Changing the Conversation

As much as I gripe about it, I love YA lit, and I love watching the landscape change into one more welcoming of POC representation. Things have definitely changed for the better over the last few years… but obviously, there’s still a long way to go.

One thing that bothered me, several years back when I first started paying attention to the diversity movement in YA lit, was how often the conversation repeated itself. First step, establish that diversity is important! Second step, discuss how to ‘write diversely’ and encourage writers to be brave! The weight of media representation weighs heavy on your shoulders, unnamed white author. Rinse and repeat.

The YA lit conversation always seemed to circle back to this “writing diversity 101” business, and it was clear by the tone and information given that the target audience was white, privileged. Ironic, no? I recognized that this as important, and figured the conversation would shift as everyone grew, the shadows turned, the earth orbited.

Surprise! The conversation didn’t change. It’s expanded to include more complex discussions, hashtag campaigns, beautifully compiled book lists, and so on. But still, the conversation always returns without fail, to the same refrain. “How do I write diversely? I’m afraid to get it wrong. Can you tell me that I did it right?” Occasionally, bloggers would point out that being able to ask these questions was a mark of privilege. That demanding reassurance and kudos for writing diverse representation was a microaggression in itself. That the privileged are centering the conversation on themselves, even when they try to be allies.

There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, etc etc. So today, I’m linking to a few things that are helping change the conversation. Maybe not perfectly or even efficiently, but at least it’s not the same-old, same-old.

Bare Lit Festival with Media Diversified – read about the UK festival for writers of color here
Lee & Low Books’ New Visions Award – promoting and publishing new writers of color
We Need Diverse Books’ Mentorship Program – partnering industry writers and illustrators with up and coming writers
Diversireads’ Reviews – some of the most thorough, honest YA lit reviews around
Decolonise, not diversify – an important reframing of representation discussions
I’m Still Here | YA Highway – still an incredibly relevant post… here’s a quote:

There’s this weird thing that happens when we talk about the overwhelming whiteness of publishing and it assumes that because publishing is overwhelmingly white that the only people we should ask about fixing this are the white people in the structure. Or that because you can’t see us, we’re not talking. And it ignores first that most of us have set up our own groups and communities to talk this out, because we’re safest among people who understand the macro and microaggressions we experience day to day without judgement or fear. And second that we have been having this conversation for a long, long time…

I’m not advocating for silence, but for a restructuring of how we think about those of us underrepresented in the young adult publishing community. Instead of thinking of us as people that need to be lifted up or spoken for, consider us equals and the people who should be driving this conversation, instead of just grateful to sit at the table.

New Releases

There are several books being released this week. Are any of them catching your eye?

abyssThe Abyss Surrounds Us (The Abyss Surrounds Us #1) by Emily Skrutskie

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.

But Cas has fought pirates her entire life. And she’s not about to stop.

little white liesLittle White Lies by Brianna Baker & F. Bowman Hastie III
Soho Teen

Seventeen-year-old honors student Coretta White’s Tumblr, Little White Lies–a witty commentary on race and current events, as well as an exposé of her brilliant-yet-clueless parents–has just gone viral. She’s got hundreds of thousands of followers; she’s even been offered a TV deal. But Coretta has a confession: she hasn’t been writing her
own posts. Overwhelmed with the stress of keeping up with her schoolwork and applying for colleges, she has secretly hired a forty-one-year-old ghostwriter named Karl Ristoff to help her with the Tumblr. His contributions have helped make it a sensation, but unable to bear the guilt, Coretta eventually confesses the scandalous truth to a select
few to free herself of the burden.

The fallout is almost instantaneous. Before she knows it, her reputation has been destroyed. The media deal disappears. Even her boyfriend breaks up with her. Then Karl is thrust into the limelight, only to suffer a precipitous fall himself. Ultimately, the two join forces to find out who is responsible for ruining both of their lives . . . someone who might even have had the power to fuel their success in the first place. And to exact justice and a clever revenge, they must truly come clean to each other.

peasPeas and Carrots by Tanita S. Davis
Knopf Books for Young Readers

A rich and memorable story from a Coretta Scott King honor award-winning author about a teenage foster girl looking for a place to call home.

Dess knows that nothing good in life lasts: her mother’s sobriety will inevitably fade, her abusive father’s absence is never long enough, and her brother Austin—the one bright spot in their family—was put into foster care when he was still a baby. Disappointment is never far away, and that’s a truth that Dess has learned to live with.

Dess’s mother’s arrest is just the latest in a long line of disappointments, but this one lands the teen with Austin’s foster family. Dess doesn’t exactly fit in with the Carters. They’re so happy, so comfortable, so normal, and Hope, their teenage daughter, is so hopelessly naïve to the harsh realities of the world. Dess and Hope couldn’t be more unlike each other, but Austin loves them both like sisters. Over time their differences, insurmountable at first, fall away to reveal two girls who want the same thing: to belong.

devilsPlaying for the Devil’s Fire by Phillippe Diederich
Cinco Puntos Press

Thirteen-year-old Boli and his friends are deep in the middle of a game of marbles. An older boy named Mosca has won the prized Devil’s Fire marble. His pals are jealous and want to win it away from him. This is Izayoc, the place of tears, a small pueblo in a tiny valley west of Mexico City where nothing much happens. It’s a typical hot Sunday morning except that on the way to church someone discovers the severed head of Enrique Quintanilla propped on the ledge of one of the cement planters in the plaza and everything changes. Not apocalyptic changes, like phalanxes of men riding on horses with stingers for tails, but subtle ones: poor neighbors turning up with brand-new SUVs, pimpled teens with fancy girls hanging off them. Boli’s parents leave for Toluca and don’t arrive at their destination. No one will talk about it. A washed out masked wrestler turns up one day, a man only interested in finding his next meal. Boli hopes to inspire the luchador to set out with him to find his parents.

Vicious MasksThese Vicious Masks (These Vicious Masks#1) by Tarun Shanker
Swoon Reads

Jane Austen meets X-­Men in this gripping and adventure-­filled paranormal romance set in Victorian London.

England, 1882. Evelyn is bored with society and its expectations. So when her beloved sister, Rose, mysteriously vanishes, she ignores her parents and travels to London to find her, accompanied by the dashing Mr. Kent. But they’re not the only ones looking for Rose. The reclusive, young gentleman Sebastian Braddock is also searching for her, claiming that both sisters have special healing powers. Evelyn is convinced that Sebastian must be mad, until she discovers that his strange tales of extraordinary people are true—and that her sister is in graver danger than she feared.


Review: A Memory of Light

lightTitle: The Memory of Light
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 325
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital Mental Disorders ward, she knows one thing: She can’t even commit suicide right. But for once, a mistake works out well for her, as she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had.

But Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up, sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide, Vicky must try to find the strength to carry on. She may not have it. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experience with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one — about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

Review: The Memory of Light is compassionate look at Latina teenager Vicky Cruz in the aftermath of her suicide attempt, and it is also a hopeful look at a young woman’s attempt to recover from it. One of the many things I liked about this book was the diversity of its cast—racially and/or ethnically, neurologically, and economically—and how those things inform the world and its characters.

There is no traumatic tipping point for Vicky’s depression, no horrific event she must overcome. And while those stories are important to tell, it is equally important to tell stories where depression seeps into being, where there is no pivotal moment to kickstart a depressive episode, where the protagonist realizes that somewhere along the way her brain has changed the way it works. Some of the most memorable scenes in Memory are Vicky finally being able to describe what her thoughts and feelings are like. Vicky’s slow-building insights into herself, her family, and her school life are equally complicated and honest. Her conversations with her sister and her father are difficult, as is her return to her home and school. Recovery isn’t linear for Vicky, and Memory doesn’t shy away from depicting how taxing it can be to do something as simple as going to class.

The friendships Vicky and the other teens at Lakeview form help all of them share and forge tools to manage their illnesses. Mona, E.M., and Gabriel are all distinct characters with different motivations, family circumstances, and mental health. (I would very much value other reviewers’ opinions on how those mental illnesses were handled as I am less familiar with them and their associated tropes.) While I rather liked Dr. Desai’s character, her professional ethics made me raise an eyebrow several times, particularly since the majority of the breaches were obviously made so Vicky could get the information she needed and move the plot forward.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the climax of the book—much of it seemed rushed and dependent on external peril, in contrast to the quieter, internal focus of the rest of the novel. Several of the characters that I thought could have been important to Vicky’s journey weren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked, particularly Juanita and Barbara.

Author Francisco X. Stork doesn’t wrap everything up with tidy bows; by the end of Memory, all of the Lakeview quartet are in different places, but not all of those places are objectively better. Vicky’s own recovery is a possible, but not certain, thing, though I would term the ending a hopeful one. Stork ensured that Vicky acquired the tools and the start of a support network she needed to be able to continue living.

Recommendation: Get it soon. While The Memory of Light has a few blemishes, it is still a solid effort to depict the aftermath of a suicide attempt and figuring out how to live even when it seems like the effort isn’t worth the cost.

What I Learned About Depression by Francisco X. Stork

Ten Observations on Depression by Francisco X. Stork

Common Core in Action: An Update

photo-1As my first semester ended this past week, I thought it would be a fun idea to write a follow-up to my August post about the Common Core in Action. In that essay, I described my units for the first semester and how they connected with the Common Core standards. I was cautiously optimistic that my students would be able meet the standards I set out as I knew that they would struggle with some of the Common Core standards and the new structure to the curriculum. The Common Core focuses on in-depth analysis and use of evidence whereas No Child Left Behind did not. I also knew that many of my students, this year, were low skilled so I anticipated that many of my students would struggle with the curriculum. I hoped that by creating unique and “magical” learning experiences for my students, they would be able to succeed.

As expected my students did, and continue, to struggle with the Common Core curriculum. On the other hand, by exposing them to diverse texts, they have been able to see mirrors of themselves in the literature and that has helped a number of them become more interested in reading. In my first unit, I allowed students to choose from a list that I gave them, and many ended up choosing diverse texts because my list contained numerous diverse books. They did enjoy being able to choose books that were of interest to them instead of reading a book that was forced upon them. It was a great way to start the school year and allowed for some fun classroom discussions as students shared their novels. A number of students ended up reading their classmates books when they were done because of the conversations they had with each other. Watching & listening to their books talks was fun for me and I even ended up reading a few books at the request of my students.

My biggest success, to date, has been the student’s “hero’s journey” narratives. Unfortunately, because of their reading levels, many struggled with Prophecy, but there were a number of students who enjoyed the novel. They connected with Kira and her journey, and reveled in the fact that Kira was a kick-ass hero, which was a departure from what they were used to. This ability to see themselves, and other people of color in literature, was reflected in the writing as a number of students chose to make their characters people of color. In addition to my students using a geographical location from their 6th & 7th grade social studies, I required students to research different culture’s mythologies and incorporate the stories into their narratives. While not all achieved this, a good number of students did an excellent job with their research and tying different cultural mythology into their stories. One student, who is half Filipino and half Samoan, wanted to use the stories from his Samoan side and I can tell you he did a great job! The excitement on his face when I told him he could, and his realization that his story, his culture matters, will forever stick with me.

Due to schedule conflicts and other crazy stuff, we started reading All American Boys just before the holiday break. It threw off my momentum a bit as some students really got into the novel and read it within a week, while others only read what was required of them. So, as the semester ends I am in the middle of reading All American Boys, and have actually been having some fun with it. My principal is teaching one class, so we are teaching this unit together, and we’ve come up with some very creative ways to engage the students into the content. We decided on the social justice prezi assessment, and will focus on students crafting their persuasive arguments after the semester break. However, we have spent the past few weeks laying the groundwork for evaluating arguments and crafting arguments using All American Boys and articles about police brutality. A number of students have connected with the subject, so the topic has been relevant to their lives.

So, while there has been some hiccups and some frustration, I’m happy that my students were able to see themselves as the hero and become involved in the reading. I am looking forward to the novels I will be teaching in the next semester (there has been some changes) and continuing to creating unique learning experiences for my students. I will admit that I’m very apprehensive for state testing as it is just 2 months away and there is more I’d like to get done in that time but I know it’s just not logically possible. Instead, I will continue to prepare my students the best way I can and hope they remember the lessons I taught them when they are taking the test.  While having my students score well is a goal, the fact that many have become readers again is much more satisfying.

New Releases

Happy book birthday to the following new releases! Bro is out today (2/1), while the other two come out tomorrow. Are any of these on your to-read list?

broBro by Helen Chebatte
Romeo knows the rules.
Stick with your own kind. Don’t dob on your mates, or even your enemies.
But even unwritten rules are made for breaking.
Fight Clubs, first loves and family ties are pushed to their limit in Helen Chebatte’s explosive debut novel. [Image and summary via Goodreads]




samuraiSamurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner

Minamoto Yoshitsune should not have been a samurai. But his story is legend in this real-life Game of Thrones. This epic tale of warriors and bravery, rebellion and revenge, reads like a novel, but this is the true story of the greatest samurai in Japanese history.

When Yoshitsune was just a baby, his father went to war with a rival samurai family—and lost. His father was killed, his mother captured, and his brothers sent away. Yoshitsune was raised in his enemy’s household until he was sent away to live in a monastery. He grew up skinny and small. Not the warrior type. But he did inherit his family pride and when the time came for the Minamoto to rise up against their enemy once again, Yoshitsune was there. His daring feats, such as storming a fortress by riding on horseback down the side of a cliff and his glorious victory at sea, secured Yoshitsune’s place in history and his story is still being told centuries later. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

unhookedUnhooked by Lisa Maxwell
For as long as she can remember, Gwendolyn Allister has never had a place to call home—all because her mother believes that monsters are hunting them. Now these delusions have brought them to London, far from the life Gwen had finally started to build for herself. The only saving grace is her best friend, Olivia, who’s coming with them for the summer. But when Gwen and Olivia are kidnapped by shadowy creatures and taken to a world of flesh-eating sea hags and dangerous Fey, Gwen realizes her mom might have been sane all along.

The world Gwen finds herself in is called Neverland, yet it’s nothing like the stories. Here, good and evil lose their meaning and memories slip like water through her fingers. As Gwen struggles to remember where she came from and find a way home, she must choose between trusting the charming fairy-tale hero who says all the right things and the roguish young pirate who promises to keep her safe. With time running out and her enemies closing in, Gwen is forced to face the truths she’s been hiding from all along. But will she be able to save Neverland without losing herself? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: American Ace

American AceTitle: American Ace
Author: Marilyn Nelson
Publisher: Dial Books
Genre: Historical, Poetry
Pages: 123
Review copy: Purchased at local bookstore
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: This riveting novel in verse, perfect for fans of Jacqueline Woodson and Toni Morrison, explores American history and race through the eyes of a teenage boy embracing his newfound identity.

Connor’s grandmother leaves his dad a letter when she dies, and the letter’s confession shakes their tight-knit Italian-American family: The man who raised Dad is not his birth father.

But the only clues to this birth father’s identity are a class ring and a pair of pilot’s wings. And so Connor takes it upon himself to investigate a pursuit that becomes even more pressing when Dad is hospitalized after a stroke. What Connor discovers will lead him and his father to a new, richer understanding of race, identity, and each other.

It’s funny to think about identity,
Dad said. Now I wonder how much of us
we inherit, and how much we create.

Connor and his family go through some soul-searching as they find out their heritage is something other than what they had always believed. We see the unfolding story through Connor’s eyes. His family has suffered the loss of his beloved Nonna and Connor is concerned about his father’s grief and possible depression. Otherwise life had been moving along as expected. Connor spends a lot of time with his dad as he practices driving to get his license. Things become complicated quickly though when Connor’s father explains that he has no idea who his father was. The journey to discover their family history leads them to new ways of thinking about themselves and the society they inhabit. After learning about their more complicated heritage, Connor sees his school in a new way.

I walked between classes in slow motion,
seeing the ancient intertribal wars
still being fought, in the smallest gestures.
Little things I hadn’t noticed before:
the subtle put-downs, silent revenges.

The story is delivered in nine parts containing five vignettes each. These are made up of two twelve line stanzas written in iambic pentameter. I often forget that poetry can be incredibly mathematical. Such a structure makes for extremely deliberate choices. This format meant there wasn’t much room for explanation. Nelson kept things tight. I appreciate that and so will readers looking for something quick yet meaningful. I almost always enjoy a novel in verse. I like the way Nelson delivers small packages of information and makes every word count. The titles are even important.

In part seven, the text shifts a bit and becomes a paper for Connor’s Honors History class. This brought in something I really appreciated. Photos of airmen from WWII are included every few pages. These added a lot to the story. With the photos, the pilots became something more than history. They became individuals with lives and stories of their own. In the author’s note, Nelson explains about the information for Connor’s report, “I did not invent any of the facts Connor learns….That part of the story is true. And still amazing.”

One thing did shake me out of the story a bit. The setting appears to be the present day since Connor uses google and his father has rapid DNA testing. With Connor being a teen, it seems a little strange that his grandfather is old enough to have been a pilot in WWII. My grandfather fought in the war and my children are older than Connor. It sort of works because Connor’s father has a child and grandchildren from a previous relationship so he was not young when he had Connor. It made me do some math though because it seemed difficult to believe.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you are a fan of verse novels or enjoy historical novels and want something quick. Otherwise, borrow it someday. I truly enjoyed the book, but if I were recommending Nelson’s poetry, I would first hand someone A Wreath for Emmett Till and How I Discovered Poetry.

Extra: Warning – the following interview reveals their family heritage. I tried not to do that here since the publisher’s summary didn’t. If you want to know precisely what history this book explores though, please read this Publisher’s Weekly interview with author