Girl at War
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.
Counting by 7s
Holly Goldberg Sloan
Unexpected tragedy hits Willow Chance, a 12-year-old genius with a passion for gardening and medical diagnoses, when her adoptive parents are killed in a car crash. She is nearly put into foster care, but through some quick talking, she is allowed to live temporarily with her only friend, Mai, and Mai’s mother, Patty, and brother, Quang-Ha. The only other caring adults in Willow’s life are sad sack school counselor Dell Duke and a cab driver named Jairo who thinks Willow is a miracle sent to save him from cancer. They go to great lengths to help Willow and she, unintentionally, helps each of them to have a new outlook on life, a new home, or a new relationship. A court appearance that will determine Willow’s fate hangs over everyone’s head throughout the book and comes to a touching climax in the end.
The characters in Counting by 7s are really what make the book, and Dell Duke was my favorite. From Miss Honey in Matilda to Mr. Terupt in the series by Rob Buyea, teachers in children’s books are almost always too good to be true; they are savior, angel, substitute parent, or sage. Dell Duke is the opposite of all of these things by nature, making him the most subversively written teacher (ok, technically he is a school counselor) I’ve ever read in a children’s book. He’s a slovenly slacker who faked his resume to get his job. His filing system categorizes the kids he “helps” into judgmental categories. He’s antisocial and terrified of responsibility. Willow naively sees the best in him and after a while he begins to see potential in himself through her care for him. However, he is still himself in the end, just a slightly improved adult for having met Willow Chance.
In 2014 Counting by 7s was optioned for a movie staring Quvenzhane Wallace as Willow, but no more news has come out since then.
Hold Fast by Blue Balliet
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Wonder by R.J. Pallacio
Ella-Little Collins & Sarah Little / Photo via The Boston Landmarks Commission and Boston Magazine
For anyone who has read X, the recent YA biography of Malcolm X, there is some exciting news out of Boston. Boston’s City Archaeology Lab – yes, the city has its own archaeology department – just started an excavation of the Roxbury home of Ella Little-Collins, Malcolm X’s half-sister with whom he lived as a teen. The dig is open to the public March 29-April 8, but if you aren’t in the Boston area, you can see pictures of what they find on the City of Boston Archaeology Program Facebook page. They’ve already posted quite a few finds.
Half the World
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.
Graceling by Kristen Cashore
Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin
Earlier this year children’s author and illustrator Grace Lin gave a TED Talk about the import role of children’s books in helping a child see both the world and him or herself. In order to do that effectively, we need to offer children books with characters like them, no matter their race, religion, gender, class, or background.
For more resources about diverse children’s books, please visit We Need Diverse Books. You can also look for the “diverse books” tag on my reviews and posts.
If you have ever wondered why we need diverse books, not just for children but for everyone, you need to watch this TED Talk by writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about what happens when people receive a single narrative about an ethnicity, religion, country, etc.
We Should All Be Feminists
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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.