Don’t Hate The Player

dont hate the playerDon’t Hate the Player is a fantastic read that explores the challenges a young woman of color faces when she enters the world of competitive videogaming while trying to keep the rest of her life on track.

Emilia Romero has her post-high school future planned with laser precision. She earns top grades, plays the right sports and participates in the right extracurriculars. She even dates the right boy, just to make the package complete. But all this serves as cover for her real passion – Emilia is an elite videogamer who plays for a championship e-sports team. In her game, Guardians League Online, she serves as the team’s DPS, responsible for damaging and killing the enemy. Going against the stereotype that female players should be healers, Emilia takes pride in being the destroyer. She has to keep this hidden; her family would see it as a distraction from her college goals and her friends would never understand. Things get dicey when Jake Hooper transfers to her high school. Emilia and Jake met as 4th graders at a videogame arcade at a mutual friend’s birthday party. They’d meet up at other parties over the years and game together but they never stayed in contact. Jake is the only person who knows both sides of Emilia’s life but he swears to keep her secret. That becomes tricky when Emilia’s team earns a space in a public, high stakes e-sports championship competition. Jake is now both her confidant and competitor, making things even more complicated.

This book is so much fun to read.

Emilia’s struggle to keep the demands of both parts of her life afloat is intriguing. Her relationship with Jake evolves into romance slowly and realistically. All of the teen characters are interesting and do more than just prop up Jake and Emilia’s storyline. Emilia and Jake’s parents are well fleshed out and bring more depth to the story. Overall, it’s a compelling (and funny!) exploration of relationships between friends, complicated romance, and complex family dynamics.

Jake is white, Emilia is Puerto Rican, and their teammates and friends are a mix of BIPOC, queer and trans folks. I appreciated the narrative’s direct confrontation of the harassment players with the latter identities face in the real world of online gaming. They are often the target of sexual and racial harassment, rape threats, and other forms of abuse. The abuse sometimes even comes from their own teammates. Sadly Emilia finds this situation similar to what she experiences at her elite private school, where she has to be “unassailably great” just to be in the same room with mediocre males.

The videogame sequences are fun and exciting. The outstanding descriptions of the in-game action are detailed, cinematic and engaging; they’re enjoyable regardless of your own level of involvement with videogames. Don’t be surprised if you become inspired to pick up a game controller yourself!

Find Don’t Hate the Player at your local independent bookstore.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

Turning Point

turning point

Rasheeda and Monique live in the Pirates Cove Housing Projects and are best friends. They just finished 8th grade and for the first time won’t be spending the summer together.

Monique has earned a spot in a competitive, intensive ballet training program along with Jamila, another Cove resident. Monique loves ballet but is nervous about the program. Will she measure up? Will there be other Black girls there? How will she handle being away from home?

Rasheeda is staying in Pirates Cove this summer. She lives with her Aunt Deandra who took her in when she saw the squalid conditions under which Rasheeda and her mother were living. Rasheeda’s aunt keeps her on a tight leash.  She is on a mission to make sure her niece Rasheeda doesn’t go astray and stays safe.  Their entire lives are centered around church.

Though in very different worlds Rasheeda and Monique are faced with challenges of being in very structured environments. For Monique, the expectations in this traditional, predominantly white ballet program are quite different from her local ballet school. She is a talented dancer but does not have the traditional ballet body that seems to be the norm. She feels off balance in this setting, where everyone seems to know the system except her.

The structure in Rasheeda’s life comes from her Aunt. Even normal things like having a crush or wanting to join activities not connected to church are judged harshly. Rasheeda is never given the opportunity to learn how to make her own decisions. With no experience in handling herself on her own, Rasheeda finds herself in troubling situations and has no idea what to do.

Monique and Rasheeda’s situations are realistic, as are their responses. While structure can be good, it can also be suffocating. I think young readers will relate to Monique’s and Rasheeda’s feelings of confusion and isolation as they try to understand how to fit in to the world around them.  The girls believe they have to figure out everything on their own. Young people often experience the same feelings as Monique and Rasheeda, even if the settings are different. I hope readers will be inspired by seeing both Monique and Rasheeda demonstrate agency.  They find a way to manage, but not completely succumb to, the constraints they are under.

There are two other books, So Done and Dough Boys, set in Pirates Cove. Some characters will be familiar but Turning Point works fine as a stand alone.

Turning Point will be available on September 15th but you can preorder it now.

The Banks

thebanksRoxane Gay, essayist and author of Hunger, Bad Feminist, and Difficult Women, has also written comics. She started with World of Wakanda, a Black Panther spinoff, and recently returned to comic writing with The Banks. This is the story of three generations of African American women holding down the family business.  Matriarch Clara Banks and her daughter Cora are the best thieves in Chicago. Granddaughter Celia angrily rejects the family’s criminal enterprise and goes into investment banking. Celia is a spoiled diva but she’s smart. An infuriating incident at her firm makes her realize her mother and grandmother’s skills are exactly what she needs to set things right. Although Gay’s narrative has all of the best elements of a heist story – a complex plan, threats arising from an old grudge, detectives closing in on them, surprising twists and lots of tension – the family dynamics are what set it apart. The intergenerational bickering among the three hard-headed women adds humor and gives a fresh spin to a familiar plot. Artist Ming Doyle’s bold, realistic style is just right for this story. She uses an expansive palette to bring the characters to life and illuminate the many changes in time, place and mood. With equal parts competitiveness, cooperation and grudging respect, the three women come together and do what they do best.

Find The Banks at your local comic book store.

 

 

Slay

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Kiera is a teen coder and videogame player who tires of the racism and toxicity in the online gaming world. This inspires her to create her own virtual reality MMORPG* called Slay.  Slay exists as a place for Black gamers to celebrate Black excellence. Joining the game requires a passcode, which can only be obtained from a current member – and only after asking the right question. She keeps Slay secret from her parents, her sister and especially her boyfriend. His view of Blackness is very rigid and holds no room for videogames or the people who play them.

Things fall apart when a Slay gamer is killed by another participant. Suddenly this undercover game is public knowledge. Certain people claim that it’s racist because Slay’s a space only for Black players, but these critics never acknowledge the persistent racism gamers of color have to contend with in mainstream online games. The pressure on Kiera builds with the talk of lawsuits. The suits claim that excluding White people violates their civil rights.  Media depictions emerge suggesting that the game targets at-risk and poor Black youth. Things continue to escalate, forcing Kiera to make a bold decision in an attempt to save the game and have it be recognized for what it really is.

This book is no fantasy. The harassment described in the book are things gamers of color (as well as female and queer gamers) regularly experience. The narrative accurately depicts how media “experts,” who know nothing about the game or gaming, pontificate and spread inaccurate information with great confidence. This book does a powerful job of using the lens of the game to explore Black identity, respectability politics,** toxic male behavior and how anonymity can be both a weapon and a shield.

It is not necessary to be a gamer to love this book. The plotlines around Kiera’s relationships with family and friends, and the lives of the Slay players we meet are realistic and relatable. Author Brittney Morris crafts the game itself beautifully. The language describing Slay’s design and in-game action is exciting and cinematic; you can see everything play out. The game’s elements – battles, hexes and defenses – are based on Black culture. A player can attack with Twist Out, which makes the character’s natural hair grow out and immobilize the opponent. They can defend with Jimi Hendrix, which obscures their opponent’s vision in a purple haze. I’m tempted to list them all, but you should read the book yourself and learn about the power of Shea Butter, Reclaimed Time, Resilience, Innovation – and Mom’s Mac and Cheese.

You can learn more about gaming-while-Black and see some sample Slay cards in this essay by the author.

Slay makes a great gift for readers on your list – or yourself! Find it at your local bookstore.

*Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game

** Respectability politics is the problematic belief that marginalized people should conform to a certain standard of behavior and presentation so they can earn the approval of the group in power. Read a great discussion of this on “The Root”.