Combating Racism Through Literature Part 2

Reading-books+empathyIn my essay earlier this month, “Combating Racism Through Literature,” I described how reading diverse literature can actually make children (and adults) become more empathetic to others, hence literature could help bring an end to racism. It was a few days later, in a conversation with Debbie Reese of the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog that I realized I wasn’t quite finished with my essay. Writing an essay explaining how creating empathetic readers can help change our world in theoretical sense is good, but it is worthless without the back up of action. Hence, this second part of the essay.

Ms. Reese pointed out to me that while reading can help, we still laud classics such as Gone with the Wind, that has very racist depictions of characters. She also pointed out to me that in a number of contemporary novels, Gone with the Wind is revered by the characters and held as an epitome of classic literature, but is not critiqued by those characters for its troublesome elements. Ms. Reese is extremely correct in her assertion that while we cannot forget these horrible and racist literary depictions in our past, we do have the ability, nay responsibility, to critique them and point out to readers how harmful those depictions are.

While we not only have the responsibility of pointing out inaccurate representations, we each also have different responsibilities, things we can actually do to help combat racism through literature. And each of us, depending on how and what way we are involved in the literary world, have different responsibilities – tasks that we can start doing today. Because, like I said earlier, just talking about a problem, without doing action, never resolves anything.

1. Publishers/Agents/Editors: Hire more People of Color. One way to have more diverse books published is to have more people in positions of power be diverse themselves. I know through WNDB of the intern program, which is great and a step forward, but do better. Don’t rely on People of Color to come searching for a job, seek them out. Visit college campuses and create relationships with minority organizations to extend a hand. I guarantee you people of color want to work in the industry, and by hiring them, your company will only benefit. Also, sign contracts with more authors of color. We are out there, sending queries, pitching at conferences, etc. Come find us. And, once you do sign an author of color, promote the mess out of that author. Give them a big push like Hunger Games received, or other big name YA authors. Don’t regale them to the “______-American section”. Give them exposure and I guarantee the readers will be there. Which leads directly to Group #2

2. Parents: Specifically parents from the dominate culture – do not censor your children’s reading habits. Trust your child to make the right decisions, to know where their interest lies and choose books accordingly. I say this from experience as my mother did not censor my reading choices at all. When I was 10 years old I read Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”. My parents had taken my sister and I to see the movie, and shortly after I saw the novel in the store. I asked my mother if I could read it, and instead of saying “you’re too young,” she grabbed the book off the shelf and handed it to me. Listen parents, I was 10! Yes, I might have been too young to read the book, and some of it I really didn’t understand, but my mother trusted my judgement. Because of many instances where I asked for a book and my mother’s trust in me, I know that is the reason why I have such a diverse literary sense. I’ve read all genres, all types of novels, simply because my parents never said, “this book isn’t for you.” Parents, when you tell your children that and take a book that might have a person of color on the cover, you are telling them that that person’s story doesn’t matter and that you do not trust their own reading habits. Encourage your child to read widely and diversely. When you do that, you have a child who will become more empathetic and more in charge of their own mind.

3. Teachers: We are in charge of educating the future and helping them find their own minds and one of the ways we accomplish this is through literature. Now, I know the Common Core states that our curriculum should be 70% non-fiction and 30% fiction, which is the antithesis of creating thinking empathic students, but as I stated in my essay a few months back titled “Teachers! Choose Diverse Books,” there is a way to still have students read fiction and still read non-fiction texts. The key is to tie the fiction with the non-fiction, and you will expand the themes presented in the novels the students read. Second, DO NOT STICK TO THE WESTERN CANON! When you choose to share “classic” literature with students, you automatically exclude a number of voices and reinforce many troublesome depictions of people of color. An idea would be to create a balance of books, create your own canon, to provide both windows and mirrors for your students. You can also include numerous contemporary literary texts that will engage students on a personal level, as well as include classical translated texts from non-Western countries to give historical perspectives of life outside the United States.

4. Librarians: Keep doing what you’re doing. I was floored by the push for diversity at the MidWinter ALA meeting and the results of all the awards given to diverse books at the end of the meeting. If any advice I could give, would be to continue to promote diverse books, continue to order diverse books for all kids, and continue to give awards to diverse books.

Change doesn’t happen overnight and it sometimes is messy, and is always hard, however, if we don’t try, don’t fight, then change will never come. The same authors will continue to get published, the same stories told, and true equality for our world will not exist. I, for one, do not want to live in that world. I want a different world for my students, for my godson, for my niece and nephew. I want them to be able to have more books that are mirrors instead of windows into a world that must learn in order to survive in. I want their future to be one in which all people are seen as equal and that all stories are valid. Literature is one way we can achieve that world, if only we all do our part.

New Releases

Happy early birthday to one book coming out Tuesday, July 28!

Down-by-LawDown by Law by Ni-Ni Simone
Isis Carter got schooled early on in surviving the streets. When some girls put a beatdown on her, she took back what was hers. When her mom, Queenie, bailed on Isis’ abusive father, Isis fought to stay strong. And when her dad gets killed, sixteen-year-old Isis buries the hurt by looking out for herself—and creepin’ with bad boy Supreme…until a run-in with the law shatters Isis’ world, threatens to destroy her future, and brings Queenie back home.

Now the only person Isis can rely on is the mother she is too angry to trust, much less forgive. Even her new boo, Ke’Ron, is working hard to make Isis feel safe and show her he’s worthy of more than friendship. But when Isis lets her guard down, will she be given a second chance to get her life straight—or will it cost her everything?

Review: The Last Leaves Falling

leavesTitle: The Last Leaves Falling
Author: Sarah Benwell
Publisher: Simon & Shuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Contemporary
Pages: 358
Availability: On shelves now
Review copy: Final copy provided by publisher

Summary: And these are they. My final moments. They say a warrior must always be mindful of death, but I never imagined that it would find me like this . . .

Japanese teenager, Sora, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Lonely and isolated, Sora turns to the ancient wisdom of the samurai for guidance and comfort. But he also finds hope in the present; through the internet he finds friends that see him, not just his illness. This is a story of friendship and acceptance, and testing strength in an uncertain future.

Review: After reading the summary, I wondered if this was one of those crying books. There are many people who seek out the books that require tissues, but I am not one of them. Puffy eyes and a stuffy nose after reading sessions is not the result I am usually seeking. The unique plot seemed worth the risk though.

Before his illness, Sora enjoyed playing baseball and dreamed of being a professor. After his diagnosis though, he doesn’t know who he is and how to be himself. He doesn’t really have peers in his life once he stops going to school, so he turns to chat rooms. The internet makes it so much easier since nobody there sees him as a tragic figure. He can be more than his illness. He can be anyone.

Online he finds two people to interact with that quickly become his friends. Kaito and Mai joke with him and share the ups and downs of their days. They bring many of the lighter moments of the novel. He’s able to forget some of his challenges while chatting with them and later hanging out with them in person.

Often he wants to forget about ALS and his impending death, but sometimes he wants to talk about it. His family avoids or silences his questions about death. But Sora is wrestling with what happens when you die. He begins to consider how he wants to live his last days.

The Last Leaves Falling brings readers to a place that may be uncomfortable. In many societies death is a topic to avoid. It’s not something we discuss in depth on a daily basis. Often, if a loved one is facing death, we still focus on the positives as if by talking about it we are being disloyal. As if by saying the word we are condemning them to death ourselves. We don’t want to make it seem like there is no hope for recovery even if that is truly the case. This is where Sora finds frustration. He knows death is the only possible outcome so he wants to prepare, but his mother and grandparents aren’t ready to go there with him.

Sora’s voice rang true to me. He expresses his frustration and confusion about what he is meant to do when his life is being cut short and he seemingly has no choice or control anymore. There is no how-to guide for this. Nobody plans for such a situation. His new friends are one of the ways that he copes. Through helping them with their daily struggles, he finds meaning and begins to see that he still has some say in his own life. He also finds meaning through a book of death poems. Some are beautiful and some are harsh, but the poems help him process his own experience. The authors were samurai facing their last days. They were willing to look death in the eye and speak of it when no one else around him will.

I can’t say whether readers will need a box of tissues, but my eyes did not stay dry. I couldn’t help but think of the song from Rent, “Seasons of Love.” The song asks, “How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?” Sora is looking at his life and his last days wondering what it is that truly matters. He also explores how he can keep his dignity as he comes closer and closer to death and loses more and more control. This is a book that could lead to a lot of thinking. It will stick with me for a long time. It may also finally get my body down to the hospital to fill out my advance directive paperwork. Yes, this book may take you there.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you are a fan of contemporary books and are willing to venture down this path. Benwell bravely brings readers on a journey that we often try to avoid, but it’s one that we will all deal with in some form eventually. I’m glad that I took the chance. I was rewarded with a beautiful story that made me think and feel and aren’t those the best?

Favorite Contemporary Novels

With half of the year behind us, I thought it would be fun to compile a list of some of our favorite books that we read in 2015. So enjoy this list of nine “buy it now” contemporary novels. Which ones have you read? Which ones just jumped to the top of your I-Have-to-Get-My-Hands-On-This List?

suitThe Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds
Atheneum Books for Young Readers || Review

Just when seventeen-year-old Matt thinks he can’t handle one more piece of terrible news, he meets a girl who’s dealt with a lot more—and who just might be able to clue him in on how to rise up when life keeps knocking him down—in this wry, gritty novel from the author of When I Was the Greatest.

Matt wears a black suit every day. No, not because his mom died—although she did, and it sucks. But he wears the suit for his gig at the local funeral home, which pays way better than the Cluck Bucket, and he needs the income since his dad can’t handle the bills (or anything, really) on his own. So while Dad’s snagging bottles of whiskey, Matt’s snagging fifteen bucks an hour. Not bad. But everything else? Not good. Then Matt meets Lovey. She’s got a crazy name, and she’s been through more crazy than he can imagine. Yet Lovey never cries. She’s tough. Really tough. Tough in the way Matt wishes he could be. Which is maybe why he’s drawn to her, and definitely why he can’t seem to shake her. Because there’s nothing more hopeful than finding a person who understands your loneliness—and who can maybe even help take it away.

delicateDelicate Monsters by Stephanie Kuehn
St. Martin’s Griffin || Review

When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family’s California vineyard estate. Here, she’s meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she’s meant to do a lot of things. But it’s hard. She’s bored. And when Sadie’s bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.

Emerson Tate’s a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That’s why Emerson’s not happy Sadie’s back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won’t ever let him.

Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That’s what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past.

But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it’s all of theirs.

Gabi a Girl in PIecesGabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
Cinco Puntos Press || Review

Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: college applications, Cindy’s pregnancy, Sebastian’s coming out, the cute boys, her father’s meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity.

July 24

My mother named me Gabriella, after my grandmother who, coincidentally, didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was unmarried, and therefore living in sin. My mom has told me the story many, many, MANY, times of how, when she confessed to my grandmother that she was pregnant with me, her mother beat her. BEAT HER! She was twenty-five. That story is the basis of my sexual education and has reiterated why it’s important to wait until you’re married to give it up. So now, every time I go out with a guy, my mom says, “Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.” Eyes open, legs closed. That’s as far as the birds and the bees talk has gone. And I don’t mind it. I don’t necessarily agree with that whole wait until you’re married crap, though. I mean, this is America and the 21st century; not Mexico one hundred years ago. But, of course, I can’t tell my mom that because she will think I’m bad. Or worse: trying to be White.

NoneNone of the Above by I.W. Gregorio
Balzer + Bray || Review

What if everything you knew about yourself changed in an instant?

When Kristin Lattimer is voted homecoming queen, it seems like another piece of her ideal life has fallen into place. She’s a champion hurdler with a full scholarship to college and she’s madly in love with her boyfriend. In fact, she’s decided that she’s ready to take things to the next level with him.

But Kristin’s first time isn’t the perfect moment she’s planned—something is very wrong. A visit to the doctor reveals the truth: Kristin is intersex, which means that though she outwardly looks like a girl, she has male chromosomes, not to mention boy “parts.”

Dealing with her body is difficult enough, but when her diagnosis is leaked to the whole school, Kristin’s world completely unravels. With everything she thought she knew thrown into question, can she come to terms with her new self?

Incredibly compelling and sensitively told, None of the Above is a thought-provoking novel that explores what it means to be a boy, a girl, or something in between.

23013680The Kidney Hypothetical: Or How to Ruin Your Life in Seven Days by Lisa Yee
Arthur A. Levine Books || Review

Higgs Boson Bing has seven days left before his perfect high school career is completed. Then it’s on to Harvard to fulfill the fantasy portrait of success that he and his parents have cultivated for the past four years. Four years of academic achievement. Four years of debate championships. Two years of dating the most popular girl in school. It was, literally, everything his parents could have wanted. Everything they wanted for Higgs’s older brother Jeffrey, in fact.

But something’s not right. And when Higgs’s girlfriend presents him with a seemingly innocent hypothetical question about whether or not he’d give her a kidney… the exposed fault lines reach straight down to the foundations of his life…

22328549My Heart & Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga
Balzer + Bray || Review

Sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel is obsessed with plotting her own death. With a mother who can barely look at her without wincing, classmates who whisper behind her back, and a father whose violent crime rocked her small town, Aysel is ready to turn her potential energy into nothingness.

There’s only one problem: she’s not sure she has the courage to do it alone. But once she discovers a website with a section called Suicide Partners, Aysel’s convinced she’s found her solution–Roman, a teenage boy who’s haunted by a family tragedy, is looking for a partner. Even though Aysel and Roman have nothing in common, they slowly start to fill in each other’s broken lives. But as their suicide pact becomes more concrete, Aysel begins to question whether she really wants to go through with it. Ultimately, she must choose between wanting to die or trying to convince Roman to live so they can discover the potential of their energy together.

22840182The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler
Simon Pulse || Review

The youngest of six talented sisters, Elyse d’Abreau was destined for stardom—until a boating accident took everything from her. Now, the most beautiful singer in Tobago can’t sing. She can’t even speak.

Seeking quiet solitude, Elyse accepts a friend’s invitation to Atargatis Cove. Named for the mythical first mermaid, the Oregon seaside town is everything Elyse’s home in the Caribbean isn’t: An ocean too cold for swimming, parties too tame for singing, and people too polite to pry—except for one.

Christian Kane is a notorious playboy—insolent, arrogant, and completely charming. He’s also the only person in Atargatis Cove who doesn’t treat Elyse like a glass statue. He challenges her to express herself, and he admires the way she treats his younger brother Sebastian, who believes Elyse is the legendary mermaid come to life.

When Christian needs a first mate for the Cove’s high-stakes Pirate Regatta, Elyse reluctantly stows her fear of the sea and climbs aboard. The ocean isn’t the only thing making waves, though—swept up in Christian’s seductive tide and entranced by the Cove’s charms, Elyse begins to wonder if a life of solitude isn’t what she needs. But changing course again means facing her past. It means finding her inner voice. And scariest of all, it means opening her heart to a boy who’s best known for breaking them . . .

This Side of HomeThis Side of Home by Renée Watson
Bloomsbury USA Childrens || Review

A captivating and poignant coming-of-age urban YA debut about sisters, friends, and what it means to embrace change.

Identical twins Nikki and Maya have been on the same page for everything—friends, school, boys and starting off their adult lives at a historically African-American college. But as their neighborhood goes from rough-and-tumble to up-and-coming, suddenly filled with pretty coffee shops and boutiques, Nikki is thrilled while Maya feels like their home is slipping away. Suddenly, the sisters who had always shared everything must confront their dissenting feelings on the importance of their ethnic and cultural identities and, in the process, learn to separate themselves from the long shadow of their identity as twins.

In her inspired YA debut, Renée Watson explores the experience of young African-American women navigating the traditions and expectations of their culture.

tinyTiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton
HarperTeen || Review

Black Swan meets Pretty Little Liars in this soapy, drama-packed novel featuring diverse characters who will do anything to be the prima at their elite ballet school.

Gigi, Bette, and June, three top students at an exclusive Manhattan ballet school, have seen their fair share of drama. Free-spirited new girl Gigi just wants to dance—but the very act might kill her. Privileged New Yorker Bette’s desire to escape the shadow of her ballet star sister brings out a dangerous edge in her. And perfectionist June needs to land a lead role this year or her controlling mother will put an end to her dancing dreams forever. When every dancer is both friend and foe, the girls will sacrifice, manipulate, and backstab to be the best of the best.

New Releases

If you like thrillers, then these two new releases are for you.

Hollywood Witch HunterHollywood Witch Hunter by Valerie Tejeda
Bloomsbury Spark

From the moment she first learned the truth about witches…she knew she was born to fight them.

Now, at sixteen, Iris is the lone girl on the Witch Hunters Special Ops Team.

But when Iris meets a boy named Arlo, he might just be the key to preventing an evil uprising in Southern California.

Together they’re ready to protect the human race at all costs. Because that’s what witch hunters do.

Welcome to Hollywood. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads


Noble WarriorNoble Warrior by Alan Lawrence Sitomer

After placing teenage mixed martial arts phenom McCutcheon Daniels and his mother and sister in the Witness Relocation Program,the FBI comes to realize they have a unique asset on their hands. Recruited to help the FBI, McCutcheon finds himself hunting bad guys. But when he discovers that the notorious Priests have targeted Kaitlyn-the girl he loves and was forced to leave behind-as a way to seek revenge on the Daniels family, MD convinces the FBI to send him right into the belly of the beast: Jenkells State Penitentiary where the mob boss of Detroit is serving time. Yet in his universe where up is down, McCutcheon ends up disavowed by the government and left to rot in one of America’s most notorious prisons. It’s there here connects with his father and discovers the truth about his circumstances. McCutcheon, a trained urban warrior, escapes and sets out for revenge on those who betrayed him and his family.

Review: Most Likely to Succeed

16140843Title:  Most Likely to Succeed (Superlatives #3)
Author: Jennifer Echols
Genres: contemporary, romance
Pages: 352
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Availability: August 4th, 2015

Summary: As vice president of Student Council, Kaye knows the importance of keeping order. Not only in school, but in her personal life. Which is why she and her boyfriend, Aidan, already have their lives mapped out: attend Columbia University together, pursue banking careers, and eventually get married. Everything Kaye has accomplished in high school—student government, cheerleading, stellar grades—has been in preparation for that future.

To his entire class, Sawyer is an irreverent bad boy. His antics on the field as school mascot and his love of partying have earned him total slacker status. But while he and Kaye appear to be opposites on every level, fate—and their friends—keep conspiring to throw them together. Perhaps the seniors see the simmering attraction Kaye and Sawyer are unwilling to acknowledge to themselves…

As the year unfolds, Kaye begins to realize her ideal life is not what she thought. And Sawyer decides it’s finally time to let down the facade and show everyone who he really is. Is a relationship between them most likely to succeed—or will it be their favorite mistake? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I read the first book of the Superlatives series, Biggest Flirts, half a year ago and I loved it. So of course, I was really looking forward to the final book in the series Most Likely to Succeed. This is book is so much more rewarding if you’ve read the first two books in the series, but it does work as a stand-alone book… but why would you deprive yourself of the first book? Silliness.

The Superlatives series centers on three friends who win certain titles in the yearbook superlatives (specifically, “biggest flirts”, “perfect couple”, and “most likely to succeed”) — and, basically, the romance that ensues. Most Likely to Succeed is definitely a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.

Most Likely to Succeed centers on Kaye, the student council vice president, who gets voted “most likely to succeed” with her boyfriend, the student council president. She and her boyfriend are the perfect power couple, with an ivy league future planned out and everything. But their relationship is showing cracks, and Kaye finds herself drawn to her high school’s charismatic slacker.

Good girl falls for bad boy sounds like the same old formula, but Most Likely to Succeed is anything but that. The fun narration of Kaye and the relationships portrayed in the book work to make the story come alive. From friendships to family relationships, Kaye’s story doesn’t feel simply reduced to the central romance.

Kaye’s identity as African American does show through in little details about her ambitions, her family, and how other people treat her. I love how this was portrayed, though I did raise my eyebrows a bit when a character insisted that someone else insulting Kaye’s hair wasn’t racist (maybe not intentionally, but in the larger context of society, it totally was! oh well). But in general, I felt that Kaye’s character was incredibly well-written in this respect.

But seriously. Read the first two books — or, at least, the first book Biggest Flirts — before you read this one. It will make Most Likely to Succeed so much more awesome. The Superlatives series is a series to check out! Each of the books is a fun, lighthearted read. This is going on my “To Reread a Million Times” list.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

Further reading: Review of Biggest Flirts