March: Book Three: A Graphic Novel Review

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate PowellThe March trilogy is a graphic novel series telling the story of John Lewis’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. When March: Book Three (2016) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell begins in September 1963 with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Although this novel focuses on Lewis’s experiences with him as the narrator and, of course, biographical information from his own life, this story also takes a wider lens to look at the movement as a whole. Lewis is the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) whose younger members are feeling disillusioned with the more mainstream activists who often take credit for SNCCs moves while sidelining their role. SNCC is on the verge of fracturing from within, and violence is increasing in the south as Lewis and others make plans for Freedom Vote and the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

March: Book Three is a thoughtful and engrossing conclusion to a trilogy that is already being hailed as a modern classic. This final installment was the 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature and the 2017 Printz Award winner.

Although it is the third part of a trilogy, most of this story makes sense on its own. Readers with a basic knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement and history of the time may have an easier go diving into this story than those without that background. Because this book is so visual, I will admit that I had a hard time identifying key characters early on which, I think, is partly from coming to this book without reading the earlier installments.

Lewis and Aydin have worked together to create a narrative that focuses on Lewis’s life experiences and his own changing feelings about SNCC and the movement as a whole. At the same time, the scope and breadth of the movement–the far-reaching hopes and the devastating violence–are also emphasizes both with the narrative text and with Powell’s moving illustrations and dynamic panel layouts.

The black and white illustrations work extremely well to highlight the injustice the Civil Rights Movement was fighting. The lack of color in the illustrations also has the interesting effect of flattening a lot of the skin tones and underscoring how similar we all are. Powell does a good job filling each panel and page with movement and action. Some of the panels are a bit frenzied but it’s a deliberate choice at key moments.

Having March: Book Three framed as a story told in retrospect was also a very effective choice. Readers go into this story knowing that Lewis makes it through–he survives–and also seeing immediately how far things have progressed (and how much work remains). Reading this story through a different lens with more immediacy to the narrative would have been unbearable and often devastating in the wake of the loss and danger faced by Lewis and everyone else in the Movement. I read this graphic novel near the 2016 election and it was very poignant and bittersweet to see the power of the vote in action while also realizing how much was undone in 2016 and how much still must be done.

While this book functions as a larger history of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, it’s also important to remember that this series is also an autobiographical text in many ways. Because of that, this story does set aside and gloss over certain moments. This selective focus is a flaw of any biographical text and it makes sense in the context of this series as the focus is clearly and deliberately on the main events and players of the Movement. That said, it is interesting to note the way Stokely Carmichael’s comments about women’s only position in SNCC being prone was glossed over. I am sure it was seen as a joke by a lot of people then (and still) but the way it was sidestepped here just highlights how anyone, even with the best intentions does have an agenda and bias in terms of scope and how events are presented. It’s also worth noting that this story stops short of SNCC’s dissolution and Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.

March: Book Three is a powerful conclusion to a trilogy everyone should read. This series deserves every bit of praise it has received. It is a rare series that occupies the space between academic reading for school and pleasure reading quite comfortably. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, We Are the Ship by Kadir Nelson, X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin, Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

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The Sun is Also a Star: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Because everything looks like chaos up close. Daniel thinks it’s a matter of scale. If you pull back far enough and wait for long enough, then order emerges.”

“Maybe their universe is just taking longer to form.”

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola YoonNatasha believes in science and facts. Her life doesn’t have room for fate or destiny. Which is why it’s so hard to hope for a miracle on her last day in New York City. Natasha’s family is going to be deported to Jamaica in twelve hours. Natasha doesn’t believe in long shots but it’s the only shot she has left to try and stay in the city that’s been her home since she was a child. She doesn’t have time to waste meeting a cute boy and maybe falling in love with him. Not when she is so busy trying to balance her practical nature with her hopes for some last-minute magic.

Daniel is used to being a good son. Not the best son because that’s always been his older brother. But solidly second best. Except now his brother screwed up big time and Daniel’s parents are pinning their hopes for having a Successful-Ivy-League-Graduate-Doctor in the family on Daniel. The problem is that Daniel wants to be a poet–something his Korean immigrant parents can’t understand. At. All. Daniel believes in poetry and fate which is why he knows the moment he sees Natasha on the street in Times Square that their lives are about the change forever.

It feels like the universe or fate or something Big is conspiring to bring Natasha and Daniel into each others’ lives. But over the course of a day filled with possibility, neither Natasha nor Daniel is sure if that will be enough to keep them together in The Sun is Also a Star (2016) by Nicola Yoon.

The Sun is Also a Star is Yoon’s second novel. It was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and has received six starred reviews. (UPDATE:) The Sun is Also a Star also received an honor for the 2017 Printz Award.

All of that is impressive on its own but it’s also important to remember that we often hold contemporary romances like this one up to a higher standard when considering them for awards based on literary merit which makes this book stand out even more as both an exemplar of contemporary romance at its best and also as a generally excellent book.

The Sun is Also a Star is set over the course of one day but the plot is more far-reaching with interconnecting narratives and characters related to each other by six (or even fewer) degrees of separation.

The majority of the novel alternates between Natasha and Daniel’s first person narrations with their distinct voices and world views. Other chapters follow characters who are key to bringing Daniel and Natasha together including a depressed security guard, a subway conductor who has found god, and even Natasha and Daniel’s parents–all chronicled as brief histories. This shifting story maintains a consistent and deliberate voice thanks to the omniscient narrator whose sections contrast well with Natasha’s pragmatic nature and Daniel’s classic dreamer outlook in their respective narrations.

This thoughtful story also nicely subverts some of the traditional gender roles found in contemporary romances. Natasha is an unapologetically smart girl who works hard and knows that life isn’t fair. She is jaded and ambitious. Daniel, meanwhile, is a genuinely nice and optimistic boy who believes in the power of fate even while learning how to make his own choices and stand by them.

Everything in The Sun is Also a Star refers back–sometimes subtly and sometimes not–to the idea of love being a driving force in the universe. All of the tangential characters whose actions work to bring Natasha and Daniel together through happenstance or fate are working on some basis of love–the train conductor who has found god and loves life, the security guard who is lonely and mired in her own lack of love both from others and for herself, the attorney and his paralegal. It’s all love in one form or another. Even Natasha’s father and his actions are driven by his conflict between his love for his family and his love of performing.

Yoon does so many things in The Sun is Also a Star and she does them all well, while making it seem effortless with a combination of literary prose and a deceptively sleek plot. This book juggles multiple characters, narratives, and plot threads to create a coherent story about the many factors bringing Natasha and Daniel together as well as those which are conspiring to keep them apart. It evokes an authentic New York City setting not just a shiny tourist one but the dingy parts too. The Sun is Also a Star does all of that while offering an intellectually stimulating story that still manages to be upbeat and romantic. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, The Romantics by Leah Konen, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, Summer in the Invisible City by Juliana Romano, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2016*

I’ll Give You the Sun: A Review

i'llgiveyouthesunAt thirteen, twins Noah and Jude are close. Their family is whole. Everything seems perfect. From a distance. Close up it’s easy to see that Jude is making bad choices that are pushing her toward a serious fall while Noah is struggling just to keep himself together under the pressure of fitting in with the painfully normal world. Art has always been enough to get Noah through. When he falls hard for the beautiful boy next door, he isn’t sure anything–not even painting–will be enough to make things right again.

At sixteen the twins are barely speaking and nothing is perfect anymore. Noah hides his hurt behind a facade of normalcy that seems to fool everyone but Jude. Jude, meanwhile, is not-so-quietly falling apart trapped on a path she never expected and is not sure she wants.

Both Noah and Jude are haunted by old ghosts and past mistakes. With the help of a curmudgeonly artist and a spectacularly messed-up boy, Jude thinks she can put the pieces of her family back together. Except she only has half of the pieces. It will take both Jude and Noah, together, to make things right in I’ll Give You the Sun (2014) by Jandy Nelson.

I’ll Give You the Sun is Nelson’s second novel. It is the winner of the 2015 Printz Award and the 2015 Stonewall Award.

Nelson delivers one hell of a story in her sophomore novel. I’ll Give You the Sun presents two stories simultaneously in alternating sections (no chapter breaks). Noah begins the novel with his story “The Invisible Museum” when the twins are 13 and on the cusp of some major changes for themselves and their family. Jude handles the latter of of the novel’s plot in “The History of Luck” when the twins are 16 and deeply troubled.

I’ll Give You the Sun has mystery, romance and elements of magic realism. The prose is imbued with an ode to the power of art and creation as well as some deeply powerful ideas about feminism.

The novel moves along with clever intersections between Jude and Noah’s stories. Both Noah and Jude have voices that are breezy and approachable in a way that draws readers immediately into their stories and their lives. Although the two characters often sound very similar in their narrations, there is a fair argument that the similarities are intentional since they are twins. It’s more difficult to explain Noah’s often literary and lyrical voice when he is only thirteen for much of the narrative–something that is balanced out with behavior (from both twins at that age) that is often painfully thoughtless or selfish.

This book isn’t always easy to read. The end of Noah’s story leaves both twins damaged and reeling from a variety of catastrophes. In Jude’s section, they are both hurting and struggling to survive without much hope for anything more until Jude decides to take a chance. I’ll Give You the Sun is at its strongest when these two characters realize they have to take action if they want to thrive.

Nelson’s writing is spectacular making I’ll Give You the Sun a vibrant story about family, recovery, art and love. Not to be missed.

Possible Pairings: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley, Alice, I Think by Susan Juby, Undercover by Beth Kephart, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, The Weight of Feathers by Anne-Marie McLemore, The Summer of Chasing Mermaids by Sarah Ockler, Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Rabb, Damaged by Amy Reed, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2014*

This One Summer: A Review

This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko TamakiRose has been coming to Awago Beach with her family every summer since forever. Rose’s summer cottage friend–and seasonal younger sister, of sorts–Windy, is always there waiting for a new vacation filled with fun and adventures.

But nothing is quite the same as it was even last summer. Caught uncomfortably between the familiarity of childhood and the wholly unknown world of growing up, Rose isn’t sure anymore where she fits in at Awago, with Windy, or even with her parents.

In a summer filled with things left unsaid–with change lurking everywhere–Rose and Windy realize that even as life threatens to shift in a new direction things like friendship can remain rock solid in This One Summer (2014) by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki.

This One Summer received a whopping six starred reviews over the course of 2014. It is also the first graphic novel to ever win Canada’s Governor General Award for Illustration in an English Language Children’s Book (for illustrator Jillian Tamaki). (As Mahnaz Dar explains on SLJ this award has usually gone to picture books.) This One Summer also received a Printz and Caldecott honor in 2015 (this might have happened before but I can’t think of any instances).

It’s hard sometimes to remember that illustrations are a key part of the reading experience when looking at something that isn’t a picture book. Graphic novels, of course, are uniquely suited to demonstrate a perfect blend of illustrative and textual storytelling. Given the ways in which readers interpret visual and written “texts”, it’s sometimes hard to notice how well the two integrate. It is also, sometimes, too easy to ignore what is being done exceptionally well.

This One Summer is a deceptive book due in part to the seamless integration of graphical and verbal storytelling. In doing everything so very well here–so effortlessly–the Tamakis often erase their own work. Instead of seeing the intricate line work in each full page spread, we first see a beautiful picture. Instead of paying attention to how changing panels and page design move the reader through the story as easily as through a storyboard for a film, we initially only notice how quickly this book can be read.

Throughout the novel the Tamakis capitalize on the graphic novel format to push This One Summer in new directions and stretch just how a story can be told. The motion and physicality, particularly whenever Windy is on the page, becomes palpable with each new frame. The varied design as the story shifts between full page illustrations, two page spreads and smaller panels also serve to move the plot smoothly along.

With intricate illustrations and a nuanced, meditative plot, This One Summer is a subtle story about growing up and facing change that will resonate with readers of any age long after they read the final page.

Possible Pairings: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Clarity by Kim Harrington, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, The Summer of Firsts and Lasts by Terra McVoy, Unbreak My Heart by Melissa C. Walker

Grasshopper Jungle: A (Rapid Fire) Review

This is more a critical analysis than a review and is therefore littered with spoilers of varying degrees.

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (2014).

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew SmithBy this point, Grasshopper Jungle needs no introduction having already swept up a variety of accolades including wide critical acclaim, starred reviews, a movie option as well as winning the Boston Globe-Horne Book Award and receiving a Printz honor in 2015.  It is the bright green book that could and has helped mark a well-deserved turning point in Smith’s literary career as he joins the ranks of current hot authors. It is a madcap, diverse, clever book that blends genres, time periods and story lines.

Grasshopper Jungle is also one of those books where I can see all of the things Smith is doing that are clever and smart but I don’t particularly care for or appreciate any of them on a personal level because I am too busy deeply not enjoying it.

The diversity here and Austin being refreshingly whoever the hell he wants to be is great and much needed. Continue reading

Midwinterblood: A Review

“The sun does not go down.

“This is the first thing Eric Seven notices about Blessed Island. There will be many other strange things that he will notice, before the forgetting takes hold of him, but that will come later.”

Midwinterblood by Marcus SedgwickIn June 2073, Eric Seven arrives at Blessed Island chasing a story. It isn’t the first time his work as a journalist has brought him to the far reaches of society. Nor is it the first time he has encountered strange locals.

But as Eric investigates the strange island and a rare flower rumored to be found there, Eric also begins to feel a strange familiarity toward the island–especially toward a local woman named Merle.

As Eric and Merle come closer to the truth it becomes apparent that their journey, if it is a journey, is only just beginning. Or perhaps just nearing its conclusion in Midwinterblood (2011) by Marcus Sedgwick.

Midwinterblood was the winner of the Printz Award in 2014.

Midwinterblood presents seven intersecting stories of love, loss and rebirth in this deceptively slim volume. Although the stories vary in scope, all are grounded firmly in the landscape of Blessed Island where the more things change, the more some constants remain the same.

These stories span time and theme ranging from the unique problems faced by an archaeologist hoping to unearth a find to make a career to a story of two children in a viking colony plagued by an impossible monster. The loves presented here come in all forms with varying results for those involved.

Sedgwick presents a carefully plotted and delicate story over the course of this novel. It is very rare for a book to work as well when read forwards as it does read backwards, but Midwinterblood does just that. With plot points that transcend individual stories this is a rich, meditative story that begs to be read and read again.

Possible Pairings: The Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox, The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan, Sabriel by Garth Nix, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Where Things Come Back: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Where Things Come Back by John Corey WhaleyWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (2011)

Lily, Arkansas is a hopeless place full of sad people who tried to leave but failed. Cullen Witter, like a lot of people, wants desperately to get out of this stifling small town. The summer before his senior year in high school Cullen sees his first corpse. Then he sees the body of his cousin who overdosed on drugs. Later, after the corpses and the end of school, the entire town becomes obsessed with a woodpecker–long thought extinct–who may or may not be hiding in the woods around Lily. Stranger still, Cullen’s brilliant brother, Gabriel, disappears.

Chapters from Cullen’s first person narration are interspersed with third-person narratives from two unlikely missionaries. Other reviews will talk about these stories entwining in strange and surprising ways. They might also call this novel a mystery. I disagree with both statements.

Whaley’s debut novel was the winner of both the 2012 Printz Award and the 2012 Morris Award. While the prose is extremely literary, I contend there is very little mystery in this story. The narratives are not particularly shocking in the ways in which they overlap or the general story. Given the plot structure, the big reveal was ultimately predictable.

Where Things Come Back is about nothing so much as it is about waiting. The town is waiting for a woodpecker to return and change its fate. Cullen is waiting for his chance to get away and also for a simpler but much harder thing: the return of his missing brother. There are interesting ideas to be unpacked in this world of waiting–ideas that Whaley does examine in interesting ways.

Unfortunately that is never quite enough to make the story into a page-turner or anything more than a thoughtful, brief, meditation on the randomness of life.

Writerly prose can be found throughout the story which works in some instances to help Cullen develop a very unique voice. At the same time, it always feels like this novel is trying very hard to be thoughtful and contemplative in a way that feels forced.

Cullen’s mind wanders throughout the narrative as he goes off on tangents. While these flights of fancy are amusing (as Cullen imagines his town overrun by zombies and the like) they distract from the plot immensely. The structure reminded me so much of the “If you give a mouse a cookie” books that it became the only thing I could imagine as I read these imaginings. Worse, these elements added nothing to the story except to create a titillating ending that leaves a tiny bit of room for discussion.

By the end of the story, Where Things Come Back became a strange and arbitrary novel with a mildly interesting (and very open) ending.