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