Review: The Day Tajon Got Shot

Title: The Day Tajon Got Shot
Authors: The Teen Writers of Beacon House
Publisher: Shout Mouse Press
Pages: 190
Genre: Contemporary, Issue
Availability: On shelves now
Review copy: Final copy provided by publisher

Summary: Meet Tajon.

Tajon is sixteen and black.
He’s tall and skinny, and he wears his hair in dreads.
Tajon works hard and tries his best to be good.
He does OK in school. He has plans.
He’s determined.

Tajon is the kind of son who cares about his family.
He’s the kind of brother who stands up for his sister.
He’s the kind of kid who dreams big dreams to get himself and
those he loves up and out of the hood.

Tajon is the one who gets shot.

Meet the authors: Mikiah, T’Asia, J’yona, Reiyanna, Jonae, Rose, Najae, Serenity  Jeanet, and Temil. Ten black teen girls in Washington, DC started writing this book during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. They began with one central question: What really happens in a community when a black youth is the victim of violence by police? Each writer takes on the perspective of a central character – the victim, the police officer, the witness, the parent, the friend – and examines how it feels to be a human being on all sides of this event. Their stories thoughtfully explore issues of race, violence, loyalty, and justice in a community torn apart but seeking connection.

Review: The Day Tajon Got Shot presents Tajon’s story in a unique way. It’s told from many perspectives using many forms of media. It means that we don’t get to know all of the characters in great depth, but we do get to see this one major event from many angles. The writers were careful to show that the characters are not simply good or evil. They show how complex people and situations can be. I enjoyed the mix of photographs, artwork, poetry, prose, and even tweets. The format makes this book appealing to readers who like quick reads. It’s also just interesting to see the different ways the writers chose to communicate. It appears that they staged many of the pictures, but some of the photos seems to have been from actual protests. Some of the images could be troubling for readers who are fatigued after seeing many instances of violence against young Black people. There weren’t any photos of actual wounds, but there were blood stains on the ground and people in frightening situations. The images definitely do the job of communicating emotion. There is also a much too lengthy list of the people of color who were killed by police during the time they were writing the book. For me, that was one of the most difficult parts to read and it really drove home the reason for the existence of this book.

This is the kind of book that would be useful for inspiring discussion and could even be a model for other teens who would like to write or do something in response to current issues. The writers want to help make a change. They have hope and tell about the way things are and the way they think things should be.

I liked how the different parts of the book worked together. All of the pieces supported the story from text formats to the graphics to the layout. The dedication kicks it off, “This book is for all those who are going through loss and pain, who have protested, and who are sick and tired of what is going on.” The next element is a quote from Justice Sonia Sotomayor referencing, “… people who are routinely targeted by police….Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.” The quote is followed by a preface which was surprisingly lengthy. It provides the context for the project though and has helpful information. Some readers may just skip to the artwork and opening poem, “The Evidence” by Camisha Jones, which is quite powerful.

There are photos and brief descriptions of each main character followed by the narrative which alternates between characters with breaks for media. The writing isn’t incredibly sophisticated, but that made sense within this format of brief sections. Also, I appreciated that the voices of the teens hadn’t seemed to be overpowered by adult editing. The authors took risks sharing the realities they see in their own way. They stepped out in the hope and belief that their voices matter and they created a book that will surely inform and affect many readers.

Recommendation: Get it soon if you’re looking for realistic fiction about current events, especially if you’re interested in hearing directly from teens.

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Book Review: Disappeared

Title: Disappeared
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 326 pages
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: Four months ago: Sara Zapata’s best friend disappeared, kidnapped by the web of criminals who terrorize Juàrez.

Four weeks ago: Her brother, Emiliano, fell in love with Perla Rubi, a girl whose family is as rich as her name.

Four hours ago: Sara received a death threat…and her first clue her friend’s location.

Four minutes ago: Emiliano was offered a way into Perla Rubi’s world—if he betrays his own.

In the next four days, Sara and Emiliano will each face impossible choices, between life and justice, friends and family, truth and love. But when the criminals come after Sara, only one path remains for both the siblings: the way across the desert to the United States.

Review: Francisco Stork’s newest novel is a timely one that when put in the right hands would help folks understand how immigration, the hows and whys people come to America, is a very complex subject. Told in alternating voice between siblings Sara and Emiliano we learn the reason why the two are forced to leave everything and everyone they love behind to come to the United States. The alternate voice works especially well in telling this story as the events in Sara and Emiliano’s two stories are linked in a way that as a reader you realize is on a collision course. Of course, these normally close siblings are facing tough adult decisions, but as often when one wants to mull things over quietly, the two never share their concerns with the other. It’s a classic trope to create tension, but it worked really well in Disappeared. Each of the reasons the siblings have for not confiding in the other as they usually would, are compelling and realistic. There are consequences for both if they confide in the other and neither wants to pull their sibling into their drama. Unfortunately, both realize how their two situations are related, but at that point in the story both siblings are struggling for their lives. It is this realization, however, that pulls them closer and helps them cross the border.

I loved that the majority of the novel was set in Juarez, giving a reader a glimpse of what life is like in Mexico as a result of the cartels. In the novel, Juarez is recovering, slowly, from the damage the cartels left on the city but the corruption and influence the cartels had is still felt in some way. Sara and Emiliano have carved out a comfortable life in Juarez, but we do see a perspective of life from the poorest inhabitants to the richest. We learn about the many different ways the people of Juarez either fought back against the cartels or managed to live with them. Sara and Emiliano are examples of this complexity and this novel highlights how despite a community’s struggle, it still has home and home has meaning. Learning to love Juarez the way Sara and Emiliano do really hits home and hurts when they are forced to leave. It truly is a heartbreaking moment when they realize that they have to leave everything they hold dear because their lives are in danger. With any book, you want the main character to win, but with Disappeared you know that the happy ending both siblings wanted for their lives is over and now they have to start a new, and they are not really happy about it. This subverts the “happy immigrant” trope and really highlights how coming into the United States, specifically crossing the border, is never an easy decision for a person to make.

My only quibble with this novel is that I feel it ended to soon. I felt like Sara and Emiliano’s story was unfinished. I wanted to know if the decision they made (can’t tell because of spoilers) really paid off. I was left wanting more by that ending, but then again, the writer in me enjoyed that their story was practically unfinished because the story of immigration is not a complete story. It is forever changing and where we are in our country’s politics, at a point where compassion and understand for our fellow human beings must be reinforced. Therefore, Disappeared is not a novel about what happens when immigrants arrive in the US, but their story of how and why they come to the US. More of these stories must be told and for that reason, for the chance to live in Sara and Emiliano’s shoes for a brief moment, made this novel worth it.


Interview with Francisco X. Stork on Latinx in Kids Lit site. There is a hint about what is next for Sara and Emiliano – yes!

A Conversation with YA Author Francisco X. Stork

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Review: You Bring the Distant Near

Title: You Bring the Distant Near
Author: Mitali Perkins
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Genres: Romance, Contemporary & Historical
Pages: 303
Review copy: Digital ARC via Netgalley & personally purchased final copy
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Five girls. Three generations. One great American love story. You Bring the Distant Near explores sisterhood, first loves, friendship, and the inheritance of culture–for better or worse. Ranee, worried that her children are losing their Indian culture; Sonia, wrapped up in a forbidden biracial love affair; Tara, seeking the limelight to hide her true self; Shanti, desperately trying to make peace in the family; Anna, fighting to preserve Bengal tigers and her Bengali identity–award-winning author Mitali Perkins weaves together a sweeping story of five women at once intimately relatable and yet entirely new.

Review: In You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins created a beautiful story of family, love and identity. Sonia, a writer and reader, mentions Little Women on more than one occasion. I can’t help but make comparisons. These women have so much love for each other and they show that as they work through their individual challenges.

The relationships of Sonia, Tara and their mother Ranee are the primary focus of more than half of the book. These young women and their mother share many things like genes, culture, and having adapted to multiple countries over time. This is the magic of families. We often share so much, but our personalities and individual experiences shape us and our identities become distinct from each other. As the young women are trying to live their dreams, they are also separating from their mother and the past she clings to. By offering this story from so many perspectives, readers are able to see the diversity present within one extended family. Ranee has an obvious bias toward the Black people in their neighborhood yet she rebels against some of the confining requirements from her own culture. She pushes her husband and provides for her family. Sonia uses her voice and pen to fight for women’s rights and Tara focuses on being a star and keeping peace between her sister and mother. All hold onto and honor aspects of their culture that match their own beliefs. They are at work blending the many parts of themselves on a palette and making their unique mark on the world.

Every part of this book made me want to crawl into the story with this family. Even when certain characters weren’t speaking to each other, I could still see the love there and the belief in one another. The original group of women set the stage and then we get to see the children. The cousins add another layer to the story. I loved seeing how tightly each young woman clung to what and who they valued. These are teens who have doubts and fears, but move forward through them. Like with Little Women, I think readers will likely see bits and pieces of themselves within these characters and will want to cheer them on every step of the way. It sounds seriously sappy, but this book made my heart happy.

Recommendation: Get it now especially if you enjoy realistic fiction involving families. I did not want this book to end.

Extras: Our Interview with Mitali Perkins

 

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Review: The Victoria in My Head

Title: The Victoria in My Head
Author: Janelle Milanes
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 400
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: A shy, rule-following teen winds up joining a local rock band in this laugh-out-loud, heartfelt coming-of-age novel.

Victoria Cruz inhabits two worlds: In one, she is a rock star, thrashing the stage with her husky voice and purple-streaked hair. In the other, currently serving as her reality, Victoria is a shy teenager with overprotective Cuban parents, who sleepwalks through her life at the prestigious Evanston Academy. Unable to overcome the whole paralyzing-stage-fright thing, Victoria settles for living inside her fantasies, where nothing can go wrong and everything is set to her expertly crafted music playlists.

But after a chance encounter with an unattainably gorgeous boy named Strand, whose band seeks a lead singer, Victoria is tempted to turn her fevered daydreams into reality. To do that, she must confront her insecurities and break away from the treadmill that is her life. Suddenly, Victoria is faced with the choice of staying on the path she’s always known and straying off-course to find love, adventure, and danger.

From debut author Janelle Milanes comes a hilarious and heartfelt tale of the spectacular things that can happen when you go after what you really want.

Review: It’s very easy to relate to the heroine of Janelle Milanes’s debut novel. Victoria has always lived her life according to her parents’ expectations, and she is at the point where her parents’ ideas of what should bring her happiness are clashing with what she actually wants from life. (Not that she’s always right about what would make her happy, but she knows the status quo is definitely not it.) The repetition of her life is wearing her down, and she constantly makes decisions in reference to what would make her parents happy. That’s an inevitable recipe for rebellion in YA, and after some hesitation (overcome with the help of Victoria’s BFF, Annie), Victoria dives right in to quitting school sports and secretly joining a rock band despite her stage fright.

The members of the band are all distinct, interesting characters, and I appreciate that they didn’t supplant Annie in Victoria’s life. Levi, the perfectionist bass player, whose head is filled with plans and goals and too many details; Krina, the punk drummer, who has fierce opinions and an empathetic heart; and Strand, the hot guitarist, whose laidback attitude challenges a lot of Victoria’s worldview. The ups and downs of their relationships with each other made for an engaging group of characters. Victoria’s family members were also strong presences, and it was easy to see that her parents loved her and wanted what was best for her—the problem being that they and Victoria disagreed on where she could find happiness.

One of the things that I think Milanes excelled at was creating a relationship that should have been great on paper and then slowly proved just how wrong the two people were for each other. Personality clashes, differing priorities, confusion about needs and wants—all of those culminated into an increasingly awkward relationship disaster that fueled Victoria’s personal growth. It was a great contrast to the second romance in the book, which had been built up slowly and blossomed out of both attraction and friendship.

There are some missteps in the novel. There were a couple of scenes with ableist language, and I was a little sad that a lot of Victoria’s negative thoughts about her body never seemed to be strongly challenged. I wish that the reveal of a secondary romantic couple had been independent from Victoria’s own romantic plotline, especially since Victoria’s cluelessness about Krina’s romantic orientation had already been blatantly pointed out in text.

Recommendation: Get it soon. While there are a few blemishes, THE VICTORIA IN MY HEAD stars a relatable heroine and has a comfortably predictable romance. Music lovers, dreamers, second-generation immigrants, and anyone who has settled for something safe instead of taking risks for their heart’s desire will find something to relate to in Janelle Milanes’s debut novel.

Extras

Interview with Janelle Milanes + Giveaway

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Book Review: Little & Lion

Title: Little & Lion
Author: Brandy Colbert
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 330 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores Now!

Summary: When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself–or worse.

Review: I’m just going to say this from the start – I loved this book! I had a smile on my face the entire time I was reading it because I loved Suzette so much. I loved her messiness, her doubts, her loves, but most importantly I loved the relationship she had with her brother, and the importance it had in her life. Little & Lion is not a light-hearted story by any means but it does have wonderful touching moments between Suzette and a number of other characters that make Brandy Colbert’s second novel a deeply moving story.

As I said before the heart of the story is Suzette’s (Little) relationship with her step-brother Lionel (Lion). The two are only a year apart and have an extremely close relationship. At the beginning of the book, their relationship is a bit in the awkward stage as Suzette is returning from the boarding school she was sent to by her parents while Lionel began the initial stages of treatment. Suzette feels like she abandoned Lionel and hopes that their relationship remains the same. I like that the story begins with Suzette and Lion together and we get a chance to see their bond pick up where it left off when Suzette left for school 9 months earlier. The easiness that the two had, the love for each other, just emanated off the page. The two share intimate secrets and truly trust each other so much that Suzette was the first to spot something was wrong with her brother when his mania begins to start after he stops taking his medicine. This decision brings much personal conflict for Suzette as she believes her brother is making a mistake, but because of the guilt she feels for being away while he was going through treatment she keeps his secret. It is Little’s love for Lion that is the heart of many of the decisions she makes and what really draws me to her.

While Suzette is dealing with her brother’s issues, she is also in the process of discovering her own sexuality, specifically realizing that she is bisexual. At her boarding school, she developed a relationship with her roommate, Iris, that unfortunately had a heartbreaking end. Suzette blames herself for the break-up, but also wonders if she was just attracted to Iris because of who her roommate was or if she is actually attracted to girls. Coming home further confuses her when she begins to have feelings for her close male friend Emil. The confusion, the questioning that Suzette felt was very real and written in a such a manner that tenderly shows the internal turmoil discovering one’s sexuality can be for a teenager. Luckily, Suzette is surrounded by a supportive best friend and a loving family, and because of this is able to safely navigate her feelings and explore this realization of herself. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say I like the choice that Suzette makes and feel that it is very true to her character and her growth throughout the novel.

I greatly enjoyed Colbert’s debut novel, Pointe, but I think I love Little & Lion more. I think what made me smile was that Colbert adds spots of “wokeness” where Suzette responds to racism, sexism, ignorance to bipolar disease, and the misconceptions about bisexuality. Those moments didn’t feel preachy at all, but an example of how folks should respond when faced with prejudice. What also made me smile was the all the wonderful touches to life in Los Angeles throughout the novel. As an Angelino (yes, that is what we are called) seeing all the local places and hidden gems mentioned just added to the beauty of the novel. All of these aspects combined made for a novel that I truly loved and stayed with me long after I finished reading it. I want to know what happens next with Suzette and travel with her in the next phase of her life.

Recommendation: Buy It Now!

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Review: Allegedly

Title: Allegedly
Author: Tiffany D. Jackson
Genres: Contemporary, Mystery
Pages: 387
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: Mary B. Addison killed a baby.

Allegedly. She didn’t say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: A white baby had died while under the care of a church-going black woman and her nine-year-old daughter. The public convicted Mary and the jury made it official. But did she do it? She wouldn’t say.

Mary survived six years in baby jail before being dumped in a group home. The house isn’t really “home”—no place where you fear for your life can be considered a home. Home is Ted, who she meets on assignment at a nursing home.

There wasn’t a point to setting the record straight before, but now she’s got Ted—and their unborn child—to think about. When the state threatens to take her baby, Mary must find the voice to fight her past. And her fate lies in the hands of the one person she distrusts the most: her Momma. No one knows the real Momma. But who really knows the real Mary?

In this gritty and haunting debut, Tiffany D. Jackson explores the grey areas in our understanding of justice, family, and truth, and acknowledges the light and darkness alive in all of us.

Review: Tiffany D. Jackson’s debut novel is a hard-hitting examination of what it’s like for a teen girl to spend a significant portion of her life in jail and then move to a group home. Jackson tackles issues like racism, child (sexual) abuse, mental illness, poverty, and a justice system that just doesn’t care about the people trapped inside it. Mary’s struggle to forge a path for herself after getting out of jail is a gripping story, filled with people who want to help her and others who just want to tear her down or are entirely unequipped to be useful.

Mary is a compelling narrator whose reader-friendly goals (survive the group home, go to college, and save her baby) make it easy to root for her. However, she is also an unreliable narrator, and I found it fascinating to compare her thoughts to the (also biased and unreliable) excerpts from court documents, books, etc. about her and her case. Mary’s particularly difficult relationship with her mother was fascinating, since she had many reasons to hate her—but she still wanted affection and love from her mother all the same.

The group home Mary is sent to is a nightmarish place where it’s every girl for herself and the adults do the barest minimum to collect their checks. Contrasting all those awful people and events against the better people and things in Mary’s life made the briefer moments of kindness a welcome relief. Ms. Claire and Ms. Cora are particular standouts; I have mixed feelings about Ted due to the age gap between him and Mary.

I am not enamored with the ending, which is difficult to talk about without massive spoilers. Suffice it to say that I felt that the final twist undermined some of the good work the narrative had done earlier, particularly since it seemed redundant in light of the conclusion to Sarah’s story arc. It was not the ending I wanted, but I’m not sure that what I wanted would have produced a better story.

Recommendation: Get it soon. Allegedly is a compelling story told from the POV of an unreliable narrator who explores the injustices in the justice system and how hard it is to try to get back on your feet. Opinions will be divided on the ending, but overall, Jackson’s debut novel is worth a look if you’re up for a story that tackles difficult–and timely–topics.

Extras

Author Interview: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

The Darker Side of the Story: Tiffany D. Jackson talks ALLEGEDLY

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