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

A beautiful surprise

51fb-u69shlBehind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo (2012)

Opening line: “Let it keep, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station.”

This one was tough. It took me like 6 months to read, because I could only take so much at a time. And I was just reading it. It’s unimaginable to be living it. But this incredibly researched piece of stunning non-fiction absolutely deserves it’s National Book Award (and the four other awards it won).

Author Katherine Boo married into Indian culture and became fascinated by the startling clash of affluence so close to extreme poverty that she saw in Mumbai, particularly in the Annawadi slum on the other side of the road from the Mumbai airport. For years, Katherine spent her days among the residents of this slum, chronicling their struggles and successes, their joys and pain, their complications and hopes. While obviously life in the Annawadi slum is horrendously difficult, what this book does so well is show us privileged white Americans that that’s not all it is. Katherine profiles several Annawadian families over these 250 pages, including a family with a productive garbage picking business, a young woman who hopes to become the first female college graduate from Annawadi, and her mother who plans on taking on the roll of the “slum-lord” of the community. It’s not about feeling sorry for these people. It’s about seeing their strength in spite of and because of their surroundings. It’s about noticing their humanity, recognizing pieces of them that are in all of us. It’s about realizing our complicity in creating a world where realities like these exist.

That’s not even to mention her writing, which is SO DAMN FANTASTIC, it’s breathtaking.

Everyone should read this book, but be wary of when. This is not a quick or enjoyable read, so if that’s what you’re looking for, look again. But oh-so-worthwhile.

2.5 star

 

On the heartbeat of middle schoolers

Thing About Jellyfish, by Ali Benjamin (2015)

Opening Line: “A jellyfish, if you watch it long enough, begins to look like a heart beating.”

Suzy is starting 7th grade and everything is different from last year. When she began middle school, she had the best best friend, Franny, and together, they were content to be nothing like the popular girls. But now Franny is dead. And Suzy hasn’t spoken aloud in weeks.

Suzy’s mother told her that Franny drowned at the beach. But Suzy knows that Franny is a wonderful swimmer, and there must be another explanation. After a lonely class trip to the aquarium where Suzy visits the jellyfish exhibit, she has a new hypothesis: Franny was stung by a Irukandjii, a miniature jelly that causes its victims excruciating pain and a distinct feeling of impending doom. And now she just has to prove it.

Structured like a science lab report (background, procedure, results, conclusions, etc.), Suzy tries to keep her life in order, but this heart-breaker of a tale goes way beyond the scientific method. Flashing back and forth between her 6th grade year and current time, we get the story of Suzy and Franny’s dissolving friendship as the girls enter middle school. As a librarian in a middle school, and a former middle school student myself, I could see the honesty and truth represented here. Friendships definitely change in middle school. Figuring out what to do after the death of a friendship can be every bit as difficult as the death of a friend. This is was Ali Benjamin gets so right.

Touching for all of us who have been through this, and cathartic for those who are going through it right now. What a beautiful debut. Can’t wait to see what she does next.

2.5 stars

The lazy hazy days of summer

This One Summer, story by Jillian Tamaki, art by Mariko Tamaki (2014)

Opening line: “Okay. So. Awago Beach is this place.”

When I was a kid, my parents took us on these wonderful camping trips across the country, visiting all the national parks, monuments, and seasides along the way. I’m sure I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time (I’m particularly remembering a visit to the Badlands that I did not appreciate), but I feel incredibly lucky to have seen and experienced all the things that we did. However, in the “grass is always greener” sense of things, I always kind of wished for a vacation more like the one Rose’s family goes on each year in This One Summer. 

Each year, Rose’s family goes to a cottage on Awago Beach for the summer. It’s a lazy summer town, with nothing to worry about besides collecting firewood for beach bonfires and figuring out the best snacks to take with you on the tubes that won’t get wet. Rose has a best friend on Awago Beach, too, Windy, whose mom and grandma also have a cottage they visit each year.

This year seems different, though. Windy and Rose are approaching their teenage years, and are suddenly thinking about bra sizes, horror movies, and the drama of the older kids at the convenience store. This story tells of that one summer when the girls lives are changing, balancing between digging just-because holes in the sand and thinking about teen pregnancies and broken hearts. Through beautiful artwork (even earning a Caldecott nod) and conversations that feel very authentically tween and teen, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki let us remember just how strange and unique that time was for all of us, figuring out where we belong, who we are, who we want to be. By the end of the summer, as Windy and Rose head their separate ways, nothing monumental has changed. And yet, everything has.

A beautiful and delightful way to spend a Sunday morning on the front porch. 2.5 stars

Not your typical monster story

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness; Illustrated by Jim Kay (2011)

Opening line: “The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”

One of the 6th grade teachers came up to me at the beginning of the year and said, “Emily, have you read A Monster Calls?” When I shook my head, she almost groaned, saying, “Oh, you need to.”

It’s hard to dispute a recommendation like that. Especially when she loans me one of her three copies.

Every night for months Conor O’Malley has woken up from a horrifying nightmare, one he refuses to talk about to anyone. On one such night, he wakes up to find a monster outside his bedroom window. And not the monster from his nightmare. This monster looks more like the yew tree from the hill in his backyard.

Despite the monster’s truly terrifying appearance, Conor finds that he’s not all that scary, partially because this monster’s most significant activity is storytelling. Each time he visits Conor, the monster tells him a story. This seems like a complete waste of time to Conor, who has bigger things to worry about, most considerably his mother’s health. She has stopped responding to treatments and seems to be hanging on by the simple belief that she’ll get better. But Conor’s not so sure.

Combined with breathtaking and haunting illustrations, Patrick Ness and Jim Kay take us into Conor’s nightmare, one drenched with honesty and desperation, and guided by the somehow gentle hand of a monster.

3 stars