They Called Us Enemy

42527866Good stories always stand on their own, but some stories resonate even more if they are particularly timely.  Actor and activist George Takei’s graphic memoir of his experience during World War 2 is one of those stories, given the disgraceful events happening in America right now at our Southern border.

They Called Us Enemy tells the story of Takei’s childhood as one of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were taken from their homes and forced into concentration camps. He was 5 years old when his family was first relocated. His parents tried to protect him from the reality of what was going on, so in his young mind this started out as an adventure.

Through his experience, we see what life was like in the camps and the different ways it affected people. Among many disturbing things, he reveals how children internalized what was going on around them, no matter how hard adults tried to shield them. They acted out “Japs vs. Americans,” shouted “die Japanese cowards” and fought for a turn to play the Americans. What damage did this do to the young people in these camps?  What does this say about the damage being done today to children being held at our nation’s borders?

Obviously, it was no better for the adults. The harsh living conditions, constant questioning of their loyalties and repeatedly being set against one another made for a bleak existence.

Takei’s story covers that time through current day, reflecting back on the grave injustice done, the generational impact and how some of the same things are occurring again.  Harmony Becker’s black and white, manga influenced art does a masterful job of communicating Takei’s innocence without downplaying the horrors around him. Unlike many families, Takei’s was willing to talk about it when he was older, helping him fully understand the bigger picture of what he and Japanese Americans suffered through. This led to Takei’s vocal social justice activism, which continues to this day.

This difficult, inspiring story is a good reminder that if we aren’t vigilant, the worst of history will repeat itself.

Find They Called Us Enemy at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

Dough Boys

Two people starting on the same path can end up in very different places.

43131603This follow up to So Done revisits the world of Pirates Cove public housing. 8th graders Roland “Rollie” Matthews and Deontae “Simp” Wright are best friends. Rollie is a talented drummer enrolled in a special program for young performing artists. He has a stable life, while Simp’s life is much more complicated. As the oldest of 5 boys living with their single mother, Simp is saddled with adult responsibilities.

Both boys play for the champion Marauders basketball team – which involves more than just basketball. When Coach Tez recruits players he’s also recruiting “dough boys” – lookouts for his drug dealing operation. Rollie got caught up in Tez’s gang only because he wanted to play basketball. For Simp it’s a clear path to respect and success. Rollie keeps it secret from his family but Simp doesn’t. His mother happily looks the other way, glad he can provide for the family. Rollie and Simp both come to a crossroads. They find themselves having to make very different but equally difficult decisions. Will they be able to handle the consequences?

This story explores how people can live in the same world but have very different experiences. Though Rollie and Simp both envision futures for themselves, even as middle schoolers they see the challenges. One sees a way out, the other finds a path that keeps him in. The chapters alternate between Rollie and Simp’s voices, giving a clear picture of their situations and struggles. The decisions they have to make are framed within the normal life of their 8th grade existence, including maintaining  loyalty to friends, having crushes, and managing the influence of peers.

One important thing about this story is that it doesn’t embrace the Black pain narrative that so many books include these days. Instead, it thoughtfully explores the realities of these young men’s lives without centering violence and suffering. This a relatable and engaging story for a wide variety of young readers.

Find Dough Boys at your local bookstore.

Hot Comb

For Black women, hair can be a political issue.

41940338Hot Comb contains a collection of comics centered on the ways hair choices impact how Black women are seen by themselves and by society. The comics also show how, between mothers and daughters or among friends, hair can be both a way to bond or a source of conflict. Black women’s hair is a complicated issue. In the dominant culture, natural hairstyles have been criticized, and in Black culture straightened hair can be judged. Is it wrong to want to wear your hair the way it grows out of your head? Is choosing to straighten hair problematic? Although it’s good to see these experiences represented, being reminded of the conflicts is also a bit painful. Regardless, many Black women will recognize the scenarios: spending long days in the salon, the “can I touch your hair” issue, keeping your head above water while swimming, or pondering having hair that’s natural, straight, or something else entirely.

The narrative successfully weaves hair issues into a variety of “just another day” vignettes. The black and white art is realistic, but stylized in a way that supports the stories well. It’s at its best in pages replicating ads for wigs and hair products that used to be found in Black magazines. They add depth to the stories and will no doubt bring back memories for many readers. This book is geared to adults but since hair questions for Black women begin in childhood, the stories will also resonate with teens. In the end, it’s a reminder for Black women to get through the hair journey and embrace wherever we land.

Find Hot Comb at your local independent bookstore or comic book shop.

A Good Kind of Trouble

When is it time to stop avoiding trouble and instead walk right in?

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Shayla and her best friends Isabella and Julia are 7th graders at Emerson Junior High. African American Shayla, Latinx Isabella and Japanese American Julia call themselves the United Nations. Though they are each from a different background they are united in friendship. Shayla struggles as she notices things changing around her. Julia is now spending time with a group of Asian girls; Shayla is confused by her sudden jealousy of Isabella’s talent and attractiveness; as one of a few Black students in her school, she wonders if she should have more Black friends but feels awkward trying to make connections.

Shayla’s concerns go beyond the usual junior high drama, as her community is watching the trial of a police officer who shot an unarmed African American man. In Shayla’s mind the verdict should be obvious – there was a video! With guidance from her parents and older sister, Shayla starts to understand the complexity of her world. Once the verdict of the trial is announced Shayla knows she wants to do something, but is she ready for the consequences?

This book does an incredible job of exploring activism, Black Lives Matter and issues of police violence in a way that will resonate with younger readers. The cast of junior high school characters is constructed realistically in action and voice. Crushes, shifting friendships, and questions of identity are all dealt with just as young people face them. The author fits the bigger social issues squarely in this context, making the discussion both accessible and relatable for these readers.

Pick up a copy of this powerful book at your local bookstore.

 

 

 

Genesis Begins Again

Can changing the outside change the inside?

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Genesis has long been scorned by other African American girls for her very dark skin. Charcoal, Ape and Blackie are just a few of the names she allows herself to be called. She’s heard this disgust at her appearance her entire life from peers and her own family and accepts it as truth. Some girls put together a list of 100 Reasons Why We Hate Genesis – and Genesis has begun to add to the list herself. Her fair-skinned mother loves her, but her grandmother lays out chapter and verse of why light-skinned people are naturally superior to those with dark skin. Grandma indulges in colorism, the practice of stereotyping other African Americans based only on how light or dark they are. Genesis’s dark-skinned father is undependable, struggling with addictions and inability to keep a job, reinforcing the negative lessons her grandmother hands down. Her mother is doing her best to keep the family afloat, but Genesis takes it upon herself to try to solve the adults’ problems. She believes being lighter is the first step to making things better for herself and her parents. She tries rubbing lemons on herself, adding bleach to her bathwater, and scouring her skin, enduring physical pain to help heal her emotional pain.

Genesis gets a chance to start over when her father seems to have straightened up and moves the family into a new home in a nice neighborhood. She makes friends at her new school, including a very dark-skinned boy who loves himself and tries to help Genesis understand how to do the same. Support from a music teacher helps Genesis gain self-confidence, but things don’t change overnight. The damage from a lifetime of self-hate doesn’t magically disappear.

The beauty of this book is its complexity. All of the characters are given dimension, which helps us understand their actions.  The concepts of colorism and internalized racism are accessible to middle school aged readers but are not oversimplified. The narrative makes clear that these concepts harm both dark and light skinned people. Genesis deals with typical middle school issues, such as being attracted to the popular crowd, putting up with insults for the sake of friendship, and balancing fitting in with finding yourself. However, the focus remains on the effects of internalized racism and colorism. This tough story is told well, with an optimistic but realistic ending. I hope it leads all of us to think about the messages we’ve absorbed over time and to be more conscious of the harm we may be doing to ourselves and others.

Find Genesis Begins Again at your local bookstore.

When Hearts Collide…

…and fictional relationships get real.

36204669Claire Strupke is a devoted fan of Demon Heart, a television show about Smokey, a demon hunter, and Heart, his prey. They’re on opposite sides but are somehow obsessed with each other, and Claire believes the looks they give each other whenever they meet mean something. She has lots of followers on her Tumblr where she writes SmokeHeart slash fan fic* shipping** the two. When she learns the actors who play Smokey and Heart, Forest Reed and Rico Quiroz, and showrunner Jamie Davies are coming to a local comic convention she decides a) she must go, and b) she will find a way to convince Jamie to make SmokeHeart canon, meaning, make the relationship part of the story. At the Demon Heart panel Q&A, Claire asks when Smokey and Heart will realize they’re in love, and if they’ll kiss. Forest ridicules Claire much to the dismay of Rico, Jamie, the crowd of fans – and social media. In an effort to clean up the PR nightmare Forest caused, Claire is invited to join them on the rest of their convention tour. They want her to use her social media platform to make things right with the fandom, but she is more concerned with making SmokeHeart canon. That’s not the only thing Claire has on her mind. She connects with Tess, another Demon Heart fan, in line for the panel and is confused by her attraction to her. While Tess knows she is queer, Claire is not so sure. It turns out Tess is also going to be following the DemonHeart tour, so Claire has one more thing to figure out.

I proudly admit I love comics, fandoms and all geeky things. Ship It did not disappoint. The intensity of fandoms, how they help people connect, and the overwhelming fun of comic conventions are all captured here. The inclusion of weaponized social media adds reality. Claire is white and Tess is African American, but I wish the narrative did a little more to illustrate the diversity of fandoms. Incorporating Claire’s fan fic into the book gives a full picture of her vision of SmokeHeart while at the same time showing how her writing may be part of her questioning her own sexuality. I appreciated how the story stayed complicated, especially in this regard. This is a fun read and will appeal to anyone who enjoys fandoms, seeing people pursue a goal, and sometimes sweet, sometimes difficult early relationships.

* Stories based on existing works which create different plots and relationships between the characters. Slash fan fic contains gay relationships

**Wishing for a romantic relationship between 2 characters not currently together

So Done

Best friends for ever?

35068789Best friends Jamila Phillips and Metai Johnson live in the Pirates Cove housing project. Metai lives with her grandmother. Her African American father and Korean American mother were teenagers when she was born. Her father, now 28, comes around occasionally, is usually high and has never figured out how to be an adult. Her mother is gone from her life entirely.  Jamila lives with her father and 2 brothers; her drug addicted mother has been banned from the home. Her dad is loving, attentive, and does everything he can to make sure they have the best opportunities.  It’s the summer before 8th grade, and Jamila has just come back from spending the last few weeks with her aunts and older sister in The Woods, a nice neighborhood where she gets to live a different kind of life. Where Metai loves the Cove and even enjoys the daily drama, Jamila gets tired of the pettiness and always having to watch her back; she feels like a different person in The Woods. Jamila and Tai are reunited and reconnect with the other girls in their squad, but it’s clear things are changing between them. Jamila doesn’t want to be called by her old nickname, Bean, is excited about continuing her ballet classes, and is looking forward to auditions for a new performing arts program being offered in their community. Tai thinks she should have the right to call Jamila whatever she wants, hates ballet (but loves jazz dance) and is annoyed at Jamila and other Cove friends for getting excited about the program – she sees it as another “let’s help out these ghetto kids” plan that will be gone in a year.  Jamila and Tai also clash over welcoming a new girl into their group. Jamila wants to get to know her, but Tai just wants to be sure the girl knows her place. Jamila and Tai both want to hold on to their friendship but it gets too hard. Eventually they face the real thing causing Jamila to keep her distance from Tai and wanting to leave the Cove – something they both know to be true but have never spoken about.

Jamila and Tai’s story deals with issues many young people confront at this age – friends growing in different directions, seeing the world differently and envisioning different futures for themselves. I really appreciate this not being a simplistic good/bad story, as both girls’ worldviews are respected. Tai successfully navigates her environment, overcoming challenges to make the most of it. Jamila yearns for something different, understanding she may need to leave the Cove to become the person she wants to be. Additionally, this story reminds us that young people have complex lives, some made even more complicated by the adults around them. In the end, we see a realistic journey of these young teens trying to grow up without growing apart.

I can’t end this review without talking about the cover. It is often not the case,  but here we have a beautiful depiction of  Metai and Jamila, looking just as they’re described in the book. And, even though they’re close, you can see the tension between them. Kudos to the artist and designer.

So Done, Paula Chase, Greenwillow Books