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cover image for The Freedom MAzeThe Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

Thirteen year old Sophie longs for an adventure like the ones she reads about in books. But instead, she’s stuck spending the summer of 1960 with her aunt and bedridden grandmother, in a smallish house at the edge of what was once a grand sugar plantation.  So she passes time reading books and exploring the bayou, waiting for fall to come.  Until the day she attempts to find her way through the once magnificent hedge maze, and finds something unexpected at the other end.

This is not a book that I can be objective about, in any way.

My maternal grandfather’s family comes from Georgia.  My mother grew up in the south – the deep south – in the 1950s and 1960s.  Until she turned 13 and her family moved to California, finally to stay.

In the Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman has written a story that doesn’t often get told. A story about family ties denied and forgotten – and others that are unbreakable even against the greatest of odds.  About what the antebellum south was really like – and about what it means to be nostalgic for a time when owning other people was legal.

I feel like she’s telling me the story of my family that no one ever admits to.

My uncles will joke about being taught about “the War of Northern Aggression.”  And my mother has rarely ever looked as sad as she did when I asked her, incredulously, if her hometown had separate water fountains when she was growing up.  But it always feels like there’s so much missing.  So much left unsaid.

My family would not find it flattering that I see us in these pages, but oh how I do.

It’s true that in making this story about Sophie, Sherman has centered Sophie’s point of view and growing awareness of her privilege over the the experiences and courage of her newly discovered family.  Which is frustrating for obvious reasons.

And yet…

And yet I know that this is a story that needs to be told as well.  My niece needs to grow up understanding what it means that her family is from the south.  It’s not enough that she maybe sort of learn it once she’s an adult.

And I don’t know how to explain it to her, in large part because I don’t really have that understanding myself.

But I can give her this book.

cover image for My Little Pony: Pony Tales Volume 1My Little Pony: Pony Tales Volume 1 by Thomas Zahler, Ryan K. Lindsay, Katie Cook, Barbara Randall Kesel, Ted Anderson

The vast majority of the stories collected in this volume are simply underwhelming;  full of cliches, at times hard to follow, and surprisingly lacking in creativity for a fantasy series – even one based on a popular television show.  Sadly, this is hardly unusual. So all of this might be forgivable if it weren’t for the insulting stereotypes that several of the comics employ. Or the extent to which the book doesn’t seem to be clear on whether it’s main target audience consists of children or adults. 

When I read books for children, I expect them to present ideas in ways that make sense to children. For example, if a comic whose main audience is made up of eight year old girls includes a party in one of its stories, I expect it to focus on the kinds of things that 8 year olds usually associate with parties: cake, balloons, streamers, games.  What I don’t expect is for it to instead decide that the party will be depicted more like a college frat party.  Complete with card games instead of kid’s games, togas, lampshades on heads, a drunk Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy looking nervous while being talked up by two male ponies.

 And yet, this is not fan art, but an actual excerpt from the comic:

inside pages from My Little Pony: Pony Tales Volume 1

It’s one thing to include jokes for adults on the sly. Or to make a work that’s enjoyable to a wide range of ages. Or to otherwise acknowledge that adults can be fans of works that are intended for kids.  It’s quite another for a comic that claims to be targeting children to completely forget who their audience is.

And it’s a completely different level of wrong for a tie-in comic for a show whose main audience consists of young girls to decide that adult men specifically need to be catered to instead of those young girls.  And for it to be done in such a way that allusions are made to young women being targeted for unwanted attention – or worse – by their male peers.

And yet this is indeed what happened – in a book marketed to children.

Children, mind you, that are too young to have the power to speak up and tell the writer or publisher if this bothers them. Children that are so young that articulating their opinions and feelings, especially about unfamiliar topics, is still quite difficult in a way that adults often forget or fail to understand.

This goes beyond merely annoying or insulting. It’s both disturbing and creepy.

IDW published this, if anyone wishes to make their feelings known to the people responsible.  I read this comic via Netgalley and so will be forwarding this review to them as requested.

I’ve read few books that have made me as angry as Rishe-Gewirtz’s debut novel, Zebra Forest, has.

[Caution: Serious spoilers ahead!] Read the rest of this entry »

cover image for WonderstruckWonderstruck is the story of two children whose lives are intertwined in unexpected ways, despite growing up in entirely different decades.

We begin in 1977 with Ben, a twelve-year old boy who recently lost his mother and is now living with his aunt, uncle, and cousins.  Still coping with the loss of both his family and his home, Ben attempts to find comfort in the clothes and treasure s his mother left behind.  When he stumbles across clues as to his missing father’s identity, Ben to sets off on his own in search of his remaining parent.

Our second story takes place in 1927 and is told only in pictures.  It shows us a young girl struggling to be heard and taken seriously in a world that dismisses her because of her deafness.  Like Ben, Rose runs  away to New York City in search of hope and answers.

Scattered throughout both plots are bits and pieces of the history of museums and curation, as well as some glimpses into the history of Deaf culture.  All of these tales are woven seamlessly together for a memorable and dramatic conclusion that is reminiscent of Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese.

illustration of Rose, from Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck is clever as well as memorable.  As the two plots move along, the similarities between the children become increasingly obvious and the book that Ben carries with him, also called Wonderstruck, gradually takes on a Neverending Story book-within-a-book type quality.   Although the parallels and connections between Rose, Ben, and Ben’s book are often too elementary to be called subtle, there is still a smoothness to it all that allows for the simplicity to shine rather than become distracting. The audience is not told everything explicitly, nor are the references too sophisticated for children to pick out on their own.  Instead, younger readers are led, step by step, to the discovery that the increasing coincidences are anything but.

illustration of American Musuem of Natural History from Wonderstruck

The self-reference is not merely an artist’s conceit either; the cascading revelations serve to illustrate to a middle grade audience how homages and allusions work, making it easier for them to realize on their own that the similarities between this title and stories not contained within it, such as The Mixed-up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler, are designed rather than random.  Or, at the very least, they create an understanding of the concept that makes it easier to recognize it when others point it out.

Selznick’s treatment of deafness, and Deaf culture, deserves a mention as well.  While the difficulties and prejudice facing deaf children are shown with clarity and given prominence within the book, at no point is disability treated as the sum of who they are.  The plot manages to neither treat these struggles as merely window dressing nor focus so much on them that any other character development is pushed aside.  The balance that is found here, in which the protagonists’ disconnection with the mainstream world is explored, without implying that their different-ness is the only interesting thing about them, is one that is both notable and far too rare.  Best of all, the ending leaves us with a framing of belonging that is not predicated on anyone being “fixed.”

From start to finish, Wonderstruck is elegant, delightful, and indeed full of wonder.

Selznick, Brian. (2011). Wonderstruck. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Best for Ages: 8-12

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If there is one thing that is lacking among books for younger children, it’s good, quality, readable non-fiction.  (Aside from more diversity.  But that is sadly a given for all kinds of literature.) Especially books that have modern and understandable graphics.  There’s plenty of non-fiction, and there are plenty of readable titles.  There just aren’t many titles that do both – and most of those that do are decades old and show it.

Which is why I was so excited to stumble across the series I’m writing about today.  A loose collection of books about nature and people, National Geographic’s Picture the Seasons presents factual information about trees, spring, pilgrims and much more.  It does so at a level that is sparse and simple enough to be understandable to younger children, yet manages to never be stilted and disconnected, as non-fiction for early learners often are.

Not only are the photographs frequently stunning and the information up-to-date and accurate, the text flows well enough that I can read it aloud during story times. “Spring welcomes new arrivals” and is a time of the year when “warm breezes make tulips take a bow.” During winter, “open spaces sparkle in the sun and glitter purple-blue under the stars.”  And pumpkins don’t just come in many sizes, there are “wee ones, inches wide, or GIANT ones you can sit inside.”

The words and pictures expertly complement each other as well, which means I don’t always have to stop and and try to explain unfamiliar ideas using a lot of equally confusing terms – I can just point out the image that illustrates the concept.  It also allows for more descriptive and imaginative language.  Four year olds that might not otherwise understand what it means for spring to “drag a grey blanket across the sky” can see for themselves that the darkening clouds above a hillside do indeed look like a grey blanket.

There are a few mis-steps, such as when the book on apples decides that Johnny Appleseed warrants a mention, but overall the series is solid and enjoyable – and I wish there were more non-fiction books for younger children like them.

Bernard, Robin. (1999). A Tree for All Seasons. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Esbaum, Jill. (2009). Apples for Everyone. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Esbaum, Jill. (2009). Seed, Sprout, Pumpkin, Pie. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Esbaum, Jill. (2010). Winter Wonderland. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Esbaum, Jill. (2010). Everything Spring. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Esbaum, Jill. (2012). Cherry Blossoms Say Spring. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Goodman, Susan E. (1999). Pilgrims for Plymouth. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Best for Ages: 3 to 7

cover image for Looking for AlaskaMiles Halter is in search of “a Great Perhaps” – his phrase, taken from the last words of the poet Francois Rabelais, for the that indefinable, pregnant possibility that adolescence so often thrives on.  He isn’t going to find it in an ordinary public school in Florida, so he convinces his parents to let him go to Culver Creek Boarding school in Alabama.  There he meets Chip, Lara, and Takumi…but most of all Alaska Young.  In which he finds his “Great Perhaps” but not in quite the way that he expected to.

Looking for Alaska is very much a deconstruction of romantic myths, but it is one that is not disdainful of hope and love.  Miles, having fallen for Alaska, keeps looking for hints that he has become as central to Alaska’s world as she has become to his.  In doing so, he overlooks much of what makes the real Alaska tick, a contradiction that Alaska herself is quick to point out.  When tragedy strikes, Miles’ grief pushes him to refocus his efforts rather than step back and examine them critically, a mistake that threatens to tear apart the friendships he has come to value.

Green’s (and Miles’) clever, snarky, and yet somehow mellow voice is an essential part of this book’s charm.  It is also how Green is able to make readers sympathetic to Miles’ antics while still shaking our heads at his obsession; a more reverent or less erudite approach would have made the tale overly sappy or shallow by turns, rather than acting as a counterpoint to Miles puppy dog love.  Instead, Green is able to invite us to dwell on Alaska’s many charms along with Miles, while still allowing a multi-faceted character to filter in around Miles’ rose colored viewpoint.  All of which becomes incredibly essential when Miles is finally forced to find a truthful and moral balance between his feelings and the needs of those he cares about.

Green, John. (2005). Looking for Alaska. New York, NY: speak.

Best for Ages: 15-19

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cover image for LiarEverybody lies.  We say that we adore gifts that we hate, profess delight in meals that are lacking, and assure our parents that yes, our homework is all done.  For most of us, the lying ends there.  Not for Micah though, she doesn’t just tell the occasional white lie, she’s a compulsive liar.  “But [she’s] going to stop.”  She has to.  So pay attention, because she’s going to tell you the truth and she’s “going to tell it straight.  No lies, no omissions.”

Layer by layer, Larbalestier peels back Micah’s deceptions to expose the truth and banish the lies, but they are rarely what you’d expect.  Micah doesn’t pretend to know bands that she has never heard of, claim to own trophies that she never earned, or fake an illness to get out of class.  Rather, she decides to wear a Venetian mask to school – and forges a doctor’s note to justify it.

There is a peculiar and unexpected honesty in Micah’s fibs.  False as they are, they also let her push against the edges of conformity and let Micah be herself without forcing her to claim to know who she is when she doesn’t yet.   At the same time, they also act as role to play and hide behind – even from herself.

When her friend Zach disappears, however, Micah discovers that her lies might finally cost her more than just the goodwill of her peers.  No longer simply a cathartic confession of past sins, Liar quickly becomes an especially twisted kind of mystery, with Micah’s admissions of falsehood and guilt taking on the urgency of someone both digging for the truth and fighting for survival.

The twists and turns that Micah’s story takes also do more than keep readers on their toes. Because of the way that the story is structured, the lies rely as much on our assumptions of what constitutes normalcy as they do on Micah’s audacity. It’s beyond brilliant, exceptionally appropriate in a novel for young adults, and Larbalestier deserves nothing but praise for pulling it off.

This is a novel that, like Micah, refuses to be boxed in.  It’s not simply that it flirts with genres the same way that Micah plays with her identity.  Rather, like Micah herself, how you classify it and how much you enjoy it will greatly depend on which parts of her story you choose to believe.

Larbalestier’s clear understanding of the fandom traditions of genre fiction bleed onto the page, demanding that the conversation expand beyond the reading of the book itself.  Liar is a novel that is meant to be talked about, it’s value and interest is fundamentally tied to comparing notes and possibilities afterwards.  The obvious conundrum is that spoilers for a book such as this – even mild ones – would also impose points of view that would limit the discussions afterwards.

So when I tell you that you must read it – and now – know that I say this not just because I adored it, nor because it is lacking flaws, but because I am eager to hear what you thought of it.

Larbalestier, Justine. (2009). Liar. NewYork: Bloomsbury.

Best for Ages: 14-18

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