Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth

kinda like brothers“I got down the box of oatmeal raisin cookies and took two without asking.  I needed them.”

Jarrett’s mom takes care of foster babies in New York, so Jarrett is used to sharing his home with children he doesn’t know.  It’s not that big of a deal to him, until the day Kevon and Treasure show up at the door.   Treasure’s fine; she’s just a baby.  But Kevon?  He’s TWELVE.  That’s right, a whole year older than Jarrett himself.  It’s not so bad being a temporary big brother to foster babies, but being a temporary little brother is something Jarrett is not at all interested in.  Worse, everyone just assumes that Jarrett and Kevon will be friends with each other!  Jarrett’s not sure at all.  Kevon acts like he’s a good, but Jarrett suspects that he has some secrets he’s been keeping.Jarrett and Kevon navigate an uneasy peace.  After all, they both have bigger concerns than just trying to make friends.  Kevon worries about keeping Treasure safe in the foster system, and Jarrett is worried about trying to get his grades up so he can go on to the sixth grade.

Their daily lives aren’t the only issue. Both boys also face a racist world; when Jarrett sees a worker at the community center being stopped and frisked without cause, he is deeply angry.  A worker in the center explains it this way to Kevon and Jarrett: “I’m going to keep it real with you guys, you black and Latino boys are going to get stopped a lot. And it doesn’t matter what you do, or what you didn’t do. It’s just because of who you are. And in the meantime, I need to teach you what to do when the cops stop you — not if, when.”  In a 2014 interview with NPR, Coe Booth comments on that scene in the book, saying: “I think any parent or anybody who is dealing with young black boys — as is what’s happening at the community center in this book — I think every single community center has had this conversation with their boys. And it’s just so sad that we have to do this, but we do, and I hope that changes. I don’t know if what’s going on in Ferguson will change that, but I do hope it at least continues that conversation, because it’s just exhausting that this is still going on…”  I heartily agree.  I appreciate the nuanced, realistically complex middle school boys dealing with both the difficult situations of middle school and the ugly reality of racism in the world.

This middle-school realistic fiction is a definite winner.  I can’t wait to read more from Coe Booth. Go see her at her website!

If you liked this book, why not try these?

My Cousin’s Keeper by Simon French

Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

Boy21 by Matthew Quick

Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah

tenthingsihateaboutme“How can I be three identities in one?  It doesn’t work.  They’re always at war with one another.  If I want to go clubbing, the Muslim in me says it’s wrong and the Lebanese in me panics about bumping into somebody who knows somebody who knows my dad.  If I want to go to a Lebanese wedding as the four hundredth guest, the Aussie in me will laugh and wonder why we’re not having civilized cocktails in a function room that seats a maximum of fifty people.  If I want to fast during Ramadan, the Aussie in me will think I’m a masochist.

I can’t win.”

Jamilah lives a double life: at home, she’s Jamilah, the girl who plays an instrument in an Arabic band and tries to convince her super-strict father to lighten up once in a while.  However, at school, she’s Jamie, with bleached hair, contacts, and endless excuses for why she can never socialize after school.  She just doesn’t want people to see her as a stereotype; she’s afraid they’ll hear Muslim and think extremist.  However, the strain of constantly hiding who she truly is wears on her, and her friends are wondering why she’s never around.  She can’t keep it up much longer-but what will happen if everyone knows the truth about her?

This is Randa Abdel-Fattah’s second novel about Muslim teenagers struggling to find a place within a larger culture that doesn’t always understand or welcome them.  Her characters are complex, from the hijab-wearing activist Shereen, to a father struggling with the task of raising three children alone-he doesn’t want to create strife between him and his children, but he also feels compelled to raise them in line with his core values.  While Jamilah often feels like an outsider because of her cultural identity, she gets great joy out of sharing meals, playing traditional instruments, and speaking Arabic.

Abdel-Fattah takes pains to differentiate between ethnicity, culture, and religion, and explore the different ways they can be expressed in her characters. It may not always be easy to have a hyphenated identity, but Randa Abdel-Fattah opens an important dialog about faith, fear, and the self in her thoughtful, timely novels.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.randaabdelfattah.com

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Ten Things I Hate About Me. Orchard Books: New York, 2006. 297 pp. Ages 15 and up.

My Mother the Cheerleader by Robert Sharenow

 

“My mother was a Cheerleader, but not the type of cheerleader you’re probably thinking of.  She didn’t become a Cheerleader until she was thirty-six years old.  Sometimes her cheers came out so full of foul language that the newspapers couldn’t even print the words.  And on the radio and television reports, they always made sure the words of the cheers were obscure, just a mad batch of ladies’ voices all mixed together and blurry.”

In November of 1960 in New Orleans, four little girls began attending elementary school for the first time.  On their way to classes, grown men and women would throw garbage and spew insults at them.  Classmates threatened to poison their lunches. Other families withdrew their students from the school.  Why?

Because of the color of their skin.  These little girls were the first African-American children to be integrated into the previously all-white school system, and they met a formidable wall of resistance.  Louise Collins’ mother is one of the protesters, a member of the Cheerleaders.  The Cheerleaders gather outside the school doors and hurl racist propaganda at the girls as they pass.  Louise can’t understand her mother’s motivation, and she isn’t sure how she feels about integration.  After all, up until now, black and white people have never really mixed together, and she hadn’t stopped to consider whether it was right or wrong.  It just was.

When a visitor from New York comes to stay in the boarding house Louise’s mother runs, Louise finds herself facing the truth about her family and her beliefs about segregation.  In this coming-of-age story, set against a backdrop of hatred, violence, and secrets, Louise learns that sometimes “small steps matter just as much as grand gestures”.

I like books that fill us in on the other side of the story.  It is not always easy to remember that people whose viewpoints differ from ours are, in fact, still human, with the same flaws and anxieties that we have.  This is the case in My Mother the Cheerleader, a book that carefully peels back the layers of hate displayed by Louise’s mother, and exposes her underlying pain.  The readers (and Louise) want to hate her, and there is absolutely no question that her actions are abominable, but of course, the story is far more complex (and realistic) than a simple bad-person-doing-bad-things formula.

You’ll appreciate Louise’s curiosity and pre-teen awkwardness, and fans of Steinbeck will be delighted to see several references to the literary great.  And Ruby Bridges, one of the little girls who began school?  The epilogue tells us that, in 1961, there were no more protesters outside the school doors and she moved up to the second grade.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://robertsharenow.com/

Sharenow, Robert.  My Mother the Cheerleader. New York: HarperTeen, 2007. 288 pp.  Ages 13 and up.

If you liked this story because it was set in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, try Ninth Ward!  If you liked the discussion of race and segregation, there are hundreds of wonderful books on the subject, try The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine.

 

Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

“My sister, Lynn, taught me my first word: kira-kira. I pronounced it ka-a-ahhh, but she knew what I meant. Kira-kira means “glittering” in Japanese.  Lynn told me that when I was a baby, she used to take me onto our empty road at night, where we would lie on our backs and look at the stars while she said over and over, ‘Katie, say ‘kira-kira, kira-kira.‘ I loved that word!”

Katie is convinced that her sister Lynn is both a genius and the kindest girl in the world. Lynn’s world is kira-kira, from her dreams of living by the California sea, to her practice of making both “selfish” and “unselfish” wishes at night. When they move from a small Japanese enclave in the Midwest to racially-homogenous Georgia, Lynn teaches Katie about the reasons why people sometimes stare at them, or make them use different doors or hotel rooms reserved for “Colored Only”.  Rather than disheartening the sisters, racism and hardships only strengthen the bond between them.  However, when Lynn becomes seriously ill, her family is shattered, beyond broken-hearted.  Katie must draw from Lynn’s lessons about hope and hard work in order to help keep her family going.

This book is a Newbery Medal winner for a reason.  I’m starting to notice some important elements that appear in outstanding books.  The big award winners seem to have these in common: 1. They deal with the Big Issues: ethics, death/suffering, human nature, and love-universal human experiences. 2.  The characters are complex, with both flaws and positive traits. Their actions seem to make sense in context; that is, you can understand their motivations. 3. The book has another Special Bit about it-maybe a stunningly creative plot, or perhaps a story told from a character whose voice has not been represented before in the literary world.  Now, that’s just my informal assessment, but it certainly does apply in this case.

Kira-Kira‘s simple language belies its complexity.  The story is one exploring racism, poverty, and serious illness.  Lynn’s sickness, when juxtaposed against the backdrop of her parents’ brutal factory labor and the family’s poverty, could sink the entire book into a tragic mire and we would all cry ourselves sick.  While it is heartbreaking, of course, the story is lightened with humorous stories and Lynn’s gentle optimism; that’s what makes it so special.  It’s no Pollyanna-readers can smell that business a mile away-but it manages to address the horrors of disease at an age-appropriate, un-sugar-coated level.  It is like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars: it slaps you in the heart with scary things, and then teaches you how some people have handled it.  It’s part guidebook, part story-and what a lovely story! The sisters give up their weekly candy in order to help secretly save money for a house.  They are sent to school in pin curls, the likes of which no one in Georgia has ever seen.  Lynn is a chess genius, beating her uncle repeatedly in a book-long series of games.  There is chicken-sexing (yes, it’s a real job), unionizing, and rice balls! And for the educators out there, the book includes one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful reader’s guides I’ve come across yet.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://cynthiakadohata.com/

Kadohata, Cynthia. Kira-Kira. Simon and Schuster: New York, 2004.244 pp. Ages 10-14.

If you liked this book because of the experiences of of minority characters in the past, you might like one of my absolute favorite books: In the Year of the Boar and Jackie RobinsonIt was published in 1986, so I know it might be a little dated, but does that matter when it is set in a previous time period, anyway?  Plus, it’s incredible. Also, you should check out Cynthia Kadohata’s other books-I can’t wait to read them! If you are looking for books that deal with serious illness (and journaling-something Lynn loves to do!) , you might try Notes from the Dog by Gary Paulsen.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

“I was born into all that, all that mess, the over-crowded swamp and the over-crowded semetary and the not-crowded-enough town, so I don’t remember nothing, don’t remember a world without Noise.  My pa died of sickness before I was born and then my ma died, of course, no surprises there.  Ben and Cillian took me in, raised me.  Ben says my ma was the last of the women but everyone says that about everyone’s ma.  Ben may not be lying, he believes it’s true, but who knows?”

Todd is the youngest male in the settlement of Prentisstown, a town with no women left and ravaged by a disease called Noise.  Not only does Noise broadcast everyone’s thoughts out loud, it also caused all the women to sicken and die.  Todd was taught that Noise was caused by a germ carried by native inhabitants of the New World, a race called the Spackle.  However, right before his birthday, his adoptive parents hand him a notebook written years before by his mother-a notebook that tells an entirely different story about Noise and warns against the sinister preachings of Mayor Prentiss.

The problem with Noise, of course, is that no one has any secrets.  As soon as he sees the notebook, Todd must strike out through the swamps and across the countryside, in the hopes that he will be able to outrun the other men of the town.  He knows they will come after him as soon as they hear his Noise and know he is trying to escape.  During his flight, he meets a young woman named Viola, whose parents’ ship had crashed in the swamp.  Viola had been trying to survive on her own in the hostile environment.  Todd is fascinated (he has never seen a girl before!), but also terrified that he might infect her with the Noise germ.  Companionship wins, and the two proceed across the New World, trying to reach the town of Haven that Todd’s mother mentioned in her notebook.  They are in a desperate scramble to outrun the militia of Prentisstown men, who are convinced that Todd, as the last male in the village, is a vital part of their salvation plan.  When Todd learns the truth about Noise, what happened to the women, and what the men of Prentisstown expect him to do, he will face an ethical dilemma that nothing could have prepared him for.

This is a fast-paced, post-apocalyptic story that reads like a cross between Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and M. T. Anderson’s Feed.  The book explores colonization, racism, religious extremism, and the idea that just knowing about something ethically wrong, but not acting to right it, makes one complicit in the crime.  Does that sound too philosophical?  Don’t worry-I promise you won’t want to put this book down.  Not only is it a compelling story,  it is also a graphically interesting book.  The Noise of different villagers is depicted with distinct fonts, and the spelling of Todd’s words and thoughts is quite phonetic, rather than conventional.  Plus, if you really loved it, there are already two more out in the series, which is called Chaos Walking. The second installment is The Ask and the Answer and the final book is Monsters of Men.

This book was short-listed for the Carnegie award and was also recognized by Booklist, among others.  I found it a nice change from the technology-heavy dystopian novels out there, and loved the creative presentation of the Noise.  I hope you like it!

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.patrickness.com

Ness, Patrick. The Knife of Never Letting Go. Candlewick Press: Somerville, MA, 2008. 479 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked the conspiracy theory part of this book, you would probably like M. T. Anderson’s Feed.  For a suspenseful futuristic escape story that also explores issues of racism and colonialism, try Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion. It’s amazing!

Boy21 by Matthew Quick

“‘I love watching you play ball, Finley.  Best part of my days lately-makes me feel like I still have legs, even-but life’s more than games.  This Russ, he’s special.  Anyone can see that.  And it’s hard to be special, Finley. You understand what I’m saying?’

I don’t understand what Pop is saying, but I nod anyway.

‘You’re special too, Finley.  You don’t get to pick the role you’re going to play in life, but it’s good to play whatever role you got the best way you can,’ Pop says. ‘And I know I’m a damn hypocrite for saying that tonight, but that don’t make what I said a lie.  We’ve both had hard lives so far.  No favors done for either of us.'”

This book has been waiting on my shelf for months, so that I could review it on its birthday: today (well, yesterday-I caught a cold and couldn’t get it written in time!)  is the day Boy21 comes into the world! Here it is, friends!  I’m so happy to get to stop waiting and tell you all about it! Hold on to your hats-here’s the story:

Finley lives for basketball.  The repetition and movement calm him and keep him from thinking about all of the darkness he keeps pushed to the borders of his mind.  He is so focused that he even breaks up with his girlfriend at the beginning of each basketball season; the game becomes his temporary new sweetheart. You can’t blame him for it, really: he doesn’t have much else to give him hope.  He lives in Bellmont, a city in the shadow of the powerful Irish mob.  In Bellmont, if the drugs don’t get you first, the mafia probably will.  Finley’s world consists of basketball, caring for his disabled grandfather, and hoping that he and his sweetheart can somehow find a way out, to a better life.

Enter Russ: a supremely talented basketball player with some exceptionally bizarre personal habits.  He lost his parents in a tragedy that he doesn’t speak about, and has moved to Bellmont to try and patch back together his life.  He doesn’t fit in-he’s far wealthier than any of the other students, and it is hard to conceal his prep-school education.  Furthermore, he refers to himself as Boy21, an extraterrestrial being sent to earth to learn about human emotions.  However strange he may appear to be, he seems to be just what Finley needs, and the two bond as they weather life-altering tragedies during the course of the story.

I hadn’t even finished the review before two different friends of mine tried to snatch this book off the desk and carry it away.  I can’t blame them, though.  You might remember Sorta Like a Rock Star, a book I read last summer. It instantly became a favorite of mine, and I do like to think that I’m pretty careful about what ends up on the favorites list.  Well, here is another book by the same author, friends.  Now, I’m convinced he is a stealth champion for the good in humanity, from the books he’s given us.  Boy21 doesn’t disappoint, that’s for sure.  It contains basketball, but it’s not really about it.  Instead, it’s about hope, and wrestling with those dark parts within-you know, the ones that want us only to look out for ourselves, even when it means hurting another human in the process.  Add in stargazing, references to The Little Prince, and the belief that we are all capable of changing, and you’ve got a unique, compelling story that you can finish in a day.

It’s hard to find a book that will appeal to the discerning set of young teenagers, much less a story that has the potential to captivate both male and female readers, without containing so much sex or violence that it will terrify school boards.  So here, dear ones, is quite a find. Equal appeal for both genders, an original plot, and characters that are quirky and endearing, but not merely for the sake of cuteness.  In this book, quirk is a survival mechanism, and the beautiful underlying message is that there are other potential responses to tragedy besides hardening one’s heart.  (When I say messages, don’t take it to mean “didactic”, because it’s certainly not-besides, teens can smell that business a mile away.) Anyway, I think you’re going to love it!  (If you do, watch out for Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook-it is going to be a movie soon!  And while you’re waiting, here are some books that I think you’ll like, if you liked the sound of this one:

Of course: Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick.  It’s an entirely different sort of plot, but it makes you feel the same way as Boy21 does.  If you liked the sports part, you could try The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and also Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena.  And come on, why not give The Little Princea try, too? There’s enough to love in there to break your heart forever.

Update:  Matt de la Pena, author of Mexican White Boy, reviewed Boy21 in The New York Times.  Check it out!

Quick, Matthew. Boy21. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012. 256 pp.  Ages 15 and up.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://matthewquickwriter.com

Child of Dandelions by Shenaaz Nanji

“The war-if there ever was one-was over, but the curfew was still in effect.  Every evening at the stroke of six, the lights in every house and every street were extinguished.  And when night fell, the seven hills of Kampala were trapped under what seemed to Sabine like a big black burkha that wrapped them all in the dark while the countdown snared its prey.”

In 1972, the president of Uganda announced a countdown:  the British Indians within the country have ninety days to get out.  Sabine is Indian by heritage, but she and her mother, father, and brother are Ugandan citizens, so they are hoping that they’re safe.  However, things get complicated when Sabine’s uncle disappears and she suspects it’s because he’s been imprisoned, or worse.  To make things more confusing, Sabine and her best friend, who is a Ugandan, fight about their loyalties.

Through it all, Sabine tries to be brave for her family, take care of her little brother, and understand the racism and socio-economic divide between the Indians and Ugandans in Uganda.  In the end, she finds herself growing and being stronger and braver than she ever thought was possible.

There’s a lot going on in this book: political strife, a government kidnapping, racism, class tensions, issues with gender identity and special needs, and fights between friends.  I actually think that each separate thread in the novel could be a story in itself, but the setting is interesting and not very well-known.  That alone makes the story worth reading.

Author’s website: http://www.snanji.com/

Nanji, Shenaaz. Child of Dandelions. Front Street Books: Honesdale, PA, 2008. 214 pages. Ages 12-16.  ISBN 978-1932425932.

If you like this book, try Chain of Fire by Beverly Naidoo, or Frances Temple’s Taste of Salt: A Story of Modern Haiti.