Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘social justice

cover imafe for Ellington Was Not A StreetEllington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

it hasn’t always been this way
ellington was not a street

Once upon a time, the greats of the Harlam Renaissance were more than just a memory.  They talked and laughed and sang and played and discussed the issues and events of the day.  Presented from the point of view of a young girl whose house was a gathering place for these great men, Ellington Was Not a Street shows readers how solid and real and human these legends were.  Told in poetry and pictures, Nelson’s rich and detailed illustrations are a perfect compliment to Shange’s elegant language.

The short biographies at the end was a wonderful addition, but the book did leave me wondering where all the women were.

cover image for Thunder RoseThunder Rose by Jerdine Nolen, illustrations by Kadir Nelson

Rose was born on an auspicious night, against a backdrop of thunder and lightning. Her parents knew as early as that first night that Rose was something special, full of power and talents beyond that of ordinary children.  As she grew, so too did the tales about the amazing things Rose could do.  But when drought threatens her family’s cattle, and the survival of her frontier town, can Rose fight weather itself to bring rain and thunder back to her home?

Told in the tall tale tradition, Thunder Rose is an engaging and delightful story of a confident young heroine.  The rhythm and imagery of Nolen’s words evokes the folklore that inspired her book, and Nelson’s illustrations are as wonderful as ever, with action and expression on each page.

cover image for Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson

Rolihlahla became Nelson when he began school and his teacher refused to call him by his Xhosa name.  Although life was not fair or easy for blacks in South Africa, Nelson Mandela worked hard and eventually became a lawyer.  As the South African government enacted more and more discriminatory and unfair policies, Nelson used his talents and education to defend his people.  Despite the danger of speaking out against apartheid, Mandela became a leader, organizing rallies in support of the rights of blacks and enduring years in jail in his fight for a better South Africa.

Kadir Nelson’s illustrations never fail disappoint, but this is a particularly gorgeous book.  His style is the perfect compliment to the history being told, presenting moments of quiet reflection or vibrant energy as needed.

cover image for We Are The ShipWe Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson

The rule that barred blacks from joining the National and American leagues was never posted on a sign or written into law, but that didn’t make it any less real.  So greats like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson played instead for the Homestead Grays and other teams in the Negro League.  Adored by fans and treated like stars when they would tour in Latin America, the players in the Negro League still had to often take care to leave town before sundown when they were on tour in the US.

Full of stunning paintings and amazing stories, Kadir Nelson’s award winning book shares a part of history that is often overlooked.  While Nelson’s artwork is always the star of his books, the research and skill that went into the text is noteworthy as well.  Told in vernacular and from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who was alive to see the Negro Leagues in action, We Are the Ship‘s memorable voice appropriately centers the black experience rather than assuming a white audience.  The dynamic artwork captures a variety of experiences and moments, and suitably brings to mind both Norman Rockwell paintings and sports photography.

cover image for Coretta ScottCoretta Scott by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

When Coretta Scott was a young girl, she would walk five miles in the early morning dew just to attend school, while the white children rode the bus to theirs.  When she grew to be an adult she fought for equality, tirelessly and despite personal tragedy.

Shange’s poetry is once again elegant and evocative, while the repetition in Nelson’s always remarkable paintings this time also echo the rhythm of the text.  A part of me wanted more particulars in the poem about her work after her marriage, but the  short biography at the end of the book helped with that.

My senior year of high school, I spent a good chunk of my spring semester doing what many middle class high school seniors with good grades do: I visited the colleges I’d been accepted into.

There were overnights in dorms and sitting in on classes and campus tours and social events.  The usual.

One such social event involved heading over to a dorm other than the one we were staying in and standing at an upper window while some of the boys at the school serenaded us from the ground below.  This was an annual event of some sort, the point of which I never quite figured out.  It sounded like not my kind of thing, but hardly an awful experience.

Until our host (it was was prospectives week, there were three of us staying with the same hostess that night) warned us that the year before it had turned into the boys shouting obnoxious, insulting, graphic, and profane things at the women they were supposedly meant to be complimenting.  Our hostess seemed cool about this possibility, she just wanted to let us know because it had upset some prospectives last year, so if we’d rather stay behind she’d understand.

I knew that if this happened just like she described, I would be pissed and miserable and either be seething silently the whole time, start crying, or start yelling back.  Or, more likely, start throwing shit down at the obnoxious assholes.  So I claimed I had homework to do and said I would stay behind.

Needless to say, I wasn’t in the mood to deal with people that night, so when the rest of the women came back into the room, I feigned being asleep so that I wouldn’t have to answer any annoying questions about my decision.

Instead, it turns out, I got to listen to the other girls gossiping about me.* Not our hostess, I would like to point out. I don’t remember where she was, but she wasn’t part of this conversation, just the other two prospectives.  But it was clear from the conversation that one of the other applicants did not think much of my decision.  A topic that she went on about at length.  And while she has the right to her own decisions and opinions, just like I do, there is a difference between disagreeing and having a hard time accepting that other people make choices different from yours.  Especially when those choices involve them wanting to avoid having insults hurled at them.

Until this point, this school was my top choice.  They had also offered me a scholarship – it didn’t pay for everything, but it was a decent chunk of money.  The problem was that the woman who kept rudely talking about my choices was also talking about how much she really wanted to go there.  And then there was the fact that the incident that our hostess had warned us about had not only happened in the first place, but also hadn’t resulted in any effective discipline or changed peers expectations of each other’s behavior.

So, I suppose you could say that I disagreed with the school’s and student’s decisions, and made my own choices accordingly.

For me, in the end, it worked out all right. Because I fell in love with the school that became my alma mater, and they offered me even more money than the first school did.

But not every situation like this has a happy ending.  So I think it’s important to think about what it means for people “to make [their] own choices accordingly.”  Because I could have easily had to choose between a better school, complete with scholarship, and a school that was more expensive (for me) and not as good, but at least felt safer.

For Elise Mattheson,this kind of decision has meant an almost certain loss to her yearly income.** This is not a unique situation that she finds herself in, either, it just happens to be more well known than most.  (And I appreciate her willingness to talk about it, and Natalie Luhrs for linking to her post and keeping the topic on my radar.)***

For a great many readers and viewers and creators and fans of sff, it means not going to (certain) conventions, losing out on opportunities to grow friendships, network, make sales.

Making my “own choices accordingly” is not a decision without cost.  We need to ask ourselves: “who are we asking to make these kinds of decisions, and what are we really asking them to give up?”

* Yes, I realize that this is what one gets for eavesdropping.  But still, there is a difference between trying to eavesdrop, and these other women not considering that I may not be sleeping all that soundly and TALKING ABOUT ME IN THE SAME ROOM I WAS IN.

**If you would like to help offset this loss, she currently has items up for sale, and they are gorgeous, as always.

***And to Rosefox, for bringing my attention to this latest incident via twitter.

I have a confession to make: I’m quite sexist at times.

I blame myself when random men on the street harass me. I think I’m an awful person for being as fat and out of shape as I am. I wonder if I’m really any good at science and math. I worry that I’m wasting my talents working with children.

I think that what I have to say isn’t important or useful.

This is why I call out sexist assholes. Why I let my anger color my voice when I do.

I do it so that I don’t explode. So that the doubts in my head don’t take over. Because it’s a better choice than razor blades.

I don’t do it for them or for you, I do it for me. Because sometimes I need to hear the truth spoken out loud, even if it’s just me saying it.

I don’t use my anger to purge myself, I use it as an affirmation.

I don’t need to justify my anger to you. It doesn’t exist for your benefit.
It most especially doesn’t need to pressed, folded, and packed into a form that pleases you. It doesn’t need to be locked away so that you aren’t disturbed or frightened or “saddened.”

It’s not a weakness or a poison. It’s the stubbornness that keeps me going when people treat me like shit. It’s the sense of righteousness that placed twelve year old me between the bully and his target before I’d even realized what I’d done.

Most of all though, it just is. It’s there the same way that happiness is. The same way that I like pickles and geometry. Or the way my brain never seems to shut off.

I’ve had this temper of mine all my life and I don’t need you to teach me how and when to reign it in, I learned that from my parents. I don’t need you to show me how to make it work with me and not against me, I figured that out on my own while standing on the field in my cleats and giving death glares to the ref who missed my teammate being fouled. I’ve known how to use it to make myself faster, sharper, stronger for almost as long as I’ve known how to read.

I don’t need you to tell me what my anger is good for.

I don’t need you to tell me that I’m not being polite. That I’m not convincing you. That I’m only making myself look bad.

I’m not angry for your benefit. I do not exist for your benefit. When I speak, I do not do so for your benefit.

Except for the times that I do.

Not because I’m trying to convince you that I’m right dammit!, but because I’m trying to convince you that you are. That you are awesome and wonderful and please never stop being that way. When I’m letting you know that, as far as I’m concerned, all those sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, classist, and transphobic assholes who even dare to imply otherwise can go take a long walk off a short pier.

The privileged may think that they’re always the center of every conversation that women have about sexism. They may be incapable of comprehending that they are not the focus of every discussion that people of color have about racism. But you and I both know that not every “you” is about them. That not every conversation has to include them, sway them, or plead with them in order to be productive.

That’s the fucking point.

Communities and conversations do not belong to them and them alone. They are not theirs to hold hostage when we misbehave.

They may think that we are the ones that turn everything into a battle. That we invade their world and divide it into groups to which they don’t belong. But we know that all we are doing is taking the war that has been waged on our bodies, our hearts, and our minds and forcing it back into the space we all share, where it belongs. Where it can be dealt with without tearing us apart from the inside. We know that we have always been here, just like them, and that it’s their choice to refuse to meet us as equals.
I don’t expect everyone to be perfect. I don’t expect people to never make mistakes. Goodness knows I make plenty of them myself.

What I ask is that you remember that there are all kinds of “yous” in this world and in our organizations. That you contemplate that just maybe you aren’t who I’m taking to every time I open my mouth. That you aren’t the person I’m primarily addressing when I point out hate and bias and stereotypes.

But most of all, that you not let the Bryan Thomas Schmidts of the world tell you that you aren’t. Don’t let them trick you into thinking that they are the only ones that need to be persuaded, as if we were merely humble petitioners. Don’t let them confuse you into thinking that I wrote this post for anyone but you.

cover image for DeliriumDelirium by Lauren Oliver

Lena is almost old enough to be cured – of Love.  She can’t wait until she no longer has to worry about becoming sick, like her mother was.  But we need a plot, so of course she falls in love with another uncured before the procedure can happen.

With a different premise – one that actually makes a tiny bit of sense – this wouldn’t have been a bad book, only pedestrian.  Sadly, though, we don’t get any kind of logic.  This isn’t a Vulcan type suppression of all emotion, nor a focus on romantic love only. It is, for no apparent reason, a singling out of Love of all kinds.  Including the love parents have for their often obnoxious and time-consuming offspring. Yet no explanation is given for how this utopia managed to curb infanticide.  As this bad bit of world-building was just one of a great many things that annoyed me about this book, I strongly suggest not attempting to read it.

Cover image for Hold FastHold Fast by Blue Balliet

Early’s home has never been fancy.  But she’s always had one, and her parents have worked had to provide for her and her brother – and to fill their lives with words, poetry, and books. But when her father, Dash, goes missing and thieves ransack their apartment, Early, Jubilation, and their mother, Summer, are left with no choice but to move into a city shelter. Will Early ever have a home again? And how can she find her father when her world is in such disarray?

A respectful and suspenseful story about what it really means to be a child without a home.  The neatness of the ending stretched belief, but it’s appropriate in a novel for elementary school readers and it managed to stay away from false platitudes.  It may give some kids hope, or at least help them feel less alone, and it will certainly expose many to the challenges that other children face.

cover image for The Truth About ForeverThe Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

Macy has the perfect boyfriend. The only problem is that he’s going to be away for the summer, leaving Macy to fill in at his job at the library.  But even though her coworkers hate her and she’s not a genius like Jason, Macy is determined to be perfect at it anyway. Because being perfect is the only thing that has kept everything from falling apart.

Drama! Angst! Romance!  Everything one expects from a Dessen novel, including the protagonist figuring out how to talk to her mothe.  And realizing that she deserves a better boyfriend than the one she has.  Not Dessen’s best, but entertaining enough.

cover image for Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big HillBetsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill by Maude Hart Lovelace

Betsy and Tacy and Tib are old enough to go on even more adventures by themselves, and wander even farther from home than before.  They aren’t sure that their parents would be pleased to discover that they’ve gone all the way over the Big Hill and into the town below.  But when they meet a very interesting girl from the other side of the hill while picnicking atop it, they figure they only polite thing to do is to go visiting.

Now this was a fascinating story to read.  I was rather pleasantly surprised to find not only a Syrian community in a book written almost 75 years ago, but also a fairly respectful description of said community.  Although, not one completely without Fail.  Also, the entire story culminated in a parade that wasn’t just a celebration of America, but very much about American superiority over the Syrian’s homeland.  Still, despite its faults, I’m very much tempted to keep a copy on hand for the next time someone talks about diversity in children’s books as if it were a recent liberal invention.  Not to mention the next time someone tries to argue that we’ve made great strides in that area! – yeah, not as much as you think; I’ve definitely read books that are both more racist and more recently published.

cover image for OrleansOrleans by Sherri Smith

I’m going to attempt to do a proper review for this soon, so for now all I’m going to say is that it’s awesome and you all should read it.

Chapter 2 – Bad Faith

Back when I worked at the bookstore, one of my tasks – one of the tasks of every employee – was to greet every patron.  Depending on how busy we were, this could meant that an individual customer might be greeted several times – often only seconds apart – as they made their way through the store.  They reacted to this with varying degrees of politeness and annoyance.  One lovely day I even had a patron blow up at me and accuse me of…well, I can’t remember her specific words anymore, but she clearly thought the employees as a whole were only pestering so that she would leave.

I, of course, was startled, offended, and annoyed in turn at her.  Why would we want customers to leave? Do people not know that we are told to do this?  That we can get fired if we don’t?  Does she really think she is so special that we only treat her this way?

Mostly though, I was upset because she was right and I didn’t have a solution that would let me not be an asshole and also allow me to keep on my boss’s good side.

Once I had done my own venting at home, I realized this.  That it didn’t matter what my intentions had been, and that – having deliberately employed the very same tactic on visitors that we suspected might be up to no good – I could see why she might think that us constantly asking her if she needed help was a sign that we were keeping an eye on her.  An experience that, being black, she probably had to deal with much more often than I ever had.  And, unlike me, not one that she could avoid merely by switching to carrying a purse rather than a backpack.

Intent is something that is brought up a lot in discussions about harassment, sexist writing, bigoted jokes, and well – just about anything really.  It’s often said that intent doesn’t matter.  I don’t think this is true, I think intent can help determine who is capable of change and inform the arguments used.  What intent does not do, however, is trump the harm being done or mean that the person having done harm should be shielded from the consequences of what they did.Intent is not the end of an argument.  It rarely even belongs in the argument to begin with.

“…talk of sexism or racism must distinguish between the sins of commission of the real, active misogynistic  or bigot and vague , half-conscious sins of omission of the decent, ordinary, even good-hearted people, which sins the context of institutionalized sexism and racism makes all too easy.”

While short, Russ’s second chapter is nevertheless essential for defining the boundaries of the arguments of the book as a whole.  She is not assuming bad faith, nor is she discounting the possibility.  What she is doing is disagreeing with those that would accuse her of bad faith, of assuming that she means that every harm is done deliberately – either because they willfully ignore unintended hurts themselves or because it makes her an easier target…or both.

(originally published at

cover image for Writing the OtherWriting the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward

The main portion of this book is the titular piece; essentially a workshop on Writing the Other bound into a book format.  There are examples and exercises to go along with the arguments; it’s definitely intended to be useful to writers.  Added to the end of the slim volume are some related works by the Shawl: Beautiful Strangers, Appropriate Cultural Appropriation, and an excerpt from The Blazing World.

I was commenting to the friend I borrowed this from that it felt very “how not to be a racist writer, 101 level” at times, and she pointed out that it’s not only several years old already, but grew out of a specific incident and conversation two decades old, so that’s to be expected somewhat.  Nevertheless, Shawl and Ward make some very good points here.  Not just about writing people different from you, but about thinking about characters in general, and keeping in mind that readers will also be different from you in many ways.  They do a very good job of demonstrating, throughout the book, that being aware of these things makes you a better writer, no matter what kinds of characters you are writing about.

cover image for The Lives We LostThe Lives We Lost by Megan Crewe

With her family gone, taken away by the plague, and the situation on the island worsening by the day, Kae decides it’s time to take matters into her own hands.  With only a handful of friends to help her, Kae sets off with the cure her father created, desperately searching for someone who has the knowledge and equipment needed to make copies of the vaccine.

Crewe’s third novel isn’t the type of to prompt glowing superlatives, but it’s a definite improvement from the first book in the series, and more than good enough to convince me to read the third when it arrives.

While the tone and style is similar to The Way We Fall, this middle book has a more interesting and active plot – and one that better fits the atmosphere that Crewe creates.  Where Kae spent much of the first novel simply watching her world crumble around her, the second book is instead in the mold of the classic quest, zombie plague style.  There are no zombies here, but the illness that has wiped out a huge chunk of the population does involve a very chatty stage where the infected are also at their most contagious.  Together with the bleakness and lawlessness of the landscape (it’s winter in Canada and there are mercenaries after them at one point) it’s very reminiscent of stories like 28 Days Later or the second and third Resident Evil movies.

And it works.  Not brilliantly, but well.  The lack of brains eating stage in the sickness is also a plus in the end, for it creates a stronger emotional resonance when friends and loved ones become infected.  Actual zombie movies are filled with cohorts promising each other a bullet to the head the moment symptoms appear, making what should be a tricky ethical question an obvious one, and thus robbing the decison of much of its angst. Here our protaganists struggle with the choice between maintaining their humanity and saving the world – via doing whatever it takes to get the cure to someone who knows how to replicate and distribute it.

cover image for The Revolution of Evelyn SerranoThe Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano

It’s 1969 in New York City’s El Barrio and the tension in fourteen year old Evelyn Serrano’s home is mirrored by the clashes between activists and the establishment happening just outside their front door.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this book didn’t work for me.  I think perhaps the problem was that it felt very juvenile at times, and not simply in the “age appropriate” sense.  The basic story was interesting and well done, the characters intriguing and believable.  The sentences just didn’t seem to flow together very well, as if the author felt she couldn’t or shouldn’t get too complicated or fancy in terms of vocabulary or structure.  It’s still a book that I might consider for a library collection because of the plot and themes, but chances are I’d choose other books first.

cover image for The FoxThe Fox by Sherwood Smith

Back home in the country  Inda has been exiled from, the war is not going terribly well and his friend Sponge despairs of keeping his promise to restore Inda’s honor.  Aldren-Sierlaef, Sponge’s older brother and heir to their father’s throne, is still pursuing Joret, despite her obvious lack of interest – and the fact that he is promised to someone else.  Meanwhile, just about anyone who might want Inda alive knows that he probably is, and desperately hopes he can be found.  Inda himself is, of course, in danger once again, his crew of private marines having just been captured by a notorious pirate and facing certain death.

I’m pretty sure I inhaled this book rather than read it, so I don’t remember the details quite as clearly.  While I did start to get impatient for Inda to be found already, dammit! I was also fascinated by the politics and intrigue – and possibly over-invested in the characters, just as I was with the first book in this series.

cover image for OffsideOffside by M.G. Higgins

I requested this from Netgalley because it was about soccer.  That was a mistake; this book was just awful.  I know it’s meant to be a hi-low novel, but that’s no excuse.  I can forgive some of the clunky writing, not because its impossible to write an elegant hi-low book, but because it’s is vastly more difficult to do so. However, the vocabulary constrictions that the hi-low category presents still don’t explain the lack of plot logic, nor the fact that there is absolutely no depth to any of the characters.

cover image for The Face on the Milk CartonThe Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney

Janie Johnson wishes she had a more glamorous name, not to mention parents that are a little less overprotective.  Janie’s wish is granted when she recognizes the face of a missing child on the back of a milk carton one day.  The face is her own, which means that Janie is not her name, and her parents are not her parents.

Whenever anyone points to the current resurgence in young adult novels, and the depressing number of Twilight clones, and wonders what all the fuss is about, I want to point them to horrendous novels like this one.  Because not so long ago, this was the standard for popular reading for teens.  Cooney’s books in particular were must haves for any library.

What makes this book so awful?  Well, we can start with the fact that in 1990, when it came out, the pictures of missing kids no longer appeared on milk cartons (they came in flyers on the mail).  Yet, that could have been a forgivable misstep – IF the story itself was good.  But, honestly, Punky Brewster did a better job with this plot line back in 1985. The writing was so miserable to read as well; no matter how twee or purple prose-y young adult paranormal romance gets, it never gives us sentences like: “The only thing Janie liked to do with her hands was put nail polish on them and dial phone numbers.” I can also promise you that Janie is even more annoying than Bella and that sparkly vampires make more sense than the cult twist Cooney came up with in order to make neither Janie’s adopted nor biological parents at fault.

At least I understand the reasons why teen paranormal romance is popular; the appeal is in wrapping up all of teen girls confusion and doubt and the conflicting messages they get into a comforting package.  It doesn’t necessarily make for good literature, but it tends to be readable and even sometimes entertaining in an angsty sort of way. I am completely confused, however, by the fact that The Face on the Milk Carton spawned three more sequels.  What about the first novel was appealing enough to warrant even one more book?