Mini-review: Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood

abbtTitle:  Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood
Author: Varsha Bajaj
Genres: contemporary, middle grade
Pages: 249
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Review Copy: the library
Availability: March 1, 2014

Summary: What thirteen-year-old Abby wants most is to meet her father. She just never imagined he would be a huge film star–in Bollywood! Now she’s traveling to Mumbai to get to know her famous father. Abby is overwhelmed by the culture clash, the pressures of being the daughter of India’s most famous celebrity, and the burden of keeping her identity a secret. But as she learns to navigate her new surroundings, she just might discover where she really belongs.[Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood is a fun, light-hearted middle grade read. Abby’s upbeat narration, complete with a violin soundtrack in her head, makes the story worth reading. Her adventures travelling to meet her father are richly detailed and entertaining. It would have been nice if the other characters had been more fleshed out, and Abby’s biracial identity expanded upon, but still — definitely worth a read.

Recommendation: Get it soon!


New Releases

We only knew of one diverse release this week, The Art of Secrets. If you know of any others, please be sure to let us know in the comments. Thanks!

The Art of Secrets

The Art of Secrets by James Klise

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Summary: When Saba Khan’s apartment burns in a mysterious fire, possibly a hate crime, her Chicago high school rallies around her. Her family moves rent-free into a luxury apartment, Saba’s Facebook page explodes, and she starts (secretly) dating a popular boy. Then a quirky piece of art donated to a school fund-raising effort for the Khans is revealed to be an unknown work by a famous artist, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Saba’s life turns upside down again. Should Saba’s family have all that money? Or should it go to the students who found the art? Or to the school? And just what caused that fire? Greed, jealousy, and suspicion create an increasingly tangled web as students and teachers alike debate who should get the money and begin to point fingers and make accusations. The true story of the fire that sets events in motion and what happens afterward gradually comes together in an innovative narrative made up of journal entries, interviews, articles, letters, text messages, and other documents. — Cover image and summary via Goodreads


Review: Ask Me by Kimberly Pauley

ask meTitle: Ask Me
Author: Kimberly Pauley
Genres: Contemporary, Fantasy, Mystery
Pages: 293
Publisher: Soho Teen
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Ask Aria Morse anything, and she must answer with the truth. Blessed—or cursed—with the power of an Oracle who cannot decipher her own predictions, she does her best to avoid anyone and everyone.

But Aria can no longer hide when Jade, one of the few girls at school who ever showed her any kindness, disappears. Any time Aria overhears a question, she inadvertently reveals something new, a clue or hint. But like stray pieces from different puzzles, her words never present a clear picture.

Aria may be the only one who can find out what happened, but the closer she gets to figuring it out, the more she becomes a target. Not everyone wants the truth to come out.

Review: Ask Me is a quick, engrossing read, with a little bit of everything: prophecies, romance, high school problems, and murder. Aria is a fantastic narrator—I spent most of the book torn between the urge to wrap her up in a fuzzy blanket for safety and the urge to tell her to get on the murder-mystery-solving bandwagon.

Nevertheless, Kimberly Pauley did an excellent job showing the reader why Aria’s prophetic gift would be an absolute nightmare and building a sympathetic case for Aria being a loner who desperately doesn’t want to be noticed or even have much human interaction. It’s not easy to make friends when you must answer any question you hear, whether or not it’s directed at you. It leads to really awful/embarrassing moments where Aria tells people she barely knows things like “he doesn’t actually like you—he just wants in your pants” or breaks into sing-song-y rhymes or spouts cryptic answers. She has managed to cope thanks to a combination of headphones, loud music, and muttering/whispering answers, but that doesn’t stop her from being on the receiving end of a lot of bullying. Her inability to control her gift also makes a compelling case for why she can’t just walk up to the police and offer herself for questioning or even provide them with information under her own name.

Aria was a magnificent character, and Pauley really fleshed her out with all the little details of her life. I especially appreciated the minutia of how poor Aria and her grandparents were, from worrying about things like whether or not the rip in her Goodwill dress was reparable to having to use a landline phone (with a cord!) to talk to a boy because she didn’t have a cell phone to the mention of burning through gasoline in her ancient car that she couldn’t really afford to replace. Her relationship with her grandparents was one of the highlights of the book, especially her grandfather, who didn’t truly understand her gift but still did his best to phrase his questions as statements so Aria wasn’t forced to answer him all the time. I wish we had been able to see more of Aria and her grandmother together—a few stories about what her grandmother had done when she had her gift wouldn’t have been amiss.

As much as I loved Aria as our narrator, I felt that the central mystery—who killed Jade¬—was too easy for my taste. It’s probably unfair to compare a single 293-page book to some of the mystery series I have been enjoying lately, but I had already identified the killer before I got a quarter of the way through the book. Despite this, it was still an entertaining read, mostly because I was rooting for Aria to put all of the pieces together and freaking out about just how many people were going to die before she got everything sorted out.

Recommendation: Get it soon. Ask Me features a great heroine and a compelling storyline about a small-town murder. Aria’s struggles to deal with her gift and the turbulence in her life means it’s easy to root for her, especially as she tries to figure out how to handle the responsibility that comes with knowing information about the murder that other people don’t. The book is a fast, fun read that would be perfect for a weekend or school break.

Talking Books, Culture & Identity

It’s that time of year when cities all across the country have weekends celebrated to the written word and this past weekend was one of my favorite weekends of the year, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Two days of a book addicts dream where there are all sorts of book talks, author signings, independent bookstores just waiting for my money, and just plain fun. The festival begins with the Los Angeles Book Awards ceremony where this year Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints won for Best Young Adult Fiction! Congrats to Gene!


Gene draws and signs my copy of Boxer & Saints.

At the festival there were literally hundreds of talks and panels fans of books and writers of all levels could attend. Of course, being my focus is diversity in YA literature, one of the panels I attended was titled, “YA Fiction: Writing Culture & Identity.” The panel included Maurene Goo, Cynthia Kadohata and Gene. The panel focused on the topic of incorporating culture and one’s identity into their writing. The discussion was a lively one with Maurene and Gene giving insight into why they infuse their writing with their own culture. Maurene stated that as an adult YA reader, she noticed a void within the literary landscape and wanted to add her voice, her experiences. She said there were a plethora of diverse “message” stories (and I completely agree with her) and that she wanted Holly’s stories (from Since You Asked) to be universal. When asked if the authors were writing for their child self, Gene stated that “maybe I’m writing for the 12 year old me.” He expanded his statement that he was writing for the self who wished there were more characters in his books and comics that looked like him. In fact, this desire is what is also propelling him to write the Green Turtle series.

The panel was not all about discussing problems with the lack of diversity but also a talk for solutions. Cynthia stated, and correctly so, that because Middle Grade/YA purchasers are usually the parents, the parents of children have to take the initiative and ask for books by and about people of color. Another suggestion (and I unfortunately did not write down who said it, sorry all) was questioning what are we, all of us, doing to help the next generation of writers. Are we nurturing kids writing, especially children of color, who might not be encouraged to write? I think this question is profound and an important one as I also work with mentoring young writers of color. Children need to be able to know that their stories are valid and worthwhile, instead of just voices from the dominate culture. Gene also followed up by stating that diversity is difficult, but by using common interests, we can build community.

Over all, it was a good talk and after I got to spend some time chatting with Maurene who is a lovely young woman. She mentioned what she is currently writing about and I got so excited!

Maurene Goo. We bonded over our love of Korean Dramas.

Maurene Goo. We bonded over our love of Korean Dramas.

If you have a book festival coming to you this spring, please go and support authors of color. Get your books signed, say hello, tell them how much you loved their book.

New Releases

Happy book birthday to two new releases out on April 15th!

ldsjdTo All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the story of Lara Jean, who has never openly admitted her crushes, but instead wrote each boy a letter about how she felt, sealed it, and hid it in a box under her bed. But one day Lara Jean discovers that somehow her secret box of letters has been mailed, causing all her crushes from her past to confront her about the letters: her first kiss, the boy from summer camp, even her sister’s ex-boyfriend, Josh. As she learns to deal with her past loves face to face, Lara Jean discovers that something good may come out of these letters after all. [Image and summary via Goodreads]


safehThe Forever Song (Blood of Eden #3) by Julie Kagawa

Allison Sekemoto once struggled with the question: human or monster?  With the death of her love, Zeke, she has her answer. Allie will embrace her cold vampire side to hunt down and end Sarren, the psychopathic vampire who murdered Zeke. But the trail is bloody and long, and Sarren has left many surprises for Allie and her companions—her creator, Kanin, and her blood brother, Jackal. The trail is leading straight to the one place they must protect at any cost—the last vampire-free zone on Earth, Eden. And Sarren has one final, brutal shock in store for Allie.  In a ruined world where no life is sacred and former allies can turn on you in one heartbeat, Allie will face her darkest days. And if she succeeds, triumph is short-lived in the face of surviving forever alone. [Image and summary via Goodreads]


Review: How I Discovered Poetry


Title: How I Discovered Poetry
Author: Marilyn Nelson
Publisher: Dial
Pages: 103
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On Shelves Now

Summary: A powerful and thought-provoking Civil Rights era memoir from one of America’s most celebrated poets.

Looking back on her childhood in the 1950s, Newbery Honor winner and National Book Award finalist Marilyn Nelson tells the story of her development as an artist and young woman through fifty eye-opening poems. Readers are given an intimate portrait of her growing self-awareness and artistic inspiration along with a larger view of the world around her: racial tensions, the Cold War era, and the first stirrings of the feminist movement.

A first-person account of African-American history, this is a book to study, discuss, and treasure. – Cover image and summary via IndieBound

Review: Reading How I Discovered Poetry is like looking through a photo album with a loved one while they share memories. Here a laugh, there a tear, sometimes even an admission of mischievousness. Marilyn Nelson has crafted fifty sonnets that begin with the simplicity of a pre-schooler and progress to the complexity of the early teen years. Each sonnet is a snapshot of family life, but many also give glimpses of the cultural changes that were occurring in the wider world.

What I loved was the voice that truly seemed to mature. I could just see a young child asking,

“Why did Lot have to take his wife and flea
from the bad city like the angel said?”

She is truly puzzled about that flea as she sits there in church. She has many such misunderstandings as she grows up. Over time, they become less about vocabulary issues and more about the deeper questioning she is doing concerning the world and her place in it. As she learns, grows and experiences life, the sonnets show her increasing sense of self. She begins to find her voice – the voice of a poet.

There are so many ways that readers can connect to this book. Nelson throws the door open so we can see into the life of a military family on the move. There are sibling and family interactions that I know I could sympathize with as an older sister. She includes civil rights issues and instances of prejudice. With so many brief moments of time highlighted, there are many opportunities for readers to see echoes of their own life.

As a military family, they move all over the country. In most of the places they are stationed, they are the first or only Negro family. This makes for a lot of what she calls “First Negro” moments. Some of the experiences are positive – like her mother being the first Negro teacher of the all white class on base. Some are negative like the racial name calling that happens. In the midst of her personal stories, she also embeds stories from the Civil Rights movement including people like Emmett Till and Rosa Parks.

Humor is present here along with the serious matters. I enjoyed the poem “Fieldwork” where Daddy says, “Let’s pretend we’re researching an unknown civilian Caucasian tribe,” when they move to New Hampshire. The poet goes on to explain the eating habits and vocabulary of the locals.

If you know any of Marilyn Nelson’s previous work, you won’t be surprised to find out that there is also beauty among the poems. There is beauty that she describes, but there is also simple beauty in her words. If you want a taste, be sure to read the poems from the book that are linked below. The NPR interview is excellent. It’s about seven minutes long and features a reading of the title poem at the end.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you are a poetry lover. Even if you don’t typically read poetry, this is a great book for history buffs or those who enjoy memoirs. Besides, reading How I Discovered Poetry would be a perfect way to celebrate Poetry Month.

NPR Interview
Sample poem posted on GottaBook blog “Telling Time
Excerpt (five poems including the title poem)