Friday, February 26, 2021

Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott - Dee Romito (Illus. Laura Freeman)

Summary:  This stunning picture book looks into the life of Georgia Gilmore, a hidden figure of history who played a critical role in the civil rights movement and used her passion for baking to help the Montgomery Bus Boycott achieve it's goal.  (Summary from book - Image from )

My Review:   I found this book while browsing in my local library's children's section.  This book caught my eye and I decided to take it home for closer examination.  I am so glad I did, because if I hadn't I wouldn't have known about Georgia.  Here's a slightly more in-depth summary than the one above...

Pies from Nowhere tells the true story of Georgia Gilmore, an African American woman who founded a secret organization that fed and funded the resistance movement during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56.  In late 1955, Georgia was employed as a cook at the National Lunch Company in Montgomery, Alabama when she heard about an African-American woman named Rosa Parks who was arrested for refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white man.  The next day, people were encouraged to boycott the city's public transportation in protest. Georgia had been mistreated by transit employees in the past, and had already stopped riding the bus altogether, but she still wanted to be part of the fight for freedom, justice, and equality.  

Together with a group of women, Georgia began to cook food for resistance meetings and sell pies, cakes, sandwiches, and dinners to anyone willing to pay cash.  The group needed to remain a secret so that the women would not get fired from their jobs and they soon became known as the Club from Nowhere.  The profit from their sales helped fund the boycott movement, buying gas and even vehicles to help provide alternative transportation.  When Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested for his role in the boycott, Georgia testified about her experiences on his behalf and was fired from her job.  Later, Dr. King helped her set up her own business, cooking from her home.  Her efforts were incredibly successful and many civil rights leaders came to appreciate her cooking, even holding secret meetings in her home.  Georgia was in her kitchen cooking and listening to the radio when she heard the Supreme Court had ruled segregation on public transportation illegal.  She was excited, but she knew there was still work to do, so she kept doing it (and became a stanch public advocate for justice and racial-equality).

I had never heard of Georgia Gilmore before I read this book -- a thoroughly depressing statement -- but I loved reading about her life and was inspired by her perseverance, bravery, and determination.  Dee Romito's words wove a tale of heroism that was compelling, factual, and age-appropriate, while Laura Freeman, the illustrator, did a fabulous job of capturing Georgia's likeness as well as those of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King.  Her illustrations were vibrant, emotive, and enhanced the story for young readers.  The overall message about striving for equality, the importance of standing up against injustice, and contributing to the cause was incredibly relevant and beneficial for today's political climate.  I recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn a little more about Georgia Gilmore, or anyone who wants to teach their children about one of the lesser known heroes in U.S. History.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Obviously, there is discussion of racism and inequality. But that's our sad history.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Lost in the City (Stories) - Edward P. Jones

Summary: The nation's capital that serves as the setting for the stories in Edward P. Jones's prizewinning collection, Lost in the City, lies far from the city of historic monuments and national politicians.  Jones takes the reader beyond that world into the lives of African American men and women who work against the constant threat of loss to maintain a sense of hope.  From "The Girl Who Raised Pigeons" to the well-to-do career woman awakened in the night by a phone call that will take her on a journey back to the past, the characters in these stories forge bonds of community as they struggle against the limits of their city to stave off the loss of family, friends, memories, and ultimately, themselves.  

Critically acclaimed upon publication, Lost in the City heralds Jones as a new talent, a writer whose unaffected style is not only evocative and forceful but also filled with insight and poignancy.  (Summary from back of book - Image from ebay.com)

My Review:  Lost in the City is a collection of short stories by Edward P. Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Known World.  The main characters in these stories are African American men and women who reside in some of the the less-polished neighborhoods of Washington D.C.  Each story offers a unique perspective and represents one life among many. 

The most valuable aspect of this book (for me) was the perspective I gained while reading.  While these short stories are categorized as fiction, I always try to remember that they are likely non-fiction to someone.   They are not exclusively about racism, but there is a subtle undercurrent that weaves throughout the book -- a comment here, a situation there -- that offers an illuminating perspective on what it might be like to grow up Black in our nation's capital. Assuming these stories are an accurate representation of what the African American community deals with on a daily basis (and I believe they are), I can understand why many in the community are struggling.  Several of the stories were emotionally exhausting and I was only sitting on my comfy couch reading them.  Living them would be whole new level of hard.

Many of the stories felt 'clipped out' of a larger narrative, which made it hard for me to get my bearings.  There were a few stories that I just couldn't get into and because I often read late at night, my eyes started drifting.  Most of the stories landed light-years away from my own life experience, but I would like to discuss the three times I felt a personal connection to the characters and how I connected with them (in italics).

The First Day - A young girl recounts getting ready for her first day of school and the difficulties her illiterate mother faces during registration.   Even though this is told from a young girl's perspective, I still connected with the mother's desire to give her child a better life and the sacrifices she was willing to make for her daughter.  

An Orange Line Train to Ballston - A single mom meets a man on the subway and dies a little as her young children proceed to ask a series of unfiltered questions. After a series of similar occurrences, the mother begins looking forward to their increasingly-less-accidental run-ins.  I saw my own inquisitive children in this story, asking incredibly personal questions of a complete stranger and I think many other moms will identify with how hard it is to juggle small children.   

A Dark Night - On a stormy night, several elderly women are gathered for a prayer group when they are joined by an estranged friend. One woman shares a haunting story that leaves another shaken.  We've all had to put up with the presence of that one person we'd rather avoid (am I right?) and the story within this story was fairly chilling.   

The young girl.  The single mom.  The group of elderly women.  We shared a moment; our metaphorical eyes met.  While I can't honestly say that I "enjoyed" every aspect of reading this book, I do believe that I came away with a better perspective.  

My Rating: 2.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Those sensitive to profanity might want to look elsewhere.  Seriously, I stopped counting.  Possibly triggering material (including domestic violence, gang violence, drug use, and murder) as well as relatively vague sexual subject matter, and crude language.  

Monday, February 22, 2021

Early Departures - Justin A. Reynolds

Summary: Justin A. Reynolds, author of Opposite of Always, delivers another smart, funny, and powerful stand-alone YA contemporary novel, with a speculative twist in which Jamal’s best friend is brought back to life after a freak accident . . . but they only have a short time together before he will die again. Jamal’s best friend, Q, doesn’t know he’s about to die . . . again.

He also doesn’t know that Jamal tried to save his life, rescuing him from drowning only to watch Q die later in the hospital. Even more complicated, Jamal and Q haven’t been best friends in two years—not since Jamal’s parents died in a car accident, leaving him and his sister to carry on without them. Grief swallowed Jamal whole, and he blamed Q for causing the accident.

But what if Jamal could have a second chance? An impossible chance that would grant him the opportunity to say goodbye to his best friend? A new health-care technology allows Q to be reanimated—brought back to life like the old Q again. But there’s a catch: Q will only reanimate for a short time before he dies . . . forever.

Jamal is determined to make things right with Q, but grief is hard to shake. And he can’t tell Q why he’s suddenly trying to be friends with him again. Because Q has no idea that he died, and Q’s mom is not about to let anyone ruin the miracle by telling him. How can Jamal fix his friendship with Q if he can’t tell him the truth? (summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: There were a lot of great things about this book. First of all, I loved the use of a fictional technology to achieve the big question of this book—what would you do if you were given a second chance to fix a friendship? This is a young adult book, and I think that it is very pertinent to YA audiences, but I also think it’s pertinent to adults. As with many YA books I feel like adults would benefit from reading a book like this. Sometimes YA fic allows itself to explore questions and theories that adult books don’t. Adults get offended, ya know, and feel like there needs to be a lot of discussion before a topic can be breached. YA books just jump right in and call it like it is. There isn’t time or space (or need, really) to beat around the bush. Now, I realize that this leaves a lot of nuance out, and of course the older a person get the more complicated we realize life really is, but I always appreciate the candor of a well-written YA book that is able to just say it like it is.

One of the strengths of this book is certainly the characters. They’re really well-written and realistic feeling. One of the things that makes a good character is that they’re fallible. There is no one too virtuous and no one too evil. Most people are just chillin’ in the middle, with both positive and negative things to their personalities. Reynolds did a great job of this. The characters certainly had flaws, but you could see why those flaws were there, or sometimes they were just there because we’re flawed. Also, humans don’t always act rationally and then must pay the consequences of that, and Reynolds was not afraid to let his characters experience that. Sometimes the story didn’t go how I wanted, but it felt authentic that way. As a reader I feel like I tend to want things to go neatly along and resolve cleanly, but they just don’t. A good author recognizes this and lets the story take the natural course.

The story in this book is believable in that I think relationships are complicated, and teen relationships are volatile and evolving. The technology to bring Q back to life wasn’t necessarily discussed, but it didn’t matter. Sometimes I’m annoyed when books take liberties that seem ridiculous with no explanation, but this book had an interesting way of feeling very much like a modern book, any kind of well-written YA book, but had this very sci-fi element that fit in quite naturally. That was surprising, but I appreciated how Reynolds was able to allow that actual part to not really matter. It helped that the YA characters were probably more accepting and willing to buy into such a thing.

One thing that I really thought was interesting and cool about this book is that it featured relationships between male characters. So many YA books like this feature female characters and their relationships. I understand that readers are mostly female, but of course there are male readers and there should be books that represent them and the complications of their relationships. Having characters that were Black and YA male teens is great; it acknowledges different kinds of friendship that obviously applies to many readers and I hope that there are lots of readers who appreciate this and relate.

I think this is an exceptional book for YA readers, especially YA male readers. I really appreciated the representation of Black YA teens, and I think that readers of all cultural backgrounds and identities will relate to the hard questions this book addresses.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and some light discussion of teenage love and sex.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Freeform Friday: A Song Below Water - Bethany C. Morrow


Summary: 
Tavia is already at odds with the world, forced to keep her siren identity under wraps in a society that wants to keep her kind under lock and key. Never mind she's also stuck in Portland, Oregon, a city with only a handful of black folk and even fewer of those with magical powers. At least she has her bestie Effie by her side as they tackle high school drama, family secrets, and unrequited crushes.

But everything changes in the aftermath of a siren murder trial that rocks the nation; the girls’ favorite Internet fashion icon reveals she's also a siren, and the news rips through their community. Tensions escalate when Effie starts being haunted by demons from her past, and Tavia accidentally lets out her magical voice during a police stop. No secret seems safe anymore—soon Portland won’t be either. (Summary  from goodreads.com - Image from us.macmillan.com)

My Review:  There are a lot of things that are really great about this book. First off, the premise is so fun—I always love a good story that involves mythical creatures, especially ones that live in a society where they’re acknowledged and just part of things. It’s a fun parallel reality that I think plays really well for YA Fic readers. As an adult I always love a little fantasy with my reality, and I think that the younger one gets the easier it is to accept fantasy and myth into your everyday world. Once old age (and possibly learning, experience, curmudgeonism) hits, it doesn’t flow as smoothly into your world view of reality. Or maybe it does? Nothing wrong with that! But I think you may be in the minority…

So the premise of mythological creatures existing in the real world in this book is fun. That being said, I really wish there was more description and explanation. Everyone holds a phone in their hand now so it’s easy to look these things up, but the fact that there were a lot of random mythological creatures from all different cultural backgrounds that just kind of co-existed was a little weird. There wasn't much backstory, and for a book that spent a lot of time with characters who basically did the same thing over and over again, I would have liked to sacrifice a little bit of that for some space of descriptions of what was going on, especially because when I looked up some of the mythological creatures discussed, a few of them didn’t seem to match up with what Morrow had wanted them to be. I’m totally fine with mythology being flexible, but if it’s your story, you’ve got to do some background work for us or we’re all confused, especially because a lot of these mythological creatures are not the normal ones that have been flitting around literature for the last decade or so.

I liked that the story was written in two different viewpoints. I really enjoy reading YA Fic in first person when it is done well. I think that well-written first person connects the reader in a way that creates a way to have an authentic understanding and learning situation occur, which is one thing that I think YA Fic is important for. The different viewpoints in this book were clearly demarcated in that the chapter headings were the names of the two different girls (Effie and Tavia), but I have to say, their voices were not distinct. Sometimes I was confused about who was talking. Also, Effie and Tavia are nicknames of their real names, so that made it a little more confusing as well. I would have liked more individual voices for each person. I did read this in the kindle version, so maybe the font was different in the chapters or some other way to differentiate, but in the kindle version (and I’m assuming the hardcover as well) we just had to hope that we remembered who was at the chapter heading. Both have characteristics that are obviously one or the other, but it was also a little confusing as to who was who because they just weren’t that different when reading about them or hearing their first-person voice.

The premise of this book is obvious, and indeed I think that even YA Fic readers will see that the not-so-subtle subtext of silencing a siren is actually what silencing a Black girl in the real world is like. And to be honest, I loved the idea that sirens were Black girls only. It was cool and was a really interesting and unique way to address society silencing a Black girl. This didn’t play completely smoothly, and in some situations I felt like it was kind of a stretch and an unnecessary schtick, and almost like we were being banged over the head with the idea of it. If Morrow had really wanted this to be about sirens and cool mythological creatures she should have just gone for it, or if she had wanted this to just be about silencing Black girls; instead there was political subtext and mythology that both seemed out of context. Indeed I do think that both of these could have co-existed well, and they almost did, but not fleshing out the part of the mythology in this book made it a weak front for what Morrow was trying to do. I think Morrow could have easily spent more time fleshing out the world and what was happening with the mythological characters, and doing so would have given more weight to the important social issues they were exploring. 

 There are lots of very epic fantasy books that have changed the whole of society for what they’ve taught in a fantastical setting. Although I’m not sure this book would be something that changed the whole of society (but maybe?), it had the potential to tell a story in a very effective way with a very effective medium but sadly, it fell just a little short. Plus, straight up, mythology is fun and there are lots of fun mythological characters in this book, so Morrow not fleshing them out and using their characteristics more fully to explain her purpose and further the story was a serious oversight in my opinion. It was basically a weak-sauce mythological story, which is too bad because it really had a lot of potential to be something awesome and forward the cause for which Morrow wrote this.

That being said, I believe that YA Fic readers will still really enjoy the mythology and the story of it and may not be as critical of the weakness of the story and details. Sometimes a fun story with fun characters is just fun.

My Rating: 3 Stars

 For the sensitive reader: This book is clean.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 - Larry Dane Brimner

Summary:  On May 4, 1961, thirteen activists -- black and white, young and old, male and female -- boarded two buses in Washington D.C. for New Orleans, Louisiana.  Their Freedom Ride will last just twelve days.   But their mission is clear.  The laws prohibiting segregation on buses crossing state lines and at bus stations are being violated.  These Freedom Riders are determined to draw attention to the laws' lack of enforcement.  But what starts as a peaceful protest turns violent as they travel deeper into the South.  This is their story.  (Summary from book - Image from www.socialstudies.org)

My Review: In recent years I have become increasingly aware of  the need to understand and acknowledge our nation's history -- the good and the bad.  When our library finally opened up after COVID closures, I was looking for ways to learn (and teach) more about the Civil Rights movement and I found Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 in the Jr. Non-Fiction section.  I had heard of the Freedom Riders before and knew that they suffered poor treatment at the hands of a bunch of ignorant racists, but was fuzzy on the details and figured it was high time I remedied the situation.

Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 is an account of thirteen brave souls whose actions drew national attention to the illegal treatment of Black passengers on the interstate transit system. In small groups, the Freedom Riders boarded interstate buses and traveled to different towns throughout the south. Their primary mission was to integrate interstate transit through non-violent means and to access the facilities and services legally guaranteed them by federal law -- access that was consistently denied to Black citizens.  The Freedom Riders knew the risks and the forged ahead anyway.

The first few stops on their journey offered some small victories and little resistance beyond "a few cold stares," but as the bus traveled further south word spread about their mission.  Opposition began to gather, stirring up trouble in greater numbers, and the Riders encountered significantly more violent resistance. Not only were they illegally blocked from entering facilities or receiving services, many were threatened, shoved, knocked down, beaten, and jailed.  When the Freedom Riders reach Alabama, all hell broke loose in an absolutely inexcusable and shameful display of (in)human behavior.  Law enforcement (most of them, anyway) stood idly by while crowds of enraged, violent Klansmen forced the Riders bus to stop and set it ablaze while they, and others, were still inside.  When the Riders managed to escape, many were further assaulted and had to be hospitalized.  Ambulance drivers refused to take the Black Riders until the injured white Riders began climbing out of the vehicles to join their comrades.  When they reached the hospital, the staff finally consented to treat the Black Riders on the condition that they leave immediately afterward.  Their path, through the angry mob outside.

Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 is told day-by-day, alongside captioned, black-and-white photographs taken at the time.  The final pages of the book contain short bios on the 13 original freedom riders as well as a bibliography, and source notes. The text is easy to read physically, but very hard to read emotionally.  I can't even imagine how the Riders must have felt living it, having no idea what to expect at each and every stop and I am beyond grateful for their commitment and sacrifice.  At the end of those twelve days in May, the nation began to realize that the fight for equality was not finished. Although the initial Freedom Ride was over, 436 others came to continue the ride; the actions of thirteen people had spurred a movement.

Amidst all the deplorable violence and racism, one of the most touching aspects of this book was watching this group of everyday people (Black and white, male and female, young and old, educators and students, pacifists and veterans, businessmen and religious leaders) work together towards a common goal, their defiance in the face of adversity, and their individual and collective courage.  I was also inspired by accounts of white riders (and even the occasional bystander) using their privilege or position to protect and defend the unbelievably brave Black riders. 

Ultimately, this book showcases some of the best and worst behavior that our nation has to offer.  If you are looking to learn more about the experience of the original Freedom Riders, Twelve Days in May: Freedom Ride 1961 is a great place to start. I learned so much from this book -- a rather embarrassing amount, actually -- but am oh-so-glad that I read it. 

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  The Freedom Riders were subjected to racism, threats, and outright assault. While the author does not go into graphic detail, some of the images show the violence and its aftermath and might be disturbing for younger readers.  Parents should be prepared to have conversations about these interactions.  

Monday, February 15, 2021

Felix Ever After - Kacen Callender

 

Summary: Felix Love has never been in love—and, yes, he’s painfully aware of the irony. He desperately wants to know what it’s like and why it seems so easy for everyone but him to find someone. What’s worse is that, even though he is proud of his identity, Felix also secretly fears that he’s one marginalization too many—Black, queer, and transgender—to ever get his own happily-ever-after.

When an anonymous student begins sending him transphobic messages—after publicly posting Felix’s deadname alongside images of him before he transitioned—Felix comes up with a plan for revenge. What he didn’t count on: his catfish scenario landing him in a quasi–love triangle....

But as he navigates his complicated feelings, Felix begins a journey of questioning and self-discovery that helps redefine his most important relationship: how he feels about himself.

Felix Ever After is an honest and layered story about identity, falling in love, and recognizing the love you deserve. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I read this book in basically a day and a half. It was super engaging but it was also…just…a lot. It’s intense to live inside someone’s head that way. I believe that this is the point when I tell you that Callender has definitely created a character with a very strong voice and fleshed them out enough that it feels real and raw and the reader experiences all of the emotions right along with them.

This story is really pertinent right now, and unless you’ve been completely unaware of your surroundings, I’m sure you know people who have different gender identities than the normally accepted cis identity are now speaking out and demanding to have a voice. As you surely know, this is not going as well as might be hoped and the recent political climate is unfriendly to these sorts of voices. So there’s been a lot of conflict, hurt, and misunderstanding. Felix Ever After attempts to help the reader understand what it is like to be someone who is questioning their gender identity, and also face racism and all that comes with that, and I’m telling you, it’s intense. Now I’m not saying that all people who question their gender identity have the same experience. Felix is, indeed, someone who feels loudly and brightly and burns with an intensity that one would expect from a high school senior who is the exceptionally talented hot shot of their private art school in NYC. As is the case with teenagers (and I’m searching my feeble mind for what that was like for me), being a teenager is intense and the feelings are intense and so, therefore, when you live inside their brain for a full day and a half and try to understand them, it’s just…a lot. So, I’m giving that warning and caveat—this book sucks you in. It makes Felix’s hurts your hurts, and I feel like it felt like a very real representation of what a high school senior in this situation may feel like.

 Besides the fact that you’re drinking from a firehose regarding Felix and his personality, I really appreciated the perspective of seeing what someone who is questioning their gender identity may face. Obviously, some families are more accepting than others. Some friends are more accepting than others. And some people just have an easier time. This sort of personal questioning is always difficult, no matter how much support you have. Personal struggle is personal struggle.

 My main complaint about this book is that I feel like although his friends were definitely woke, some of their conversations and use of woke phrases were inauthentic. This is not to say that these kids don’t believe what they were saying or that they didn’t feel the feelings they were articulating, but I just have a hard time believing that there are any teens who are able to be as articulate as these teens were, or even as assuring. Their supportive conversations were those of a much older, much wiser person, perhaps even a therapist or someone who is very knowledgeable of what to say and what to do in these situations. Now, as I’ve thought about this, I think that although there is no way a group of teenagers spoke this way, perhaps Callender was creating these conversations as a model for readers to know what to say and how to behave in some of these new and confusing situations. Reading is an excellent teacher, and when a teen reads this story, I would hope they would have the opportunity to learn the vocabulary and words to be supportive to such a friend. For that, I’m going to let it slide.

 I thought this was a powerful read about an older teen questioning their gender identity and trying to figure out who they are and who they love. Because of the extensive language and the content, I’m going to recommend it for older teens.

My Rating: 4 Stars

 For the sensitive reader: There is extensive use of the “F” word and lots of content regarding sex and gender identity.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History - Vashti Harrison

For today's Freeform Friday, let's take a look some BOLD WOMEN in BLACK HISTORY... 

Summary: Meet the Little Leaders.  They're brave.  They're bold.  They changed the world.  Featuring forty trailblazing black women in American history, Little Leaders educates and inspires as it relates true stories from breaking boundaries and achieving beyond expectations.  Irresistible illustrations bring to life both iconic and lesser-known female figures of black history, such as abolitionist Sojourner Truth, chemist Alice Ball, pilot Bessie Coleman, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, mathematician Katherine Johnson, activist Angela David, and filmmaker Julie Dash.

Among these biographies, readers will find heroes, role models, and everyday women who did extraordinary things -- bold women whose actions and beliefs contributed to making the world better for generations of girls and women to come. Whether they are putting pen to paper, soaring through the air, or speaking up for the rights of others, the women profiled in these pages were all taking a stand against a world that didn't always accept them.  (Summary from back of book - Image from barnesandnoble.com)

My Review:  Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History is a thing of beauty.  In a series of mini-biographies, it tells the stories of bold black women throughout history who persisted in the face of adversity, broke down barriers, and became pioneers in new fields of study and exploration.  They were activists, writers, abolitionists, poets, athletes, teachers, generals, scientists, engineers, musicians,  artists, astronauts, doctors, political leaders, spies, pilots, journalists, and so much more.  These women are fiercely driven and staunch advocates for equal rights.  Harrison wrote these stories hoping to inspire girls of all ethnicities, but also states: 

"I think about what kind of dreams I might have had if I had known about all these women when I was growing up, if I'd known that so many people who looked like me had done such incredible things.  To be able to see yourself in someone else's story can be life changing.  To know that a goal is achievable can be empowering.  I hope that anyone who reads these biographies -- whether or not they look like these Little Leaders -- is inspired to go after the things they are passionate about."

The book itself is well-organized, easy to read, and presented in a format that is appealing for most ages and reading levels.  It seems impossible to consolidate a lifetime down to a few simple paragraphs, but the author crafted engaging summaries that conveyed both meaning and depth without dissembling. And the illustrations? In terms of sheer aesthetic appeal...the illustrations are everything.

I absolutely adore the author's illustrative style, which is remarkable, minimalist, and oh-so-visually appealing.   As you can see in the illustrations I've shared throughout this post, Harrison uses the same basic shape and facial expressions for each historical figure with few exceptions, but alters the hair, complexion, clothing, accessories, background, and occasionally make-up, to fit each individual figure, creating a surprisingly recognizable representation of her real-life subjects.  It was so interesting to conduct a little outside-the-book research on each person and see how the author incorporated some of their more iconic looks and interests into the design.  I could tell that Harrison had spent a great deal of time pouring over their photographs to find ways to represent each woman as an individual.   In regards to her style choice, Harrison says: 

"I originally envisioned them as little girls serving as stand-ins for these famous women -- that's why they're "little" -- but as I've started sending them out in to the world, they've become bigger than I imagined.  I designed them to be interchangeable because I want you, the reader, to see yourself in any one of them, and to feel their strength and possibility in you."

I know this book was meant for younger readers than myself, but I learned so much from it.  In fact, I learned so much it actually makes me sad.  I only knew the stories of nine of these women and although I recognized a few others, by and large, I had never even heard of the rest, let alone knew of their contributions to the world.  That is not okay.   We can do better.   That leads me to one of my favorite aspects of this book -- how it lights a fire inside the reader to learn more.  As I read, I was often inspired to dig deeper into the stories, as I thought about other things I wanted to know:  Were they married?  Did they have kids?  How were they raised?  Who were their mothers?  And in some cases, where are they now?


For example, in this book I learned that when 6-year-old Ruby Bridges and her mother were escorted past crowds of protestors to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans, Ruby had no idea that all the loud people with signs were protesting her?!  She thought it was Mardi Gras.  You can bet her mother knew, though, as she walked her baby past the angry mob.  What must that have been like?!  Hearing Ruby's story, made me want to know her mothers' story too.  So, I looked her up online and read her story.  Now, I know her name.  Ruby's mother was named Lucille.  She never had the opportunity to finish elementary school and that was why she fought so hard for Ruby's education.  She didn't just walk her to school on the first day.  She walked her to school every day. Sadly, she died just a few months ago.  Now, I know a piece of her story.  Of course, that is exactly what Harrison hoped for when she created Little Leaders. In her words: 

"This collection includes only a handful of the countless bold black women who have done extraordinary things and lived incredible lives.  With these mini-biographies, I hope to spark your interest and encourage you to find out more about them and the women who have followed in their footsteps."


What I loved most about Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, aside from its acknowledgement of black female achievements, is how it made me feel.  Each story was a source of personal inspiration, encouragement, and strength -- a subtle pep talk and a compelling reminder of what women and, specifically, black women can do when they relentlessly pursue their passions. Along with the 40 mini-bios, Harrison also includes 12 other notable names in black history, their illustrations, accomplishments, and a list of recommended resources for those who would like to take a deeper dive.

If you can't tell, I am sort of obsessed with this book.  I read much of it sitting in front of my computer, alternating between reading the book and googling to my hearts content online and would often snag a passing kid or my husband to regale them with historical facts.  We all learned a ton.  If you are a woman or young girl and want to come away from a book feeling like you can do pretty much anything, this little gem is a good place to start.  You might also check out Little Leaders: Visionary Women Around the World.  That's where I'm headed next...I'll keep you posted.

My Rating:  5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  All clear.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N.K. Jemisin

Summary: One young woman must survive intrigue, betrayal, and passion in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north.  But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky.  There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king.  But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle.  (Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  Sometimes when I am looking for something to read I will select a handful of books from my bookshelves and sit down to read the first few pages of each, just to see what will grab me.  The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms begins as follows:

I am not as I once was.  They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart.  I do not know who I am anymore.  I must try to remember.

My people tell stories of the night I was born.  They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world.  I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried. 

Jemisin had my attention!

Yeine is leader of the Darre people and daughter of a disinherited princess of the Arameri realm.  After her mother's sudden death, Yeine is called back to Sky, the elevated royal city, as one of three potential heirs to the throne.  Yeine quickly realizes that she is in danger, a pawn in a ruthless game much larger than any mortal mind can fathom.  In the sky palace, disgraced gods are bound to serve the upper echelons of society.  Whatever the mortal elites command, the immortals are bound to carry out, although more than one mortal has lost their life due to careless phrasing.  Yeine must tread carefully if she wants to survive.  While waiting to see who will be named heir, she develops a tenuous group of allies who agree to help her save her homeland and uncover the truth of her mother's death...for a heavy price.  

A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is best read in larger bites rather than nibbles.  As is often the plight of the book-loving mama, my kids seem to have this uncanny ability to sense whenever I have the smallest smidgen of free time, at which point they are drawn to me like powerful but incredibly needy magnets.  Initially, I was only able to read in sporadic bursts and, although the author's somewhat non-linear narrative style, felt incredibly organic, I didn't always understand what was happening or who was narrating.*  The plot was well-paced and beautifully detailed, but the occasional asides and flashbacks for historical context, made it hard to grasp and it took far longer than it should have to find clarity.  I finally resorted to telling my kids that the next person to speak to me would receive chores.  It worked (hallelujah!) and I was finally able to stay immersed in the story long enough to figure things out.  I finished in an afternoon and (aside from the sensitive reader issues) enjoyed much of the story, including the incredible twist at the end. I was worried it would be a massive cliffhanger, but all loose ends were sufficiently tied and, even though there are more books in the series, this book can stand alone.  

N.K. Jemison has crafted an intriguing story with elegant, creative prose and complex, highly unpredictable characters.  Her world-building is impressively extensive; the kingdom has its own developed history, geography, demographic, politics, religion, and mythology.   I have to admit, the whole concept of gods bound to earth and mortal command during certain times is rather intriguing, if a bit sacrilegious.  However, the 'gods' in this story felt more mythological than sacred, so I didn't find that part of the story particularly offensive.   The chemistry between the Yeine and another character was palpable, which I  pretty much loved, but sometimes their 'interactions' became a bit more detailed than I care to read.  ALSO (and that is an intentionally big 'also') some character relationships are strangely incestuous.  I guess I shouldn't have been that surprised, given the whole mythological feel, but I wasn't really expecting it. The author doesn't really elaborate on the details of those relationships in a graphic way but they are repeatedly mentioned and it was hard to ignore and definitely hard to stomach.  Although I can't in good conscience recommend this book to anyone who is bothered by anything in the 'sensitive reader' section, I did enjoy the other aspects of the story and would recommend it to less selective readers.

*I spent the entire book wishing there had been a character/term glossary at the front of the book, only to find it located in the appendix when I finished reading. *facepalm* I must remember to check for those!  Don't be like me!!

My Rating: 2.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  A handful of swear words, violence, some sexual innuendo and vague reference to nudity, and a few moderately graphic heterosexual sex scenes.  There is also frequent reference to incestuous relationships, though with very little detail. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

Grown - Tiffany D. Jackson

 

Summary: Korey Fields is dead.

When Enchanted Jones wakes with blood on her hands and zero memory of the previous night, no one—the police and Korey’s fans included—has more questions than she does. All she really knows is that this isn't how things are supposed to be. Korey was Enchanted’s ticket to stardom.

Before there was a dead body, Enchanted was an aspiring singer, struggling with her tight knit family’s recent move to the suburbs while trying to find her place as the lone Black girl in high school. But then legendary R&B artist Korey Fields spots her at an audition. And suddenly her dream of being a professional singer takes flight.

Enchanted is dazzled by Korey’s luxurious life but soon her dream turns into a nightmare. Behind Korey’s charm and star power hides a dark side, one that wants to control her every move, with rage and consequences. Except now he’s dead and the police are at the door. Who killed Korey Fields?

All signs point to Enchanted. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I didn’t read the description of this book before I checked it out. I had obviously read what it was about before I put it on my “to-read” list, so I knew I wanted to read it, but I have to admit that I was surprised when I actually started reading it. Also, is it just me, or do you have a harder time remembering the title of books when you have them on your e-reader as opposed to a physical book? I checked this out from the library on my phone as the physical copy was eons away from being available. One of the reasons I like a physical book is because I can see what it looks like, read the title, feel the thickness, so how much there is left, etc. Oh well. I’m glad I got to read this book earlier rather than later.

I basically tore through this book. I felt like it was really compelling and addressed a lot of pertinent and relevant issues. Although I am not hip to the music scene (lo there has never been one person who ever tried to convince me to become a rock star), I feel like this book not only exposes the seedy, scary underbelly of that environment, but also larger issues the extend beyond just the music scene.

First off, I liked the way this book was written. It was written in a time hop situation where the chapters are either labeled “Then” or Now.” The book is also divided into parts. The “Now” is basically a very imminent crime scene (and this is the first chapter in the book, so I don’t feel like I’m giving too much away) that we are first introduced to where the music star is dead and Enchanted, the main character, can’t remember what happens. This throws the reader immediately into a question of what exactly has happened, who is at fault, who will be blamed, etc. It’s an effective way to suck the reader in for sure! As I’ve mentioned before, I like knowing why a book is organized the way it is and I feel like book did a great job of that. It was very clear where we were in the story, and when the story merged, it was an obvious connection and natural progression of the story instead of something stark and confusing that left the reader wishing for more info.

The story itself is a spooky one—no one wants to find their loved ones or themselves in a situation where they are in physical and psychological danger, but it is even scarier when that person escapes and no one believes them when they describe what happened. In this era of the Me Too movement and the barrel of predators who have been allowed to get away with this for so long are now finally having their reckoning, this book is timely and yet frightening. The Me Too movement has made strides in this, but there is still a lot of work to do in overcoming our prejudices for what people look like on the outside—whether it be color, race, the way they dress, the way they act, etc. It is not okay to dismiss someone’s situation because of your own bias and prejudice, especially when the one accused is in a position of power, and this book brings all of that to light and provides a means for thought and discussion about why this is still happening.

As with many books, I felt like the resolution to this book came in an abrupt manner. The book itself is very detailed and does a great job of building tension and creating a hopeless-feeling situation. I liked the resolution, I felt like it just could have been fleshed out. The book itself is a little over 400 pages, and yet the resolution was within the last 20 pages or so. I don’t think I would have wanted to give up more in the beginning to get more at the end, but I do think a few more pages and a little more detail would have made it feel not so abrupt.

I think this book is exceptional and a great read for older teens and adults alike. It certainly gives the reader a great place to start a conversation and inner dialogue about how these things happen, our prejudices, and maybe our willingness to believe others when they bravely step forward.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language, violence, sex, and drug use. This book is certainly for older teens and not for sensitive readers. The content is disturbing, but mostly for the fact that it is completely (and frighteningly) relevant.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Freeform Friday: A Review of When You Were Everything - Ashley Woodfolk

 

Summary: You can't rewrite the past, but you can always choose to start again.

It’s been twenty-seven days since Cleo and Layla’s friendship imploded.

Nearly a month since Cleo realized they’ll never be besties again.

Now, Cleo wants to erase every memory, good or bad, that tethers her to her ex–best friend. But pretending Layla doesn’t exist isn’t as easy as Cleo hoped, especially after she’s assigned to be Layla’s tutor. Despite budding new friendships with other classmates—and a raging crush on a gorgeous boy named Dom—Cleo’s turbulent past with Layla comes back to haunt them both.

Alternating between time lines of Then and Now, When You Were Everything blends past and present into an emotional story about the beauty of self-forgiveness, the promise of new beginnings, and the courage it takes to remain open to love. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: February is Black History Month, and Reading for Sanity is posting reviews featuring Black authors and stories.

Oh, man. This is one of those books that just hits you in the gut. No matter your age, I feel like you can relate to it. It may not apply to you directly in your life right now, but I guarantee you’ll totally understand the pain and sorrow and heartache associated with this story.

Right off, this book is awesome because the characters are so relatable. They’re flawed but also complex. They’re not just enemies and they’re not just perfect, either. One thing I appreciated about Woodfolk’s character development is that although we had a healthy dose of what the main first-person character was thinking, and what she thought of others, we were also very aware that she is not a completely reliable narrator and that is ok. It didn’t taint the story and didn’t make things seem implausible.

I’m sure you can think of someone in high school who was your arch nemesis, and all the feelings associated with that. Part of the awesomeness of this book was that the reader is transported directly back to that time and those feelings. Now I have to admit that I didn’t personally have a falling out with anyone that was as complicated or as dramatic as this, and still, I completely related. The situation was so raw and real that I couldn’t help but feel all the feels as if I were right back in high school with these girls. Yes, it was painful, but Woodfolk does such a great job of creating these painful situations that there is also healing and perspective involved. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. The writing is great, too, and the dialogue is excellent and ads to the story. Woodfolk is super talented and I really enjoyed her writing style and ability to address issues in a straightforward manner.

This book is written in a time hop way, in that you read about what is currently happening, and then the next chapter is a flashback. As the flashbacks move forward, we are eventually brought up to speed and are reading the conclusion of the story in real time. As with many books this story has its own conclusion that does have some “neatly wrapped in a bow” elements with it, but also, I felt like it was realistic and equally satisfying and also heartbreaking because sometimes it just is what it is.

I appreciated the way race was discussed in this book—it was straightforward and thoughtful, and also addressed being biracial and aspects of being Black and all the different backgrounds that can be associated with being Black.

I think this is a great read for teens. Not only does it give perspective on issues that are pertinent to them today, but it is just really relatable and well-written and one of those books that I would consider to be very comforting. It isn’t easy to lose a friend, but it happens and this book is one of those that will be comforting for teens whether or not they have experienced a direct break up or just grow apart from their friends. It really is relatable to everyone.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and discussion of sex.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Be the Change: A Story of Transformation (A Memoir) - Saul Paul

Summary:  SaulPaul is a musician with a message.  SaulPaul had to overcome a deceased mother, a father who abandoned him, poverty and prison just to survive.  Still, he transitioned from tragedy to triumph....through concerts, keynotes, and coaching, SaulPaul has impacted more than 1 million lives.  SaulPaul chose to BE THE CHANGE. This is his story, in his words.  (Summary from back of book - Image from musicconnections.com - Book given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review: Adam's life was far from easy; he grew up fatherless in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Houston, TX and was orphaned at the age of three, when his mother died in a tragic accident.  Although he was raised by an attentive and loving grandmother, Adam still faced a life of just-getting-by, surrounded by gang violence and drug activity.  He was smart and motivated, which helped him do well in school, but also got him in trouble on the streets.  His grandmother was determined to keep him away from that life, but her death in his late teens sent him headlong into a downward spiral of bad choices and criminal activity.  Although Adam was able to gain admission to the University of Texas in Austin, he continued to spiral and, within three semesters, was placed on scholastic probation and subsequently suspended.  Five months later, after a bout of homelessness and crime, Adam landed -- hard -- in prison, where he learned some powerful lessons that he shares throughout the book. Spoiler alert: Eventually, Adam was released on parole and was able to overcome new challenges, realize his passion, and find his purpose as SaulPaul.

While Be the Change isn't overly spiritual, the author does have his own come-to-Jesus conversion which is pivotal to his transformation and his chosen moniker.  Those familiar with the Bible will recognize the name Saul as a man who persecuted believers until he met Christ on the road to Damascus and dedicated his life to serving the Lord. In the Bible, Saul was sometimes called Paul and we know him best as Paul the Apostle.  Knowing this, the author's choice of the name "SaulPaul" speaks volumes and calls to mind a man who lived two different lives and was utterly transformed through his experiences and his commitment to Christ. 

Be the Change: A Story of Transformation was a quick and easy read.  The writing felt conversational, as if I was sitting across from the author listening to his life story and the lessons he learned through his experiences.  SaulPaul is up front about his own writing style, opting to write the book the way that he speaks, frequently using common slang and a few words or terms of his own creation.  From a stylistic perspective, I've read more eloquent narratives, but the overall message is top notch and one of my favorite parts of the book.  

SaulPaul addresses the difficulties that he faced throughout his life, but always brings the conversation around to the wisdom and personal insight he gained during those times.  In prison, he had an epiphany:
"Never in a million years did I picture myself in prison.  Still, there I was.  My approach to life was being challenged.  Lucky for me, I've always been real -- even with myself.  So instead of getting shook, I was sharpened.  I had to look in the mirror and deal with the fact that my life choices landed me in this position.  I had to deal with the fact that I had obstacles in my life that I didn't know how to overcome.  And finally, I had to deal with the reality that there was a problem with the way I approached life."
Even though we come from different backgrounds, SaulPaul's message of hope, faith, inspiration and empowerment transcended those differences and was relatable even in my own circumstances.  It served as a reminder that no one is too far gone and we all have the power to change our lives.

I appreciated the opportunity to read Be the Change: A Story of Transformation, and the perspective it offered.  Throughout the book, SaulPaul subtly highlights the challenges that a large percentage of African American youth face.  Reading about his experience helped me gain a greater understanding of what it was like to grow up in an area where every person he knew was either poor, dead, or incarcerated. It was eye-opening to realize that certain 'opportunities' came with their own set of drawbacks.  SaulPaul's intelligence landed him in the gifted and talented program at his school, which put him in a classroom with students (mostly white) from completely different backgrounds.  In his words,
"Outside the classroom, we didn't have much in common. They didn't live in my neighborhood.  They didn't share my struggle or experience.  They weren't poor like me.  They had moms and dads.  Most weren't African American. It was like I would go to school, get to class, and feel like I was on a totally different planet. ...But when I went home, back to my neighborhood, I returned to the familiar.  Poverty, police, pistols, pimps, and prostitution. Gang bangers, dope dealers, and hope killers.  I lived in the land of low expectation."

That passage really struck a chord and made me very aware of my own personal privilege. These and other sobering observations about the prospects of black youth and the 'pipeline' that seems to funnel black youths from gang-stricken neighborhoods into lackluster schools and on into prison, left me with a lot to process.  

You would think that a story about a young life full of hard knocks would be depressing, but SaulPaul manages to find the good in every situation.  I was consistently impressed by his positivity, resilience and incredible personal drive.  I finished Be the Change feeling both empowered, uplifted, and a little more educated and I would recommend this book to anyone who is feeling battered by life's challenges and needs a little personal inspiration.  

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some observations about prison life and criminal activity.  All in very G-PG terms.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Black Flamingo - Dean Atta

 

Summary: A boy comes to terms with his identity as a mixed-race gay teen - then at university he finds his wings as a drag artist, The Black Flamingo. A bold story about the power of embracing your uniqueness. Sometimes, we need to take charge, to stand up wearing pink feathers - to show ourselves to the world in bold colour. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: As February is Black History Month, Reading for Sanity is featuring Black authors and Black stories.

Just like the black flamingo itself, there are many things that are fabulous and interesting about this book. First off, the book is not a normal size. It’s a little bit smaller and almost square shaped. It instantly looks and feels different than a normal book. I can’t help but think this was on purpose, and a way that the author and publisher decided to delineate this book as something different than the norm, but fabulous in its own way. Also, the cover art is really beautiful and vibrant. I love good cover art that is catching and different. Additionally, this is a book that you don’t want to listen to—you want to read it. It is full of illustrations and pages that are different colors, font that varies, and many other delineations between sections/narrators/settings that make reading it an immersive experience. I love books that are able to engage other parts of my brain that aren’t necessarily engaged when just reading a normal book (although I love that, too).

This book is not just unique in its presentation, but also in the content and the audience in which that content was intended for. There are other books about LGBTQ+ teens, and even Black LGBTQ+ teens, but this book not only featured a timely story about a mixed race teen who is LGBTQ+, but one who is discovering himself (the pronoun he uses) and goes on a journey to see where he fits in. As with any journey to find yourself and find your tribe, there are many places that almost fit, or don’t quite fit, and it takes awhile to find what really works for you. In the end, he finds himself connecting to drag queens and the drag queen community.

I have to admit that I haven’t read anything about the drag queen community, but I am not unaware. And people—it was fabulous to read about it. I loved the sparkles, the makeup, the glam, and I loved that each individual was able to create a persona for themselves that felt more real and more themselves than their normal outward appearance. There were strong characters in this book, and some great heroes who came along the way to help the boy feel loved, understood, and able to express himself.

Although many teens and new adult readers won’t necessarily connect to the exact story of being a mixed race teen who ends up finding a drag community to relate to, they will be able to connect to the story of one who is trying to find how they fit in. I loved the message of this book, and the fact that the author wasn’t afraid to deal with tough and nuanced issues in a way that felt accessible to any person. It’s a coming of age story that takes a twist, and leaves the reader better for having taken the journey.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language, some discussion of sex, and LGBTQ+ issues. Because the main character is a first year college student and therefore encounters older teen situations, I would recommend this for older teens.

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