Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Synopsis:

brown girl dreaming.jpgJacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir-in-verse by Jacqueline Woodson, was released in 2014 and showered with awards including a Newbery Honor and National Book Award. So naturally, I wanted to read this as a part of exploring middle grade and for reading more books by and about African-Americans this year.

Woodson covers her early childhood and adolescence in the book, and in that short span of time she has plenty of history and perspective to cover. She’s a black girl born during the Civil Rights movement to a Southern mother but a proud Northern father who divorce when she is a baby. She’s raised in the South with her grandparents, but then her mother leaves for New York, and she and her brother and sister are raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses by their grandmother. When her mother comes back to take them to move to New York (Brooklyn), they continue the practice, and they experience the contrasts between the North and the South through constant visits. Later, she becomes very aware of the 1970s movements that surround her, particularly feminism. Plus, there are quite a few references to the music of the times, which I enjoyed.

As much of the book covers a time when Woodson was quite young and naturally doesn’t remember everything, the verse form allows her to imagine her family at moments she would not be able to see or remember. It’s a creative blend of memoir, hope, and commentary. I also loved to see Jacqueline’s growing love for writing and poetry. Her older sister was the quick-learning, book-smart one, so she felt like she disappointed teachers, but she begins to find her own voice and it’s lovely.

I sometimes struggle with free-verse book form–I think I like single poems more, and particularly poetry that experiments with form, sound, rhythm, rhyme. I like longer “single” poems, and in a lot of popular collections they are quite short and structurally simple. (And just to clarify, I’m not saying those collections aren’t poetry. I just don’t enjoy them or get as much out of them.) But Woodson here has some longer lines and variations in her poems, and the style works very well for that blend of what she remembers and what she imagines.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a great book for the upper elementary and above, especially if you’re interested in writing, poetry, African-American history and perspectives, Jehovah’s Witnesses experiences, or are just a fan of Jacqueline Woodson in general. I’m interested in reading her latest, Another Brooklyn, although that one is a fictional novel for adults. As some of her life in Brooklyn in the ’70s is chronicled in Brown Girl Dreaming, it will be interesting to see how her life influenced that story.

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Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King

Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King

Genre: middle grade, surrealism/absurdism(?)

Release Date: January 31, 2017

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic

marvin gardens.jpgObe Devlin has problems. His family’s farmland has been taken over by developers. His best friend Tommy abandoned him for the development kids. And he keeps getting nosebleeds, because of that thing he doesn’t like to talk about. So Obe hangs out at the creek by his house, in the last wild patch left, picking up litter and looking for animal tracks.

One day, he sees a creature that looks kind of like a large dog, or maybe a small boar. And as he watches it, he realizes it eats plastic. Only plastic. Water bottles, shopping bags… No one has ever seen a creature like this before, because there’s never been a creature like this before. The animal–Marvin Gardens–soon becomes Obe’s best friend and biggest secret. But to keep him safe from the developers and Tommy and his friends, Obe must make a decision that might change everything.

In her most personal novel yet, Printz Honor Award winner Amy Sarig King tells the story of a friendship that could actually save the world.

Amy Sarig King is better known as A.S. King, one of my favorite YA authors. This is her middle grade debut, so naturally I was doubly intrigued to not only read it but to see how she would write for a different audience. I admit it took me a bit to get into, and like all her books it’s not going to appeal to the mainstream, but it definitely won me over by the end.

Me and Marvin Gardens is your boy-and-a-dog story except the “dog” in question is a completely unknown and strange but friendly creature who eats plastic and poops brightly-colored toxic waste. Yes, you read that right. This is a book about environmentalism, as Obe picks trash out of the creek, ponders pollution facts his cool science teacher writes on the board every day, and has watched his family’s land be turned into a housing development. The changing of the Earth with time was distilled to a microcosm perfectly in this setting. It also has a lot to explore about toxic masculinity, as Obe’s father reminds him frequently that boys don’t cry, and Obe’s former friend has turned against him to fit into the meaner crowd of boys who make a list of girls to kiss without their consent (and the book has a GREAT discussion on this with Obe, his sister, and their parents).

So, yes, this doesn’t have the pacing of your usual middle grade. Obe’s a very internal character and the conflict with Marvin Gardens (the nickname for the creature) and the neighborhood builds slowly. And yet, King has unquestionably tailored her style to suit middle grade. There’s still the surrealism/abusrdism (I don’t know what to call it because unlike some of her others this isn’t magical realism, as Marvin is definitely not treated as a normal thing in the world), but it’s much more linear than her other narratives. Obe occasionally reflects on what it was like 100 years ago when his family began to lose the land, preserving King’s narrative style of having excerpts in different styles from the main narrative–but again, it’s more approachable.

Another delightful aspect of Me and Marvin Gardens is the friendship. Obe grows closer with his friend and bus seat-mate, Annie, as she lets him in one what’s been going on, defends her against his ex-friend’s nonconsensual kiss, and brings her to his creek for her to collect rocks (she wants to be a geologist) and, eventually, to meet Marvin. They get teased a little bit, but their bond remains platonic, which is refreshing. (YA does tend to pair characters more than middle grade, but often MG will feature budding relationships.)

I also really loved the ending, which isn’t a surprise if you know me. I don’t want to spoil it, but it does involve a positive view of teaching as a profession!

As always, I’m looking forward to what A.S. King comes up with next.

Braced by Alyson Gerber

Braced by Alyson Gerber

Genre: middle grade contemporary

Release date: March 28, 2017

Publisher: Scholastic

Synopsis:

bracedThe first contemporary novel about a disorder that bends the lives of ten percent of all teenagers: scoliosis.

Rachel Brooks is excited for the new school year. She’s finally earned a place as a forward on her soccer team. Her best friends make everything fun. And she really likes Tate, and she’s pretty sure he likes her back. After one last appointment with her scoliosis doctor, this will be her best year yet.

Then the doctor delivers some terrible news: The sideways curve in Rachel’s spine has gotten worse, and she needs to wear a back brace twenty-three hours a day. The brace wraps her in hard plastic from shoulder blades to hips. It changes how her clothes fit, how she kicks a ball, and how everyone sees her — even her friends and Tate. But as Rachel confronts all the challenges the brace presents, the biggest change of all may lie in how she sees herself.

Written by a debut author who wore a brace of her own, Braced is the inspiring, heartfelt story of a girl learning to manage the many curves life throws her way.

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Pride Month(ish) Wrap-Up

So I’m late to this because I’ve been working a lot. I’ve added the “ish” because the first two books here I read in May, but since they were also Pride themed I decided to include them, especially since I haven’t talked about them yet, either!

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

simon coverYes, I finally got around to this, and it was one of those books I read in just a couple of days on my Kindle. Simon is about the titular character who communicates through email with another boy known as “Blue” who goes to his high school but whose identity is unknown. This becomes discovered, however, by one of Simon’s classmates who uses the information to blackmail Simon if he doesn’t try to get this classmate together with his friend Abby. What makes it such a quick and enthralling read is that it functions as a personal mystery with a lot of cute moments.

I especially appreciated the discussion of coming out, because it’s a much more nuanced thing that it sounds like. Simon is worried his parents are going to make a bigger deal out of it than it should be. Is coming out still necessary–and should it be? Also, outing people is TERRIBLE.

I also read Albertalli’s second novel (and companion to Simon), The Upside of Unrequited, but I’m not including it as a separate entry because, as many pointed out during Pride month, that while there are many queer characters, the main characters are cis and heterosexual. I didn’t like it as much as Simon. I really appreciated the many discussions in it, though, from sexuality to anxiety (the routine of taking pills in the morning!).

We Are The Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

we are the antsThis book is by no means for everyone, but it struck a chord with me. It follows Henry, a teen who happens to be occasionally abducted by aliens who tell him the date of the end of the world but give him the option to save it if he presses a button. The thing is, he’s not sure he wants to press the button. He’s also dealing with the suicide of his boyfriend, relentless bullying at school, friendships both old and new, and his family’s various struggles.

This was a welcome antidote to all the discussion about 13 Reasons Why (which I talked about here, and which Hutchinson has talked about himself), because while it is about guilt, Henry eventually realizes there’s really no one to blame–not to mention his own Henry sees the other characters and his relationship to them as increasingly more complex. I also really appreciated the inclusion of the grandmother with Alzheimer’s, as an ailing grandmother with memory difficulties is something I’ve been going through for a while, and Ms. Faraci who was a great teacher ally.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

color purpleHere’s a classic I’ve known I need to read since the 2016 Tony Awards (this performance, wow!), and it applies to both Pride month reading as well as my African American reading goals. I’ve had it on my Kindle for a while now, but I was worried that it would be too heavy and complex reading while I was still doing my school readings. It’s true that it’s written in dialect from an under-educated woman (in the form of letters to God…well, mostly, but I won’t spoil it), but once you figure out who everyone is, it reads quite quickly. Plus, I really appreciated the writing and voice.

The Color Purple is Celie’s story as she struggles to find herself in rural Georgia in the 1930s amidst physical and sexual abuse from her father, her sister Nettie’s disappearance, and an unhappy marriage. She meets a singer, Shug Avery, who becomes more than just a friend. I shipped them SO MUCH and it’s beautiful. Also, the discussion of female sexuality was frank and included more than your typical book–even those published nowadays.

I haven’t seen the movie, directed by Spielberg and starring Oprah, but I did listen to the musical cast album and quite liked it. The OBC includes LaChanze as Celie, who I already loved from If/Then (which I talked about here), and Renee Elise Goldsberry (aka Angelica Schuyler) as Nettie.

Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

star crossedThis is a middle grade book about a girl discovering her bisexuality while rehearsing Romeo and Juliet for the eighth grade play with a really pretty girl. Some of the discussion surrounding this book (including a time Dee was asked not to speak of the subject matter at a school visit) sparked a very personal post about the role of LGBTQ+ books for kids and in schools, and now I’ve finally read it.

It is, indeed, adorable, and I was totally rooting for Mattie and Gemma. It’s also a love letter to Shakespeare and theater nerds, which I very much appreciated. Heck, I think I understand Romeo and Juliet better now than when I saw a production of it over 4 years ago. I also really appreciated that the teacher was a major character and portrayed positively and mechanistically…yay for English teachers! (I mean, I’m going to be one, I’m kind of biased.

I do wish the word “bisexual” was used, though, as it certainly seemed within the characters’ vocabulary. One student gets called out (by the teacher!) for using “gay” as a negative descriptor, and Mattie wonders if liking Gemma means she’s a lesbian at one point, though she late tells her friends that it doesn’t change the fact she likes guys, too–but that’s it. And that rang a bit strange. Everything else, relationship-wise (crushes are a big deal!), was perfect for the target age group.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

if i was your girl.jpgThis book is about a trans girl, Amanda, starting her life anew post-transition when she moves in with her father in a different town, and refreshingly it’s a trans book also written by a trans person. Unfortunately, major houses publish seldom few of these. Russo highlights aspects of the experience I hadn’t given as much thought to before–how, yes, awareness that one is trans and maybe “found out” occupies Amanda’s thoughts, but so does avoiding sexual harassment and other misogyny and specifically transmisogyny. And while she had gone through the ringer and continues to have some struggles, she’s allowed to be a regular teen, too, and start a happy relationship. Because even if you’re marginalized, you’re entitled to happiness in stories.

There is a major bisexual character and I’m not sure how I feel about that representation (as someone also bi). She was great for a while but then took a huge left turn. I don’t want to majorly spoil things, but there is something HUGE and terrible that happens at the end (which is why people need to stop saying this book is too happy??). And while it’s true that this horrible thing happens, and it’s good to show that not all LGB people are good trans allies, the bi character’s problem throughout the story result from her sexual attractions and desire for people, and having her being the most sexually active character was just kind of a stereotype I’m tired of? As is her being [SPOILERS] a backstabber. Especially with her being the ONLY bi character. So…alas, I’m conflicted and was a little disappointed

Angels in America by Tony Kushner

anglesinamerica-poster-09e5123a460579745d30d01cd781ea0aI’ve been reading more and more plays lately because I’m on quite the theater kick (both musical and not), so naturally Angels in America was on my list, and it was especially on my list for Pride month. (Note: I read the omnibus edition published in conjunction with HBO’s 2003 movie/miniseries. I know they were revised several times, especially Part 2, and I think I read the latest versions.)

Angels in America is one of those things that’s difficult to describe…yes, it is a two-part play that, in total, often runs close to 8 hours. It’s set in New York during the mid-80s height of the AIDS crisis. There’s Prior Walter, diagnosed and health deteriorating in the hospital, visited by his ancestors and an Angel. His lover, Louis, is terrified and leaves him. Roy Cohn, a real person (now starring in thinkpieces about how he was Trump’s lawyer), is dying from AIDS but is deeply closeted as he equates homosexuals with a lower class with no influence. Oh, and he’s haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenburg, who he sent to the electric chair. There’s Joe, a Mormon, struggling with his sexuality while his wife, Harper (my dream role; she gets some fantastic monologues), is agoraphobic and addicted to Valium. She spends quite a bit of time in a probably hallucinated Antarctica and meets Prior in one of her hallucinations and one of his dreams. And the 8 principal actors play all of the minor parts, too, adding parallels between characters and some female drag roles. So…it’s epic, it’s weird, it’s moving, and it’s funny at points. Part 2 might overstay its welcome and gets much more ephemeral, but the fact the Angels were present and spoke in verse reminded me a lot of Shakespeare and his supernatural-tinged plays (like Macbeth and The Tempest). It’s very theatrical, and that’s what I loved about it.

I’m also attending the National Theatre Live recordings in (movie) theatres. Part 1 has aired so far and it was AMAZING–like I knew the dialgoue was great from reading it, but seeing it acted out with amazing performances? Even better. Plus, there were great effects and lighting for the more magical elements, and there’s a scene between Joe/Harper and Louis/Prior that takes place simultaneously, resulting in a lot of parallels and phenomenal coordination that you don’t completely get from just reading the play. Unfortunately my theater had a sound problem (a loud feedback noise) possibly from the file itself, but they were able to fix it, though they just had to stop and start a couple of times. When there wasn’t that sound, though, I was utterly engrossed, and I’m excited to watch the second part this Thursday.

Reviews: Still Life with Tornado and Finding Perfect

Well, it turns out getting a camera is more complicated than I thought, so my foray into videos has come to a standstill. So, I return to some traditional blogging to tell you about two October releases that I’d been looking forward to (and lived up to my expectations)! (Also, yes, this is quite late. I failed at working blogging into my schedule this semester, but now I have more ideas and creativity that things are looking better.)

Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King

still-life-with-tornadoOne of the reasons why I love A.S. King’s novels so much is that they feel a bit like stumbling across a file folder of collected information and piecing it all together. In Still Life with Tornado, we mostly follow the perspective of sixteen-year-old Sarah as she stops attending school and runs into versions of herself from the past and future. Slipped throughout this narrative are excerpts from a family vacation seven years previously–which led to a rift between Sarah’s brother and the rest of the family and which Sarah doesn’t quite remember–and diary-like narratives from Sarah’s mother about her relationship with her husband. The different story threads weave together to reveal the troubles in Sarah’s family as Sarah herself learns, bringing about an inevitable confrontation.

I don’t think Still Life with Tornado is one of my favorite of King’s novels, but it was a ride that kept me engaged and gave me plenty to think about. The cycle of abuse and its effects on everyone involved is explored in a heartbreakingly realistic way. Sarah may first come across as a little annoying, as she’s so disdainful toward anything that isn’t “original” and is worked up over something that she is so embarassed of being a small issue that she doesn’t tell us for a while, but this is only the surface level of her character. She’s from a troubled household with repressed memories and the career path she loves is in danger. She’s lost, and we come to understand her as she lets some of her guard down. This is important. Kids may seem “difficult,” but what are they burying inside? So King unabashadly takes on a seemingly frustrating character to reveal her true self that she has been hiding from even herself, and every page is worth it.

Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz

finding-perfectOne of my most anticipated middle grade books of the year, Finding Perfect follows a 12-year-old girl named Molly as her OCD worsens while she concocts a plan for her mother (who left for Canada after a separate) to come and visit her if she wins a poetry slam competition.

As evidenced by the acknowledgements, Swartz did a lot of research when writing this novel, and that shows. It’s very informative,  immersing the reader in Molly’s world of even numbers divisible by 4, right sides, and more. It’s important in this society where “I’m so OCD” is a thing kids (and adults!) say WAY too much that we see Molly organizing her glass figurines and using perfect pencils alongside the profound anxiety she feels concerning her brother’s health when that order is disrupted, as well as her other obsessions. I really do hope that realistic portrayals of OCD like this help kids understand what it REALLY is. Finding Perfect even touches on the treatment Molly recieves once diagnosed, though I do not recall the option/addition/aspect (because it’s rarely used alone) of medication being mentioned.

Another thing I really liked: Molly goes to the Internet for answers when she is worried about her compulsions, as all curious kids do in the 21st century.

But Finding Perfect isn’t just about OCD. Molly’s relationship with her best friend, Hannah, stumbles at times, as does her relationships with her father and her siblings. She has to confront her optimistic image of her mother, too. Family, friends, and personal identity–it all comes together here, as they do for so many adolescents as they figure out who they are and where they belong in the world. It’s lovely.

Review: Sticks & Stones by Abby Cooper

Middle Grade Reads

Sticks & Stones by Abby Cooper

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Publication date: July 12, 2016

Genres/topics: Middle grade contemporary (magical realism?)

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This image does not capture how bright and spunky the cover is.

A feel-good middle grade debut with just a hint of magic about a girl who has a rare disorder that makes the words other people say about her appear on her body.

Ever since she was a baby, the words people use to describe Elyse have instantly appeared on her arms and legs. At first it was just “cute” and “adorable,” but as she’s gotten older and kids have gotten meaner, words like “loser” and “pathetic” appear, and those words bubble up and itch. And then there are words like “interesting,” which she’s not really sure how to feel about. Now, at age twelve, she’s starting middle school, and just when her friends who used to accept and protect her are drifting away, she receives an anonymous note saying “I know who you are, and I know what you’re dealing with. I want to help.” As Elyse works to solve the mystery of who is sending her these notes, she also finds new ways to accept who she is and to become her best self.

Sticks & Stones was one of my most anticipated books of the year, as I had discovered it when looking for new middle grade releases that interested me so I could continue exploring the market that I’m planning on writing in. And that plot summary won me over. Sixth grade and self-esteem? Deal me in.

The novel is more of a contemporary than anything else, but part of me wants to also call it magical realism. CAV, the disease Elyse has that causes words to appear on her arms and legs if someone calls her them–or, as she discovers, if she calls herself them–is, of course, fictional. But it’s so intrinsic to the message and characterization of the story that it feels almost like an extended, magical metaphor. The good words soothe, the bad words itch. Additionally, there is a mystery aspect that drives the story forward, which is bound to keep young readers flipping the pages.

Something that stands out about Sticks & Stones is Elyse’s first-person narrative voice. I admit that I have a complicated relationship to a voice that’s trying to be “current,” because it can be engaging, but often I worry if it can become easily dated, alienate some readers, or hinder the clarity of some descriptions. However, I’m no longer the targeted age group, nor do I work with them, so I don’t think I can really make a judgement here, and I can say that the story was still affecting. I also liked how Cooper doesn’t shy away from the realities of kids these age: they do “go out,” they do kiss, they do have Internet profiles, etc. And friendships do change.

One part of the plot I did figure out early on when the clue was dropped, but the way Elyse interpreted the clue was also understandable due to her own biases and views, and I did not see and was rather pleased by the big reveal. Also because of Elyse’s perspective, I felt that the characters lacked some depth. However, by the end, Elyse is able to see the different dimensions of these peoples and part of the conclusion is that she learns to see these complexities, which I do appreciate. There’s also a feminist message attached to the end as Elyse learns she doesn’t need a guy to make her feel good about herself and she can do that on her own, which is important considering how the media is over-saturated “happily ever after” love stories.

Overall, Sticks & Stones is certainly an engaging read with important messages for girls (especially) in middle school or heading to middle school soon.

Classic Middle Grade: The View from Saturday by E.L. Koningsburg

Middle Grade Reads

I’ve been “studying” middle grade fiction, reading both recent releases as well as older, classic titles I didn’t read when I was younger. My first post on classic MG (and YA) was Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin Family series.

view from saturdayThe View from Saturday is the 1997 Newbery Medal winner by E.L. Koningsburg. Koninsburg was an established writer at the time, publishing regularly since 1967 (her last novel was published in 2007; she died in 2013). One of the two novels she published in 1967, From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, won the 1968 Newbery, and from what I can tell, this is pretty much her second most popular book.

I read Frankweiler when I was younger, and you might have too…it’s “the one where the brother and sister run away and live in the Met.” Nevertheless, it’s been so long that I don’t think I can accurately compare the two, and I haven’t read anything else of Koningsburg’s to comment on how her style has changed over time.

1996 doesn’t play a huge role in The View from Saturday, but the passage of time witnessed by Koninsburg is commented upon. Mrs. Olinski, who has returned to teaching after 10 years due to an accident that left her a paraplegic, notes that the idea of “sixth graders have changed” has truth. They’re more outspoken and meaner. Regardless of how explicit this contrast was in Koninsburg’s intention, it’s a fair observation.

The View from Saturday is…kind of a novel? It’s also kind of a short story collection. I feel like it’s something that would be difficult to sell to middle grade publishers today. The central question is of how did Mrs. Olinski chose her winning young Academic Team, but it isn’t a plot-centered mystery. It’s rather character-driven, and the stories unfold in sort of a nesting egg. In between interludes from third person perspective at the academic meet, there are first person stories of how the characters all came to meet each other and Mrs. Olinski and how they formed their bonds. There’s Noah Gershom, an intelligent boy who discovers he really likes calligraphy. Nadia Diamonstein is the product of a “hybrid” family (half-Jewish, and also recently divorced parents) with a dog she loves very much. Ethan Potter is a quiet boy from a family of farmers prominent in the little upstate New York town, in the shower of his successful older brother, and discovers his love for the crew side of theater. And then there’s Julian Singh, an Indian boy with a British accent from his boarding school time in Britain who gets bullied because of his strangeness (and not “this kid is Indian” kind of bullying, the “this kid dresses like a British schoolkid” kind of bullying).

They meet up, they chat and bond, they share amusing anecdotes. They have a good run as the Academic Team (which is much more difficult than when I was in academic team…we were all multiple choice). It’s…charming. The characters seem much too sophisticated for their age, but that goes along with the tone. There’s this sense of magical surrealness throughout. But as you may have guessed by my description and the under-200 page count, there isn’t much to it–as a novel, at least. And yet, it also isn’t quite a short story collection, because it feels like it’s building toward something. I do appreciate the idea that some things just are wonderful and can’t be explained, but something about it just feels incomplete? Truthfully, this review is up late because I don’t have that much to say. It’s an interesting little book, complex for its age level, and well-written, but it didn’t leave much for me when it was over.

Review: George by Alex Gino

Middle Grade Reads

George by Alex Gino

Publisher: Scholastic

Publication Date: August 25, 2015

Genre: children’s/low middle grade, contemporary, LGBT

georgeBE WHO YOU ARE.

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part . . . because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

Anyone active in the middle grade and even YA community last year probably heard about George by Alex Gino, the story of a ten-year-old transgender girl written by a genderfluid author (#ownvoices), a major step forward for the industry. At the time, I didn’t want to splurge on a hardcover and so I waited, but recently I took advantage of a Kindle deal (that is still active!), read a little bit of it, and couldn’t stop reading.

Designed for the younger end of middle grade, George is short (just under 200 pages) and has a fairly simple plot (George wants to play Charlotte in a school play of Charlotte’s Web to show everyone she’s a girl). The story is written in third person limited, which is important because this means that she/her pronouns refer to George from the beginning. Pronouns are important to trans people, but I’ve noticed that many outsiders are not sure what pronouns to use and when. Gino uses female pronouns from the first page, before George begins going by Melissa and despite what she has “between her legs,” an important statement about identity subtley slipped in through the language used.

While the storyline is simple and George is sure of her identity, that doesn’t mean that George portrays a simplistic view of being trans. There are a lot of little touches and facets of everyday life that affects George, like the gendered terms used by others, bullying, and bathing. The book is overall positive and hopeful, but it’s clear that there are many struggles, too. It’s realistic without being gritty, perfect for the target audience–and anyone, for that matter, as there seem to be so many LGBT tragedies. I have no doubt it will offer hope to many and will hopefully be taught in the future by schools as a classic and important teaching moment. (I say “in the future” because I can just imagine the parent complaints if this were introduced in an elementary school today. **Sigh**)

And George isn’t just an important book–it’s also an incredibly well-written one.  Frankly, I’m utterly envious of Alex Gino’s eloquent and delightful turns of phrases. There’s a scene where George and her brother play Mario Kart, which could have been a bit dull, but it’s described in such n entertaining way. I also loved that George and Kelly found information on the Internet, because in this age, that’s what kids do.

Overall? This is a charming, hopeful, and well-written little story with an important message highlighting an important issue. In the age of Caitlyn Jenner and bathroom bills, we need to acknowledge that these topics and issues aren’t “mature content”–they affect kids too! And like all good diverse books, it provides a solace to young kids grappling with the topic (in this case, being trans) and alerts them that they are not alone, while others build empathy and a better understanding of those who are different.

george tagline

 

Discussion: What counts as “mature” content?

Today’s discussion was sparked by a recent piece in Publisher’s Weekly, “Middle Grade Books Take on Mature Topics.” It’s a pretty good piece, describing this trend, its history, and its struggles. But the idea of “mature topics” gave me a pause, especially in this description:

Though the YA category continues to explore darker and more difficult topics, books for upper-middle-grade readers are increasingly tackling subjects once considered almost exclusively the province of books for teenagers: sexual awakening, sexual identity, mental illness, suicide, eating disorders, terrorism, and war and its collateral damage.

It’s true that these topics have been pretty regularly explored in (and, in some cases, defining) YA. But, does that mean they are necessarily “mature topics”?

For one thing, what makes a topic “mature”? It’s probably something that adults are concerned with, but many parents want to shield from their children. Explicit sex and violence in movies makes sense in this way. But topics like eating disorders and other mental disorders? The existence of gay and trans kids? These topics don’t just appear out of nowhere when one enters high school. They aren’t specific to age.

Most LGBTQ adults and older teens will say they knew or had inklings that they were gay and/or trans when they were younger, but may not have had the vocabulary to understand what they were experiencing. There are also many cases of mental illnesses beginning in childhood. These kids do exist, and they’re likely looking for more perspective, reassurance, and more information. And that’s exactly what these kinds of books provide, and they’re shelved in an accessible place for those kids.

And while it may be more high schoolers doing drugs or smoking or drinking or having sex, middle schoolers, middle schoolers and even younger kids aren’t completely in the dark about these things. They might observe these kind of things from their parents or older siblings. They’ll hear rumors about what peers are doing and may feel pressure to do the same. They hear about violence on TV. And they’re all taught about AIDS and warned away from drugs, alcohol, and sex at school (though that last one may not occur in middle school like it did for me). Even if they aren’t participating, the majority of kids don’t live in the candy-coated world we wish they did. As the article points out, however, it has to be written in a way that’s accessible and understandble to that age range.

What do you think of when you hear “mature content”? What is and what isn’t acceptable to be marketed to younger readers? Is anything really off limits?

Review: Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand

Middle Grade Reads

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand

Published: May 17, 2016 by Simon & Schuster

some kind of happinessTHINGS FINLEY HART DOESN’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT

• Her parents, who are having problems. (But they pretend like they’re not.)
• Being sent to her grandparents’ house for the summer.
• Never having met said grandparents.
• Her blue days—when life feels overwhelming, and it’s hard to keep her head up. (This happens a lot.)

Finley’s only retreat is the Everwood, a forest kingdom that exists in the pages of her notebook. Until she discovers the endless woods behind her grandparents’ house and realizes the Everwood is real–and holds more mysteries than she’d ever imagined, including a family of pirates that she isn’t allowed to talk to, trees covered in ash, and a strange old wizard living in a house made of bones.

With the help of her cousins, Finley sets out on a mission to save the dying Everwood and uncover its secrets. But as the mysteries pile up and the frightening sadness inside her grows, Finley realizes that if she wants to save the Everwood, she’ll first have to save herself.

Reality and fantasy collide in this powerful, heartfelt novel about family, depression, and the power of imagination.

December of last year, I found that blurb on Goodreads while looking through upcoming middle grade titles and I knew I needed to preorder this book. I’ve been dealing with discovering and tackling my own mental health over the past two years especially, and I found myself trying to capture that state of unease in my own writing. Also, the fact that Claire Legrand herself has had depression and anxiety since a young age (read her story here) suggested insight that might not be present from the outside. And I was not disappointed.

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