Love Radio

Love RadioCan a teen-aged relationship expert get his laser-focused-on-anything-but-romance crush to fall for him after three dates?

Prince Jones, aka DJ LoveJones, hosts a radio show where he plays music and gives relationship advice. He aspires to be a  professional DJ and branch out into other areas of the music industry. Prince is very talented but his obligation to care for his disabled mother and his seven year old brother make him doubt that he’ll ever reach his goal. Danielle Ford puts all her efforts into preparing for college. She wants to be a writer and is and doing everything she can to get to her dream school, New York University. She loves her hometown of Detroit but NYU is where she wants to be. Danielle is struggling to finish her application essay. She’s hiding something that gets in the way of both her writing and her friendships.  Prince has had a crush on Danielle since they were in sixth grade, but she barely knows who he is. They cross paths in a most awkward way, much to Danielle’s embarrassment. She has no interest in romance but does want to make things right, so she agrees to go out with Prince. As their relationship evolves they find themselves making unexpected choices.

Love Radio is a fun romance with plenty to swoon over, but the story is much deeper. Through the lens of Danielle and Prince’s struggles the narrative explores issues of healthy relationships, friendships, trauma and family responsibility.  Danielle and Prince’s characters have depth – we learn a lot about what writing means to her and what music means to him. Detroit specific references draw readers into the setting. Prince and Danielle’s friends add richness and additional perspectives to the story. Prince’s friends include a teen dad and guy who’s a not-so faithful boyfriend. Danielle’s friends are ambitious and really care for her, though Danielle can’t seem to shake the one who cares only about herself. Author Ebony LaDelle’s gift for writing teen language makes messages about the importance of men holding each other accountable, mutual respect, and trust sound less like lessons and more like advice from a good friend.

Love Radio comes out in May but you can pre-order it now. I try to stick with reviewing books you can get right away, but this was so moving I couldn’t wait. Find Love Radio at your local bookstore.

Allies: Real Talk About Showing Up, Screwing Up and Trying Again

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Allies: Real Talk About Showing Up, Screwing Up and Trying Again is the guide we all need to help us do better. Though written for preteen and teen readers, adults will also get a lot from this book. As we head into the new year, we continue to face social, political and medical challenges. While there are many things we can’t control one thing we can do is take better care of each other. Who doesn’t want to be an ally? A better question is, how do we do it right?

This collection contains essays and one comic from a diversity of authors telling their own true experiences with allyship, whether from the perspective of needing allies or being allies. They’re honest about their own mistakes, offering a non-judgmental look at how even with the best of intentions we can (and probably will at some point), get it wrong. It provides insights on what to do to get it right.

Brendon Kiely, who co-authored “All American Boys” with Jason Reynolds, admits that he was once the “@$&” and reveals how he learned to stand up for people – even when they aren’t in the room. Shakirah Bourne writes about “glitches in the Matrix.” These are times when we gaslight ourselves because facing the reality of what we’re experiencing is too painful. Adiba Jaigirdar tells about how people who believed themselves to be powerful allies didn’t even recognize how dismissive they were of her experiences. I.W Gregorio, a doctor and author, writes about her evolution from ally to co-conspirator with intersex people. Marietta B. Zacker writes from the other side by talking about what it means to have someone stand up for you. One of the most fascinating essays is from Kayla Whaley. As a child she was featured on Jerry Lewis’s telethon for muscular dystrophy. Even then she understood how important it was to be both charming and strategic in how she answered questions when being interviewed on TV. Looking back on that time she considers whether she was acting as an ally (raising funds for research), an exploiter (manipulating the audience) or the exploited (used as a visual aid to help generate cash.) As she thinks through these questions she raises issues we all should consider.

The book also contains practical advice and a wide variety of resources, including websites, books and podcasts, all recommended by the authors. I was surprised at how many different experiences and situations the book covered, all presented in a relatable and informative manner. Allies deserves a place on every bookshelf.

Find Allies at your local independent bookstore.

Artie and the Wolf Moon

ArtieGet ready for a horror story with a heart.

Eighth grader Artemis “Artie” Irvin is one of the few Black people at her school. She gets picked on but doesn’t care. Artie immerses herself in her favorite activity, old school film photography, a hobby she picked up from her late father. She wants to go out at night and take pictures under the full moon, but her mother Loretta says no, worried about Artie’s safety. Of course, Artie sneaks out any way. She sees a wolf and runs home, terrified. The wolf ends up at Artie’s door – and transforms into her mother! Artie demands answers. Loretta explains that yes, she’s a werewolf. Being a werewolf is an inherited trait, but since Artie’s late father was human (making her bi-mammalian), Loretta isn’t sure if Artie will become one. Artie is excited about the idea that she could become an apex predator, but her mom warns her – werewolves are not the scariest things out there.

When Artie’s abilities do emerge she and her mother go to a nearby community of werewolves where Artie learns more about her heritage and how to manage her powers. Finally, she’s in a place where she fits in and is accepted. She even finds romance with Maya, a werewolf she meets there. Things get complicated and scary when Artie learns secrets about her family’s past and how vampires threaten not just the werewolf community, but Artie’s family in particular.

The narrative weaves deftly through time – from the origins of werewolves during slavery, to Artie’s parents’ courtship, to Artie’s coming of age in the werewolf community. Artie and Maya’s queer romance is sweet. The conflicts between werewolves and vampires are dramatic and scary. The art integrates with the story beautifully; color is used skillfully to set time, place, and ominous moods. The werewolves are all Black and the vampires are light skinned.

I enjoyed this graphic novel so much! The narrative and art successfully blend heritage, horror and love into a compelling story.

Find Artie and the Wolf Moon at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

Felix Ever After

FelixFelix is a queer Black trans teen who is still struggling with identity. Though certain he is not female, he doesn’t always feel 100% male. He’s a talented artist whose dream is to attend Brown University. Felix enrolls in a summer art program to help improve his chances. He has close friends in the program but has difficult relationships with other students. Felix arrives at his art school one day to find someone has posted a photo gallery of his pre-transition self, complete with his deadname (his pre-transition name). Felix is devastated and decides to catfish the person he thinks is responsible. In going after the person he targeted, Felix is forced to face some truths about that person and about his own relationships. This powerful story does not shy away from the harassment and misconceptions trans teens face. The narrative deftly explores the idea of continuing to question identity, even beyond the binary, given the complex experience of gender. The characters vary in culture, gender identity, and gender expression, and have depth. The resolution of the mystery and Felix’s arc are both handled in a satisfying way.

This is an #ownvoices story, meaning the author, Kacen Callender, is writing from their lived experience. Callender experienced much of what Felix is subjected to in the book. It was interesting to learn about the many identities between male and female as Felix searches for the one that feels right. The author intentionally makes the point that it’s OK to keep questioning identity – or to reject labels altogether.

Many independent bookstores are set up for online shopping, and this is an important time to support them. Find Felix Ever After at your local bookstore.

This Is My Brain In Love

45170387Jocelyn “Jos” Wu is a child of Chinese immigrants. Her family’s restaurant, which is located in a central New York strip mall, is struggling. Jocelyn talks her father into giving her one chance to help the business before he decides to close it and move back to New York City. Jocelyn’s ad for a management intern is answered by Will Domenici, who hopes to draw on his experience as a business manager for his school newspaper.  He and Jos hit it off and begin to see success with their marketing plans. Despite that, Jos can only focus on things that didn’t go right. Will has been struggling with anxiety since he was in middle school. Years of therapy have helped him manage it, but there are still challenges. Will recognizes signs of depression in Jos. He wants to help, but understands the limits, including those growing from his own anxiety. Will and Jos have much in common, including having immigrant parents (Will’s mother is Nigerian), and there’s a spark.  They grow to care about each other, but have to keep their brains from standing in the way.

Jocelyn, Will and the other teen characters are realistic and complex. There are no easy answers or heroic rescues. Jos and Will’s parents are allowed complexity too; each brings a perspective to the question of overcoming the shame associated with recognizing, accepting and managing mental health issues. For example Jos’s father believes these conditions don’t affect Chinese people and were created by pharmaceutical companies. Will’s mother, despite being a doctor, felt addressing Will’s anxiety would just be pathologizing issues that could be resolved with guidance. We learn Jos’s mother and Will’s father see things differently.

The writer, an Asian American doctor also raised by immigrants, includes a powerful author’s note. She is very straightforward in describing her struggles in coming to terms with her own depression.  She also addresses the stigma that exists in the medical community as well as in immigrant communities and communities of color. Managing mental health is important for all of us. We may see more people needing help given the current state of the world. I hope this book will help people overcome shame not only to take care of themselves, but to avoid being an obstacle to others who need care.

Right now, going to a bookstore is not an option but many are still filling online orders. I’d like to recommend Books Inc., an independent bookstore that will ship This Is My Brain In Love (and any other books you order), free of charge.

 

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”.