through present day bring the story even closer. The language is as evocative as the visuals. In addition to imagining children as sponges, he uses fire to represent harm. Some people are arsonists, deliberately causing pain, while others are accidental fire starters.  There are also those who do controlled burns — looking for the best place to start the fire. Although this book is difficult, it shows how young people, living under dire circumstances, can still find their way out to a healthy life. He leaves us with hope.

I don’t know what it took to create this memoir, but I admire Joel Christian Gill for doing it. I appreciate his note saying he didn’t do this as a catharsis.  Instead, he is speaking to young people who are experiencing trauma, sending the message that they can think for themselves and can choose a different path. He is also speaking to adults who witness young people acting as he did; he hopes they can recognize the roots of this behavior and seek to learn that child’s story.

Find Fights at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

The Magic Fish

magic-fish-1Tiến is a 13 year old who lives with his Vietnamese immigrant parents in the Midwest. He and his mother Helen read fairy tales together to help bridge the gap between their primary languages. Tiến grew up speaking English and Helen Vietnamese. Tiến is gay; he is out only to a classmate. He wants to come out to his mother, but he doesn’t know the right words in Vietnamese or where to find them.  To make matters worse, adults at his parochial school suspect he might be gay, and the “counseling” they subject him to just leads to more fear and shame. The fairy tales Tiến and his mother read together are more than a way to help them communicate; the stories they share parallel their life experiences. For example, The Little Mermaid becomes an immigration story, where the price of moving to a new place for a different life comes at a big price — losing the ability to communicate.

When Helen has to go back to Vietnam because of a family emergency, her aunt tells her a story which Helen had heard before.  This time the story has a different ending.  Her aunt explained: stories change, details change, and with those changes the story becomes yours. Helen returns home and comes to understand the truth about Tiến’s sexuality in an unexpected and, for Tiến, scary way. Once again, stories provide an avenue for them to communicate what matters and, most importantly, express their love.

The art in this graphic novel is stunning. The lush line drawings are powerful and express the fantasy of the stories just as vividly as the reality of Tiến and his family’s lives. Different monochrome palettes are used to distinguish between Tiến’s current day, his mother’s memories, her time in Vietnam and the stories they tell each other.  The creator, Trung Le Nguyen, includes details on the influences for the artistic styles of the settings and characters in this lovely, heartwarming, graphic novel.

Many readers will be able to relate to this moving story. Finding the right words for a difficult conversation can be hard even if language isn’t a barrier. The beautiful artwork carried me away, and I admit there may have been a tear in my eye at the end.

The Magic Fish comes out on October 13th; find it at your local independent bookstore.