Wednesday, September 30, 2015

New Diverse YA Romances: Jenny Han, Becky Albertalli & Nicola Yoon

Yesterday was probably my last swim of the season. This photo of me at Simpson's Point was from two weeks ago.

I have been thinking a lot about diversity in young adult fiction as I revise my work in progress. My YA features a half Chinese American who falls in love with British boys during her junior year abroad. I chose a protagonist of mixed ethnicity to represent a typical American because the USA is a nation built on immigration and assimilation. Eve's story was also inspired by my family's sabbaticals in England.

I'm a product of the melting plot myself: half Lithuanian Jewish and half Swiss/British American. My British husband is a professor of Asian Studies and Government at Bowdoin College, and our extended family is Japanese, Chilean, Italian-Canadian and Mexican American. Many of our friends are raising biracial/hapa children. What will those kids read? Assuming they are still reading books...

I buy YA novels for my Japanese American niece, and it's a challenge finding characters who somewhat resemble her and share her interests. Most novels with diverse protagonists have racial conflict as the central plot. Yes, minorities are frequently victims of prejudice, but they also fall in love, play sports, travel beyond their country of heritage and act like normal teens. Ethnicity can be an important part of character, but it doesn't need to prescribe or to limit the story arc.

Realistic fiction should include diverse characters because the real world is diverse. However, most YAs, especially romances, portray a white world with a few token minorities. That isn't realism. Love comes in many colors and various orientations. This year I was pleased to discover several excellent YA romances with diverse protagonists. I've included three mini-reviews below, but my selection was limited to those books I've read. If you know of others, please note them in the comments.

P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han (May, 2015) is the sequel to To All the Boys I Loved Before (2014). Lara Jean is half Korean American and busy acting as a surrogate mom to her nine-year-old sister. Their Korean American mom died several years ago, and their Caucasian dad does his best to cook Korean beef and to keep their maternal culture alive in a predominantly white suburb of Charlottesville, Virginia. These paired books are partly about grief and family, but the central plot is romance. Lara Jean's quiet world of baking at home is upended when her secret love letters are mailed to all her crushes.

These delightful and quite innocent romances would appeal to girls of any ethnicity. The values are traditional, but the world is very up to date with social media scandals. They are a quick and easy read, and both are on the NYT bestseller list. Jenny Han is one of my favorite authors of YA romance. She captures the confused feelings of being a teen in love. Han is great on sibling relationships too; the youngest sister was so adorably funny.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (April, 2015) is a strong debut which is likely to win awards. What makes this novel special is the authentic voice. The straight female author used her experience as a child psychologist to tell a typical coming out story. It's set in the suburbs of Atlanta with racially diverse secondary characters. Simon's secret gay romance is threatened when another boy finds their flirty emails and blackmails him. Simon struggles to protect the privacy of the other closeted boy, whose identity is unknown even to him.

I raced through this book in one day, laughing at Simon's witty observations and eager to uncover the identity of his mystery love. My only criticism is that all the pop culture references will date this novel. Still, this is a marvelous book for gay teens and for readers of all ages. The parents were hilarious. This author clearly knows how to laugh at herself.

Another strong debut is Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. Released earlier this month, it already tops the NYT bestseller list. This novel has a great premise: a girl allergic to the world is confined to her house and falls in love with the troubled boy next door. Their doomed romance builds slowly through hilarious window pantomimes and soul searching emails. It was encouraging to find a Japanese-African-American protagonist in a bestseller book by a Jamaican American. The illustrator, her husband, is Korean American, and several characters are diverse. The Hispanic nurse was the most well developed and realistic character in the book.

Unfortunately, the protagonist's ethnicity doesn't go beyond physical description. Maddy wears shoes inside, and her third generation Japanese American mom cooks French food for special occasions. They play English word games and their furnishings are generic. I was expecting the author to draw a parallel between Maddy's confinement in a bubble to the Japanese American internment during World War II, but no family history is mentioned on either side. All we know is that her African American dad and biracial brother died in a car crash when Maddy was a sickly baby. More is revealed with the big plot twist at the end, but you'll have to read my Goodreads Review (includes a hidden spoiler) to learn why I was unconvinced by the ending. I was expecting something deeper, but this book is an entertaining read which will appeal to a general audience. I hope Yoon chooses to draw more from her interesting family background in her next book.

There is no rule that authors need to match their characters to their own ethnicities. However, more research is needed if writing beyond personal experience. What teens need are more diverse books, especially in YA romance. Any more suggestions?

Note to authors writing diverse characters: include ethnic details for realism/character building, but don't describe skin color with food. YA author Sarah Ockler offers more advice here: Race in YA Lit: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought Han's novels at Bull Moose in Brunswick, Albertalli's novel at Longfellow Books in Portland and Yoon's novel at Harvard Book Store in Massachusetts. I was not compensated for my reviews. I'm a supporting member of We Need Diverse Books.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Blue Angels over Brunswick

Living near a former naval air base, we always knew when the Blue Angels were in town. The pilots practiced aerial stunts over our house, roaring like thunder. In a mixture of irritation and glee, I'd abandon my work to watch the jets barely clear the white pines in our yard.

As a young boy, my son (right) found the jets too loud, but home from college, he wanted to watch the Great State of Maine Air Show in person. To avoid the notorious traffic, we biked to the Brunswick Executive Airport, where we met up with his childhood friend. Both boys are majoring Physics so it was as interesting listening to their commentary as the announcer's. 

It was also fascinating looking inside the nearly windowless transport jet. The nose of the plane tilted up so that tanks could drive off like exiting a ferry boat. The ladder leads to the cockpit.

There were a lot of people, but the crowd was as well mannered as a kids' soccer tournament. Cadets in camouflage fried up delicious steak and cheese sandwiches. Beer was served, but no one was drunk or loud, at least not compared to the jets. The show opened with slow older planes, and I quite enjoyed the biplane. The stunts reminded me of Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein.

The Blue Angels were the climatic act. Captain Higgins is the first female pilot to fly for the Naval squadron. This veteran of the war in Afghanistan pilots Fat Albert, the transport plane. Only men fly the F/A-18 Hornets (in a diamond formation 18 inch apart!) Oddly enough, they sounded louder from my house. Maybe that was the din of glasses rattling in our cupboards.

The show ended with a five jet nose dive, separating into a gorgeous Fleur de Lis. It was a ballet in the sky.

I wish that combat jets flew only for entertainment and not for war, but this is the world that we live in now. I'm grateful to the men and women who serve our country while my son is at college. Maybe one day he'll design a spaceship that doesn't burn so much fossil fuel.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales

Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales could be a Millennial epilogue to Ibsen's A Doll's House. As much as I empathized with Nora's domestic frustrations and her desire for personal fulfillment, I always wondered how her departure affected her children. In a nod to Ibsen's 1879 play, the protagonist daughter of Sales's young adult novel had a line of dolls created in her image. Arden fears that "the most exciting moment in her life was already past."

In Tonight the Streets Are Ours, a devoted stay-at-home mom has left her family without warning or explanation to move to New York City from the Maryland suburbs. Her workaholic husband retreats to his office and into fantasy football, leaving the housekeeping to their seventeen-year-old daughter. Arden mothers her little brother, supports her egocentric boyfriend and takes the blame when her best friend stashes weed in her locker. "Recklessly loyal" Arden could have starred in an Ibsen play herself, but she prefers stage crew and life out of the spotlight.

As an escape from her problems, Arden becomes obsessed with a blog, Tonight the Streets Are Ours. The arts school blogger lives big in New York City; Peter shares her frustrations with loved ones and a hope for an ideal romance. The proverbial gun is placed center stage and the reader waits for Arden to pull the trigger. However, what happens when Arden drives off to New York City defies expectations.

The cast features diverse characters with realistic flaws who make mistakes. My only criticism would be that the pace was a bit slow in the first half, but it accelerates on the road trip with reckless glee. This edgy book explores the meaning of love with both humor and philosophical depth. Risky behavior has life altering consequences. Tonight the Streets Are Ours is delightfully whimsical, emotionally poignant and true to Millennial teens.

The sassy narrative voice was spot on:
"They both watched as Dillon Rammstein lit up a joint and Matt Washington shouted at him to 'Take that shit outside, man.' Dillon shoved past the girls' couch to go onto the patio. It was reassuring to know that Matt was such a conscientious host." 
"Nobody seemed particularly interested in playing charades, or any game that didn't involve killing computer generated prostitutes."
From Peter's blog:
"I do not understand Vitaminwater, by the way. Drink some water. Eat some vitamins. Are you so busy that you need those two tasks combined into one? I mean, I know New Yorkers have a lot going on, but chill the hell out."
Bloggers will be interested in the gap between the real world and the life portrayed online. An unreliable blogger makes for good satire of social media and of the New York publishing world. The author is also an editor of young adult fiction. Sales clearly knows her Ibsen and the Brooklyn club scene. Could there be a better juxtaposition?

I discovered the author's previous novel, This Song Will Save Your Life, while browsing in Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine. After two brilliantly original books with awesome soundtracks, Leila Sales has joined my favorite author list. Her young adult novels would appeal to fans of Jennifer E. Smith's and of Stephanie Perkins's YA romances. However, Tonight the Streets Are Ours is more than a teen romance; it's also a cautionary tale for high achieving girls and their over-extended super moms.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I requested a free digital galley from netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Tonight will be released in hardcover and in ebook on September 15th, 2015.

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@Barrie Summy

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Out Of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez: review and blog tour

If you haven't read a book by Ashley Hope Pérez, you are missing a unique and empowering voice in young adult fiction. The author's work for Teach for America Corps inspired her debut novel, What Can't Wait. Her gritty sophomore novel, The Knife and The Butterfly, explored the consequences of gang violence.

Pérez's third novel, Out of Darkness features a clandestine romance which dares to cross the racial divide of 1930's Texas. Inspired by the most deadly school disaster in American history, this provocative novel gives voice to those whose voices were silenced and whose histories were unjustly revised. Following my review, the author explains why she chose to write this historical novel.

In Out of Darkness seventeen-year-old Naomi moves with her half siblings to her stepfather's new home in an oil drilling settlement town. When their Mexican-American mother died in childbirth seven years earlier, Naomi became the surrogate mother to the twins. Now Naomi must balance the demands of being the only Mexican-American at her high school with keeping house for her Caucasian stepfather, whom she despises.
 A sign at the town diner: "No Negroes, Mexican or dogs." 
Beautiful Naomi becomes the object of desire and of racial prejudice. She finds secret pleasure with Wash, an intelligent boy who is a senior at the all black school in a segregated town. They imagine a future together with the twins, free from persecution. The writing is as lush and as beautiful as the landscape:
"It was getting late, but time seemed to stretch like taffy. The pines stood out dark against the pinks and oranges creeping across the sky, and a breeze stirred around her. She found herself walking to their spot at the river. It was not a usual meeting time for them, but she couldn't help hoping."
The East Texas woods of the author's childhood, which feature in the narrative.

After an explosive and confusing start, the narrative down-shifts to an unrushed pace, building tension slowly and allowing for in depth character development. The chapters are told from multiple points of view: Naomi, her Born Again stepfather, her seven-year-old half brother and her boyfriend Wash. Their star-crossed romance is realistically rendered with adolescent lust and idealistic love. The pace accelerates to a page-turner ending that left me stunned and shattered. Although this tragic story was set in the 1930s, the central theme of racism vs. the power of love still feels relevant today.

Out of Darkness could have been published as literary historical fiction for adults. Since this novel includes sexual abuse, pedophilia and graphic violence, I would only recommend it to mature teens and to adults who aren't afraid to explore the dark side of human nature. Both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal gave this soon to be released book starred reviews. Out of Darkness is Pérez's strongest young adult novel so far and shows a maturity of voice, technique and vision. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Guest Post from Ashley Hope Pérez:
Looking to the Margins of History
Author Ashley Hope Pérez

Since What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly explore the lives of contemporary Latina/o teenagers, it may surprise readers to learn that my third novel, Out of Darkness, is set in 1937 and takes a historical event--the school explosion in New London, Texas—as a backdrop for the story. In fact, though, Out of Darkness extends my interest in untold stories by excavating experiences from the margins of history in the part of Texas where I grew up. 

Hollow Oak Tree by Gustave Le Gay:
similar to Naomi & Wash's secret meeting spot
The woods of Naomi and Wash’s secret meetings are the woods of my childhood, and the memorial to the victims of the 1937 New London school explosion was part of the landscape I saw when I rode to work with my father during the summer. Even then, I knew something terrible had happened to the schoolchildren in New London, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of the disaster. The New London school explosion killed one in four of the town’s white children for a death toll of nearly three hundred. Unsurprisingly, the impact of the school disaster on the white community has been the focus of all existing accounts. From the start of my research, though, I knew I wanted to explore what the event might have meant for others, especially people of color.

In 1937, the Depression still had most of the U.S. in a chokehold. But thanks to revenues from oil extraction, the New London school had extraordinary resources: chemistry labs, foreign language classes, band uniforms and instruments for all children, suites of sewing machines for home economics, and the first electric lights on a high school football stadium. Some newspapers called New London’s school “the richest rural school in America,” and I wondered what it would have been like to behold that bounty from the outside, to have one’s children spared from the explosion because they hadn’t been allowed into the school in the first place. This was the situation, of course, for the African American community, whose children were required to attend a grossly under-resourced “colored” school in the area.

Aftermath of the 1937 New London School Explosion
 I also wondered if there were any Mexican Americans living in East Texas at the time of the explosion. Reading oral histories in East Texas archives and doing my own interviews yielded only one mention of a gentleman from a nearby town whom the interviewees called “Tamale Joe.” Still, because the promise of oil field jobs in East Texas led to a significant influx of people from all over the state and country, it seemed plausible to me that other Mexican American families might have come to the area at least during the decade of the oil boom. And then I came across the name “Juanita Herron” among the list of the children who had died in the explosion. I looked up her records with the funeral house that handled her body, and her parents listed her race as “white.” Still, it was common for Mexican Americans in Texas to play down their heritage to escape discrimination, much as Henry (Naomi’s stepfather in Out of Darkness) encourages Naomi and her siblings to do in the novel. As I studied Juanita’s photograph, I began to imagine the combination of circumstances that might have led to a Mexican American child enrolling in the New London school. I imagined a family living in San Antonio, where segregation had a third dimension, so-called “Mexican” schools for Hispanic children. I imagined a family moving to East Texas, where there were no Mexican schools, in hopes of a better life and education for bright children. (These exceptionally smart children became Naomi’s twin brother and sister.)

While there are remarkable and redemptive aspects to life and community in New London as I portray it in my Out of Darkness, the novel also sheds a stark light on the myriad expressions of racism in segregated communities. The novel is tragic, but it also gives readers the chance to see what novelist Sharon Flake describes as “hope in hard places.” Out of Darkness lends urgency to our continued work for a better, more just future where all kinds of love can take root.

Reviewer's Disclosure: the author offered me a free digital galley via netgalley so that I could participate in the book's blog tour; I was not compensated for my review. At my request, Pérez explained why she chose to write an historical novel after two contemporary novels. Photos were supplied by the author. Carolrhoda Lab will release Out of Darkness in hardcover on September 1, 2015. For more of my reviews of Pérez's books, follow the links in the opening paragraph.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Marmalade Skies in Harpswell, Maine

I took this unfiltered DSLR photograph while dining outside Estes Lobster House at sunset.
I'm taking a two week blog vacation to spend time with my family. Next post Wednesday August 26th.

Happy summer!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Botanical Illustrations of Native Maine Medicinal Plants

Gemma at Pettengill Farm on the Harraseeket River in Freeport, Maine

At my daughter's school, Waynflete seniors research a month long independent project. Gemma combined her love of art, nature and wilderness survival for her project. She did the first drawing (the Balsam Fir) at Chewonki Semester School junior year, which was her inspiration.

It was a fun bonding experience to accompany my daughter into the woods this May. I was her location scout and guide, but she identified all the plants herself and researched their medicinal uses now and historically. I learned a lot from her.

One of the highlights was an overnight trip to Monhegan Island, ten miles out to sea, but most samples were collected within a half hour drive from home. Some, like the Mountain Ash, grow in the old growth forest behind our house. We also explored the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay Harbor.

I was impressed by Gemma's ability to render these complex plants and trees with botanical accuracy and artistic acumen. Each drawing took five or six hours to sketch in pencil and then ink. With the help of her art teacher, the results were bound into pamphlets for her peers. In her powerpoint presentation, Gemma included maps and DSLR photos too. She would make a fine teacher/professor some day. I love how we share a passion for art and nature.

The American Mountain Ash has berries rich in vitamin C, 
which have been used to treat kidney disease, diabetes, arthritis and diarrhea.