Humans of New York: Stories

Humans of NY

Humans of New York: Stories
Brandon Stanton
St. Martin’s Press
October 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

What started out as a jobless guy wandering the streets of New York City with a camera became an Internet sensation – Humans of New York. You’ve read the blog, followed the Facebook posts, and now you can own the book. The stories and photos in the book are taken directly from the blog, so there’s no special content that you couldn’t find online. It is curated and loosely organized by theme. There are no headings or chapter distinctions, but if you read it from cover to cover, you’ll notice that similar stories are grouped together. The layout is clean with only one or two stories per page. Bottom line, it’s a great coffee table book, but if you follow HONY closely online, you’ll probably have read most of these stories.

What I find more interesting about HONY is the similar online communities, websites, and Facebook accounts it has spawned in other cities around the world. I occasionally check out Humans of Jerusalem and have actually recognized people on the street who were profiled on it. There’s also some good parody accounts, my favorite being Pigeons of Boston, which sadly appears to have stopped being updated last fall.

Brandon Stanton has had a huge impact on online story-sharing landscape by compassionately promoting others’ humanity, celebrating diversity, and interacting face-to-face on behalf of an Internet community, all of which I think is awesome and is the recipe of his success. Here’s a short NPR interview where he explains the beginnings of HONY and what it takes to walk up to strangers in New York City.

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Between the World and Me

Betweentheworldandme

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel & Grau
July 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

In Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his young son about growing up black in America, the fears he harbors about his son’s safety, and the experiences that formed and nurtured these fears. Between philosophical tracts about racism, inequality, division, and otherness, Coates shares his most formative experiences – going to Howard University (“the Mecca” as he calls it), meeting his son’s mother, making friends and later losing a good friend to violence, and traveling abroad for the first time. He also writes about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and other black men killed by police and gun toting civilians and the effect of the deaths and of the exoneration of the killers on his son. There are photographs throughout of Coates with his son, friends, and other family members. It’s not a very long book, 176 pages broken up into three chapters, but it gives you a lot to think about.

Between the World and Me won the National Book Award for non-fiction. Ta-Nehisi Coates is also a writer for The Atlantic where you can read more of his writing on race and society.

Girl at War

GirlatWar

Girl at War
Sara Novic
Random House
May 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

As a young girl, Ana suffers some very traumatic experiences during the War for Independence in her home country of Croatia, which was still part of Yugoslavia at the time. She comes to live and study in New York City where she has a boyfriend, an adopted family that loves her, and a role presenting to the UN about her experiences as a child of war. Her past is told through flashbacks and the story comes full circle when she returns to Croatia as a young woman to face a past that others tell her she ought to move on from but can’t let go of (she still wakes up screaming from nightmares). In Croatia, she seeks out friends she thought might be dead and revisits places that bring her joy and heartbreak, both through her memories and through the new experiences that bring at least a possibility of closure. Girl at War has an abrupt ending that has the potential to piss off a lot of readers with its open-endedness.

How much do you know about the Croatian War of Independence? Before this book I knew almost nothing. Now, after some Wikipedia and Brittanica browsing, I know slightly more but still probably less than such an event deserves. A few scenes from Girl at War have been haunting me for the last week or so because facing what humans do to each other in war is something I never get used to and hopefully never will. You might want to keep some tissues near by as you read this one.

Half the World

halftheworld

Half the World
Joe Abercombie
Del Rey
February 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

Thorn, a girl training to be a warrior of Gettland, has to work twice as hard in the training ring for half the respect (sound familiar, ladies?). When she is questionably accused of murder, it takes the minister of Gettland, Brother Yarvi, to rescue her from execution and start her down the road to become one of the greatest fighters in the kingdom. Brand grew up training with Thorn, and in defending her against the murder charge, gets his own warrior dreams dashed. Luckily Yarvi sees potential in him as well and recruits Thorn, Brand, and a band of misfits from different kingdoms to accompany him on a diplomatic mission to gain allies that will help the king and queen of Gettland lead an uprising against the High King and his abusive minister Grandmother Wexen. Thorn and Brand each have their moments to be the hero of the journey, but when they return to Gettland a year later and without as much support as they had hoped for, they find things have changed and war is threatening to bear down on Gettland. They must be ready to fight. Strong female characters and a thrilling duel at the end makes Half the World a compelling read that stays true to its high fantasy roots but includes a much more diverse characters, including people of color and some kick-ass women. Books like this move the genre in the right direction.

Half the World is the second book in the Shattered Sea series. I didn’t read the first book and never felt like I missed any information from the first book, Half a King. The next book, Half a War, is already out and is going on my to-read list.

Read Alikes

Graceling by Kristen Cashore
Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin

We Should All Be Feminists

weshouldallbefeminists

We Should All Be Feminists
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Anchor Books
February 2015
On the Amelia Bloomer Top Ten list

Writer and all-around shero Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie took a TEDTalk she delivered about feminism and growing up in Nigeria and turned it into this very quick, impassioned read (it took me less than 30 minutes to read). She shares stories about being accused by a friend – a boy – at a very young age of being a feminist and having to look it up in the dictionary. As she grows older, she experiences instances of misogyny, some blatant and others more subtle. Through these examples she examines gender norms for both men and women, starting from when they are boys and girls, and elaborates on how they shape us. I was especially impressed with her examination of men and masculinity and how expectations of masculinity create fragile male egos of which women are expected to be the protectors. I also agreed with her declaration that “emasculation” is perhaps her least favorite word ever. While the topic is timely, her points astute, and the writing engaging, the material is better, for me, when delivered through the oral medium of the TEDTalk. As a book, its brevity on such a huge topic made it ultimately unsatisfying and left me wanting more. Also Adichie is a beautiful speaker, so I would rather listen to her.

 

Fun fact: At the end of 2015, every 16-year-old in Sweden received a copy of this book in hopes that it would prompt conversations about feminism among the young people, even though Sweden is one of the most gender-equal countries in the world.

Undocumented

undocumented

Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League
Dan-El Padilla Peralta
Penguin
July 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

When Dan-El was a small child, he traveled with his mother and father from the Dominican Republic to New York City where his mother gave birth to his little brother. While dad went back to the D.R., mom decided to stay with her two sons past the time of their tourist visa, making them illegal immigrants. Staying first at a homeless shelter and then living on welfare in the projects in New York City, Dan-El and his family had a tough life in the states. Through a natural intelligence and love of reading, some caring adults, and, as he himself admits, quite a bit of luck, Dan-El went from a run-down public elementary school to a prestigious private middle school and high school on scholarship. From there he got into the Ivy League – Princeton – also on scholarship. All the while, and particularly when he headed to college and beyond, his immigration status was a hurdle to his education and employment, one that seemed almost insurmountable many times. Again, with help, luck, and perseverance, things end up alright for Dan-El, but several times there was a good chance he and his family (except his little brother who is a U.S. citizen by birth) would be deported back to the D.R. without the bat of an eyelash by the U.S. government.

Dan-El went to college back in the early 2000s when the DREAM Act, bipartisan legislation that would allow illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children a path to citizenship through education and accomplishment, was first being introduced to Congress. It is still, more than a decade later, wallowing in the legislative process, but in 2012 President Obama enacted DACA to give many of the benefits of DREAM to undocumented children. Dan-El is basically the poster boy for why the country needs the DREAM Act, and this memoir really puts into perspective the kind of people we would be turning out of the country when they have so much to contribute.

Initially I thought this would be the kind of book I would take on my outreach visits to places like the juvenile detention center where some of the teens are affected by their or their family’s illegal immigration status. However, after reading it, I am having second thoughts. While Dan-El’s story is inspiring, it is highly uncommon, almost to the point of being completely relatable for the average person. He was exceptionally smart and had many caring adults and support programs to help him. Because of these things, not only was he able to work his way up to college, but he came to equate success exclusively with getting into the Ivy League, a narrative that just isn’t realistic for many teenagers these days, even ones of relative privilege. I hesitate to hand this book to someone for whom reading at grade level, graduating high school, or simply getting out of juvenile detention is the definition of success. I’m not saying they shouldn’t aspire to something more, but I wish I had an inspiring story of someone who gets into trade school or even state college against the odds and is held up as a success. Someone needs to write that book.

Read alikes

The Circuit series by Francisco Jimenez

Bones and All

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Bones and All
Camille DeAngelis
St. Martin’s Press
March 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner

Sixteen-year-old Maren lives with an unusual affliction – spontaneous cannibalism. Since she was a baby, whenever she has warm or romantic feelings toward a person, she can’t stop herself from eating that person, causing her and her mother to be constantly on the lam, running from the last incident before law enforcement got suspicious. Now Maren is 16 and her mother has left her to fend for herself with only some money and Maren’s birth certificate, which happens to list her absent father’s name. With nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, Maren hits the road to find the father she never knew. Along the way she meets regular, friendly people who just want to help her as well as other cannibals who have learned to cover their tracks as well as Maren has. Her journey takes her all over the Eastern U.S., making this a horror/road trip novel as well as a something that is borderline paranormal romance. The premise is compelling in its strangeness if you can stomach the cannibalism, which is rarely described in gory detail. In the hands of a more indulgent or Stephen-King-esque writer, this could have gotten really gross, but DeAngelis gives you just enough detail to let your imagination fill in the gaps. However, this lack of detail begs a lot of questions. For example, at the end of a feeding, Maren is left with a grocery bag’s worth of remains, much less space than is needed to simply pack up the bones of an adult human. So what’s in the bag? Just clothing? Did she eat the bones (as the title suggests) and any parts in the bag are just what she refuses to eat out of necessity or decency? What are her teeth like to allow her to do this? How is this even possible? Am I overthinking this? How long until I can eat a medium-rare steak without thinking about this book? This almost goes without saying, but there is also a lot of suspension of belief going on. Things seem to happen too easily and a lot goes completely unexplained.

This book reminded me of a grad school conversation in a class about censorship and gatekeepers. Roger Sutton, editor of the Horn Book and a man of almost consummate children’s literature knowledge, taught the class and on the last day asked us to think of topics that are still so taboo in literature for children, which in our case included YA, that they are never written about. We didn’t come up with many ideas but cannibalism was one that we agreed was off-limits for children’s lit. The Alex Awards are for adult books that appeal to teens, so I can’t quite check cannibalism off the list of verboten topics based on Bones and All, but it’s pretty close.

Read Alikes

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal