The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali

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17-year-old Rukhsana Ali is a queer Muslim girl of Bengali descent living in Seattle. She’s out to her friends, deeply closeted to her parents. Her conservative parents are strict followers of Bengali social traditions. They expect Rukhsana to spend more time honing her housekeeping skills (in preparation for marriage), than on her education. Rukhsana wants to study physics and astronomy; she secretly applied and was accepted to Caltech. At first her parents were upset, but they eventually decided this would make Rukhsana more attractive in the matchmaking market. When her parents discover Rukhsana with her girlfriend Ariana, they cannot and will not accept it. They take Rukhsana to Bangladesh, explaining that her beloved grandmother is very sick. Actually, they plan to keep Rukhsana there until they can marry her off to a good Bengali boy. Devastated and angry, Rukhsana plots her escape.

The beauty of this book is its refusal to be a simple good vs. bad story. It shows love for Bengali culture without excusing how it literally endangers some of its people’s lives.  The narrative is exceptionally well crafted, illustrating the conflict Rukhsana feels.  The heritage Rukhsana loves and embraces makes no room for her as a queer woman. Her parents are written with dimension; rather than simply making them villains, there is context for their sometimes cruel decisions. The story is made richer by the other people in Rukhsana’s life. Her relatives, her white girlfriend and other young Bengalis in Rukhsana’s same situation all bring different perspectives, making the story even more complex. Move this heartbreaking, hopeful book to the top of your To Be Read pile.

Find The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali at your  local independent bookstore.

With The Fire on High

Sometimes the heat is what draws you to the kitchen.

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17-year-old Afro-Latinx Emoni Santiago dreams of being a chef. Her creativity in the kitchen is stellar, and her instincts always lead her to new culinary places. But her dream may remain just that. Emoni got pregnant as a high school freshman and is  now raising her 3 year old daughter Emma. They live with Emoni’s grandmother. Emoni’s  mother died when she was a baby and her father felt it was more important for him to go back to Puerto Rico than stay home and care for Emoni. Emoni has a tenuous relationship with the baby’s father who is present for Emma, less so for her. Unsurprisingly her family has serious financial struggles. A new culinary arts class, which includes a trip to Spain to study under local chefs, is offered at her high school. She knows it won’t be easy but she wants this. With an aging grandmother, toddler child, and minimal financial resources, Emoni has to figure out how to make it work.

This book’s author, Elizabeth Acevedo, has won multiple awards for her first book, The Poet X, written in verse. She easily switches to prose here, creating equally compelling storytelling. The narrative doesn’t sugar coat Emoni’s struggles but presents her with full agency. Emoni’s commitment to her education, her daughter and cooking is clear. She creates opportunities and dares to imagine a future for herself. The other people in Emoni’s life are more than backdrops. By providing context for their actions, Acevedo avoids simplistic good/bad characterizations..  This honesty results in a powerful, realistically hopeful story. Warning: read this book near your kitchen – reading about Emoni’s culinary creations will either inspire you to try some of your own or just make you hungry!

With the Fire on High is available now at your local bookstore.

 

Three Friends, Shifting Feelings…

…and a lot of questions.

39848512Teenagers Courtney Cooper, Rae Chin, and Jupiter Charity-Sanchez form a relationship triangle complicated by questions of sexuality, loyalty and shared trauma. Jupiter and Coop have been best friends since elementary school. African American Coop is straight and Afro-Latinx  Jupe is queer; no one questioned their childhood sleepovers continuing once they  became teens. They have loving, emotionally intimate relationship. Whenever Coop breaks up with a girlfriend Jupe is there to play Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” for their traditional break up dance party. Chinese-Irish Rae Chin moves to town with her doctor father who works at the same hospital as Coop’s mother. Rae connects with Jupe because they’re both biracial and into community service; they become close. Rae grows close to Coop when she learns they had a shared interest as children which is connected for both of them to the traumatic loss of one of their parents. Coop and Jupe feel confident of their sexuality, but Rae is questioning. She finds herself attracted to both of them, and while her feelings are sincere it takes her time to sort them out. A declaration on Rae’s part leads Jupe to make a difficult and selfish decision, resulting in hurt, anger and for her, confusion.

This is the best book dealing with young people’s sexuality that I’ve ever read. The narrative gives a realistic view of how changing circumstances can lead to confusion even when the answers seem certain. It resists labels, pigeonholing and punishment, and shows even people who care deeply about each other can make hurtful mistakes. The honest and engaging characters avoid stereotypes. The structure of the book, 3 sections told from each teen’s perspective and in their own style, adds depth. The teens’ household configurations – Coop and Rae with single parents, Jupe with her two dads – and their connections with their wider friend groups make the story even richer. Despite the serious elements, this book is fun, and will resonate with many readers.

Odd One Out, Nic Stone, Crown Books

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Find Odd One Out at your your local independent bookstore!

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

 

 

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