Audacity

audacity

Audacity
Melanie Crowder
Philomel
January 2015
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
On the YALSA list of Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults

Melanie Crowder’s novel in verse tells the story of Clara Lemlich, a women’s labor activist in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. We follow Clara from the Russian shtetl where her family was the victim of pogroms to Ellis Island and a new but still impoverished life in New York. With her father and three brothers occupied studying Torah full time, Clara and her mother must find ways to earn money to support the family. Clara finds work in garment sweatshops with abusive managers, unreasonable hours and quotas, locked doors, child laborers, and unsafe working environments, all to earn less than $10 a week. Seeing the injustice and danger in working in such conditions, Clara sets out to unionize the female workers. She is met with opposition from her family, the men’s union, the managers, and their hired goons who beat her up on several occasions, but she won’t be silenced. At great personal cost, Clara perseveres and makes greater gains than her doubters could have imagined. While Clara’s story is compelling – even more so with the modern fight for wage equality and raising the minimum wage – the end of the book is unsatisfying and feels a bit unfinished. Extensive back matter elaborates on Clara’s story and labor issues of the time.

Clara’s family’s Jewish traditions and lifestyle were particularly interesting to me. I’m currently living in Jerusalem and am learning so much about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Much of it is unchanged from what the book describes in the early 1900s. Still today it’s very common for the men in ultra-Orthodox families to study Torah while the women of the family are the main providers, both financially and domestically, usually for families with 6 or more children. In Israel, the government has a welfare system to make sure these families don’t starve, but it is expensive and these families still live in relative poverty. Keeping Kosher while traveling and working on Shabbat are other issues that modern Jews still deal with, though access to packaged food and labor laws regarding religion make these much less of a big deal than they were for Clara’s family.

My other takeaway from this book – I’m shocked by how much Clara gets beat up! There is some serious violence against women in this book, and it is just amazing to me how this doesn’t scare Clara into silence. She really was so brave. She deserves to be held up as an example of standing up for what you believe in.

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Gabi: A Girl in Pieces

Gabi a girl in pieces

Gabi: A Girl in Pieces
Isabel Quintero
Cinco Puntos Press
October 2014

“…alas, Journal, I cannot lie to you. This is the only place I can be the most myself and I have to be honest.”

Life is messy for Gabi, as she shares with readers in her journal. She’s an emotional binge eater with two best friends – one pregnant and one gay, a mother who is convinced Gabi is a “bad girl,” a dad who is addicted to meth, an aunt who alternates between zealous Christianity and cultish superstition, and all she she wants to do is survive her senior year and get into college. While this might make the book seem heavy or all doom-and-gloom, it’s really not. Gabi’s sassy attitude, nearly unshakable confidence, brutal honesty, and mature insights (actually, a little too mature at times) make you want to be her best friend rather than feeling bad for all the adversity she faces. It helps that she is also hilarious. Gabi is a girl with opinions about all sorts of things – body image, race (particularly the quirks of Latino culture), sex, and the double standard of how boys and girls are treated, especially as teenagers. As in so many YA books, a teacher, her writing teacher Ms. Abernard, is a big influence on Gabi when she starts writing poetry for Ms. A’s class and performing spoken word with the college kids at a local coffee shop. There is even a zine in the middle of the book – one of Gabi’s zine illustrations is where the book’s awesomely weird cover comes from – that is a product of her writing class. We should all have had such amazing teachers in high school. Gabi dabbles with romance, kissing a few boys but ultimately ending up with arguably one of the best boyfriends in a YA book in recent memory. And she even slaps a couple people. Basically she is awesome and so is this book.

Everyone should stop what they are doing right now and read this book. I’m going to go out on a limb and call it as a sure thing for at least an honor if not the winner of the Printz or the Morris.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown_Girl_Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming
Jacqueline Woodson
August 2014

Rarely is my reading so perfectly timed as it was this past week when I finished Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming at just about the time she was winning the National Book Award. I can’t really take credit; I was reading it for book club. I did, however, feel that I could vouch for this book’s worthiness as I had almost no time between finishing it, loving it, and having my feelings completely validated as it was thrust into a deserving spotlight.

In Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson writes about her own childhood and coming of age being shuttled between her mother in New York City and her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina. While the movement between the north and the south in the midst of the civil rights movement of the 1960s informs much of Jackie’s racial identity and exploration throughout the book, her story is so much more than a personal history of race, as the title may make you believe. Jackie is so many things in this book: a Jehovah’s witness (though a somewhat reluctant one), aspiring writer and poet (despite her struggles with reading), friend, sister, daughter, and granddaughter.

The entire book is told in free verse poems, none more than three pages long. In a less skilled writer’s hands, such short snapshots could easily become episodic and disconnected, glimpses of a life instead of the story of a life, but the linear chronology of her story and the threads that run throughout keep it all together. While not every poem moves the action forward, they all contribute to the depth of Jackie’s character and her overall journey to young adulthood.

While many of the themes in Brown Girl Dreaming continue to be relevant today, one poem in particular – “stevie and me” (p. 227) – is especially relevant for its connection to diversity in children’s literature and the We Need Diverse Books movement. In this poem, Jackie is at the library where she and her siblings can choose any 7 books they want to check out. Because of her difficulty reading, she is drawn to the picture books:

If someone had been fussing with me
to read like my sister, I might have missed
the picture book filled with brown people, more
brown people than I’d ever seen
in a book before…

If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You’re too old for this
maybe
I’d never have believed
that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone who looked like me
had a story.

I think it is safe to say that Jackie certainly has a story, and one that we can all be glad she shared in Brown Girl Dreaming.