Review: One Shadow on the Wall

Once in a while we share reviews of books that are not strictly young adult. This is one of those times. One Shadow on the Wall is marketed as middle grade, but it is an excellent story for any age. This review was previously published on my personal blog Reading Through Life.

Title: One Shadow on the Wall
Author: Leah Henderson
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Pages: 438
Genre: Contemporary
Review Copy: Final copy via publisher
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: An orphaned boy in contemporary Senegal must decide between doing what is right and what is easy as he struggles to keep a promise he made to his dying father.

Eleven-year-old Mor was used to hearing his father’s voice, even if no one else could since his father’s death. It was comforting. It was also a reminder that Mor had made a promise to his father before he passed: keep your sisters safe. Keep the family together. But almost as soon as they are orphaned, that promise seems impossible to keep. With an aunt from the big city ready to separate him and his sisters as soon as she arrives, and a gang of boys from a nearby village wanting everything he has—including his spirit—Mor is tested in ways he never imagined.

With only the hot summer months to prove himself, Mor must face a choice. Does he listen to his father and keep his heart true, but risk breaking his promise through failure? Or is it easier to just join the Danka Boys, whom in all their maliciousness are at least loyal to their own?

Review: Mor and his family completely stole my heart. Mor hears his father and sees his mother after they have died. He knows his parents would want the children to stay together so he’s determined to do that at any cost. He tries. Oh, how he tries, but the responsibilities are tough. He learns so many things the hard way. Something will go right and then two things will go wrong. It is hard to see him face so many disappointments, but readers will be cheering him on all the way through. 

The gang is on his trail and brings about many of Mor’s difficulties. They also offer safety and protection though. Henderson does a particularly good job of showing how children and teens can get caught up in such a situation. The gang members are individuals and have stories. They have their reasons for having joined and readers see that gang activity may not be as clear-cut as one would imagine. I think there are gang members who never believed they would have anything to do with a gang and yet there they are.

It may not look like it on the surface, but this is a survival story. Mor has a loving community, but he does isolate himself with the secrets he is holding. There are many strong and caring adults that help Mor and his sisters. I appreciated seeing the way they looked out for the children. One in particular is an elder fisherman named Demba. Many of the children make fun of him and believe he is crazy. Mor spends a lot of time with Demba and learns that Demba’s differences are not what they appear. 

Recommendation: This is a fabulous book that may cause a little heartache, but it’s also heartwarming. Mor’s persistence and hope are lovely to behold. It’s a little long for a middle grade novel, but it moves quickly and is well worth the time. 

New Releases

There are quite a few great new releases this week. Check them out.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
Little, Brown

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.

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee
Amulet Books

The struggle to get into a top-tier college consumes sixteen-year-old Genie Lo’s every waking thought. But when her sleepy Bay Area town comes under siege from hell-spawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are suddenly and forcefully rearranged.

Her only guide to the demonic chaos breaking out around her is Quentin Sun, a beguiling, maddening new transfer student from overseas. Quentin assures Genie she is strong enough to fight these monsters, for she unknowingly harbors an inner power that can level the very gates of Heaven.

Genie will have to dig deep within herself to summon the otherworldly strength that Quentin keeps talking about. But as she does, she finds the secret of her true nature is entwined with his, in a way she could never have imagined…

The Authentics by Abdi Nazemian
Balzer + Bray

The Authentics is a fresh, funny, and insightful novel about culture, love, and family—the kind we are born into and the ones we create.

Daria Esfandyar is Iranian-American and proud of her heritage, unlike some of the “Nose Jobs” in the clique led by her former best friend, Heidi Javadi. Daria and her friends call themselves the Authentics, because they pride themselves on always keeping it real.

But in the course of researching a school project, Daria learns something shocking about her past, which launches her on a journey of self-discovery. It seems everyone is keeping secrets. And it’s getting harder to know who she even is any longer.

With infighting among the Authentics, her mother planning an over-the-top sweet sixteen party, and a romance that should be totally off limits, Daria doesn’t have time for this identity crisis. As everything in her life is spinning out of control—can she figure out how to stay true to herself?

The Hearts We Sold by Emily Lloyd-Jones
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

When Dee Moreno makes a deal with a demon—her heart in exchange for an escape from a disastrous home life—she finds the trade may have been more than she bargained for. And becoming “heartless” is only the beginning. What lies ahead is a nightmare far bigger, far more monstrous than anything she could have ever imagined.

With reality turned on its head, Dee has only a group of other deal-making teens to keep her grounded, including the charming but secretive James Lancer. And as something grows between them amid an otherworldy ordeal, Dee begins to wonder: Can she give someone her heart when it’s no longer hers to give?

Review: Rebel Seoul

Title: Rebel Seoul
Author: Axie Oh
Genres: Science fiction, romance
Pages: 400
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: ARC received from publisher
Availability: September 15, 2017

Summary: After a great war, the East Pacific is in ruins. In brutal Neo Seoul, where status comes from success in combat, ex-gang member Lee Jaewon is a talented pilot rising in the ranks of the academy. Abandoned as a kid in the slums of Old Seoul by his rebel father, Jaewon desires only to escape his past and prove himself a loyal soldier of the Neo State.

When Jaewon is recruited into the most lucrative weapons development division in Neo Seoul, he is eager to claim his best shot at military glory. But the mission becomes more complicated when he meets Tera, a test subject in the government’s supersoldier project. Tera was trained for one purpose: to pilot one of the lethal God Machines, massive robots for a never-ending war.

With secret orders to report on Tera, Jaewon becomes Tera’s partner, earning her reluctant respect. But as respect turns to love, Jaewon begins to question his loyalty to an oppressive regime that creates weapons out of humans. As the project prepares to go public amidst rumors of a rebellion, Jaewon must decide where he stands—as a soldier of the Neo State, or a rebel of the people.

Pacific Rim meets Korean action dramas in this mind-blowing, New Visions Award-winning science fiction debut.

Review: I knew I needed Rebel Seoul in my life the moment I heard it compared to mix of Pacific Rim and Korean dramas, and I was not disappointed. There were giant robots, fight scenes, complicated (and angsty) family relationships and (ex-)friendships, questionable loyalties, rebellions, and a lovely romance—basically, author Axie Oh delivered everything I had hoped for.

Jaewon was an excellent narrator whose position in life gave him a unique look at his far-future society. His priorities (getting a decent military placement, using it to leverage himself out of the Old Seoul slums, and just plain surviving) gradually started to shift as he learned more about the Amaterasu Project. It isn’t that he lost his innocence so much as he began to understand that there was a broader world out there with people who were more complex than he originally thought. There were some wonderful moments throughout the book where Jaewon considered someone else’s point-of-view, which radically changed how he saw them.

The world of Rebel Seoul is fascinating. It’s not so far into the future as to be unrecognizable, and the classic divide between the haves and have-nots that’s common in dystopian-ish worlds was there. But one of the things that Oh did well was that this brutal government is frequently just as awful to its elites as to its poor, and being rich or from an important family isn’t as good a shield as its frequently portrayed to be. (Hello, first test! And mandatory military service for everyone, though privilege and excellent scores could get you less dangerous positions.) We got just enough detail to have an idea of how this militaristic superstate formed, and I liked how much it felt like this was a society that had been at war for decades. That kind of society made a good contrast for drama among more intimate relationships, like classmates, friends, neighbors, and romantic partners.

I have a weakness for “forbidden” romance, so Jaewon and Tera’s budding relationship was a delight. My favorite parts about it where how it developed out of time spent together and Jaewon’s empathy. He could have kept his distance—should have kept his distance from a girl raised and experimented on to become a weapon—but his empathy made him view her as a person first, not a tool for the exclusive use of his government. These two have become one of my favorite battle couples in YA.

There were a few plot twists that I felt were too easily predicted and a few characters I wish had been fleshed out, but overall Rebel Seoul was one of my favorite reads this year. It is a book set in a messy, complicated world without easy answers or neat resolutions, and I loved it.

Recommendation: Buy (pre-order!) it now. Axie Oh’s debut novel is a phenomenal mix of science fiction and romance set against a militaristic dystopian society. Rebel Seoul’s compelling characters and fast-paced plot means that this will almost definitely be on my year-end best-of list.

Interview with S.K. Ali

We are so excited to have S.K. Ali at Rich in Color today! Ali’s debut novel, SAINTS AND MISFITS, came out earlier this summer, and we’re thrilled to be able to interview her. If you haven’t read SAINTS AND MISFITS, you should definitely check out the summary before you read the interview. Also, check out my review here.

Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.

How much can you tell about a person just by looking at them?

Janna Yusuf knows a lot of people can’t figure out what to make of her…an Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager who is a Flannery O’Connor obsessed book nerd, aspiring photographer, and sometime graphic novelist is not exactly easy to put into a box.

And Janna suddenly finds herself caring what people think. Or at least what a certain boy named Jeremy thinks. Not that she would ever date him—Muslim girls don’t date. Or they shouldn’t date. Or won’t? Janna is still working all this out.

While her heart might be leading her in one direction, her mind is spinning in others. She is trying to decide what kind of person she wants to be, and what it means to be a saint, a misfit, or a monster. Except she knows a monster…one who happens to be parading around as a saint…Will she be the one to call him out on it? What will people in her tightknit Muslim community think of her then?


Janna is a great character that I feel many teens will connect with. Who or what was your inspiration for Janna?

Janna is a mixture of the teens in my life currently and the girls I grew up with and the girl I was – way back then. I wanted teens trying to figure themselves out to see themselves in her. I know I was mostly successful with this because some of the teens I know debate among themselves which one of them is MORE like Janna. Success!

I feel like Saints and Misfits is a wonderful feminist novel that explores what it is like to be a Muslim teen in society today. The diversity of beliefs and ideas of all the female characters was refreshing to read, including the different relationships Janna has with Sarah, Fizz, Tats, & Sausun. How important was it to you to truly show the complexity of female relationships?

Oh, this was SO important to me. I think it’s important for women – young and older – to cherish their friendships and connections with other women. We’re all in the fight for gender equity and justice together and it’s vital we see each other as supporters and allies of one another. This is something I emphasize as a teacher, even to my class of second-graders. It’s never too early for girls to see the importance of being there for each other.  

I read that you are a teacher. How do you balance writing, teaching, and the other aspects of your life?

I try to remember what a very wise person said to me: balance doesn’t mean you’re perfect at everything. I’m always trying to remember this. Because, yes, when you have a lot going on, you can lose sight of the important things while trying your “best” to achieve your goals. One of the things I’m trying to learn to do is block chunks of time for different areas of my life – like week-long writing retreats. Also, I’m hoping it’ll be easier now because I’ve taken a year off of teaching to focus on my writing career.

How much of your writing life do you share with your students?

Not very much of my author-life but I do share my love of stories with them. I often tell stories (that I make up as I go along) to explain concepts or give examples. My students love this and often ask me to continue!

In January, you created the hashtag #MuslimShelfspace to bring awareness to Muslim authors. Why is diversity in young adult fiction important to you?

It’s important because I think good art is important. And good art involves integrity, authenticity and raw honesty. This only happens when we reflect our true realities. Sadly, literature in North America has a far way to go before reflecting the reality of our times. It’s sad that not much has changed from when I was a teen myself in terms of seeing narratives featuring teens from marginalized communities in bookstores and libraries. We’ve got to make sure the momentum started by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the #OwnVoices and, yes, the #MuslimShelfSpace, campaigns continue and stay vital in order for real change to take root.  

Lastly,  when I finished the book, I wasn’t quite ready to leave Janna, her family, friends and her community. Is there a hope that you might return to Janna’s world in the future?
Hmm, this is a good question and one that I’m being prompted to mull now that I keep getting questions like yours. So I’m going to say that I haven’t ruled it out. (I too maybe interested in seeing Sarah’s and Muhammad’s wedding plans come to fruition! And I’m curious about Sausun’s video stunt to save her sister! And, also, #TeamNuah and…)  

Thank you S.K. Ali for sharing your thoughts with us! You can find S.K. Ali at https://skalibooks.com, and @sajidahwrites (Twitter).

New Releases

Woohoo! Miles Morales releases today! (See our review here.) There are also quite a few other titles having a book birthday. Please let us know if we missed any.

Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds
Marvel Press

“Everyone gets mad at hustlers, especially if you’re on the victim side of the hustle. And Miles knew hustling was in his veins.”

Miles Morales is just your average teenager. Dinner every Sunday with his parents, chilling out playing old-school video games with his best friend, Ganke, crushing on brainy, beautiful poet Alicia. He’s even got a scholarship spot at the prestigious Brooklyn Visions Academy. Oh yeah, and he’s Spider Man.

But lately, Miles’s spidey-sense has been on the fritz. When a misunderstanding leads to his suspension from school, Miles begins to question his abilities. After all, his dad and uncle were Brooklyn jack-boys with criminal records. Maybe kids like Miles aren’t meant to be superheroes. Maybe Miles should take his dad’s advice and focus on saving himself.

As Miles tries to get his school life back on track, he can’t shake the vivid nightmares that continue to haunt him. Nor can he avoid the relentless buzz of his spidey-sense every day in history class, amidst his teacher’s lectures on the historical “benefits” of slavery and the importance of the modern-day prison system. But after his scholarship is threatened, Miles uncovers a chilling plot, one that puts his friends, his neighborhood, and himself at risk.

It’s time for Miles to suit up.

Solo by Kwame Alexander, Mary Rand Hess
Blink
See review here

Solo, a YA novel in poetic verse, tells the story of seventeen-year-old Blade Morrison, whose life is bombarded with scathing tabloids and a father struggling with just about every addiction under the sun—including a desperate desire to make a comeback. Haunted by memories of his mother and his family’s ruin, Blade’s only hope is in the forbidden love of his girlfriend. But when he discovers a deeply protected family secret, Blade sets out on a journey across the globe that will change everything he thought to be true.

When I am Through with You by Stephanie Kuehn
Dutton Books for Young Readers

“This isn’t meant to be a confession. Not in any spiritual sense of the word. Yes, I’m in jail at the moment. I imagine I’ll be here for a long time, considering. But I’m not writing this down for absolution and I’m not seeking forgiveness, not even from myself. Because I’m not sorry for what I did to Rose. I’m just not. Not for any of it.”

Ben Gibson is many things, but he’s not sorry and he’s not a liar. He will tell you exactly about what happened on what started as a simple school camping trip in the mountains. About who lived and who died. About who killed and who had the best of intentions. But he’s going to tell you in his own time. Because after what happened on that mountain, time is the one thing he has plenty of.

Genius: The Con (Genius #2) by Leopoldo Gout
Feiwel & Friends

Three teen geniuses from diverse backgrounds must work together to stop a vicious warlord, protect their families, and save the world in this fast-paced sequel to Genius: The Game.

ON THE RUN!

Tunde: This fourteen-year-old self-taught engineering genius from Nigeria is in a race against time to save his village from a ruthless warlord.

Painted Wolf: This mysterious sixteen-year-old activist blogger and strategist from China is searching for a way to rescue her father from the corruption he’s inadvertently been caught up in.

Rex: This sixteen-year-old Mexican-American has proven himself to be one of the best programmers in the world, only to be falsely accused of stealing billions of government secrets for the terrorist hacking group Terminal.

Pursued by the police, the FBI, and most dangerous of all, Kiran Biswas, visionary CEO and evil mastermind, three teen geniuses have to move fast and stay low as they race to find a missing brother, stop a vicious warlord, and save the world in Genius: The Con by Leopoldo Gout.

Blight by Alexandra Duncan
Greenwillow Books

When an agribusiness facility producing genetically engineered food releases a deadly toxin into the environment, seventeen-year-old Tempest Torres races to deliver the cure before time runs out.

From the author of the acclaimed American Booksellers Association’s Indies Introduce pick Salvage, which was called “Brilliant, feminist science fiction” by Stephanie Perkins, the internationally bestselling author of Anna and the French Kiss. This stand-alone action-adventure story is perfect for fans of Oryx and Crake and The House of the Scorpion.

Seventeen-year-old Tempest Torres has lived on the AgraStar farm north of Atlanta, Georgia, since she was found outside its gates at the age of five. Now she’s part of the security force guarding the fence and watching for scavengers—people who would rather steal genetically engineered food from the Company than work for it. When a group of such rebels accidentally sets off an explosion in the research compound, it releases into the air a blight that kills every living thing in its path—including humans. With blight-resistant seeds in her pocket, Tempest teams up with a scavenger boy named Alder and runs for help. But when they finally arrive at AgraStar headquarters, they discover that there’s an even bigger plot behind the blight—and it’s up to them to stop it from happening again.

Inspired by current environmental issues, specifically the genetic adjustment of seeds to resist blight and the risks of not allowing natural seed diversity, this is an action-adventure story that is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake meets Nancy Farmer’s House of the Scorpion.

Follow Your Heart by Tasha Nathan
Lorimer

Nisha has always been a good Tamil daughter. She tries to keep her grades up so she can meet her parents’ high expectations of her. They want her to become a doctor or an engineer, and of course she is not allowed to be in a romantic relationship while she is still a teenager. Nisha has discovered that what she really loves to do is write. As she devotes more of her time and attention to her creative writing class, she also finds that who she really loves is her classmate Todd. How can Nisha get her parents to understand that she needs to live her own life? And when she has to choose between her dreams of life on her own terms and being with Todd, how can Nisha decide where her true feelings lie?

#OwnVoices and Twitter

Over the last few months, there’s been a growing conversation around representation, #ownvoices, writing, and reviewing on Twitter. If that sounds vague, that’s because I’m writing this at 4:00am and because the conversation itself is one that, in my mind, covers a wide range of topics that all relate back to each other.

There’s been discussion over how reviewers should go about critiquing books by authors with marginalized identities, and how authors of color are often held to higher standards than other authors, and the importance of representation, but also the importance of supporting marginalized authors because of who they are, and not because they’re carving up their personal experience for public consumption. I can’t articulate any of this very well at all, and I’m still thinking about it a lot myself – and as with any complex and important issue, there’s no easy answer, and no way to magically get everyone on the same page.

So, if you’d like to join me in mulling, check out the twitter threads linked below that touch upon these topics:

On the pressure for marginalized creators to create Perfect Works
On the expectation for writers to write their ethnicity
On the misuse of #OwnVoices
More on #OwnVoices

What are your thoughts?