Archive | October, 2010

Go Vegan Week!

31 Oct

Nora went to college with my fiancee. A couple years back, they reconnected and she invited us over for dinner. On the way to Nora’s house, I realized that I had forgotten to ask him to mention that I was vegan and to offer to bring something. Luckily, Nora is vegan (and an amazing cook). That same night, I also learned that Nora loves YA, that she is going to school to get her school media certification (my future plan as well), and that she is into super cheesy pop culture stuff (in a good way of course). We were destined to be friends and co-bloggers.

Today ends Go Vegan Week, which I didn’t actually know existed until author Tera Lynn Childs posted about it on her facebook page. Since Nora and I are not only lovers of YA but also dedicated vegans, I decided to celebrate Go Vegan Week by reading Vegan Virgin Valentine – the only book I have come across with a vegan protagonist (any others I should check out?). This review will contain some spoilers so proceed with caution if you have yet to read this one!

Vegan Virgin Valentine

Mara Valentine seems to have her act together. She’s been accepted early decision at Yale, she is neck-in-neck in the race for valedictorian, she is involved in numerous clubs/activities, has a part-time job to avoid looking too privileged on her college applications, and she is on course to enter college with several credits under her belt. Where she’s lacking? Friends, romance – she has little time nor seemingly interest in a social life. As she says, she’s on course to leave Upstate, NY, not to make new ties. When her wild child of a niece, who is just 1 year younger than Mara, comes to live with the Valentines, her life is shaken up. She and Vivienne Vail Valentine (known simply as V), are seemingly on far, opposite ends of the personality spectrum, almost caricatures. Throughout Mara’s last year of high school and V’s first year living with the Valentines, the two young women find themselves transforming into more believable, well-rounded individuals as they explore who they are and what is important to them.

The story is pretty predictable after a point, but I still enjoyed it and it was a fast read. Mara is a pretty intense character. She reminds me of a friend from high school, except that my friend while highly determined to succeed, also had an active social life and boyfriends and such. I’m glad that when Mara decides to take some time off from schoolwork and clubs to explore her new crush and newfound sexuality, that she doesn’t have to entirely sacrifice her success at school; I worry about the message that would send. I like both Mara and V as characters, especially as they start to move in from the edges and feel more relatable. While I’m glad that Mara has a crush and dives in, no matter how nice and smart he is nor how mature for her age she is (her parents’ eventual rationalization), it still creeps me out a little that she’s basically dating her boss who is 5 years older than her. Technically it isn’t illegal (I looked it up); if she were one year younger it would be a different story. I think it is hilarious how she obsesses over his jeans with the hole in the thigh. And I’m glad that he doesn’t pressure her to have sex with him, like her ex-boyfriend did. I do worry that this book sends the message that high schoolers who are virgins are clearly wound too tight and need to loosen up and have sex. Hopefully the message that readers get, instead, is that waiting until you are ready can be pretty awesome.

In the end, Mara is no longer a virgin nor a vegan. At the beginning, she explains that going vegan was a way for her to be “all-consumingly obsessive” over something aside from the break-up with her sex-pressuring boyfriend. People go vegan for many different reasons and some of those reasons are healthier and/or more sensible than others. Since this book was all about Mara loosening up a little, not always having to be in control of things, and because she expressed being only somewhat committed to not eating animals for reasons other than obsession, I predicted the demise of her veganhood early on. I do wish there was a book out there for young adults that featured a vegan protagonist who was still a vegan by the end of the book and following that lifestyle healthfully, but I don’t think that Mackler needs to be the one to fill that author role. I do hope that readers unfamiliar with what it means to be vegan won’t take Mara’s word for it that to be vegan necessitates obsessive vigilance (that’s not how I experience it) nor that everyone feels a sense of loss for and dreams of the items that they (once) crave(d). One thing that I appreciate about the representation of Mara as a vegan, is that she cooks really tasty sounding food, as does her mom who is kind enough (like mine was and still is) to cook meat on the side so that the family can still share meals with one another.

Em’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Author: Carolyn Mackler
Reader: Katherine Kellgren
Publishers: Candlewick Press (2004) and Recorded Books (2004)

Tera Lynn Childs’ blog has a Very Vegan Halloween post up today which lists a bunch of different vegan candies. Yum! Shout-out to my favorite: Chick-O-Sticks! I LOVE YOU!

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

28 Oct

Eleven year old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer made national news headlines in the summer of 1994 when he was killed by fellow gangmembers. Leading up to his murder, Yummy was on the run from the police for the accidental shooting death of a fourteen year-old neighborhood girl. Author G. Neri and Illustrator Randy DuBurke explore Yummy’s story in the graphic novel Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty. Neri chose to tell the story through the eyes and ears of Roger, a fictional 11 year-old from Yummy’s neighborhood, whose brother is a member of the same gang that Yummy joined and who knew both Yummy and Shavon, the young woman who was hit by a stray bullet intended for a rival gangmember. Roger has insider knowledge, but he doesn’t know everything, so he contemplates his memories, what he has heard on the news and around the neigborhood, and what he imagines, as he tries to make sense of Shavon and Yummy’s deaths.

Yummy’s life story is a short one, a sad one – father in prison, mother in-and-out, abused as a child, drawn to delinquency and gang-life at a young age, accidentally killed a young woman and in the end killed by his fellow gangmembers at age 11. Roger describes Yummy as a thief and a bully at school, but he also remembers seeing other sides of Yummy. He remembers a day when Yummy smiled brightly as he showed Roger a frog he had found, how he had a teddy bear, and how he loved his grandmother. After hearing “experts” talk about Yummy on the news and diverse opinions from neighbors, Roger wonders who the real Yummy is – “the one who stole my lunch money? Or the one who smiled when I shared my candy with him?” (p. 63) And he wonders if he had had the same childhood experiences as Yummy, would he have ended up the same way?

The collaboration between Neri and DuBurke is exceptional; DuBurke’s black and white illustrations are a perfect fit with Yummy’s story and Neri’s storytelling. I can’t imagine how this graphic novel would work had it been in color. How can you tell the story of the violent deaths of two youth in vibrant colors? The black and white also lends itself well to the use of light and shadows. The contrast between the frame of Yummy smiling and holding a teddy bear with his face lit by the television screen, and the frame of him with his face all in shadow except for one eye staring down the barrel of a gun, is drastic. One of these images carries more questions for young Roger and thus is largely obstructed by shadows. Similarly in the spread pictured here, there is a great difference between the top two frames where Yummy’s face is concealed as he casts shadows on himself and on his victim, and the two frames at the bottom where Shavon and Yummy are clearly lit and appear more alike in their youthful innocence than they are different.

When a young person is shot and killed, their story is obviously a tragedy – who they were and who they could have been and the family left behind – and it is easy to portray the shooter as nothing more than a cold-hearted murderer. But what about when the shooter is only eleven years-old and is later killed himself? How can an eleven year-old be a murderer? How can we live in a world where kids kill kids? G. Neri has created a strong narrator in Roger, who guides us through the events surrounding Shavon and Yummy’s deaths and the various thoughts and opinions flowing through the neighborhood and across the airwaves during the summer of 1994. The graphic novel raises questions and elicits emotions without ever being preachy, and is an impressive use of the medium.

Em’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: G. Neri
Illustrator: Randy DuBurke
Publisher: Lee & Low Books (2010)

Note: Review copy sent from publisher for honest review.

Kick Ass Girls and Feminist Boys

26 Oct

Today Ms. Magazine‘s Fall 2010 issue hits the newsstands with an article by Jessica Stites called “Kick-Ass Girls & Feminist Boys: Young Adult Fiction Offers Fabulous Fantasies of How the World Should Be”. Stites refers to the books that “offer refuge or escape” from the all-to-common, “ill-fitting and maddening” gender roles, as “click lit” (i.e. books that offer that “click! moment, when we realize the problem’s not us, it’s society, and we’re not alone”). The article recognizes the growing popularity of YA both with readers and with publishers (market growth during a recession? not bad, right?). Anyway, here are our initial reactions to the article. Feel free to check out the magazine and see for yourself!

Nora: Overall the article addresses some great points, such as the fact that girls want to read about cool girls, and that a lot of YA fiction deals with real and relatable feminist protagonists.  The author even manages to stay away from Twilight-bashing (a personal pet peeve).  A slight issue is that a lot of the book examples given in the article are either cross-over (meaning a book for adults, but marketed as also appealing to teens) or children’s literature.  On the one hand this shows how fluid YA is, but on the other it is kind of confusing for someone who knows little to nothing about the genre.  I mean, I really can’t hate on anything that praises The Mists of Avalon, which by the way, totally stands the test of time and is worth a reread.  Please don’t tell me you never read it, because that is just too sad.

So anyway, this article is worth a read and I totally need to check out The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor.  Can I just point out that I read every other book mentioned in the article?  Oh wait, not Dealing With Dragons.  And I got through like 50 pages of Annie On My Mind.  So maybe not.  Anyway, how about you Em? 

Em: I know you asked me not to tell you, but no, I have not read Mists of Avalon. It never even crossed my radar until they made a mini-series when I was in college and it was on TNT, so I didn’t really take it seriously. Guess I should check it out (the book, I mean)! Anyway, my first reaction to the Fall 2010 Issue was honestly “Oooh! New Poems By Alice Walker!” (see cover). I love her. Upon reading the article, I had a similar reaction to you, Nora. It seemed like many of these titles would not necessarily be found in the YA section of the library or bookstore and it made me question those that I wasn’t aware of (e.g. Dealing With Dragons – middle grade or YA? seems our library system sometimes shelves it with the middle grade books and sometimes in the YA section). But the truth is, I don’t just read YA (and neither do all teens), so a good feminist book suggestion is always fine with me!

Some of the books mentioned in the article that have just moved way up my reading list are Annie on My Mind, The Knife of Never Letting Go, and The Shadow Speaker. Annie on My Mind was recently suggested to me by an LGBT former student (who I also happened to have babysat for during college) who answered my request for LGBT titles that were meaningful to them as a young reader. I’m glad to see from the article that there is an updated cover for this title. I checked a copy out from the library and had to send it back because the original cover design and cover copy just felt too 1980s after school special for me. I was also happy to see Persepolis make the list, even though it is generally classified as adult fiction (graphic novels are as tough to classify as YA). One that I would generally classify as a middle grade reader that made the list is the amazing Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I read this title as an adult because growing up I thought it was all about God and as a non-religious youth, assumed that it was probably not for me. One thing I always wonder about this one, is if there could be an updated version which simply replaces the belted feminine products – I wonder if this aspect of the story is confusing to today’s young women going through puberty. I love how this dates the piece (as do my memories of my friends chanting “I must, I must, I must increase my bust”), but I also wonder if it dates it in a way where it loses some of its power with supporting young women.

It is interesting to see how many of these titles would be classified as speculative fiction. Perhaps it’s because, as Libero Della Piana wrote in Colorlines Magazine (Dec. 22, 2002), “the genre allows one to explore other worlds where the ‘laws’ we currently live under, both social and physical, can be challenged or replaced by the creations of the imagination.” He was writing with regards to the potential of speculative fiction as a medium of expression for black writers in particular, but it does seem translatable to feminist writers as well. Speaking of speculative fiction, black writers, and feminist writers, I was happy to see Octavia Butler’s work (Parable of the Sower – which is horrifying dystopian lit and incredibly awesome) in the goodreads list that Stites created to allow readers to vote for their choices of the Best Feminist Young Adult Books. The list is immensely hard for me to vote in because my initial choices are all books that I would not classify as YA, but I want to support them for being some of the best books out there. What’s a YA blogger to do?!

I also ventured to the Ms. Magazine blog where there is a post by Stites called How I Picked 10 Best Feminist Teen Books of All Time. It’s a pretty interesting companion to the magazine article and it mentions Miss Marple and our friends from Bridge to Terabithia, so had me feeling right at home. I also love that she includes a link to the Amelia Bloomer Project, which is my go-to feminist reading list each year. She also raises some interesting questions about YA in the blog – for instance, why are books about young women almost always classified as YA whereas books about young men are considered more suitable/sellable to adults? And should we be concerned that books about young women are only deemed worthy of the adult literature stamp of approval when the character’s sexual abuse is deemed too brutal for young audiences?

Earlier this week, another of our favorite feminist magazines posted on their blog about YA novels featuring trans teens. We have to admit, it has been a good week for YA and feminist lit! Thanks to Ms. Magazine for sending the article preview our way and to Jessica Stites for exploring the amazing world of feminist YA! Be sure to check out the article in the Fall Issue (on newsstands today) and the Ms. Magazine blog post about the process of coming up with Stites’ top ten picks (and the several other titles she sneaked into the article – well played).


25 Oct

Tyrell is fifteen, and he is homeless.  His dad is in prison and his mom acts like a teenager.  His little brother Troy is a neglected victim of adults acting stupid, and Tyrell seems to be the only one who cares.  Tyrell is put into a position where he is expected to be the man of the family by selling drugs in order to get out of the roach motel provided by city services.

Tyrell decides to throw a big illegal party to raise money instead, rationalizing that throwing a party (which is what his dad was arrested for doing), is not breaking the law the same way selling drugs is breaking the law.  Tyrell rationalizes a lot of things, including the fact that he loves his girlfriend Novisha, but can’t stop spending the night in another girl’s hotel room.

The novel is told from Tyrell’s perspective, and Booth’s use of dialect to tell his tale is masterful.  The book is wonderful realistic fiction, and it is easy to sympathize with Tyrell, even when he does things that work against his self-interest.  Booth shows a deep understanding of the pressures homeless teenagers face, and the story rarely moralizes or exploits.

Nora’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Author: Coe Booth
Publisher: PUSH/Scholastic (2006)

Synchronicity & Books w/ Beat

22 Oct

In celebration of Teen Read Week and this year’s theme of Books With Beat, I thought I would share some recent music- and book-related instances of synchronicity.

First up, “Stay Gold” by Stevie Wonder. I fell in love with this song and artist after watching the film adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders on VHS in 6th grade. The theme song’s lyrics were written by Wonder with music composed by Carmine Coppola, director Francis Ford Coppola’s father who also composed the scores for The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now. The song references the Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, featured in both the book and the film adaptation.

Where the synchronicity comes into play is that within a week of rewatching The Outsiders for Banned Books Week and refalling in love with the song, I came across the song again. In Jacqueline Woodson’s Peace, Locomotion (which I adored), Lonnie’s foster brother, Jenkins, returns from war traumatized. During one of Jenkins’ episodes, Lonnie’s foster mother, Miss Edna, sings “Stay Gold” “Over and over, real soft and slow, until Jenkins calmed down and just dropped his head to his chest.” (p. 115)

The other song that this has happened with recently is “Asleep” by The Smiths. I often have a book that I am reading at home and a book that I am listening to in the car or on my iPod. Earlier this month two of these books were Revolution and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, both of which prominently feature “Asleep.”

In Revolution, Virgil requests a lullaby over the phone and when all else fails Andi sings him The Smiths.

I didn’t do the greatest of jobs on it. I could’ve used a piano to back me. And Morrissey. But it didn’t matter. He needed a song from me. And I needed to give him one.

He sang the last verse with me. Well, mumbled it.

There is another world
There is a better world
Well, there must be
Well, there must be. (p. 206)

And then she hums the song all the way to the library, not able to get him nor the song out of her head.

In The Perks of Being Wallflower, Charlie discovers “Asleep” on a mix tape made for his sister. He loves the song so much that he includes the song twice on a mix tape for his friend Patrick. He later uses the song to describe how beautiful a particular picture of Sam is:

If you listen to the song “Asleep,” and you think about those pretty weather days that make you remember things, and you think about the prettiest eyes you’ve known, and you cry, and the person holds you back, then I think you will see the photograph. (p. 48)

I have to admit, I love when these types of things happen. My most recent instance of synchronicity is a bit different. After a day in which I was part of a book discussion about Graceling and learned about the middle grade book Bollywood Babes, I came home to two blog posts by Kristin Cashore in which she discusses her initiation into Bollywood and in particular into her discovery and newfound love of Shah Rukh Khan, the world’s biggest movie star. Sadly, there is no way to comment on her blog nor does she have a public email, so I will be sending my first hand-written letter to an author since elementary school to Cashore today (on Shah Rukh Khan stationery – no joke, best purchase I made in India hands down) to offer her suggestions of what I consider to be the best films of SRK (none of which she has yet viewed!).

And because I love me some Bollywood, I’ll leave you with a musical number from one of my favorite Bollywood films (and one of my favorite Shah Rukh Khan movies), Om Shanti Om. In this scene, SRK in the role of junior movie star (i.e. extra) has sneaked into the premiere of a film starring a Bollywood heroine who he is enamored with from afar (he talks to a billboard picture of her daily). Throughout the film-within-the-film, he imagines himself in the role of film hero. The musical sequence references and uses footage from classic Bollywood films (Amrapali, Saccha Jhutha, and Jay-Vijay) allowing the original film heroes to make an appearance via visual effects. This film is amazing. You must watch it someday, though it will mean 3 hours away from reading. *

*make sure to get the 2007 Om Shanti Om – there is a classic Bollywood film with the same name.


20 Oct

Based on the folk song “Scarborough Fair”, Impossible is the tale of women cursed by an Elfin Knight.  Generations ago a Scarborough girl rejected the Elf, and he has forever decided that at age seventeen all Scarborough girls will become pregnant.  After the births of their daughters, they will go completely insane.

Lucy, whose mother is schizophrenic, is raised by loving foster parents.  She is also comforted by her lifelong friend Zach.  When Lucy is raped and impregnated, they all support her decision to have the baby (abortion is mentioned frequently as an acceptable choice, just not Lucy’s choice).  Events occur that cause them all to believe in the curse, and they all work together using clues from the song “Scarborough Fair” to break it.

Most of the appeal of the book is based on the suspense of completing the tasks and Lucy’s growing love for Zach.  It will most likely appeal more to lovers of romance than lovers of fantasy, and I think maybe a reason for the mixed reviews this title receives is that those of us who love fantasy are not really getting what we were expecting.  Also, the darker aspects of the book are pretty toned down, and I wonder if the whole idea would have worked better as an adult novel.  Maybe.

Is it sad that I can buy into every fantasy out there, but the idea of teenagers finding true love together is just too ridiculous for me to believe?

Side note.  If you read the book, this link may be of interest to you.  I really do think you could plow a field with a goat horn.  It isn’t so crazy.

Nora’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Author: Nancy Werlin
Publisher: Dial Books For Young Readers
Publication date: 2008

YALSA announces Teens’ Top Ten 2010!

18 Oct

After tallying over 8,000 votes from teens, the YALSA Teens’ Top Ten for 2010 have been announced! The Teens’ Top Ten are nominated by and voted for by teens. No adults allowed. It was so hard to not be able to vote! It’s slightly confusing that the 2010 Top Ten are actually titles from 2009, but that is how it goes! Here they are:

  • Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  • City of Glass by Cassandra Clare
  • Heist Society by Ally Carter
  • Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
  • Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick
  • Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
  • Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman
  • Fire by Kristin Cashore
  • Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

So what do you think of the list? Anyone notice that the winning titles are all authored by women? And primarily, if not exclusively, by white women? Anyone else notice the predominance of speculative fiction? Which of the winning titles do you most want to read? What was your favorite 2009 release?

Girl in Translation

16 Oct

Jean Kwok’s debut novel, Girl in Translation, is a coming-of-age story of a Chinese girl who immigrates to New York City with her mother and finds herself translating back and forth between two vastly different worlds. Upon arrival, Ah-Kim Chang (known in the US as Kimberly) and her mother are set up by Kimberly’s Aunt Paula in an unheated, roach-infested apartment and with work in a sweatshop in Chinatown. They are indebted to Aunt Paula for funding their emigration from China and she seems in no hurry to change this family dynamic. School adds additional stress to Kimberly’s life with her struggle to blend in, not wanting her classmates to know just how poor she is. At school, Kimberly struggles at first due to the language barrier, but soon perfects her English, finds success in her studies, and hopes that her education will someday lead to a better life.

Kimberly learns not only how to translate between English and Chinese, but how to translate back and forth between her many worlds – between work, home, and school; between being a child and taking on adult responsibilities; between struggling to get by and succeeding in school beyond anyone’s expectations. The title also brings to mind the incredible translation of self that can occur with immigration. Kimberly’s mother, an accomplished musician back home in China, upon arriving in the United States is barely able to make ends meet despite working tirelessly at the clothing factory. Kimberly is a bright young woman but is accused of cheating early on in her American school career for looking at a classmates paper (she was doing so in order to see what she was supposed to be doing, not having understood the term “pop quiz”) and this isn’t the only time that Kimberly is falsely accused of cheating. She also has difficulty with her current events homework as she does not have television at home and newspapers are not factored into the family budget. Even with these and other disappointments and barriers, Kimberly persists in hope that her education will provide a better future for her and her mother. The hardships faced by the Changs could have made for a depressing read, but Kwok paints a heart-felt portrait of mother and daughter bonded together in making the best of a horrible situation. Even the unrewarding, at times dangerous, factory work is made more bearable by Kimberly’s secret crush on her friend and co-worker, Matt.

The audio recording features one of the best vocal performances that I have come across. The narrator Grayce Wey is outstanding. As the adult Kimberly, Wey has just a hint of a Chinese accent, whereas when she is portraying the newly immigrated Kimberly her accent is much stronger. Accent sensitivity alone would have made Wey’s performance stand out, but her reading also captures Kim’s growth from childhood to adulthood and exploration of her feelings and needs along the way. Kwok uses phonetic spellings to convey Kimberly’s English language development and this translates well to audio format. Girl in Translation is classified by publishers and booksellers as adult fiction, but I hope the classification does not dissuade young adults (nor adult readers who prefer YA) from picking up this novel.

Em’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Author: Jean Kwok
Reader: Grayce Wey
Publisher: Penguin Audio (2010), Riverhead Books (2010)


12 Oct

14 year-old Raphael is a dumpsite boy; he lives and (barely) makes his living sifting through trash and human feces in the vast dumpsite of a poor developing city. He has no prospects for life outside of the slum, until one day he finds a key which holds a mystery. Raphael and his friends Gardo and Rat head out into the world in search of answers, committed to righting a wrong, and fulfilling a dead man’s mission.

The story is told chronologically through the accounts of the three boys, the director of a school in the slum, and a volunteer working at the school. The school director, Father Julliard, is gathering the accounts though it is unclear when, where, and how he and the boys reconnected nor is it clear for what purpose or audience he is gathering these accounts for. While perhaps this is not important to the overall story, it did leave me confused and distracted throughout reading as to the context of the storytelling. I also didn’t find it particularly valuable to hear from all these different voices and think the story could have been stronger if told from one perspective or from a third-person narrator. With all three boys serving as narrators, I never felt as if their lives were in danger, even when they clearly were. And that leads to my biggest issue with this story – for all the mystery involved, there was very little suspense. I never had an “I can’t put this down” moment.

What I did like about this story? The characters are endearing, particularly Raphael, Gardo, and Rat. The story is interesting and addresses some big issues (government and police corruption, the vast difference between the rich and the poor, child labor and education in impoverished areas). And I love that it is never clear exactly where this story is taking place, leaving the reader with the message that this could take place anywhere (some clues: several characters have Spanish/Latino names; the main currencies are dollars and pesos; and Behala, where the dumpsite is located, is also the name of an area of Calcutta). There is so much potential in this story, but I wasn’t entirely sold on the delivery.

Em’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Author: Andy Mulligan
Publisher: David Fickling Books (Oct. 12th, 2010)

Thanks to Kris at Voracious YAppetite for sharing her ARC with me. She LOVED this book! Feel free to read her take on it.

Banned Books Month Giveaway Winner!

11 Oct

Congratulations to Allison of The Allure of Books for her fabulous reviews AND for being the lucky winner of the Banned Books Week giveaway.*

We had such a fun month celebrating our freedom to read, connecting with other bloggers, and reading great reviews of frequently challenged/banned books. Our Banned Books Month Mr. Linky is still active, so feel free to continue sharing and reading reviews! Many thanks to all who participated!

*Winner was chosen via Random Number Generator at