The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Genre: Contemporary YA

Kudos to Angie Thomas for writing a debut novel that is so profound and powerful. How to describe The Hate U Give – or THUG, an author-coined acronym for her book? Let’s start with this:

THUG LIFE – “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone”. ~Tupac

The title of the novel is taken from Tupac Shakur, and his meaning underlying those words. That what society tells our youth has a way of coming back and affecting all of us. We see that in the protests, and riots against police brutality and police killings of unarmed black men. We see that in the anger and frustration that so many feel.

THUG revolves around Starr Carter, a teen that moves between two worlds: the impoverished neighborhood where she grew up, and the expensive suburban private school that she attends:

I get out of the car. For at least seven hours I don’t have to talk about One-Fifteen. I don’t have to think about Khalil. I just have to be normal Starr at normal Williamson and have a normal day. That means flipping the switch in my brain so I’m Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang–if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it–even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood”. Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the “angry black girl”. Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is nonconfrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto.

I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.

When Starr is the only witness to the shooting of her childhood best friend, at the hands of a police officer during a traffic stop even though he was doing nothing wrong, she is forced to confront the dichotomy between her two personas.

I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose. I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged pictures on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there. I always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.

Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.

THUG is an unapologetic – and rightfully so – evocative look into a subject that needs to be torn wide open across the country: the shootings of unarmed black men by police officers. The school to prison pipeline in poor, urban communities. The New Jim Crow era of mass incarceration, the biases institutionalized within the criminal justice system and the policies that control said system. The story is emotionally charged, important, and really, REALLY good.

Putting the important political message aside for a moment, Angie Thomas is a brilliant writer. THUG is incredibly well-written, and the storytelling is so incredibly powerful, not only due to the message, but the sheer intelligence and creative ability of the author. It is very rare that I gush over contemporary YA novels, but here I am! Gushing. In a debut novel, no less!

To go along with the fantastic storytelling is all the wonderful characters that truly made the story shine. Starr is…well, Starr is someone you root for from the very beginning. And her family!! I love when a contemporary YA novel includes a well-flushed out family and Starr’s is one of the best. I love all of the relationships in this book, whether it is between Starr and her parents, or her brother Seven, or her friends. All of the relationships were well-developed and I love how a few of the minor characters really experienced their own growth throughout the story, it is very much an ensemble cast, and they all shine.

Take this conversation between Starr and her Dad:

“Now, think ’bout this,” he says. “How did the drugs even get in our neighborhood? This is a multibillion dollar industry we talking ’bout, baby. That shit is flown into our communities, but I don’t know anybody with a private jet. Do you?

“No.”

“Exactly. Drugs come from somewhere, and they’re destroying our community,” he says. “You got folks like Brenda, who think they need them to survive, and then you got the Khalils, who think they need to sell them to survive. The Brendas can’t get jobs unless they’re clean, and they can’t pay for rehab unless they got jobs. When the Khalils get arrested for selling drugs, they either spend most of their life in prison, another billion-dollar industry, or they have a hard time getting a real job and probably start selling drugs again. That’s the hate they’re giving us, baby, a system designed against us. That’s Thug Life.”

Daddy Carter gave me all the feels in this book. And that is what The Hate U Give does: it breaks your heart, and gives you the warm fuzzies – all in the span of a few pages.

Read this book. No matter where you live – read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Historical fiction, Alternate history, #OwnVoices

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Underground Railroad, is, I dare to say it, a masterpiece. Despite the detached tone that turns off a few readers, the author gets to the heart of the horrible truths surrounding American chattel slavery in a way that most historical works have not. In addition to Alex Haley’s Roots, which comes with its fair share of controversy, Underground Railroad is one of the most powerful novels about slavery that I have ever read.

In Underground Railroad, we begin with a fairly straightforward story on a slave plantation. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia; she is also a stray and outcast amongst her fellow people. When Caesar, a slave relatively new to the Randall plantation, convinces her to run with him, she eventually agrees, and they both make their escape.

It is here, on page 66, that the story takes a turn into the realm of alternative history. For the Underground Railroad is not the version we find in our history books, but a real train line, built by slaves, buried deep underground.

The stairwell was lined with stones and a sour smell emanated from below. It did not open into a cellar but continued down. Cora appreciated the labor that had gone into its construction. The steps were steep, but the stones aligned in even planes and provided an easy descent. Then they reached the tunnel, and appreciation became too mealy a word to contain what lay before her.

The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light-colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus. Someone had been thoughtful enough to arrange a small bench on the platform. Cora felt dizzy and sat down.

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

Throughout the novel, Colson borrows from history to reveal the true heart of darkness: slavery and the ongoing systemic racism in America. As Cora moves through each state: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Colson begins to tell a broader story. South Carolina is completely reinvented – I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoilers – but it is definitely jarring, and brings together the pseudosciences of eugenics, forced sterilization, and the Tuskegee Syphilis Project. All is not as it appears, and what looks shiny and promising on the outside often hides a darker, menacing aspect within.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that’s what you do when you take away someone’s babies – steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

I definitely see why this novel won the National Book Award. Colson Whitehead not only shows the struggles African-Americans have experienced during chattel slavery and beyond; he also touches on the way that white folks, and not just antebellum Southerners, justified their mistaken belief in racial superiority.

Interspersed throughout the story are chapters featuring a few of the minor characters: Caesar, Ridgeway, Dr. Stevens, Ethel. Some peopel take issue with these chapters as unnecessary, but I really appreciated them, particularly the chapters about Ridgeway and Caesar.

Whitehead writes in a detached way, and I know that is a turn-off for some people. I really enjoyed his writing style, and definitely recommend you give it a chance! In my opinon, it deserves all the accolades it has received.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

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 – The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

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Book: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: YA Contemporary, Own Voices

Book Blurb: 

Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.

Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, is a hard book to review. This semi-autobiographical YA novel is wildly hilarious at times, but also bleak and grim, and based off of many of the real-life experiences of the author.

“I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.”

My first thought was that Alexie’s writing, blunt and filled with dark humor, also contains what can easily be construed as negative stereotypes. The lack of positive role models on the reservation, and the almost angelic portraiture of the white-townsfolk towards the end of the book, paints a very unfair depiction of American Indian life. Is his story perpetuating the sentiment of American Indians as sad, hopeless souls? Why is it one of the few white people living on the reservation that is the one that tells Junior of his immediate need to get off the reservation and “SAVE HIMSELF”? White people to the rescue motif, really?

Having not grown up on or anywhere near a reservation, these are not questions that I feel comfortable answering myself. I have a very, very small thread connecting me to the American Indian community: my maternal biological grandfather is Native American. But I am adopted, and that is literally all the information I have. Not a whole lot to go by.

So, I went to Google, and researched some of Sherman Alexie’s past interviews, and reviews by people who grew up and/or lived on reservations, to gain a different perspective. I would like to share some of their thoughts here:

“The other aspect of this book that I enjoyed, though I don’t expect every reader to view the same way, is that the Indian Reservation depicted has a lot of truth to it from my own experiences of having grown up on and around my own as a girl. Twenty, and even ten years ago, our reservation life was not so far off from the one described here, with the exception of perhaps the climate being slightly different, and perhaps I was too young to understand and remember anything about crime rates. But there was poverty, and then there was crushing poverty where I am from. There was alcoholism, though I would venture that perhaps it wasn’t the hot-button stereotype that I feel is portrayed at times in Alexie’s book. I don’t know. Every Native community is different, for sure, with their own unique set of problems. While I feel that there is a lot of truth to what Sherman Alexie has created, I also feel that there is a sweeping generalization. So, it hits and it misses, and I would encourage you to read it for yourself and decide what you think.” ~ Ouyang Dan, FWD/Forward

“Literature is the study of human weakness. I just happened to write the Native American version of it.” ~ Sherman Alexie, Sadie Magazine interview

“When I think of the poverty-stricken, sexually and physically abused, self-loathing Native American teenager that I was, I can only wish, immodestly, that I’d been given the opportunity to read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Or Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak.” Or Chris Lynch’s “Inexusable.” Or any of the books that Ms. Gurdon believes to be irredeemable. I can’t speak for other writers, but I think I wrote my YA novel as a way of speaking to my younger, irredeemable self.” ~Sherman Alexie, Why The Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood

I know this isn’t my typical review. In short, I found The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to be a funny, heart-breaking, and thought-provoking book. I definitely recommend it. With a caveat, as I also place the responsibility on the reader – esp. white readers – to understand fully and completely that Alexie’s book, and life experiences, are not to be taken as absolute truth for all American Indians, everywhere.

“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,’ I said. ‘By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.”

Rating: 4/5 stars

 

Book Review – LaRose by Louise Erdrich

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Book: LaRose
Author: Louise Erdrich
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Literary Fiction, Ojibwe, Contemporary, Own Voices

LaRose easily jumps to the top of the list of my favorite books of 2016. It is a beautiful novel of love and atonement. The story takes place in the same geographic region as Plague of Doves and Round House: the small, fictional town of Pluto, North Dakota, and the Ojibwe reservation next to it.

LaRose begins with heartbreak. While hunting a deer that Landreaux Iron has been tracking all season, he accidentally shoots his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich. This is not a spoiler, it happens on page two. To make amends, Landreaux and his wife Emmaline follow a tradition of their ancestors, and give their own young son LaRose to the Ravich family in atonement, as an “old form of justice”. Young LaRose steps up to the role, helping to heal the hearts of both families.

The roots of the story go back to the Ojibwe culture that Erdrich herself hails from, and is the story of families and tragedies that span generations.

“Bad luck rarely stops with one occurrence. All Indians know that. To stop it quickly takes great effort, which is why LaRose was sent.”

As we come to find out, the accidental shooting was not the first tragedy, and LaRose is descended from a long line of healers, back to the original LaRose. Tragedies follow the LaRose lineage, from the selling of the first LaRose in the 1800s to a trader, through boarding schools, sexual abuse, tuberculosis, and the desecration of remains. LaRose is a name that has been passed through five generations, and in each generation, the name is given to one who has a connection to the spirit world.

But this is not a story about grief and tragedy. It is a story of love and redemption, about the way people live,  and how they rebuild their lives back together. Louise Erdrich’s story acknowledges that, to many American Indians, the pain and pleasures of the past are not forgotten, but become the foundation on which the present is built. In the novel, this is portrayed through the very home of the Iron family.

“Landreaux and Emmaline’s house contained the original cabin from 1846, built in desperation as snow fell on their ancestors. It satisfied them both to know that if the layers of drywall and plaster were torn away from the walls, they would find the interior pole and mud walls. The entire first family-babies, mothers, uncles, children, aunts, grandparents-had passed around tuberculosis, diptheria, sorrow, endless tea, hilarious and sacred, dirty, magical stories. They had lived and died in what was now the living room, and there had always been a LaRose.”

Erdrich provides a rich backstory spanning generations, in which the reader gets a better idea of how the parallel stories form and influence the present.

One theme present in the story of the earlier generations of LaRose, is the difference between the Ojibwe values and the American culture under which the Ojibwe had to live. This is specifically highlighted in the boarding school experiences. One of the boarding schools mentioned in the novel, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, existed only a few miles away from where I grew up. As an adult, I was shocked to first become aware of its existence when visiting the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. At the time, I was astonished that the Carlisle School never made an appearance in the history books of my high school. A slightly older, wiser me now knows better. I now actively work to bring the stories and histories that are often unheard by white Americans to the forefront, at least with my own daughter.

“At the school, everything was taken from her. Losing her mother’s drum was like losing Mink all over again. At night, she asked the drum to fly back to her. But it never did. She soon learned how to fall asleep. Or let the part of myself they call hateful fall asleep, she thought. But it never did. Her whole being was Anishinaabe. She was Illusion. She was Mirage. Ombanitemagad. Or what they call her now – Indian. As in, Do not speak Indian, when she had been speaking her own language.”

LaRose is a powerful exploration of justice and reparation. A novel incredibly difficult to review but easy to love. I highly, highly recommend it, especially if you are a fan of Erdrich’s earlier work.

Rating: 5/5 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