Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin


Title: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Author: Grace Lin
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a rarity in the American children’s fantasy genre: an adventure story set in China. Inspired by various Chinese folktales, this is a story of a young girl named Minli who lives in a poor village at the base of a desolate mountain. In the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, the villagers work tirelessly just to put enough food on the table. Minli’s parents work from sunrise to sunset in the rice fields, but her father always makes time for a story or two in the evening, despite Ma’s grumbling.

One day, believing her father’s stories of an Old Man of the Moon and a jade dragon, Minli sets off an extraordinary adventure to travel to Never-Ending Mountain to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family’s fortune can be improved.

One of the things that I loved most about this book was how the folktales seamlessly scattered throughout the text really came to life during the course of Minli’s journey. The stories each connect one to the other as the book progresses, and then further tie in to what Minli experiences. I loved this approach! The accompanying illustrations were absolutely gorgeous. The story as a whole made me want to learn more about Chinese folktales and legends.

It is rare in children’s literature to find both parents alive and well. Kid lit is filled with absent parents and orphan children (Harry Potter, Boxcar Children, James and the Giant Peach, A Series of Unfortunate Events, etc) or children who have lost one parent, either through death or divorce. When a parent is present, they are often clueless or mean. It was refreshing to see some fleshed out parents in this one, and the importance placed on family and the community. In fact, family is one of the major themes of the story. This is not just a story of a young girl finding her place in the world, but it features her mother’s transformation as well. In the beginning, Minli’s mother is discontent with her lot and life, wishing for more food, a more comfortable place to live,  nicer things. During Minli’s absence, her mother’s perspective on life changes completely. As a parent reading it, it makes one think about the impact my unconscious actions – or moods – have on my daughter.

The character’s are all unique and delightful. Her dragon friend is a kind-hearted soul who has a question of his own, why can’t he fly? There is a benevolent king who offers Minli the most sumptuous meal she has ever eaten, and a fierce Green Tiger that is a malevolent force pulled straight out of the folktales. Minli herself has a generous spirit with a healthy dose of independence, and an unshakeable belief in the power of stories.

For those who, like me, want to learn more about folktales from China, here are a few resources shared in the back of the book:

Tales from China (Oxford Myths and Legends) by Cyril Birch.

The Ch’i-lin Purse: A Collection of Ancient Chinese Stories by Linda Fang.

Folk Tales of the West Lake by Various.

Auntie Tigress and Other Favorite Chinese Folk Tales by Gia-Zhen Wang.

Book Review – George by Alex Gino

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Title: George
Author: Alex Gino
Publisher: Scholastic
Genre: Middle Grade, Contemporary, Own Voices, LGBTQIA+

Whew. Everything seems to be a tear-jerker to me right now. President Obama’s farewell address. Joe Biden being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction. Lin Manuel-Miranda and Christopher Jackson performing “One Last Time” from Hamilton, at the White House.

This is Us. To be honest, every episode of This is Us makes me sweat water out of my eyes.

And George.

This sweet, beautiful, heartwarming story about a transgender girl’s struggle to come out to her family and friends. It strikes the perfect tone for a middle-grade story tackling a serious subject. Many transgender kids know who they are years in advance of puberty and adolescence, which is one of the many reasons why this is so important to have as a middle-grade book.

George is a delightful character, who exudes a quiet strength. From the start of the story, we see George thinking of herself through the use of feminine pronouns, which frankly, if it wasn’t done that way, would have been disappointing. She has always been sure of her identity, but lacked the self-confidence to be her true self in front of others.

Yes, this is a middle-grade novel, but I definitely think it has appeal to everyone, no matter your age. And the first time that we see George genuinely smile – unforced – it is a beautiful thing. I found Kelly to also be a delightful character. A true friend, who supports and accepts George as she is…the two have a very sweet friendship that shines throughout the story.

My daughter is currently a 3rd grader, and it was very interesting to compare how many things were gendered in George’s school compared to my daughter’s school. There are no restrictions at M’s school when kids try out for parts in a play or musical, unlike George’s experience with Charlotte’s Web. Last summer, our large school district passed a policy that will go a long way towards phasing out gender-based activities that “have no educational purpose”, such as having a girls’ and boys’ line to go to recess, a situation that George was confronted with every day. While M’s school does not use gender-based lining up, other schools in the district still did. Our school board has also asked teachers to stop using gender pronouns, to replace “boys” and “girls” with “scholars” or “students”. This last action was HUGE, and sadly, provoked a huge outcry from the religious right in our community. I am grateful that we live in a school district that is taking progressive steps towards supporting transgender students, and making the school environment a safe space for everyone.

However, there is still progress to be made at M’s school. For example, in her PE class yesterday, the class was divided by gender to play a game. George really helped M and I start to think about all of the situations in which gender distinctions arise, and how the majority of them can very easily be done in a gender-neutral way.

Living in North Carolina, our state has gotten its fair share of negative attention, deservedly, over the past year for the state legislature’s horrendous actions with passing HB2 (coined by the media as “the bathroom bill”), a topic I won’t go into too much detail here, but was a direct attack against the LGBT community, and most especially transgender individuals. When that legislation was first passed, I sent each of my legislature’s that voted for HB2 (and in one case, co-sponsored it), a copy of George.

I hope they read it.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Book Review – El Deafo by Cece Bell

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Title: El Deafo
Author: Cece Bell
Illustrator: Cece Bell
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Genre: Graphic Novels, Memoir, Middle grade, Own Voices

There are a lot of absolutely wonderful middle-grade graphic novels out there, and El Deafo is no exception. This one is stellar.

First, let me be completely honest. I never read comic books or graphic novels as a kid. Up until a few years ago, I had never even picked one up.

However, I married a guy who loves graphic novels. Slowly, but surely, because I will read almost anything if it sits in front of me long enough, I gave them a try, starting with V is for Vendetta. And then the Sandman series.

So, when my daughter first started expressing an interest in graphic novels a year or so ago, I began to pick up the middle-grade ones. And that is how I came to read El Deafo, after seeing it on a library reading list. I studied Sign Language during undergrad, and visited Gallaudet University, one of the only university’s in the world designed to be barrier-free for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. One thing that I learned is that there are lots of different ways to be deaf. In the author’s note at the end of El Deafo, Cece writes about the differences in deafness, and about Deaf Culture, where sign language is the main way to communicate and deafness is seen as something that shouldn’t be attempted to be “fixed” with cochlear implants and other devices.

Cece Bell makes it quite clear in her Author’s Note that her experience as portrayed in her book is her experience alone, and shouldn’t be viewed as “right or wrong” from anyone else’s experience or perspective. I actually loved her Author’s Note almost as much as the whole story, and it is definitely not something you should skip over at the end when reading El Deafo.

In this semi-autobiographical graphic novel, we are introduced to the story of a young rabbit named Cece who  loses her hearing after a serious illness at a young age. It is the story of a girl – rabbit – growing up with a serious hearing impairment: how she felt, and how she handled the insecurities she felt when people treated her differently.

I loved how so much of the story is a humourous take on her personal journey through early childhood – particularly the elementary school years. First, she attends a school for deaf children, which is where she learns to lipread. However, her family soon moves to a new town and she has to leave the school that she loves. At her new school, Cece uses what is called a Phonic Ear, a bulky device that helps her hear the teacher. Cece creates a superhero alter-ego, El Deafo, to help cope with the trials that come along with adjusting to a new school and trying to make new friends while also getting used to the Phonic Ear. We get to see Cece’s innermost thoughts and daydreams as she interacts with her family, friends, and teachers. The illustrations are thoroughly appealing and incredibly cute, I really love that Cece choose rabbits instead of people for this book.

In El Deafo, we get to spend six years with Cece Bell. I wish it was more! Cece the rabbit is resilient, heart-warming, and incredibly funny. El Deafo, which is both written and illustrated by Cece Bell, is a beautiful gift for children and adults alike.

To wrap up, here’s a short review from my 9-year old M, and her thoughts on El Deafo:

I really liked the book because I like to read about people who are different from me. It helps me understand more about how others view the world. And I loved the drawings! Cece Bell is a really good illustrator. I give it 5/5 stars.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Book Review – The Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

This will be a relatively short review, because I am not having the greatest week. My endometriosis is flaring up a bit, and on Wednesday I had an adverse reaction to my monthly allergy shots. Which had me in bed (and almost in the hospital) for 24 hours. I was up and about yesterday, but my body still felt worn out and was recovering from the onslaught of allergies and asthma. Today is much better.

Fun times for the first day of my daughter’s winter break. The last day of 2016 can not come soon enough!! It has been one thing after another this year, for me and the world.

On to the book review!

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Book: Mockingbird
Author: Kathryn Erskine
Publisher: Philomel Books
Genre: Middle Grade, Neurodiversity

Book Blurb: 

In Caitlin’s world, everything is black or white. Things are good or bad. Anything in between is confusing. That’s the stuff Caitlin’s older brother, Devon, has always explained. But now Devon’s dead and Dad is no help at all. Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger’s, she doesn’t know how. When she reads the definition of closure, she realizes that is what she needs. In her search for it, Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white—the world is full of colors—messy and beautiful.Kathryn Erskine has written a must-read gem, one of the most moving novels of the year.

There aren’t too many books out there about girls with Asperger’s. Much of mainstream society’s understanding of Asperger’s (when they are even aware of what it is), is based on the profile of boy’s and men who are Aspies. In my life, I do know a few people with Asperger’s, all who identify as male. Is Asperger’s truly more prevalent amongst the male population, or is it woefully under-identified in the female populace? I would hazard a guess that it is a bit of both. Current research is beginning to show that the current diagnostic methods used for the autism spectrum overlook how it can manifest differently in girls.

On that note, enter Caitlin. An 11-year-old girl going through a very rough time in her life. She recently lost her brother in a school shooting, her mom died of cancer a few years previously, and her dad is struggling to come to terms with grief himself. Caitlin is struggling with her own grief and emotions, as well as fitting in at school and working on making new friends.

Looking at reviews written by people with Asperger’s, Kathryn Erskine has done a commendable job portraying what it is like for a young girl with Asperger’s. She tackles a difficult subject: how people deal with the loss of a loved one differently, and how our lives would be different – and better – if we work harder at understanding each other.

I loved the first person narration, seeing the world through Caitlin’s eyes. To experience how a typical school day feels for her .

“I hate recess even though Devon says it’s supposed to be my favorite subject and there is no recess once you get to middle school so enjoy it now. But I can’t enjoy it because I’m surrounded by sharp screaming and it’s too bright adn people’s elbows are all pointy and dangerous and it’s hard to breathe and my stomach always feels really really sick.”

There are quite a few times in the story where the other kids are really anger-inducing. As an adult looking in on the story, I wanted to scream out to the teachers, “Your school really needs some grade-wide lessons on anti-bullying, tolerance, and diversity!!!” The way that some of the other girls mocked Caitlin was frustrating, and I was happy to see this semi-addressed later on in the story.

I loved the tie-in with To Kill A Mockingbird. I won’t go into detail, but it really highlighted the sweet relationship between Caitlin and her brother. It was also completely cry-inducing. There were so many parts of this book that pulled on my heartstrings!

“When Dad drives me home from school I look at the sign in front of the church we used to go to. It says, OUR HEARTS are still with the families of Julianne, Devon and Roberta. Except OUR HEARTS couldn’t do anything to save Devon’s Heart. Maybe that’s why Dad drives past.”

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book Review – Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

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Title: Brown Girl Dreaming
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Genre: Poetry, memoir, middle-grade, nonfiction, #ownvoices

I very rarely read books written in verse, but when I do, I am usually pleasantly surprised. Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir written in verse form. The whole middle-grade book is written in simple, free verse poems.

Simple, but astoundingly beautiful. Succinct is probably a more apt description than simple. At times, heartbreaking. And absolutely and without a doubt, there is more there than meets the eye.

ghosts

In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn’t use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.

Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award in 2014 for Brown Girl Dreaming. Her book was also a Newbery Honor Book, and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award. She deserves all of the accolades, and more.

Brown Girl Dreaming is largely about Jacqueline’s childhood, from her early childhood years in the 1960s in Greenville, South Carolina through her family’s move to NYC and her elementary school years, when she first discovered her interest in writing. I loved hearing her stories from Greenville, when she lived with her mom, siblings, and grandparents. Her grandfather became a father-figure to her, and her love for her grandparents and their importance in her life is a big part of her story.

Don’t be fooled that this is just a memoir. Woodson delves into everything from the Civil Rights movement, to moving from Ohio, to the Jim Crow American South, to New York. From race to religion, she does not sugarcoat what it is like to grow up black in the 1960s and 70s, both in the South and the North.

This is a book for everyone. But most especially, Brown Girl Dreaming is a book for elementary and middle-school aged girls. Girls who may not have an easy time at home. Girls who are PoC. Girls who may not fit the typical academic mold. Girls who don’t think of themselves as great because they don’t fit the typical academic mold. For any and all of the above type of girls, this is a must-read.

Yes, you can speed through this book in one sitting, as fast as my husband’s family consumes our Thanksgiving dinner. But, the book is much better suited to the Slow Food movement: pace yourself, slowly and thoughtfully, as you read and digest her words.

Deep winter and the night air is cold. So still,

it feels like the world goes on forever in the darkness

until you look up and the earth stops

in a ceiling of stars. My head against

my grandfather’s arm,

a blanket around us as we sit on the front porch swing.

Its whine like a song.

You don’t need words

on a night like this. Just the warmth

of your grandfather’s arm. Just the silent promise

that the world as we know it

will always be here.

 Rating: 5/5 stars

Diversity Spotlight – 15 December 2016

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Diversity Spotlight Thursday is a weekly feature hosted by Aimal @ Bookshelves and Paperbacks. Each week, you discuss three books featuring diverse characters or authors, that fall into each of following three categories:

  • A diverse book you have read and enjoyed
  • A diverse book that has already been released but you have not read
  • A diverse book that has not yet been released

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Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson

Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City — until she’s suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts. But who truly is the new Ms. Marvel? Teenager? Muslim? Inhuman? Find out as she takes the Marvel Universe by storm! When Kamala discovers the dangers of her newfound powers, she unlocks a secret behind them, as well. Is Kamala ready to wield these immense new gifts? Or will the weight of the legacy before her be too much to bear? Kamala has no idea, either. But she’s comin’ for you, Jersey!

I loved the first book in the Ms. Marvel series, and we have volumes 2 – 5 out from the library right now! You can find my review here.

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Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

In Caitlin’s world, everything is black or white. Things are good or bad. Anything in between is confusing. That’s the stuff Caitlin’s older brother, Devon, has always explained. But now Devon’s dead and Dad is no help at all. Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger’s, she doesn’t know how. When she reads the definition of closure, she realizes that is what she needs. In her search for it, Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white—the world is full of colors—messy and beautiful.Kathryn Erskine has written a must-read gem, one of the most moving novels of the year.

It’s not often you come across a book that is from the perspective of a girl with Asperger’s. A story that also covers the aftermath of a school shooting, and how on family deals with it. I plan on reading this one before the end of the month for #diversitydecbingo.

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Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl’s struggle for justice. Movie rights have been sold to Fox, with Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games) to star.

A book inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement? Yes, please!

Diversity Spotlight -17 November 2016

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I am slowly making my way through The Blazing Star, which was on my Diversity Spotlight list last week. I feel like every time I pick it up, I get interrupted, and have to put it back down. I hate when that happens! I don’t know if it is the constant interruptions, or my mood that is still down in the dumps, but I am having a hard time getting into the book.

Wildfires are still raging in the North Carolina mountains, and for the past 3 days, my home in the Charlotte area has been hazy and smoky. So much so, that the local school district has cancelled outdoor recess and sporting practices until the air quality improves. The Code Red air quality, combined with all the drywall repair work currently underway in our bathroom renovation, has really triggered my asthma, so I am back on a nebulizer and frequent inhaler use at the moment. Ugh.

Hopefully, it will rain soon, but there is still no sign of rain in the forecast.  2016 certainly is continuing on its path of being the year of constant yuckiness.

On a positive note, I am extremely excited to participate in an upcoming Love Wins rally. You might be scratching your head on that one, in light of the recent election, but a group of mothers involved with a local nonprofit, OurBRIDGE, decided to unite together and send a message to our neighbors, city, country, and the world, that we stand together in the belief that the United States is stronger for its diversity and inclusion.

OurBridge Kids is a Charlotte-based nonprofit that provides a safe, nurturing and respectful environment for refugee and immigrant students and their families. The rally is getting a lot of attention locally, with an excellent line-up of speakers and attendees. It should be a very empowering and uplifting event, what so many of us need right now.

In honor of all the refugee families I have come to know over the years, all of my selections this week will focus on the experience of refugees.

Diversity Spotlight Thursday is a weekly feature hosted by Aimal @ Bookshelves and Paperbacks. Each week, you discuss three books featuring diverse characters or authors, that fall into each of following three categories:

  • A diverse book you have read and enjoyed
  • A diverse book that has already been released but you have not read
  • A diverse book that has not yet been released

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What is the What by Dave Eggers

Book Blurb:

In a heartrending and astonishing novel, Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee now living in the United States. We follow his life as he’s driven from his home as a boy and walks, with thousands of orphans, to Ethiopia, where he finds safety — for a time. Valentino’s travels, truly Biblical in scope, bring him in contact with government soldiers, janjaweed-like militias, liberation rebels, hyenas and lions, disease and starvation — and a string of unexpected romances. Ultimately, Valentino finds safety in Kenya and, just after the millennium, is finally resettled in the United States, from where this novel is narrated. In this book, written with expansive humanity and surprising humor, we come to understand the nature of the conflicts in Sudan, the refugee experience in America, the dreams of the Dinka people, and the challenge one indomitable man faces in a world collapsing around him.

I have had the incredible privilege to get to know two Sudanese doctors who worked with the Dinka people during the Civil War, who eventually had to flee and became refugees themselves. The courage and optimism of so many Sudanese refugees, and most especially the Lost Boys, is beyond belief. This book is powerfully written, and is a must read for everyone.

Little known fact: Many, many refugees celebrate their birthday on January 1. Here in Charlotte, a local refugee agency holds a big birthday party every year in January for their clients. The reason for this is due to the fact that many refugees don’t know their actual date of birth. When that is the case, a new birthday is assigned to them during the resettlement process. The date always assigned for those who don’t know? January 1.

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The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

Book Blurb:

Subhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention center after his mother and sister fled the violence of a distant homeland, Subhi has only ever known life behind the fences. But his world is far bigger than that—every night, the magical Night Sea from his mother’s stories brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and the birds tell their stories. And as he grows, his imagination threatens to burst beyond the limits of his containment.

The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night in the form of Jimmie—a scruffy, impatient girl who appears on the other side of the wire fence and brings with her a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it herself, she relies on Subhi to unravel her family’s love songs and tragedies.

Subhi and Jimmie might both find comfort—and maybe even freedom—as their tales unfold. But not until each has been braver than ever before.

From 2001 – 2005, I worked with asylum seekers in Brisbane, Australia. The clients, many of whom became dear friends, that I worked with were community-based asylum seekers. This novel details the experience of asylum seekers who don’t get that opportunity. Australia has both “onshore” and “offshore” detention centres, and the characters in The Bone Sparrow live in one of the onshore detention centres.

Fact: There are many myths surrounding refugees. One such myth is that “Boat People” – those who arrive via boat to Australia – are not “genuine refugees”. This is UNTRUE!! There is no such thing as a ‘genuine’ or ‘non-genuine’ refugee. Refugee status should not be influenced by method of arrival, and 93.4% of asylum seekers who arrived by boat to Australia in 2011-12 were found to be refugees and granted protection.

However, Australia discriminates against asylum seekers based on their method of arrival. If they arrive with a valid visa – often a student or tourist visa – and then apply for protection, they are allowed to live in the community until their application is processed (this can take years). If an asylum seekers arrives on a boat, or another method, without a visa, they are sent to detention centres.

Some people end up stuck in a no-man’s land, denied protection by Australia, but unable to be sent back to their home country, and end up living in the detention centres for years upon years.

This includes children. And the conditions can be abhorrent, and so incredibly inhumane.

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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Book Blurb:

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer was one of the most widely and highly praised novels of 2015, the winner not only of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but also the Center for Fiction Debut Novel Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the ALA Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the California Book Award for First Fiction. Nguyen’s next fiction book, The Refugees, is a collection of perfectly formed stories written over a period of twenty years, exploring questions of immigration, identity, love, and family.

With the coruscating gaze that informed The Sympathizer, in The Refugees Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half-sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration. The second piece of fiction by a major new voice in American letters, The Refugees is a beautifully written and sharply observed book about the aspirations of those who leave one country for another, and the relationships and desires for self-fulfillment that define our lives.

I don’t usually read collections of short stories, but I might make an exception for this one. I find it particularly interesting that the stories were written over a period of twenty years!

The Refugees will be published on 7 February, 2017.