November Reading List

I’m always adding to my to-read list, and November is no different. What are you planning to read? Any new books you’re looking forward to? This month, here’s what I’m planning to read:

A Line in the DarkA Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

The line between best friend and something more is a line always crossed in the dark. Jess Wong is Angie Redmond’s best friend. And that’s the most important thing, even if Angie can’t see how Jess truly feels. Being the girl no one quite notices is OK with Jess anyway. While nobody notices her, she’s free to watch everyone else. But when Angie begins to fall for Margot Adams, a girl from the nearby boarding school, Jess can see it coming a mile away. Suddenly her powers of observation are more curse than gift.

As Angie drags Jess further into Margot’s circle, Jess discovers more than her friend’s growing crush. Secrets and cruelty lie just beneath the carefree surface of this world of wealth and privilege, and when they come out, Jess knows Angie won’t be able to handle the consequences. When the inevitable darkness finally descends, Angie will need her best friend.

“It doesn’t even matter that she probably doesn’t understand how much she means to me. It’s purer this way. She can take whatever she wants from me, whenever she wants it, because I’m her best friend.” A Line in the Dark is a story of love, loyalty, and murder. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Forest of a Thousand LanternsForest of a Thousand Lanterns (Rise of the Empress #1) by Julie C. Dao

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?

Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Dear MartinDear Martin by Nic Stone 

Justyce McAllister is a good kid. Fourth in his class and captain of the debate team at his prestigious prep-school–where he’s one of only a handful of African-American students–he’s destined for success. But none of that prevents him from being falsely accused of a crime and held in too-tight handcuffs for hours.

With eyes wide open, Justyce begins writing letters to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an effort to process his experiences, and respond through the lens of Dr. King’s teachings. But when Justyce falls victim to the exact kind of incident he’s worked so hard to avoid–an encounter with an off-duty police officer that ends in tragedy–everything Justyce believed about “The King’s Way” is called into question.

As Justyce struggles to process through his grief and the way he’s being negatively portrayed in the media, he’s faced with the biggest challenge of all: in a world full of odds that are obviously stacked against him, who is he going to be?

What’s on your to-read list? What new books are you looking forward to?  [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Not Your VillainNot Your Villain (Sidekick Squad #2) by C.B. Lee

Bells Broussard thought he had it made when his superpowers manifested early. Being a shapeshifter is awesome. He can change his hair whenever he wants, and if putting on a binder for the day is too much, he’s got it covered. But that was before he became the country’s most-wanted villain.

After discovering a massive cover-up by the Heroes’ League of Heroes, Bells and his friends Jess, Emma, and Abby set off on a secret mission to find the Resistance. Meanwhile, power-hungry former hero Captain Orion is on the loose with a dangerous serum that renders meta-humans powerless, and a new militarized robotic threat emerges. Everyone is in danger. Between college applications and crushing on his best friend, will Bells have time to take down a corrupt government?

Sometimes, to do a hero’s job, you need to be a villain. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

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Open Letter to Writers

I’ve not commented, though have retweeted profound threads, on the on-going discussion that resulted from the removal of American Heart’s starred review from Kirkus. I saw the FB post the author posted, read some of the reaction pieces, and the debates that have resulted from the concept that PoC’s speaking out for equality and inclusion is making YA toxic. I’ve always felt, as an aspiring author, that because I don’t have a published book yet, I really have no skin in the game, but after having a conversation with a former student, I remembered that I do. It is why I chose to write my MFA thesis on the need for more diversity in YA and why I’m became a contributing writer to this blog.

I am a teacher. I have spent the past 15 years, 8+ hours a day, with Black and Brown 12-14 year olds. I know what makes them tick, I know what makes them happy, sad, depressed, goofy. I know how to get them to reach for their dreams, but also know how to hold them accountable for their mistakes. I have a responsibility to help them become critical thinkers, to enjoy searching for knowledge, and become more compassionate and empathetic young adults. One of the ways I do this is through literature. As I cited in my essay post titled Combating Racism Through Literature, books engage the active centers in our brains and allow us to become empathetic to other people outside our own small bubble. As a teacher, it is my job to give my students access to other lives outside of their own, but also have them read literature that features characters who look and feel like them. It is also my responsibility to think about all of my students and not give them books that might be harmful to them.

While I understand the concept of “write what you want”, and as I writer I agree with that to a certain extent, when you write for children and teens you actually have an added responsibility. Words are powerful and if you write something that reinforces a stereotype of PoC, not only do you not help create empathy for whom the character is a window, but you also hurt a child of color. YA, MG, and children’s book writers do have a responsibility towards their readers as their readers often use novels to help them learn to navigate the world. Your books can help a student who has depression use the book to seek out help (as happened with one of my students), help a student report their sexual abuse (another student), help them navigate their sexuality (another student), realize that though they are a PoC, that they can be writers too (many students). Novels do not exist in a vacuum and often do have real life consequences. I’ve had students be so touched by a novel we read that they’ve reach out to the author to thank them for their story. I’ve had student’s minds changed due to the conversations around the subject matter of a novel. In all of these cases, and many more, the novels the students read had a powerful impact on their lives for the better. Conversely, negative portrayals can hurt their growing sense of self. If a student were to be given a book with a horrible stereotype, or even a character who is only caricature of a specific ethnicity, the student will a) not see a PoC has a complex human being, and/or b) get a reinforcement of what certain parts of society thinks about them. Both are harmful and hurt a child’s personal development. It is for these reasons that the thought “I should be able to write what I want” doesn’t actually work for YA literature. And frankly, that thought is selfish. If a writer’s complete motivation for writing YA is “to do whatever they want”, then maybe they should not think about writing for young impressionable minds.

I’m going to say it plainly…if you write YA, you do have a responsibility to your audience and the impact your words will have on said audience. It is the reason why many in the YA world are so outspoken when a book attempts to be diverse and gets it wrong. It is the reason why WeNeedDiverseBooks was started. It is the reason why Lee and Low have done so many of their publishing info graphics. It is the reason why blogs like Rich in Color exist. And it is the reason why I finally decided to speak out. All of us, writers, publishers, teachers, librarians, parents, we have a responsibility to help our children grow up to become ethical and compassionate members of society. Giving our children books written responsibly helps achieve that goal.

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Author Interview – M.A. and J.L. Powers

Today we welcome and M.A. and J.L. Powers to the blog. We appreciate their willingness to answer questions about Broken Circle, their writing life and more.

What was the inspiration for this world where souls are being shepherded after bodily
death?

M.A. Powers

M.A.: When I began thinking about personifications of death (such as the Grim Reaper) and what it would mean to shepherd the souls of the dead, the first image that popped into my mind was, of course, Charon poling clients across the river Styx in a flat-bottomed skiff. For the newly dead, the river Styx represents an insurmountable obstacle to the afterlife unless they are given, or pay for, help by a knowledgeable guide with a boat. This image turned into a conscious and subconscious working framework for our concept of Limbo, that unique place between life and death where a newly dead soul requires help to navigate.

Our Charon characters, Soul Guides, come from human families loosely based on the legends of supernatural personifications of death such as the Angel of Death, Grim Reaper, and Dullahan. Like Charon, they have special abilities to navigate Limbo and help the newly dead overcome their own personal Styx (an obstacle to accepting death). This “River Styx” for each person (“Limbo”) is developed subconsciously throughout their lifetime.

For us, the concept gave us a great vehicle to explore people’s fears, wants and desires and it is relatable because we all struggle to accept our own mortality. In this world, only someone who has completely accepted their own person, and has become friends with the concept of mortality, could cross Limbo without help from a guide. I feel, as humans, this is a very rare condition. Our refusal to accept death is a refusal to accept our own life and struggle.

The monster Adam repeatedly encounters is rather terrifying. I felt hints of La Llorona there. Was she an influence?

J.L. Powers

J.L.: I’m sure La Llorona was a subconscious influence. I don’t want to say too much about the similarities between La Llorona and the monster character in the book because it includes too many spoilers for readers who haven’t read the book yet. But let me just say that Matt and I grew up in El Paso, Texas, where the story of La Llorona is beloved and much told. As you know, I work at Cinco Puntos Press and our children’s picture book La Llorona is one of our best-selling books so the tale is something that is both extremely familiar and undoubtedly was an influence.

What was your favorite part about writing Broken Circle?

M.A.: First, my favorite part was writing with my sister who is a great idea generator and developer and could make my wild, and often pathetic, stab at writing dialogue pop!

Also, the laughter. We have a similar sense of humor and had laughing fits over parts of the book that may not seem funny to some readers.

Second, I was trained rigorously in biochemistry and genetics. My favorite part of
science was the intellectual pursuit of generating a hypothesis. Hypothesis is just a
fancy word for “scientific fiction production” and is the state of acquiring a handful of
seemingly unrelated and confusing facts and imagining a scenario where they do make sense. Furthermore, you have to propose tests that will confirm or reject this scenario. Although it did have its high points, I was not particularly fond of performing those tests because it was often repetitive and tedious for me.

Writing Broken Circle was a constant stream of generating hypotheses (In our case,
fiction based on world building rules instead of fiction based on a set of known facts)
and did not include any of the lab bench drudgery!

What does the collaboration process look like for you two?

M.A.: It’s a chaotic miasma of interruptions from our children and herky-jerky writing all dependent on babysitting schedules and poop. Yeah, when something smells funny, it’s time to stop writing and get out fresh pampers.

Our worst interruption was on a Skype call. I put my 9-month- old in the Bumbo on the table and turned my back to get the little table thing to snap her in when I heard a dull “THUNK” and then crying. She had launched herself out of the snug foam leg holes and off the table and was lying in a small heap of brown corduroy and pink onesie on our scratched hardwood floor.

Horrified, I scooped her up and yelled goodbye to Jessica as I rushed off to the emergency room, fearing I had irreparably broken my baby. My daughter was fine! In fact, she had stopped crying by the time I had put her in the car seat but I forged ahead, determined to do penance at the hospital by being “That Dad” who put his kid on the table and turned his back. Obviously, I needed a stiffer penance to get right with the god of muse. The book we were collaborating on at the time has yet to be finished. Karma?

Did you do any specific preparation before crafting the characters who are from cultural backgrounds that are different from your own?

J.L.: Over the years, I’ve become known for writing books about characters who are from cultural backgrounds that are different from my own. The process is similar each time. First of all, I should say that in most cases, it’s sort of organic. I don’t pull a culture from my hat and think, ‘Let me write about XYZ.’ For me, I am writing out of both my personal experiences with cultures I’ve lived within as well as professional knowledge. Just as an example, we have a Latina character in this book, Liliana La Muerte. As I said, Matt and I grew up in El Paso, Texas, which is 75% Latin@ and, specifically, Mexican and Mexican-American. We grew up in a neighborhood where we were the only white kids. In many ways, Mexican and Mexican-American culture is much more familiar to us and safe for us than the white American mainstream culture that we look like we’re supposed to be from. But of course, that level of familiarity doesn’t give us a pass. I try to do meticulous research: reading books and articles, talking to people, traveling as needed, immersing myself as much as possible so that I can present authentic and accurate characters, and asking other people from those cultures to read it and be brutally honest about errors….

Broken Circle is the beginning of a series. Are you able to share anything about the future books?

J.L.: That’s a scary question! We are working on Book 2, and I’m also starting to work on Book ½ (yes, there is a Book ½ in our series, just like the ½ chapters….). One thing you might be interested to know is that Book 2 starts almost at the same place where Book 1 leaves off, and it will end up in Chicago. So Chicago, here we come!

Also, we will explore the world of Limbo and Soul Guides a bit more in-depth as that has been one critique from readers—they’d like to have more information or world-building about those concepts. You’ve spoken, we’re listening, we’ll respond!

I think people should know that we planted some things in the first book that will emerge as bigger plot points in later books, but we tried to plant them in a way that people don’t notice them in the first book. So hopefully it’ll be this wonderful exploration over time….

You’re a blogger at The Pirate Tree. Could you share a little about that work and why you
are involved there?

J.L.: I helped to start The Pirate Tree with other like-minded authors who want to examine children’s literature positively from a social justice angle. This is a very broad mandate. A lot of times, people think that if you’re looking at social justice and children’s literature, you’re looking for issue-driven books. Not so! In fact, I definitely am not interested in books that appear preachy or have a moral attached. Any book can be examined for how it treats the human condition and how it analyzes society and the status quo. And good literature automatically does that. Our goal is to present and celebrate books that we think demonstrate a commitment to developing a more peaceful and just world.

In addition to being an author, you’ve also worked in publishing with Cinco Puntos Press and now you’re starting Catalyst Press. Can you tell us a little about that work and what keeps you working to publish the work of others?

J.L.: I started working with Cinco Puntos in 2002, if you can believe it! And I still work for Cinco Puntos Press. I absolutely love our books, which are some of the most important multicultural books being published today. We have been publishing diverse books since the 1980s—long before there was any kind of movement for it.

And I started Catalyst Press and Story Press Africa because I wanted to publish African writers and African-based literature. There’s a huge gap. Eventually, I want to branch out to publishing other indigenous literature from other parts of the world, but this is where I’m starting because of my own expertise—I have two graduate degrees in African history. And I can’t state often enough how much I love Africans and the continent of Africa….

I love to write, but I also love books altogether. I believe books change the world. So to me it is a supreme pleasure to be able to present important books to the world that might be overlooked by mainstream publishers.

You may find M.A. and J.L. Powers at www.powerssquared.com

M.A.  newborn – J.L. 2 1/2

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New Releases

Happy early book birthday to Starfish and Disappeared! What’s on your to-read list this week?

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Simon Pulse

Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin.

But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.

Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork

Four Months Ago
Sara Zapata’s best friend disappeared, kidnapped by the web of criminals who terrorize Juarez.

Four Hours Ago
Sara received a death threat – and with it, a clue to the place where her friend is locked away.

Four Weeks Ago
Emiliano Zapata fell in love with Perla Rubi, who will never be his so long as he’s poor.

Four Minutes Ago
Emiliano got the chance to make more money than he ever dreamed – just by joining the web.

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 web closes in on Sara, only one path remains for the siblings: the way across the desert to the United States.

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Fall Reading List

There are seriously so many amazing books coming out this fall. These are just a fraction of the ones on my to-read list. What books by/about PoC are you planning on reading this fall?

Forest of a Thousand LanternsForest of a Thousand Lanterns (Rise of the Empress #1) by Julie C. Dao
Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?

Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Wild BeautyWild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore
Love grows such strange things. For nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens.

The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Akata Warrior (Akata Witch #2) by Nnedi Okorafor
A year ago, Sunny Nwazue, an American-born girl Nigerian girl, was inducted into the secret Leopard Society. As she began to develop her magical powers, Sunny learned that she had been chosen to lead a dangerous mission to avert an apocalypse, brought about by the terrifying masquerade, Ekwensu. Now, stronger, feistier, and a bit older, Sunny is studying with her mentor Sugar Cream and struggling to unlock the secrets in her strange Nsibidi book.

Eventually, Sunny knows she must confront her destiny. With the support of her Leopard Society friends, Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha, and of her spirit face, Anyanwu, she will travel through worlds both visible and invisible to the mysteries town of Osisi, where she will fight a climactic battle to save humanity. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

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Review: The Library of Fates

Title: The Library of Fates
Author: Aditi Khorana
Publisher: Razorbill
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 354
Review copy: Library
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: No one is entirely certain what brings the Emperor Sikander to Shalingar. Until now, the idyllic kingdom has been immune to his many violent conquests. To keep the visit friendly, Princess Amrita has offered herself as his bride, sacrificing everything—family, her childhood love, and her freedom—to save her people. But her offer isn’t enough.

The palace is soon under siege, and Amrita finds herself a fugitive, utterly alone but for an oracle named Thala, who was kept by Sikander as a slave and managed to escape amid the chaos. With nothing and no one else to turn to, Amrita and Thala are forced to rely on each other. But while Amrita feels responsible for her kingdom and sets out to warn her people, the newly free Thala has no such ties. She encourages Amrita to go on a quest to find the fabled Library of All Things, where it is possible for each of them to reverse their fates. To go back to before Sikander took everything from them.

Stripped of all that she loves, caught between her rosy past and an unknown future, will Amrita be able to restore what was lost, or does another life—and another love—await?

Review:The Library of Fates is a timely book that calls for action on the part of individuals. Amrita is not sure who she is, but in the midst of turmoil she must find out what she is willing to do and what she believes. Mala, the woman who helped raise Amrita, explains that you find out who you are by the choices you make and the actions you take. When we reflect on what we do and how we decide things, we see what is actually important to us. I really love that in this discussion Mala also tells Amrita “Develop some swagger” and “You’re far more powerful than you know.” I think many young people can stand to hear such encouragement.

As Khorana mentioned in her author’s note, some issues in our nation right now seem to be much like the things happening in this book. The Emperor Sikander comes from a place where things are wonderful for the wealthy, “but if your poor, or disabled, if you’re a foreigner, or even a woman, Macedon isn’t so kind. This country is built on the backs of the disenfranchised.” The author explains the moral of the story at the beginning of the book. “When we act with only our selfish interests in mind, disregarding the rights and experiences of others, everybody loses. But when we act in the service of the greater good, even if it costs us something–even if it costs us a lot–we are deeply and profoundly transformed by love, empathy, and wisdom.” If things matter to us, we can’t stand by and just watch – we must act and create change. Amrita decides to do something, but definitely struggles as she tries to figure out how best to help her kingdom. There are so many unknowns and that is more than a little terrifying to her. Amrita’s physical and emotional journeys are both intriguing.

Amrita has grown up hearing stories of magic, but she has also been taught that as royalty, logic and strategy can save the day. Amrita hasn’t put a lot of faith in magic, but as her world is crumbling and she sees possible evidence of magic, she begins to question her unbelief. The book is filled with magic and reminds me that there is more to our world than what we can see. I tend to believe that if we are still and listen, the world will share its mysteries with us. They may not be quite as fantastic as what Amrita and Thala experience, but there are still plenty of mysteries to discover if we only pay attention.

And yes, there are also some romantic relationships within this tale. The relationships do have a physical aspect, but companionship tends to have a high priority.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you enjoy fantasy with a little romance.

Extras:
Interview

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