Taking me back to GH

33004289Solo, by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess (2017)

Opening line: “There’s this dream / I’ve been having / about my mother / that scares / the holy night / out of me”

Ever since reading The Crossover, I’m pretty much willing to read anything Kwame Alexander has written. That book was SO deserving of its Newbery Medal. The language that bounded off the page, the basketball lingo to hook the reluctant boy readers, the heart that just exploded all over the page… Sheesh, I can hand that to any student and feel confident about it.

So when I saw Kwame had a YA novel coming out, I was requesting it from the library as soon as I could. And then when I realized half of it takes place in Ghana, I was PUMPED. For those of you who don’t know, I spent four months studying abroad in Ghana my senior year of college, and it’s a small enough place off most people’s vacation travel radar that I don’t get to talk about it very often (although those who know me may say I bring it up whenever an opportunity presents itself). But we’ll get back to Ghana in a minute.

First, let me give you the premise: Blade Morrison is the teenage son of washed up rock’n’roller Rutherford Morrison, who has a hard time staying sober ever since his wife, Blade’s mother, died years ago. Blade has inherited Rutherford’s musical talent and is quite the songwriter/guitarist himself. But when Rutherford crashes Blade’s salutatorian speech at graduation by riding in on a motorcycle and literally crashing into the stage, and a fight with his big sister, Storm, erupts because of it, Blade learns that his musical talent is not genetic. The Morrisons adopted Blade when he was just a baby. The mother he’s loved and lost is not his biological mother.

As it turns out, Blade’s biological mother is doing service work halfway around the world in small villages in Ghana (yesssssss). Feeling lost and alone, Blade decides he needs to find her. Off he sets, and hellllooo favorite half of the book.

Let me just tell you, for those of you who haven’t been to Ghana, Kwame’s details of Blade’s experience of the country are PERFECTION. It felt like I was straight back there with all the smells, tastes, views, and heat rising right off the page. There’s this one poem, “On the way to the village we pass” that I basically wrote in duplicate on my study abroad blog in 2009 (he probably used that as his inspiration, most likely).

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(But seriously. The last sentence of my blog post reads, “Who needs a mall? Just get stuck in traffic for a couple hours and you’re all set.”)

In any case, the second half of the book could have been complete garbage and I wouldn’t have much cared, being thrilled as I was to soak up all the Ghana talk. But of course, it wasn’t garbage. Far from garbage. Just when you think you know where the plot is going, it shifts. Each time you have settled yourself on what to think about a situation or a character, he forces you to reexamine it. And, like always, the heart just pours off the page. That’s how I can best describe his writing: so incredibly full of heart.

Being clearly in the YA camp, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a good fit for my middle school library, but I think I’m going to go ahead and buy it. There’s discussion of drugs/alcohol/sex, but none of that happens on camera so to speak, and none at all with the protagonist, so I think it’s safe. Plus, the good of it blows any hesitance I have out of the water. It will be a great next step to give to 8th graders who I have hooked on a his previous novels in verse.

2.5 stars. Pure Ghana love.

Oh, and in case you were curious about what I looked like with fully braided extensions, here is that. When in Ghana.

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A Beautiful Gift for a Sad Anniversary

All We Have Left, by Wendy Mills (2016)

Opening line: “Travis draws my face into his chest as the smoke engulfs us.”

That opener gives you an idea of the intensity of this book. Wooo boy.

The smoke that main character Alia is referring to is the smoke from the burning floors above her and near-stranger Travis where a Boeing 767 crashed into 1 World Trade Center. The date, of course, is September 11th, 2001, and America as Alia knows it, is about to change. She was never meant to be at the WTC, but after a terrible fight with her mother, Alia’s only chance at getting into an incredible summer art program to develop her passion for drawing (specifically, drawing her kickass Muslim girl superhero comics), is to skip first period and head to visit her dad at work to convince him to sign the permission form. Only, when she gets there, her Ayah isn’t at his desk, and on her way back down, there’s an ominous explosion, and the elevator suddenly stops working.

Meanwhile, we also hear the story of Jesse, living fifteen years later. Jesse’s just trying to survive high school with her three best friends, while being as invisible as possible at home where her parents have not moved on from her brother’s death on that fateful September day when Jesse was just a baby. Jesse’s father, in particular, has spiraled into a raging alcoholic, angry at the world — and particularly all the Muslims in said world, who are responsible for his son’s death (in his eyes). But things start to shift for Jesse when cool, edgy Nick starts to take notice of her and invites her into a dark web of tagging buildings, something that starts as an adrenaline rush, but culminates into hateful graffiti.

This novel will keep readers at the edge of their seats, not only with the intensity of all that is happening on that terrible day in Alia’s world, but also with the regular shifting of perspectives and time periods. The pacing of the chapters was on point, and just when I felt the need to get back to the other character, Mills seemed to anticipate that and POOF, chapter end. I was swept up in both the girls’ stories — Alia’s a little more so, due to the obvious magnitude of her situation — and felt desperate to catch up to the little snapshot the prologue gave to both their narratives.

While there were some bits that felt unrealistic (some of Jesse’s moments with Dave, the resolution of the story), there were a lot of parts that felt incredibly authentic (Jesse’s whirlwind involvement with Nick and his dangerous friends, Jesse’s girl gang, Alia’s short moments with her older brother before school and her inner monologue upon first meeting Travis, Jesse’s visit to the 9/11 museum). Here’s what I think about this book on a whole: It captured me and brought me right back to that day, giving me all the “remember where I was” feelings that accompany any mention of September 11th. But I also felt like it does an excellent job of making it real for all of those teenagers who weren’t alive yet in 2001, or were just tiny babes like Jesse. The author mentions in an interview she did with The New York Times that when her teenage son finished reading the novel, he asked her, “Did all that stuff really happen?” I’m guessing for today’s teens reading about September 11th is similar to how I feel when I read about the Titanic. It seems too dramatic to be real. But it was. So very real. Mills also does an excellent job (I think) of representing Islam to unfamiliar readers. Especially at a time when our President-elect is someone who wants to restrict the immigration rights of all Muslims, we need so many more stories that show the truth of Islam among all the misinformation and misconception. I’m not sure how Mills did her research on this part, but her execution felt spot-on (to this non-Muslim reader).

I want to give this book to all my students. It would probably help if I’d stop hoarding it on my bed table and get it back to school. It also made me want to read all the other 9/11 fiction that’s come out this year, although it sets quite the precedent.

2.5 stars

The three rancheros

91ayjzgyg0lRaymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo (2016)

Opening line: “There were three of them, three girls.”

There were once three of us, three girls. We didn’t come together quite like Raymie and her three rancheros came together, but were pushed together more due to having the same teacher and liking to play make-believe games on the playground. Raymie Clarke, Louisiana Elefante, and Beverly Tapinski come together at in a slightly more unique situation, at the home of their baton twirling coach at their first baton twirling lesson. The lesson fails to proceed, however, after Louisiana faints at the thought of performing, and their coach declines to put up with “this nonsense.”

Raymie is learning to twirl in order to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition. She has a plan. Three days ago, Raymie’s father ran off with a dental hygienist and Raymie is convinced that if she wins the competition, her father will see her picture in the paper and have to come home. Everything rests with her winning the competition. She soon finds out that Louisiana, who dons lucky bunny barrettes in her hair and flashy sequined dresses, wants to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition also, but she is more interested in the $1975 prize money in order to buy food for her and her granny and perhaps turn the electricity back on at home. Beverly, a scrappy girl with a chip on her shoulder and a bruise on her face, is just entering in order to sabotage the competition, for no reason in particular.

This is the story of the magic that can turn three strangers into best friends over the matter of a few days, at an age where empathy and compassion seem as natural as breathing. As Louisiana tells Raymie, “no matter what, you’re here and I’m here and we’re here together.” And often, that is enough to get through just about anything.

Delightfully honest and touching, 2.5 stars