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.

 

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!

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.

Amari and the Night Brothers

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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!!

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”.

 

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.

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.

Bitter Root

Sometimes the monsters are right next door.

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Set during the Harlem Renaissance, Bitter Root tells the story of a New York City beset by monsters known as Jinoo, and the African American Sangerye family, the only people with the skills and knowledge to fight them off. It seemed the monsters had been put to rest but recently they have been rising again. This time it’s more difficult for the Sangeryes; the family is divided over methods, as well as who can fight the Jinoo. Even worse, a new creature, more powerful than they’d ever seen, has emerged. The Jinoo themselves used to be human. Their souls were corrupted by racism and violence, turning them into monsters; once turned they infect others. As we get deeper into the story, the battles facing the Sangeryes get more frightening. On the face, this is a good horror story. Looking deeper, the powerful narrative shows how people can allow themselves to be poisoned with hatred to the point where they lose their humanity. The art, in style, tone, and use of a deep, moody color palette, evokes a feeling of ever present danger.

Like the film Get Out, or much of Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction, the events in this reimagined reality provide a different way to examine real world issues. Three issues of this knockout comic series have been released as of this writing. Normally I would wait until the whole series, or possibly the trade version (one volume containing all the issues), had been published, but this comic is so good I couldn’t wait to talk about it.

Head out to your local comic book shop and pick it up! Not sure where your local comic book shop is located? Find it here!

 

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