Monday, April 19, 2021

Review of The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

 


The Mirror Season is my second book by Anna-Marie McLemore even though I own all of their previous releases. This book made it very clear that McLemore’s writing is simply one of my favorites. Their writing is just pure magic! The Mirror Season had me hooked from its very first line: “When my bisabuela first came to this country, the most valuable thing she carried with her was something only she could see” (1). This is a story of survivors and learning to live in a body that doesn’t feel like yours anymore. The main character, Graciela Cristales, loses her confidence as a result of the assault and her journey centers around redefining who she is and living with the guilt of what happened.


The book follows Ciela’s perspective and the reader learns about the night of the assault through her. The unraveling of the narrative was amazing. We got bits and pieces which Ciela felt comfortable sharing with the reader. She was in control of the narrative, as a sexual assault survivor Ciela felt a loss of control over herself. Through the information she gives the reader she takes control of her story, signaling how SA survivors’ stories are theirs to share how they see fit. I enjoyed how information was revealed to us and so many things caught me by surprise. 


Moreover, the layers of her story interweave with Lock’s story. Lock was at the same party as Ciela and their assaults happened simultaneously. They meet once school begins and form a friendship. The dynamic between Ciela and Lock was great and filled with humor. One of the most memorable moments was when Ciela brought a puppet named “Valentina” to cheer up Lock during their time in detention (73-74). Humor is used as another way of taking control of their story. The jokes between the characters is what moves forward their relationship. In an interview with the Write or Die podcast, AM McLemore mentioned how The Mirror Season has the most humor out of all their books because it is something SA survivors do. They do so to contrast the traumatic experiences they’ve survived and again as a way to show their autonomy. McLemore’s use of humor shows that even with traumatic experiences there are ways to rediscover the self and that is done with expressions of joy like humor. 

 


Another aspect of Ciela’s journey means becoming La Bruja de los Pasteles once more. Ciela has a gift, inherited from her great-grandmother, which tells her what type of pan dulce someone needs or what pan dulce will soothe them. Losing herself causes Ciela to lose her ability to know about the needs of others. Her healing journey and the way back to her gift means finding herself. McLemore makes it clear with Ciela’s gift that caring for others and being there for them requires the ability to take care of the self first. Furthermore, Ciela’s gift is truly fascinating, and I’m looking to explore it more in an upcoming paper. Here’s an example of her magic in action as customers approach her bakery booth at a town festival: 


Las magdalenas de maíz to a woman finishing chemotherapy, because she needs something mild to keep but with enough flavor to remind her she can still taste. Cuernitos de crema to a couple who found each other again forty years after meeting in high school (269). 


Ciela’s magic has a healing quality to it which is reminiscent of curanderos. These are healers in Latin American who practice traditional medicine to treat various ailments, they can be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual ailments. In the passage above Ciela aims to cure ailments with her abilities. She is attuned with whomever visits her booth and knows exactly what will soothe their being. Throughout the book the reader experiences her ability and how it is an essential part of her. Ciela’s magic is part of a familial tradition but it is but a small part of the connection she has with her family.

  

By the end of The Mirror Season, Ciela became one of my all-time favorite fictional characters. One of the things I loved most about her was the bond she had with her family. Family interactions in YA is something that I pay close attention to. A lack of family interaction makes the teenage character seem more adult and independent. This fictional emancipation rids the narrative of interactions with family members. Relations with families is an important aspect of identity formation since the family is part of people’s first social interactions. Ciela’s love for her family is found all over this narrative. They are in the stories she tells, her experiences, and as mentioned before in her magic. Throughout the novel, Ciela gives the reader many tidbits on her family and she seems to have a story fitting for many occasions. This is how her love for them comes through and it shows how a teen can have meaningful relationships with her family and be part of a novel. These relationships let the reader know of who Ciela is before the start of the narrative, it gives her a background story, and makes her a more well-rounded character. The Mirror Season depicts how these bonds have a place within YA. Ciela has not been emancipated, yet the journey is still hers.

  

Another topic McLemore explores is the way society sees and treats brown bodies. The author touches upon how brown bodies are so over-sexualized and seen as an open invitation when they are not. I found this extremely relatable, reminding me of my own experiences and how from a young age my body has been seen like that. Despite the over-sexualization Ciela is taught to love her body from a young age by the women in her family. She describes this experience in the following: “my mother is the one who told me my curvas were worth celebrating. Every day growing up, I came home to a family where hips and thighs meant health and beauty, and it saved me from thinking there was something immodest and shameful about my body” (105). Ciela’s experience with her body is something I also found relatable because it mirrored (I had to do it!) my own experience and journey with loving my body. I think it’s really important to encourage body acceptance from a young age. McLemore shows how we should celebrate bodies like Ciela’s and how doing so may have a big impact on self-esteem.

 

 In The Mirror Season the reader is taken on Ciela’s journey of regaining her confidence, finding love, and living as a survivor. The novel uses magical realism and elements of “The Snow Queen” fairytale to present the reader with a raw exploration of being a sexual assault survivor. Her friendship with Lock showed how survivors are not alone and that humor can be a useful tool for finding joy. The story has so many aspects to it that I loved: the fairy tale elements, Ciela’s character, self-love/body acceptance, and the magic are just a few of them. The Mirror Season is going to be one of my top recommendations for a while!


-NA


Sources:

McLemore, Anna-Marie. The Mirror Season. Feiwel & Friends, 2021. 

Valladolid, Fabian. “Who Is a Curandero?” Curanderismo, www.asu.edu/courses/css335/page3.htm.  

Sunday, April 4, 2021

"Unhappy Ever After: When fairytales end badly" a lecture by Neil Philip

 


On Thursday, March 18th, the NCSCL was delighted to virtually host Neil Philip for his talk, “Unhappy Ever After: When fairytales end badly.” Well over a hundred listeners joined us through Zoom from both sides of the pond.

The topic that drew so many people to join us was tragic endings. Although most people have come to associate fairytales with the lighter iterations found in Disney adaptations, many of these tales originally end in grief and disappointment. For example, Philip describes how the “greatest of wish fulfillment tale type, Cinderella,” has evolved into a version that ends sadly: in a Brazilian version, Maria’s sister-turned-snake Labismina helps her to escape marriage to her own father but is forgotten when Maria marries a prince. Philip claims that “it is the lonely fate of Labismina that sticks in the mind, not the happy one of Princess Maria,” and goes on to reference Zuni and Eastern Indian versions of this tale with their own tragic endings. He acknowledges that there are also tales that purposefully twist listeners’ expectations of a happy ending via comedy, such as the “English gypsy variant of The Water of Life” told by Taimi Boswell.


He then transitions into a text that is much more familiar to the audience -- that of Little Red Riding Hood. Perrault’s 1697 version is the one with the question-and-answer dialogue that we recall, but in the Brothers Grimm iteration, Red Riding Hood is eaten along with her grandmother and a woodsman cuts them free from the wolf’s belly. Even more gruesome, however, are the French versions, one of which can be found in Catherine Orenstein’s Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked. In this tale, the wolf serves the girl her own grandmother’s flesh, but the young girl manages to escape by claiming she needed to relieve herself. Philip adds a factual tidbit here about the standard three-volume book wherein one can find over 2,000 folktale types across cultures -- Little Red Riding Hood is listed at ATU-333. 


Philip notes that even the Grimm brothers’ darker fairytales are a result of altering the original tales to be lighter. Grimm adds what Philip calls a “literary flourish” to the juniper tree tale, which concludes with a happy ending after “a story that is relentlessly miserable.” Dark themes and other key elements carry on through the iterations of stories. Hans Christian Andersen, the author of the original tales of many fairytales we know today, often writes with themes of grief, suffering, and disillusion. Philip explains that Andersen was rarely one to write happy endings, instead the iterations are “infused with melancholy” and he was “merciless to the characters'' in his tales. Although these happier stories are more popular, Philip quotes Oscar Wilde, “there are times when sorrow seems to me to be the only truth.” Ultimately, Philip says, storytelling can be seen as an act of reparation for the world. 

Partway through the talk, an ill-intentioned attendee unmuted himself and interrupted with inappropriate comments. Thankfully, Natalie moved quickly to kick him out and reported him immediately. The lecture resumed without incident, though we were no longer able to admit latecomers. 

After Philip concluded his lecture, the chat was opened up for questions which came pouring in. A few of them, along with Philip’s responses, are listed here:

Q: Why do you think children are associated with fairy tales?

A: It started with the Grimm's; they called their collection “Children’s and Household Tales.” The children’s section was really quite short, but as they released newer editions, they realized children were being read these stories, so they softened quite a lot of the elements. Evil mothers become evil stepmothers, for instance. By the end of the 19th century, you get really influential series of books of fairy tales which are specifically aimed at children. The stories are made more acceptable for a child audience. So that’s the beginning of our assumption that fairy tales are expected to be enjoyed by children.

Q: What do you think is the appeal, aesthetic or psychological, of tragic fairy tales?

A: It’s the same as the appeal of horror films and gothic novels; it’s just part of human nature that people like sad things as well as happy things. It is fair to say that the majority of traditional fairy tales do end up with a happy ending, but they put the poor protagonists, both male and female, through the most terrible suffering and troubles along the way. So the happy ending, what Tolkien called the eucatastrophe, is won through suffering. 

Q: Why do you think people have edited the original fairy tales to something that can now be read to children?

A: The Victorians -- well, 19th century people; let’s not say Victorians since the Grimms’ first version came out in 1812 -- they were sort of prudish about what was suitable for children. It’s interesting what they thought was suitable, like terrible retributions at the end of fairy tales like Cinderella's sisters getting their eyes being pecked out by doves and people being made to dance in red hot shoes regarded as perfectly acceptable. But they tried to weed out the sexual elements. It’s just part of the transition of these stories from an inherited oral folkloric inheritance to a literary one. People like Angela Carter have tried to put back all the things that were taken out.

Q: It’s refreshing to hear a scholar identify ways their thinking has changed as you mention with the Fens tale or your conception of authenticity’s value or otherwise. Have you experienced any other major shifts in your thinking over the years, scholarly or otherwise?

A: That’s certainly an example when my mind has been changed by someone else’s scholarship. I’m very much more aware of the individual voice of the storyteller in the story and that’s what I value in any particular story, rather than having a more generic interest in Snow White stories, let’s say. That and an interest in all the other elements in a story: the language, cadence, intonation, pauses, gesticulations. The relation between the storyteller and the audience is a very potent, dynamic thing in storytelling. My thinking about folk and fairy tales has remained much the same, but deepened and widened. There are things such as Mrs. Balfour stories where I’ve had a change of heart and thought. I’ve just written, for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a biography of a woman called Ruth Tongue, who was a very famous storyteller in the second half of the twentieth century in England. My initial attitude was that Ruth Tongue was basically a fraud, which I thought since I heard recordings of her actual voice: very cut-glass, upper class English and her storytelling voice which is a very heavily accented Somerset dialect.  I thought that something is not right here. And learning more about Tongue, I’ve begun to think she is not correct in what she says about where she learned these stories and who she learned them from because it doesn’t stack up, but actually it makes her more interesting as a creative storyteller because she is basically making all this stuff up. Someone said she “collects from herself,” which I thought was a very polite way of putting it.


There were many other questions and answers which we were not able to fit in this blog, but it seemed that many people were able to enjoy the fruit of Philip’s scholarship! His clear expertise, thorough research, and insightful conclusions sparked ongoing conversation on this compelling topic. Even Philip’s cat had something to add! Thank you to those who attended our first virtual scholarly talk. We were delighted to have such an engaged audience.


For those who missed it, the lecture and Q&A were recorded and can be found here:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBzElceP2nE


Our next guest lecture will be in April; keep an eye out for the details! In the meantime, we hope you pick up a tale that ends unhappily ever after.


Friday, March 19, 2021

Review on "Concrete Rose" by Angie Thomas

Hardback cover

Angie Thomas’ first novel, The Hate U Give, was nothing short of groundbreaking. After her sophomore novel, On the Come Up, Thomas decided to return to something a little more familiar to readers.

The first thing fans heard about Angie Thomas’ junior novel was that this was a character we already knew in her “Garden Heights” universe, where The Hate U Give and On The Come Up are set.

Fans went into a frenzy.

Through Twitter, followers of the author soon learned the protagonist’s name: Maverick Carter, the father of Starr Carter who was the protagonist of The Hate U Give. Concrete Rose is a prequel set seventeen years before the award-winning The Hate U Give.

Although it’s a prequel, it is not at all necessary to read The Hate U Give before Concrete Rose. It felt so exciting to return to the Carter family, but if Concrete Rose is your first Angie Thomas novel the only thing that you would miss are character cameos like Maverick who was in The Hate U Give as an adult. As a returning reader to Thomas’ novels, it is exciting to see the backstory of Mav, which was briefly alluded to in The Hate U Give. Not much of Mav’s teenage years are discussed in The Hate U Give. From what I recall, what is discussed is that his oldest child, Seven, has a different mother than the rest of his siblings, which is also discussed in Concrete Rose, and The Hate U Give also mentions that Mav was incarcerated sometime between Concrete Rose and The Hate U Give when his children were young.

Going into the novel, I actually couldn’t recall many details of Mav in The Hate U Give besides the two points I detailed, and honestly I didn’t need to recall that is it is part of what the book is about. The Hate U Give in this case serves to give backstory for Mav.

Thomas’ newest novel Concrete Rose follows seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter who is growing up in Garden Heights as the man of the house while his father is incarcerated. Maverick, or Mav, has to juggle school with bringing in money for his family through dealing drugs for the infamous King Lord gang.

However, when he learns he is the father of a baby, his whole life is turned around.

One thing I wanted to note is Mav’s emotions throughout the novel, and how he expresses them. After losing a beloved family member, Dre, to gang violence, Mav is understandably devastated, but struggles to express himself, especially around his family:

“Men ain’t supposed to cry. We supposed to be strong enough to carry our boulders and everybody else’s…Ain’t got no time to grieve” (Thomas, 120-121), and later, he says “I can’t sit around crying about Dre. I gotta be a man” (Thomas, 163).

Manhood, especially Black manhood is a prominent theme in the novel.

Black children or teenagers are often viewed as much older, or at least given the responsibilities of someone much older, and for Mav, he truly has to take the role of an adult and a father, when he should just have to worry about his schooling or prom, but instead he can barely even focus on school.

Although set more than twenty years ago, the struggles of Mav are ones that continue even today.

This seventeen-year-old is dealing with gang violence, having a baby, looking after his grieving family, and trying to financially make ends meet among so many other things, and he feels like he can’t even show his emotions. He has to put on a show of “being a man” but this idea is not often depicted as congruent with crying or showing sadness. By showing this conflict, Thomas subtly points to the unique pressure that Mav is put under as a young Black man.

Cleyvis Natera excellently articulates the pressure of manhood in Mav’s life in a review from Time Magazine:

Manhood becomes the confining praxis toward resolution: Is he a man? How big of a man? How brave of a man? We come to understand that loss ushers Maverick to redefine himself beyond the confines of gender norms: he must see himself not as doomed to the legacy of his father’s actions, but as a parent and a human being focused on the future.”(Natera, 2021)

With Mav’s father’s incarceration, Mav is working to define his own manhood while also working on surviving. Mav does what he believes is necessary to survive, having to grow up even more than others his age.

What I think is incredibly important is how the pressures Mav is put under leads him to drug dealing. Mav sells drugs with King, an infamous drug dealer in the King Lord gang, to make a little bit more money for his family and his new baby. At no point though is Mav demonized for this decision, which I think is not only a fresh viewpoint on a black teenager dealing drugs, but also a critical viewpoint to look at why the person made the decision to deal drugs, and ultimately how his society let him down, instead of looking at him negatively for it.

Paperback cover

Mav is put under pressure that have existed for other Black men, and Thomas acknowledges the balance she had to achieve while writing between realism and falling into a stereotype that has been associated with Black men in an interview with Time Magazine:  

“How do I fight against that [stereotypes]? And for me, it was again about looking at the person, looking at the why - because that's how you connect people who may not even identify with Maverick. You may not live in a neighborhood where there are gangs, but you can understand wanting to be protected. You may not have a parent who's incarcerated, but you can understand wanting to help your family out financially. These are all human emotions.” (Natera, 2021)

As Thomas states, at the heart of this novel is pure, raw emotion. She fights these potential stereotypes by grounding the characters in dynamic, realistic actions and words that can be related to. Mav has real intense emotions because Mav represents just one real Black man, not a stereotype.

Although Mav believes he can’t cry at first, his boss, Mr. Wyatt, emphasizes the importance of emotions:

“Son, one of the biggest lies ever told is that Black men don’t feel emotions. Guess it’s easier to not see us as human when you think we’re heartless. Fact of the matter is, we feel things. Hurt, pain, sadness, all of it. We got a right to show them feelings as much as anybody else” (Thomas, 164).

Almost halfway through the novel here, Mav cries for the first time, and I felt some sort of weight off my shoulders as he cried. I spent 160 pages watching this character build up a wall to separate a part of himself from the people who love him, and then he becomes brave enough to knock it down and show his grief and anxiety.

Mav is constantly trying to fit into this role of a Black man that society has created, when he finally learns that Black men are the only ones who should be defining the role of a Black man. After pages and pages of feeling out of control, he learns he can define himself and his identity.

Concrete Rose is a beautiful portrait of a Black man growing up in America and learning to define himself, instead of letting the world define him. This is one of those books that I think everyone should read. Although it is marketed as a YA novel, Angie Thomas is also read and loved by adults, and I feel like adolescent and adult readers alike would love and benefit from this book.

Although a young adult novel, I feel that young adults are not the only readers who could benefit from this novel, and this novel could both provide an example of the Black experience to non-Black readers, while also providing a sense of familiarity or understanding for Black readers.

I commend Angie Thomas for consistently coming out with both relevant and yet timeless young adult novels, and I highly recommend you give Concrete Rose a read.

-SS

Works Cited:

Natera, Cleyvis. “Https://Time.com/5928689/Concrete-Rose-Review-Angie-Thomas/.” Time, 12 Jan. 2021, time.com/5928689/concrete-rose-review-angie-thomas/.

Thomas, Angie. Concrete Rose. HarperCollins Publishers, 2021.

Photos from Goodreads.com

Friday, March 12, 2021

Fat Chance, Charlie Vega Review

A person with flowers on her head

Description automatically generated with low confidence

 I first learned about Fat Chance, Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado while browsing a publishing catalog. I had gotten into the habit of looking at these to not miss authors who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. My habit served me well because here was a book with a Puerto Rican main character hidden in the depths of a catalog. I rarely see my ethnicity represented in YA, and needless to say I counted the days until Fat Chance, Charlie Vega’s release day.   


Fat Chance, Charlie Vega follows the titular character Charlie, an aspiring teenage writer, as she navigates first love, self-acceptance, and friendship. In an interview with The Nerd Daily author Crystal Maldonado states the novel is about “[t]he five Fs…: fat fashion, feelings, friendship, and first love! At its core, I think this book is really about love in general — the kind you have for your friends, the kind that gives you butterflies in your stomach, and the kind you give to yourself” (Koehler, “Q&A: Crystal Maldonado, Author of ‘Fat Chance, Charlie Vega’”). This book celebrates love, and we accompany Charlie as she learns the importance of each iteration of it. 


Exploring different types of love Fat Chance, Charlie Vega delves into complex familial relationships. For instance, Charlie and her mother (Jeanne Vega) often disagree about Charlie’s weight. Mrs. Vega was once fat, but after a family loss she lost all the weight and thus insists Charlie does the same. Charlie, however, wants to accept her body as it is. The mother/daughter relationship in the novel dramatizes how the pressure for body conformity does not only comes from culture at large but also from within our own family. Charlie’s relationship with her mother changes for the better over the course of the novel, stressing how familial tensions like these are not resolved overnight – if ever. Charlie recognizes that she cannot change her mother, and that most of the change must come from within herself. Fatphobia exists everywhere in our society, and Fat Chance, Charlie Vega depicts that it can come from those who we are meant to love deeply, our family. 


Two of the other main types of love explored are friendships and romantic love. Charlie and her best friend Amelia have been inseparable since they were little. However, as they grow older, Charlie starts noticing how everyone prefers Amelia over her, this occurs when it comes to other friendships and romantic relationships. Through their relationship Maldonado illustrates how easy it is to put one’s self down by constantly comparing ourselves to our friends or peers. I thought this topic was handled well and it showed how fine the line is between admiration and comparison. The novel depicted the importance of recognizing how careful we must be when loving our friends because putting them on a pedestal could lead to resentment. Furthermore, the novel also explores first love. Charlie has never been kissed and daydreams about finding someone who will love her as she is. As an aspiring Romance writer, she wants to experience it for herself. Once she does, she finds herself consumed by her romantic relationship. I found the relationship between Charlie and the romantic lead sweet and well developed. We see Charlie realize who she is within the context of the relationship and how her self-love does not need to come from her partner’s validation. 





The most celebrated form of love in Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is self-love. Charlie’s journey is about accepting herself and her body. This develops throughout the novel as she navigates different types of relationships such as the one with her mother, best friend, and boyfriend. Ultimately, she discovers that her love for herself should not be rooted in these, instead it must come from within. I was glad to see how Charlie slowly came to this realization. She is not a character who is completely self-deprecating since she displays confidence when it comes to her writing skills. 


However, she struggles to see the beauty in herself because everything around her tells her she’s anything but beautiful. Charlie feels the need to embody perfection in order to be worthy of love. Her best friend Amelia gives her some advice when it comes to this by saying, “You need to believe in your value for you, even if you’re not some flawless ethereal being…We’re all messy, Charlie” (316). This encapsulates Charlie’s journey to self-love the realization that no one is perfect, and that value comes from the self not external sources. 


When starting Fat Chance, Charlie Vega I had no particular expectation as to how I wanted to see my culture portrayed. I felt excitement over a character who shared my cultural identity. However, the representation of Puerto Rican culture delighted me. There was mention of my favorite foods like tostones (twice fried plantains). Yet, what I really loved was how Maldonado approached the topic of Spanish and Puerto Rican culture. Charlie is half Puerto Rican and half white, but mainly takes after her Puerto Rican side. There is some discussion as to how Charlie feels inadequate when it comes to her father’s side of the family because she doesn’t speak Spanish. I thought that this was a great point by the author and one that is important to make. I have heard my own family members voice their concerns about Puerto Rican children who do not speak Spanish. To me this is not something that separates you from your heritage and I’m glad that Charlie realizes this as well. Maldonado depicts the Puerto Rican experience not as a monolith, but as one that is unique to the person. This is such a powerful message that resonated with me and I believe I won't be alone in this. I appreciated how Charlie’s cultural identity wasn’t just about food or any other practices, instead it was weaved with her journey of self-acceptance and provided a powerful message for the Puerto Rican audience living in the US. 


Another aspect of the novel that I really enjoyed was the inclusion of fashion and development of style. I love reading fashion descriptions in books and seeing how the author depicts outfits. In the novel we see how Charlie tries to pinpoint her style by frequenting #fatfashion on Instagram and how seeing other people like her inspired her to find her own sense of style. I enjoyed how Maldonado included critique of fashion stores, which often do not carry clothing that would be suitable for a teenager. Instead, these retailers sell matronly looking clothing. The reader can get a glimpse of Charlie’s style in the cover and in other instances of the novel. As someone who is straight-sized this was not something I considered, but I’m glad it was part of Charlie’s journey. 


Author, Crystal Maldonado, explores the five F’s (fat fashion, feelings, friendship, and first love) through all the themes I mentioned and does so with a character that we can’t help but root for. Fat Chance, Charlie Vega is a story of different kinds of love and how they all play a part in the formation of the self. Charlie is a magnificent character who drives this story and helps readers realize that we should embrace all aspects of ourselves. It also can help the reader see how fatphobia is embedded in our culture and how some of the things we say can be harmful to those we love. With a diverse cast of characters and an extremely lovable main character, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega will take readers on a journey of love and self-acceptance. 



Sources:


Koehler, Mimi. “Q&A: Crystal Maldonado, Author of ‘Fat Chance, Charlie Vega.’” The Nerd Daily. February 1, 2021. www.thenerddaily.com/crystal-maldonado-author-interview/


Maldonado, Crystal. Fat Chance, Charlie Vega. Holiday House, 2021.

-NA

Friday, March 5, 2021

To All the Books I’ve Loved Before

I’ve been thinking a lot about the end recently.

The end of the semester, to clarify. I bring this up because it will also be the end of my graduate career (assuming I pass my portfolio defense – more on that later!). As I reflect on what it means to be awarded an M.A. degree, I ponder if my relationship with literature has changed. Do I put literature on a higher pedestal now? Have my “immature” interests matured? Has studying children’s and young adult literature led me to love it more or hate the flaws I’ve come to notice?

Which brings me to this blog post. Its title is a reference to the movie, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, whose teen romance genre reminds me of what drew me to the very first book I wrote a blog post about: I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn. I realized only in hindsight that what makes this novel one of my favorites is that despite all of the books I’ve read throughout the years that featured romance in any way, it was the first in which I actually found the love interest attractive. In fact, it was the first I had read in which there was an Asian male love interest.

There exist many novels in which young Asian American girls fall in love, but predictably, their love interests are often white (or unidentified, and therefore white by default in the popular imagination). The movie alluded to in this blog post’s title is one example, alongside Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai, Fake it Till You Break It by Jenn. P Nguyen, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, and many others. It is much more likely to see an Asian American teenage girl fall in love with a white character than another Asian American or someone of another ethnicity, which perpetuates the stereotype of the submissive Oriental. What about the Asian American boys?

One reason that Asian American young men are not depicted as love interests might be the Asian American literary trope that Asian men are frequently depicted as effeminate or having the characteristics of a woman. Reclaiming Asian masculinity from this disparaging association that erases their distinctiveness is vital, and there is some progress within Asian American young adult literature. Young Asian American men are occasionally depicted as attractive, such as in I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee wherein the love interest is a famous model. Novels such as this and I Love You So Mochi disrupt the notion that only white boys are of interest and instead provide much-needed representation.



Yet we run into another problem when Asian American teens fall in love with one another and date in YA literature. A surprising pattern emerges: the relationships very often hinge on secrecy, lies, and/or defying parental expectations. Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chao and Frankly in Love by David Yoon are several examples in which relationships are faked for parental approval. Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo chronicles a relationship that develops over a day of lies about professional work, and Romeo and Juliet gets a contemporary, Vietnamese American spin in Loan Le’s A Phở Love Story. When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon and A Taste for Love by Jennifer Yen feature parents who select dating partners for their children. Just a cursory glance at texts that feature young Asian American protagonists shows that romance is nearly always entangled with deception and parental involvement.

Despite this, these novels are engaging. Their protagonists grapple with parental expectations out of love for these family members, and the casual depiction of cultural markers is comforting. Rather than repackage tropes, these novels integrate Asian American experience with the familiarity of teenage romance. New characterizations fit in smoothly with canonical ones: respectfully reserved, shy young men, abrasively opinionated, good-hearted young women, physically attractive boys, and intellectually impressive girls claim their spaces in the pages. This genre will continue to expand, and with it, the conceptualization of what it looks like to be Asian American and in love will continue to grow. Asian American YA romance has much potential to delineate the “heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity” of Asian American culture advocated for by Lisa Lowe (66). 

Having explored the genre of Asian American young adult romance that was so special to me before this M.A. program because of how rarely I encountered it, I return to my question: do I love it more or do I hate the flaws I’ve come to see? My answer is that I still love it. Though I was initially dismissive of the importance of representation as I entered graduate studies, choosing Asian American children’s literature as my specialization has led to representation becoming more meaningful to me than before I had embarked on this exploratory journey. I’ve read and appreciated Asian American YA literature in the past, but this graduate assistantship has allowed me to validate it to myself and spotlight it for others to appreciate. What I’ve learned throughout my time as a blogger of children’s literature academia is that it is worth it to critically examine what captivates us. We’ll emerge with a more robust, complex understanding of all the books we’ve loved before.

-       (A.N.)

*Special thanks to Magical Reads Blog, which has a lengthy list of YA romances with Asian Characters. Definitely worth taking a look at!

https://magicalreads7.wordpress.com/2020/05/14/list-ya-romances-with-asian-characters/

 

Scholarly Works Referenced

Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Duke University Press, 1996. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

One of the Good Ones Book Review


 

Who gets to be “one of the good ones” and why?

Maika and Maritza Moulite’s sophomore novel explores this concept and adds a mysterious twist to it. One of the Good Ones follows sisters Happi and Genny in the aftermath of their sister’s (Kezi) mysterious death. Kezi, a teen activist and YouTuber, is arrested at a social justice protest and dies while in police custody. She is deemed “one of the good ones” by the media, but her family is left grieving. To honor Kezi, Happi and Genny embark on a road trip Kezi had planned before her death using an heirloom copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book. One of the Good Ones discusses a wide range of topics such as family and social injustice.

The novel opens three months after Kezi’s death. Happi and her family are attending a ceremony where Kezi was to accept an award for her activist work. As she is listening to the ceremony presenters, Happi reflects on the aftermath of her sister’s death and how the media has portrayed Kezi:

“She was mine before she was anyone else’s. All mine. Partly mine. Now she belongs to you and them and shirts and rallies and songs and documentaries. They say she has A Bright Future Ahead of Her and She Was a Star Whose Light Burned Out Too Soon. She Was Going to Make a Difference. That’s all true, but it is not the Truth. She was more than her future. She had a past. She was living her present…She was my sister before she became your martyr, after all” (Moulite 11).

This excerpt from the novel expresses its overarching commentary on who is worthy of remembrance by showing how Kezi has been deemed “one of the good ones.” In the above quotation Kezi has become a headline, a trend but to Happi she was her sister. Happi counteracts the sensationalism of Kezi’s death by presenting a headline of her own, which she calls “the Truth.” The truth is what does not get circulated around the news or social media and Happi is there to remind the reader of it. Happi reminds us how before her death Kezi’s story belonged to no one else but Kezi and those who loved her, to them she was a person. This beginning passage sets the tone for the rest of the novel, which explores who these three sisters are in relation to the “one of the good ones” concept and their family history.  





Authors Maika and Maritza Moulite do an excellent job of developing characters who are less than perfect. This is mainly depicted through Happi’s character arc. Happi is constantly juxtaposed with her sister Kezi. Kezi is studious and invested in her relationships with her family and family history; whereas Happi keeps her family at arm’s length, is more preoccupied with her peers, and self-involved. Kezi is positioned as the responsible one while Happi is the more rebellious one. The juxtaposition between Happi and Kezi exemplifies how society expects members of the Black community to be perfect in every way in order to be deemed worthy of remembrance. This is why characters like Happi need to come in abundance. Characters who learn how their actions affect those around them and once they realize such mistakes they are shown reflecting on their choices. Happi’s character arc depicts how easy it is to forget that those close to us are going through different experiences. Happi's arc also shows how there can be growth without changing the core self, an aspect which I loved. Happi was not perfect and that was the beauty of her character because she was depicted as living her Truth. 


One of the Good Ones presents multiple perspectives, some being Happi's, Kezi before her death, and various of their ancestors. The novel weaves the stories of these different family members through a physical item, The Negro Motorist Green Book. This guide was used by Black Americans during the segregation era to travel safely across the US, it catalogs places which welcomed Black folks. The novel traces the history of the copy in Happi and Kezi’s family through flashbacks of their ancestors. These show how the use of the Green Book changed throughout the generations, but also how despite the book being out of print the US is not a safe place for Black Americans. By doing this Maika and Maritza Moulite present us with the truth of this family and the importance of being connected with our family history because to know it is to understand something bigger than us. Using a physical object, tracing its history through the family, and creating a new narrative with it was absolutely brilliant. The story’s structure offers full immersion by showcasing family history and providing the reader with a larger scope of the story. This aspect of the novel took me by surprise since I was expecting the story to follow mainly the sisters, but instead it depicted the importance of being involved with your family and knowing who they were.

One of the Good Ones is a wonderful exploration of the concept and should not be bound by one genre. The story is a contemporary one because of the themes explored but it contains elements of mystery. The mystery of it will keep the reader on edge while providing a roller coaster of emotions. The use of valuable physical objects to depict family ties, the narrative structure, and the character work are just some of the amazing aspects of this novel. One of the Good Ones contains multitudes and it’s a read you won’t want to miss!

 

-NA

 

Moulite, Maika, and Maritza Moulite. One of the Good Ones. Inkyard Press, 2021.

Author and cover images from the publisher.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Review of "Black Girl Unlimited"

Echo Brown’s debut novel, Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard may have been one of my favorite books of 2020, and I don’t give those titles out to just any book. 

Black Girl Unlimited is described as a magical realism memoir. If this sounds counterintuitive, I promise it works. Echo, the protagonist, is growing up on the East Side of Cleveland with her mother and two brothers. As she navigates through life, she frames her experiences with elements of magic. What I love about this book is that it fights, and succeeds, to stand out as a unique reading experience. 

Instead of chapters, the book is split into nineteen sections, or “Lessons” of wizard training that Echo learns throughout her life, including “Evading the Black Veil”, “Performing Miracles of Unity”, and “Forgiving Yourself”. 

Although this book tackles a lot of heavy topics, including rape, depression, poverty, and drug use, Brown still manages to hold onto the magic throughout the book. 

The character Echo refers to herself and her mother as wizards, thus the lessons of wizard training at the start of each section. Although this is the magical realism element of the memoir, as I read the book I felt as if Echo and her mother truly were wizards. This book isn’t just being silly, but the use of them as wizards feels purposeful and real because this is based on her real life. 

Brown states that these lessons (the chapter titles) were healing work that she has done through her life due to her trauma, so each of these lessons was inspired by, as Brown states, her therapeutic and spiritual work to heal herself. She continues, “I also think some of the lessons are rooted in bigger themes I have aspired to in my real life that readers also may find useful. For example, the last lesson, “you are unlimited, be fearless in your pursuits” is something I remind myself of over and over especially when fears and insecurities rise. My hope is that some of the lessons will be inspirational for readers, reminding them of their own potential and abilities” (We Need Diverse Books, 2020). By putting in these lessons she learned based on her real life, they feel relatable and attainable. 

Although dealing with magic, the book breaks down real life stereotypes. Beautifully said by Karen Valby in the New York Times, “Brown’s greatest gift is evoking intimacy, and as she delicately but firmly snatches the reader’s attention, we are allowed to see this girl of multitudes and her neighborhood of contradictions in full and specific detail. Stereotypes, like the bitter myth of the strong black woman, wither on the page” (Valby, 2020). 

Echo the character is balancing the worlds of stereotypes, school, her home life, and her magic, while also dealing with a “black veil”. 

There is a reoccurring image of “black veils” that Echo sees over all people. She first sees a disembodied veil: 

“At first, I assume it’s a bird, but it doesn’t move like a bird…I see it, the black veil, right outside, hovering in the dark of night. I see clearly now that it is an ominous creature with no face, shaped like a rectangular piece of fabric, that ruffles and moves like a flag in the wind.” (Brown, 77)

Her mother reveals she also has seen the veil in times of intense trauma: “Black and scary-like, hoverin’ right ova me. I started screamin’ at da top of my lungs ‘cause I didn’t know what it was…I would see it e’ry night, until finally, I sank so far down, at da bottom of myself, it finally swooped on down and covered me, my whole head. I felt like I was suffocatin’. I couldn’t breathe.” (Brown, 80)
Author Echo Brown Brown highlights an interesting metaphor of generational trauma. Like the trauma Echo’s mother passes to her, her mother also passes what I would describe as an ability to see the veil, but Echo’s mother emphasizes that the black veil must be evaded. 

Brown worked with tweaking this metaphor throughout the writing process: 

“It felt like the black veil needed to descend somehow and submerge the victim, so it eventually changed the black veil that wraps itself around its victims. This was another instance where it wasn’t enough to just describe depression as it is, which is so challenging in real life. I needed a magical concept to really describe its impact and effect in a way that straightforward reality would miss, which is how the concept of the black veil came about.” (We Need Diverse Books, 2020) 

Ultimately, Brown landed on a way to convey her trauma to the reader in such a concrete and innovative way, and in my opinion, an incredibly effective way as well. 

Only wizards, like Echo and her mother, can see this veil, but they must fight to keep the veil off: 

“Only way you can keep it off is to stay lifted. Got to stay spirited and in da light….Only way I can get mine off now is drankin’ and druggin’, othawise it’s always on me. I done learned how ta live in it mostly, but sometimes, I just cain’t control it, the darkness inside of me.” (Brown, 83) 

This section truly spoke to me. The depression is so powerful it has become a physical object that practically suffocates Echo, and appears to have pushed her mother into a deep addiction, something her mother struggles with throughout the novel. It is so real it turns into a physical black veil, almost described as a menacing creature or spirit, that must be evaded. Brown takes this portion of her life, potential trauma, and creates this metaphor of an object that can finally be understood or have logic applied to when these emotions can feel anything but logical. 

I think this is part of the importance of the magical realism in Brown’s novel. She has these events in life that she could not control and turns them into physical objects that as the author she can control. This book isn’t just Echo overcoming trauma, it’s the author rewriting her own trauma experience, as this is a memoir. Although I do not know to what exact extent the trauma in the novel is based on her own life, in this case the character Echo explores the idea of trauma to show how suffocating it can feel, while also how it is possible to overcome. 

Magical realism is a tool for Brown to portray trauma, and she uses that tool like an expert. In a way, the trauma as a physical object makes it feel possible to overcome. Trauma can feel incredibly abstract and therefore almost intangible to understand or simply deal with. By making her trauma a physical thing, it both shows the reader the overwhelming aspect of trauma, while also showing that it is possible to manage, in this case through “magic”, or her writing. Ultimately, a step of overcoming this appears to be through writing her own memoir. She wields the genre like a wizard controlling magic. 

I also notice Brown challenges the very nature of how books are written. She does this fascinating technique where she ends midsentence, then starts a new paragraph finishing the sentence but with a completely new idea. This sounds complicated but she still makes a full sentence.
Brown is not only turning what we think of memoirs on its head, but she even challenges the structure of how a book is written, as seen above. The character is not the only magic, this book itself is a magical experience made of careful artistry. 

An important aspect of the novel is she is challenging what a memoir is. We as the readers are not privy to knowing what truly did or did not happen because of the fantastical elements, so Brown is now in control of not just her narrative, but she can finally control her trauma at least to some degree. Brown takes her story and is finally able to control it. We are being guided through her story by her. Brown is there to control what is or is not seen of her in her story, something that through her experience she was initially powerless to. 

Although this is her first book, Brown has already made a name for herself in the book community. Brown shows care and expertise in her writing, creating a novel full of love and magic. I cannot wait for her sophomore novel, The Chosen One, set to publish in 2022. 

-SS 

Brown, Echo. Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard. Holt/Ottaviano, 2020.

“Q&A With Echo Brown: BLACK GIRL UNLIMITED.” We Need Diverse Books, 17 Jan. 2020,                diversebooks.org/qa-with-echo-brown-black-girl-unlimited/. 

Valby, Karen. “In Hollywood, Stories About People of Color Are Still Rare. These Y.A. Fantasy                Novels Pick Up the Slack.” The New York Times, 4 Feb. 2020,                                                                  www.nytimes.com/2020/02/04/books/review/dark-and-deepest-red-anna-mari-mclemore-black-            girl-unlimited-echo-brown.html. 

Author and cover photo from goodreads.com