All Boys Aren’t Blue (CBR14 #47)

cover of the book All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson which shows a young black queer boy with a flower grown, the background fading from blue to pink.

When we had our book club vote for September, I was secretly hoping that All Boys Aren’t Blue would be one of the ones we chose. I was flabbergasted that in November of last year the memoir had a criminal report filed with the Flagler County Sheriff’s office by a member of the Flagler County School Board arguing that the book’s inclusion in three district school libraries violated state obscenity laws because it contained sexually graphic material. It has also been removed from school libraries in at least eight states and is ALA’s third most challenged book of 2021. All because the author wanted to see stories like theirs on the shelves so that children like them would feel less alone. Because queer, Black stories from the Black perspective are largely missing from the pop culture landscape.

I loved this book. George M. Johnson writes so beautifully and openly about his life that you are brought into his understanding of the two big identities that intersect in his life, his queerness and his Blackness. I don’t live too far from where Johnson grew up so there was that added layer for me, but what Johnson sets out to achieve for the younger audience he also achieved with me.

I’m not the only one who liked this work and found value in it, Johnson’s reflections on growing up Black and queer was optioned by Gabrielle Union-Wade’s production company for a television series. I’m with Johnson, books with heavy topics are not going to harm children and young adults. They live in the world which is full of heavy topics (think back to your own growing up years), and are going to be affected by them.  Books like this one give them (and us) the tools, the language, the resources and the education to deal with some of the tough things that will come their way.

The Best We Could Do (CBR14 #46)

On 2022’s Read Harder Challenge Task 6 is to read a non-fiction YA comic. Each year when the Read Harder tasks are unveiled, I go through my over 600 book deep to read list on Goodreads looking for books to fulfill each task. I knew this one would be difficult, there just isn’t much in the way of non-fiction graphic works on my TBR, which is an area I could do to grow in (thus, doing this reading challenge each year since 2015). I was surprised to find Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do lurking on my list and had zero recollection of how it had gotten there in January of 2018. I checked my library had it and added it to this year’s to read list.

I don’t think I was expecting quite the gut punch this work delivered. In fact, I know I wasn’t.

The Best We Could Do is a debut graphic novel memoir which started its life as an oral history project Thi Bui undertook in grad school. She wanted to better know her family, better understand who she was and where she came from. What she ultimately crafted over many years is an intimate look at her family’s journey from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon to the United States and how her own experiences as a refugee ultimately affected her relationships with her family and how she interacts with the world around her (always ready to run). The story is bookended by Bui’s own experiences becoming a mother, and how that change of status opens her up to understanding what it means to be a parent-the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love.

Bui is honest in her prose about where her information comes from, and how the story she is telling is both hard to relate and difficult to keep bias out of. There is a lot of fear and anger on the page as well as love and compassion. Bui’s art helps set the mood of the story, but it is the words that do the heavy lifting.

In the Hall with the Knife (CBR14 #21)

This book wound up on my to read thanks to a Read Harder Challenge from 2020 – read a mystery where the victim is not a woman – and the fact that I had loved the previous books I had read by Diana Peterfreund, For Darkness Shows the Stars and Across a Star-Swept Sea (as well as their accompanying prequel short stories Among the Nameless Stars and The First Star to Fall). It ended up in my hands thanks to my book exchange gifter, NTE.

What we have with In the Hall with the Knife is Peterfreund getting to play around in the Clue sandbox. You read that right, the title is not just a play on the game’s phrasing (there are two more books in this trilogy, In the Study with the Wrench and In the Ballroom with the Candlestick) but a direct homage to the source material. Peterfreund takes the board game and movie and turns them into a residence hall on a prestigious Maine boarding school where students Vaughn Green, Beth “Peacock” Picach, Orchid McKee, Sam “Mustard” Maestor, Finn Plum, and Scarlet Mistry—are left stranded on campus with their headmaster Mr. Boddy, the janitor Rusty Naylor, and Mrs. White, house mother due to a monstrous December storm that has flooded out the campus and separated it from the mainland due to a washed out bridge and must take safety in the high ground of Tudor House.

Oh, and they awake the next morning to Headmaster Boddy’s dead body. Some suggest an accident, other suggest suicide, but very quickly it is clear that it was murder. It is up to those remaining on campus to sort out what to do, and how to keep their various secrets safe.

The pacing of this one wasn’t great for me, but I think I might just need to take a small break from YA anything since I had similar feelings to Charm and Strange, but this book could easily have lost 50 pages to good, crisp editing (something I have complained about with Peterfreund before). This book begs to be read in the same campy fun as the movie, but the writing isn’t as sharp as the movie dialogue and if you are perhaps as familiar with that movie as me, it shows. I did enjoy the student characters as they are developed on page, although they start as stock characters. Each of the above getting chapters from their perspective (and in the case of tennis star Peacock they are her exercise journal entries). It’s also obvious that Peterfreund had one large story that she broke up into three pieces, while this story did have a definite end as the murderer is caught, the remaining mysteries are left spooled out and new ones introduced.

A Spindle Splintered (CBR14 #17)

A Spindle Splintered (Fractured Fables, #1)

A Spindle Splintered is a queer retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, playing on the variations that exist and adding one of its own. The basic story has been around for almost seven hundred years and has flown through the hands of Basile, Perrault, and Grimm, and that’s before we get into the hundreds of adaptations so what’s another?

Harrow brings her own lens to this, and imbues her lead, Zinnia Grey, with a wonderfully clear voice. It is so realistic that I initially thought we were getting an introduction from the author before realizing we were in first person, which I don’t always enjoy, but it often works in novella length, and similarly well in YA, and A Spindle Splintered is both.

The story introduces us to Zinnia Gray on her twenty-first birthday. It is an especially important birthday since it’s the last one she’ll have. Zinnia with a rare genetic condition caused by an industrial accident in her hometown which causes proteins in her systems to build up and screws with her mitochondria. There is nothing the doctor’s have been able to do to extend anyone’s life who has the condition as far as their twenty second birthday.  With a ticking clock Zinnia has developed a set of rules to live by and pursued a degree in folklore and is somewhat of a specialist in the Sleeping Beauty tale, as she has always identified with its Princesses. So when she finds herself slightly drunk in a tower with a spinning wheel on her 21st birthday thanks to the party planned by her best friend Charm she is uniquely prepared when she pricks her finger and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate asking for help. Zinnia finds herself doing whatever she can for Primrose, and beginning to wonder what she could accomplish if only she fought for survival instead of counting down the clock to her inevitable end.

I liked this one, but I liked the version my imagination kept coming up with more. Harrow wrote the heck out of this, its got a lot to say about the types of lives women have been allowed to live, what boxes we put around ourselves, how love can feel like an obligation, or a prison, instead of something that frees you. But… because Harrow is riffing on such a well known story my brain kept thinking it knew where she was going and as I mentally prepared for the zig I got a zag, and I didn’t always like the zag more. No amount of great Arthur Rackham inspired page art (seriously, it gave a great mood to this) could keep me from feeling the gap. All that said, I’ve still added A Mirror Mended the next Fractured Fairytale to my to read list.

Purple Hibiscus (CBR13 #69)

Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus is a coming-of-age story and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s debut novel. It is the story of fifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja who lead a privileged life in Enugu, Nigeria. In some ways they are completely shielded from the troubles of the world. Yet, it is revealed rather quickly that things are less perfect than they appear. Although her Papa is generous and well respected, he is fanatically religious and tyrannical at home—a home that is silent and suffocating. As the country begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili and Jaja are sent to their aunt, where they discover a life beyond the confines of their father’s authority.

The mechanics of Purple Hibiscus are very strong. The atmosphere of living with an abusive parent was captured well and the book is full of expressive prose that captures the emotional turmoil of adolescence. While the writing itself was excellent, I had a hard time with everything that those mechanics were meant to be delivering. It can be easy to be swept up in beautiful language but there was lurking here a hollowness that I couldn’t see past. The character of Kambili is the easiest place to explain the problem. I was made to feel sympathetic towards her (and her mother and brother), but it wasn’t because of a connection to them, but instead because of an understanding of the monster lurking in Kambili’s father that was never very far below the surface.

CW: miscarriages due to physical abuse (mostly off-page), spousal abuse, child abuse.

Reviewer’s note: it should be noted that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a history of anti-trans and pro TERF statements, including a defense of J.K. Rowling in late 2020. I have attempted to review this work without taking that knowledge into account, but it is likely that this is my last Adichie novel. While it is possible to separate the art from the artist, I find it difficult to do so in cases where the author is promoting views which are actively harmful to our trans and non-binary siblings.

Other Words for Home (CBR13 #59)

Other Words for Home

I read Jasmine Warga’s debut My Heart and Other Black Holes in 2016, and its one of the books that has stayed with me most as it contained some of the truest descriptions of being a teenager that I have ever read. When I was hunting for a book to fulfill the Muslim Middle Grade novel task for the Reading Women challenge and came across Warga’s name I decided that Other Words for Home would be the book I read, without looking any further into what the story actually contained. While a dangerous move, it was not a mistake.

Told in verse, Other Words for Home is Jude’s story. When things in her Syrian hometown start becoming unstable, Jude and her mother go to live near Cincinnati with her mother’s brother and his family, leaving behind her own father and older brother. Jude was happy in Syria and initially doesn’t want to make the move but promises to be brave. From there, the story traces Jude’s experiences in all that is new to her in the United States, from making new friends, living with whole new family, through to a school musical that Jude might just try out for.

This one is geared towards middle grade readers, but certainly not out of place on any grown-up’s shelves. This book tackles big things as it is set in the midst of the Battle of Aleppo (where Jude’s brother goes), and touches on prejudices against Muslims writ large and refugees and immigrants. Warga also doesn’t shy away from the way people, particularly white women, can choose to see choices that are not their own as not a choice at all.

I’m glad to have read this one, and not ashamed that it made me tear up several times, something I was not expecting in a novel in verse since I so often struggle with poetry.

“There is an Arabic proverb that says:
She makes you feel
like a loaf of freshly baked bread.

It is said about
the nicest
The type of people
who help you

Blackout (CBR13 #49)

Blackout is a novel comprised of several short stories covering five hours in the course of one night in New York as it experiences a blackout. Tiffany D. Jackson writes The Long Walk which is broken up into five acts, Nic Stone contributes Mask Off (perhaps my favorite of the bunch), Ashley Woodfolk’s Made to Fit, Dhonielle Clayton provides All the Great Love Stories… and Dust, as well as being the person who sparked the project into existence, Angie Thomas’s No Sleep Till Brooklyn, and the Nicola Yoon penned Seymour and Grace. (It should be noted that Nicola Yoon just made headlines this past week as part of the YA Authors NFT cluster.)

Of these authors, I’ve only personally read The Hate U Give by Thomas. While I found that work very, very good, there isn’t much in this collection that ranks at that level – but it is still definitely worth your time. I love the premise of Blackout, following six pairs as they experience the big, dramatic love stories that we don’t often get to see Black teens have in our pop culture. We get a full swath – first meetings, friends of longstanding who might be more, bitter exes forced to spend time together, and unexpected opportunities. There’s also a wide variety of identities present, we’re treated to m/m pairing as well as f/f, non-binary persons, immigrant families, single parent households, and on and on.

The book has been optioned by the Obamas’ Higher Ground production company to turn it into a six part anthology and I’m quite excited for it to eventually make its way to Netflix because the entire time I was reading I was seeing it as a movie, bouncing from one interconnected group to another as they each make their way to converge at the block party.

Read Women 16: Read a Queer Love Story

Read Harder 17: Read an own voices YA book with a Black main character that isn’t about Black pain

The Disasters (CBR12 #30)

The Disasters by M.K. England

My reading intake has dropped off considerably since May, but book club kept me with my hand in the game so to speak, because I really enjoyed my first choice, The Disasters by M.K. England. This book ended up on our selection list because I saw an interesting write-up about it and thought hey, I want to read that book. Sometimes it pays to be the Book Club Maven. (I also read I Hope You Get This Message, I had previously read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet which I loved, and while I’m glad so many chose to read An Unkindness of Ghosts I actually put it on the list because I didn’t want to read it – not everyone likes what I like.)

The Disasters is a road trip story – a favorite trope. Our narrator, hotshot pilot Nax Hall, has a history of making poor life choices and getting into trouble with authority figures so it is not exactly a surprise when he’s kicked out of Ellis Station Academy in less than twenty-four hours. He’s dejected that his life’s goal of getting out to the space colonies as a pilot is gone, but he’s not surprised per se. Nax’s one-way trip back to Earth (what happens to washouts) is cut short when a terrorist group attacks the Academy before Nax and three others leave. They manage to escape, but they are also the sole witnesses to the biggest crime in the history of space colonization. They are now on the run and framed for atrocities they didn’t commit, and Nax and his fellow failures execute a dangerous heist to spread the truth about what happened at the Academy – and stop an even larger disaster from happening. In order to do that they will spend four days traveling between worlds on the run and in hiding and picking up some help along the way.

We’re with Nax through the entirety of this quick 350 page work, and the story isn’t the same in the hands of another lead. England draws her characters so well that any of the others could have been their lead, but there’s something about Nax, how he implicitly exists as the cross-points of defining characteristics, that adds some needed depth to the themes England is poking at. Speculative fiction is built on tales of exploration, survival, ingenuity, exceptionality, and redemption, and this book is not without those things. The crew of The Kick are each exceptional in their own arena and ingenious to boot, they are out to redeem themselves from their failure at the Academy, but also to ensure the survival of many, many people. The world they live in is the product of continued exploration, and the exploration continues in the background of the book.

I also unabashedly love a found family story, and this book also explores that trope. It’s probably because I grew up in a loving, mostly stable home and my parents were and are the kind of people who accept all comers. If you needed some family in your life, they were going to see that you got it. That is in fact how in his early 20s my oldest brother ended up in my family in the first place, but that’s not my story to tell. But the story of a the family of friends created under stress and duress in The Disasters hit all those notes for me, and I’m hoping it speaks to the warmth of both kinds of family (since our narrator Nax’s birth family are pretty great too) that are in the author’s life.

As to the future setting, the universe of The Disasters is a realistic, but hopeful, place. Progress has been made in the 150+ years between now and then, but its uneven and not quite what we might hope. Its also a future with bureaucracy and corruption, but in most places the structures of the new colonies focus on the things that people love, not the things that drive us crazy. All in all, I’m glad to have read this one, and hope you were too if you read it.

#NotYourPrincess (CBR12 #25)

#Notyourprincess: Voices of Native American Women

I keep doing reading challenges for a couple reasons, but one of them is that it tends to point out areas that my reading habits need to expand. This year the Read Harder Challenge includes tasks for both YA Non-fiction read a book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author. I’ve already read one YA Non-fiction this year, but while I was hunting up titles I came across #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. It also didn’t hurt that the Reading Women Challenge has a task for reading an anthology by multiple authors.

And this is a really great choice for all those tasks. #NotYourPrincess is a feminist nonfiction collection of poetry, artwork, and personal essays, all revolving around the identity of Native American women aimed at young people. The book contains stories of abuse, humiliation, and stereotyping but it never felt oppressive – there was an underlying hope and pride and reclaiming their self-value, highlighting their struggles. Every single contributor is a woman, and they speak to their own experiences, which are as diverse as they are. The book is split up into four sections: The Ties That Bind Us, It Could Have Been Me, I am Not Your Princess and Pathfinders. While I appreciated the breaks between sections, and some of them held together very tightly, they didn’t all.

The part of the book I liked the most was how the artwork was linked to all the written components. But, the overall format of the book is the only downside. The book is just over 100 pages but it’s the size of what I typically makes me think of a picture book. But more than that, it’s a little tough to maneuver and to hold onto while reading. The physical reading experience wasn’t comfortable, but the art in the book is worth the size.

Ten Days a Madwoman (CBR12 #19)

Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original "Girl" Reporter, Nellie Bly

We’ve reached the first book of the year that I read expressly because it fit a Read Harder Challenge. Task number one is to read a YA non-fiction. I did not have any juvenile non-fiction on my 650 books deep to read list, so I had to go looking. Nellie Bly had recently come up at work and I realized I knew very little about the famous reporter beyond her time in Blackwell or her around the world trip so onto my library request list Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter, Nellie Bly by Deborah Noyes went.

Its probably been over twenty years since I have read any YA non-fiction, but as soon as I opened the book sense memories of Reading and History classes in my middle school years came flooding back. Its somehow nice to know that the form and structure I had experienced as a youth still existed in a book published within the past four years. Noyes does as promised and tracks Nellie Bly’s life and times, using the standard interstitial asides to build out the larger world surrounding Bly at the turn of the last century. The book is also littered with primary source images and quotes, rooting the reader in the narrative.

I learned things as well, I hadn’t known that Bly spent World War I as a war reporter in Europe or that she had married a millionaire forty years her senior and took over his business after his death, or that she had done an in depth interview with Susan B. Anthony. Bly’s early life was also a mystery to me, but now I know, and knowing is a nice feeling, which is probably why I choose to do history as my profession. This one is a good one for the young readers in your life with questions about any number of things, including journalism and women’s rights.