Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"The Moon Within" Book Review


The Moon Within by debut author Aida Salazar is a beautiful middle grade novel in verse which explores growing older and self-discovery.

The protagonist, Celi Rivera, has questions about growing older: about her changing body, about her first attraction to a boy, and her best friend Mar’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.

It is incredibly important to Celi’s mother that Celi will have a moon ceremony, a ceremony marking her transition from girl to woman, as Celi explains in one of the first poems, “Moon Ceremony”. Celi initially refuses not only the ceremony, but the prospect of growing older:

“I dread the ceremony where she will gather

all six of my aunts

some of my dance teachers

a constellation of grown-up women

to talk to me

about what it means to bleed monthly…

Embarrassment will eat me up whole!” (9-10)

Celi expressed a fear that may be relatable to both readers who have gone through a moon ceremony, and those who have dealt with their first menstruation as well. Although she is embarrassed, her Mima explains,

Our ancestors honored

our flowering in this way.

It is a ritual taken away from us

during so many conquests.” (10, italics in original)

Salazar here not only shares an important part of her heritage with the reader, but she is alluding to the need to take back this ceremony from the times whiteness has attempted to snuff out the rich heritage that Mima is passing along. This snuffing is from the shame that is associated with menstrual cycles, while Celi’s culture celebrates it. Through the reader being privy to Celi’s thoughts, the emphasis on her ceremony brings up interesting points of discussions on preserving culture and taking back a sense of ownership when puberty may make someone feel out of control of their body. Like the ritual being taken away by colonizers, Celi tries to take back control of her body and her moon ceremony.

Although Celi struggles with the idea of growing older, poem by poem she comes to explore what it is to be changing. We follow Celi as she grows to accept her changing body through dance, comradery, and self-love. Dance is one of the spaces that allows Celi to feel comfortable in her body and her femininity, as explored in the poem “Puerto Rican Drum Dance”.

She began dancing as a very young girl:

“I held the tips of my little dress

and pretended I was catching

butterflies in the air.

That is what the music told me to do.” (89) 

Celi for once does not have questions when she dances, she simply knows how to dance, how to answer the rhythm of the music.

The verse of this poem sways like a dancer and Salazar expertly breaks lines to create space within the poem, like a dancer awaiting their next move. Salazar’s poetry is full of vivid imagery which made me feel as if I were falling into the middle of Celi’s world.

Celi is not the only young character going through change, but her best friend, Marco (previously known as Magda), begins to explore his gender fluidity and finds his own self best expressed through his short hair and pants instead of the long dresses Celi loves to wear.

The Moon Within is an honest portrayal of some of the feelings of growing up and having a changing body and mind. Salazar’s verse is an excellent novel exploring the themes of changing and growing older.

Kirkus Reviews calls The Moon Within “a worthy successor to Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret”, and US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera says the book is “revolutionary and culturally ecstatic”.

This book was not published until I was in my twenties, but I wish I had this book when I was Celi’s age, and I hope that readers going through a similar experience as Celi or Mar will find this book. In beautiful prose, Salazar works to destigmatize gender fluidity and menstrual cycles. I can imagine readers experiencing either of these topics will find solace not only in feeling less alone, but seeing Salazar turn these experiences into beautiful poems.

Salazar has more books planned for publication, including Jovita Wore Pants, her first picture book about the revolutionary Jovita Valdovinos. She also recently published her sophomore novel The Land of the Cranes, a novel in verse about a young girl being held in a family detention center for migrants and refugees.




Friday, November 13, 2020

Teaching Literature Online


This semester, I taught a section of Introduction to Literature for the first time. I had been looking forward to this opportunity since I had heard of it, but creating my own syllabus was more difficult than I had imagined. My literary interests are scattered, so nothing I could come up with was a broad enough theme to trace across a survey of literature. Thankfully, I had support for this brainstorming process and for the theme I eventually came up with during my Introduction to Graduate Studies course.

My course is titled: “The Hero(ine)’s Journey.” Unsurprisingly, most of the texts ended up falling into the category of children’s literature. We began the semester by reading a section of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces to introduce “The Hero’s Journey,” as it would be the foundational theory from which we would begin our analysis of heroes in literature. Campbell was followed by a poetry unit on the characters of Beowulf and Psyche to compare older notions of heroes with heroines. Those texts were then examined in contrast to the contemporary novels The Lightning Thief and Children of Blood and Bone.

Truth be told, I can hardly remember what the first day of class was like, though it was evident that the students and I were both cautious about the new virtual environment we were learning in. The pressure to make a good first impression was both compounded and eased by Zoom. As the host of the meeting, I felt in control about how I would present myself – but at the same time, I had no experience with the format of a hybrid online course. I could see how I appeared to students, but it was much harder to tell how they perceived me. I was upfront about my position as a graduate student specializing in children’s literature, and the students seemed to respond favorably. There was more shuffling during the add/drop period than I had experienced when teaching rhetoric and writing studies last semester, but I took nothing personally as I knew that academic advising was difficult to access. As the class roster settled, we fell into a routine that the students and I felt comfortable with.

            Here’s a look into a regular week of our hybrid online course! On Mondays and Wednesdays, we meet via Zoom for fifty minutes. Before class, students read the assigned text and then submit a short meeting prep/reading quiz. This is a small-stakes assignment meant to assess reading comprehension or prepare students for the topic of that day’s class. During our Zoom time, I often begin with a plot check for the more complicated texts, then introduce whatever concept I have planned for the day. Occasionally, I squeeze in a video, poll question, or article relevant to our topic. We spend most of our time on the discussion questions I have prepped ahead of time. Discussion takes various forms: verbal conversations, chat quick replies or detailed responses, and breakout groups.

I found that it was difficult to build a sense of community on Zoom, particularly when students were not able or willing to turn their cameras on. As a result, group work has been awkward and generally results in lackluster responses. What seems to work best with this group of students is for me to lead them through the concept or article for the day, converse with discussion questions, and then assign some individual work to be completed and sent in the chat box. Fifty minutes is a short amount of time to get this done, but I have been impressed with how students engaged with the text and the concepts I threw at them. On Fridays, students submit a discussion post on Canvas responding to a question or on whatever free-write topic they would like to bring up. This is a chance to think deeply about the text, elaborate on topics briefly discussed, and to practice MLA citing. They can also “like” each other’s posts.  

Having just finished our “reading half” of the semester after Children of Blood and Bone, we paused reading and discussing texts to begin the “writing half.” Their first major assignment was a literary analysis essay. A couple of weeks were dedicated to the writing and conferencing process, and students submitted a three to four-page paper on one of three prompts. Online peer review was something of a nightmare: if one student submitted late or in the wrong place, the other students would not have access to their peer’s paper. Canvas closed the peer review deadline a day early, so we had to work around it by using email. Conferencing, on the other hand, was much more efficient with Zoom. I made a simple sign-up sheet and hopped into Zoom when I knew a student was coming. I was able to share my screen to point students to where I had left feedback on their rough drafts, and could affirm whether or not they could see it on their end. It also seemed to work better for people’s schedules; they could open up the Zoom app during a work break and didn’t have to worry about commuting.

Once the literary analysis essays were successfully submitted, we took a “break” with a picture book and graphic novel section analyzing ethnicity and disability through Super Cilantro Girl and El Deafo. The conversation about representation that these texts engendered led into the research essays that students are currently developing as I write this. The prompt is quite open-ended: “What kind of representation should we see more of?” Students are tasked with selecting a topic and genre – for example, an essay that focuses on Chicanas in picture books could use Super Cilantro Girl as the main text – to argue that representation is lacking or insufficient. I am excited by the range of topics and genres that students have expressed interest in, and hope that the writing and research process will be enjoyable because of how flexible the prompt is.

I cannot end this blog post without mentioning the fantastic internship course, ENGL 796, that is paired with the first semester of teaching as a graduate student in SDSU’s English department. ENGL 796 is guided by an associate professor and, this semester, is comprised of two M.A. students teaching Intro to Literature and two M.F.A. students teaching Intro to Creative Writing. This course has kept me abreast of current issues and innovations in pedagogy as well as gave me the chance to prepare a portfolio for future hiring. Most importantly, I can share my concerns and successes with peers as we use Zoom to teach our first ENGL classes.  

I am very grateful for the opportunity to teach an introductory course during my time as a graduate student. So far, despite the less-than-ideal online format, it has been wonderful to delve deeply into topics in literature that my non-English major students would rarely discuss otherwise. Though varied in academic year, all of them are taking the study of children’s literature seriously and have shared profound insights in class and in their written work. It is a bit sad to look back at how much we have completed, knowing that there are only four weeks left until the semester ends. Yet I can already see students making connections between their lives and the texts we read, which I hope they will take away with them even after they move on to other courses. My goal as a novice teacher is to encourage students to do this critical analytical work, discovering its relevance to their lives so that they can enact the change they want to see in the world. With this first class, I hope that analyzing “The Hero(ine)’s Journey” will lead to students becoming the hero(in)es they themselves need no matter where they go. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Book Review of "A Song Below Water"

A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow is a fantastic book about prejudice, friendship, and magic. Written in powerful prose with dynamic main characters, Morrow balances magic with real-life events in her novel to create an impactful and resounding story.

Morrow’s first young adult novel follows Tavia and Effie, best friends who are more like sisters. In this world, all sirens are Black women, including the siren Tavia. Although not related, Effie and Tavia refer to one another as sisters, and have such a powerful, and perhaps magical, love for one another. Morrow carries the important theme of sisterhood throughout the story, and shows the true, honest, and loving friendship these two young women have. The two are not only some of the few black people in Portland, Oregon, but Tavia is one of the only magical folk in the city. Tavia is a siren who mostly converses through ASL, except around Effie. Magic weaves through her story, sometimes taking the stage and other times swirling through the background. I would personally call this a light fantasy novel, while others have shelved it as magical realism or urban fantasy (according to Goodreads).

Morrow perfectly describes her book on twitter as embodying “Black girl magic” and excellently focuses on the idea of voice as magic and resistance in her novel.

Although a beautiful and magical book, the more you read, the more chilling the book gets.

At the start of the book, a Black woman named Rhoda Taylor was murdered by her boyfriend. However, she only appeared on the news “because social media had been circulating it and demanding to know why no one seemed to be saying her name” (12). Soon, Tavia learns “the defense is saying the deceased was a siren. Which means she wasn’t a victim after all” (13). Sirens have a voice full of so much power that it can control others. Sirens are powerful, and therefore they are feared. Humans blame Taylor for her own murder.

Art of protagonists by Twitter user @layahimalaya

This hate of sirens was not started by Rhoda Taylor’s murder. The hate is traced back to at least the 1960s “Siren Trials”, when sirens were publicly outed and murdered. The murderers were never brought to justice (27), and this trial seems to be well-remembered and is a cause for fear in the town among humans.

Following Rhoda Taylor’s murder trial, Tavia begins to fear for her own life, as all sirens are seen as dangerous, as murderers. Those found out to be sirens are forced to wear an electronic collar to control their magical voice.

Although these sirens are of course not all murderers, Tavia says “none of us are immune to the public distrust of sirens” (29). Tavia is emphasizing that this distrust pervades society, and perhaps Tavia, a siren herself, has been inundated and therefore mislead by these implicit biases.

The real-world parallel of Morrow’s novel is undeniable. On her Twitter account, she says “I wanted this book to be a reflection on a recent past, not a statement on the brutal present, but I pray it finds the black girls who need it”. Morrow’s book came out not only during the current prominent civil rights movement in America, but being published June 2, 2020, Morrow’s book was published only three months after the murder of Breonna Taylor, to name just one of the many, many Black people who have been unjustly killed at the hands of the American police.

Not only is the parallel to the real world undeniable, the publication of A Song Below Water was perfectly timed, in my opinion. In an interview with Den of Geek, Morrow speaks further on the timely nature of the novel: “In conversation with my sister, I said, ‘My voice is power,’ an assertive, knowing statement and I meant it literally; I was talking about why the world gets so frothingly, viciously, violently enraged at the audacity of Black women daring to have opinions online…I was referring to the ridiculous gaslighting that comes with it where much of the abuse heaped on the Black woman in question is around the supposed fact that she’s a nobody and she means nothing, and no one cares what she thinks—despite that everyone is dogpiling her to tell her so”. 

Author Bethany C. Morrow

Morrow has found a way to elevate her voice in a time when voices like hers are the most important to listen to with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Morrow’s book has not gone unnoticed. Following A Song Below Water’s publication, Morrow was listed on USA Today’s 100 Black novelists and fiction writers you should read, and is highly rated on the popular website, Goodreads.

This is a beautiful, timely book that should be read by anyone. With excellent writing skill, Morrow balances real-life issues with captivating magical elements. All I want is to sing my praises for A Song Below Water, and I hope this review can be seen especially by who Morrow refers to as “the black girls who need it”.

Morrow has announced a sequel to her novel, A Chorus Rises, will be released in 2021, which I am surely looking forward to.