A Light in the Darkness

29436571March: Book Three, by John Lewis, and Andrew Aydin, art by Nate Powell (2016)

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a book on Goodreads with a higher rating than this one (4.7/5 stars), but that’s not why I read the conclusion to John Lewis’ March trilogy this weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a book win so many awards, (4 at ALA’s Youth Media Awards announced last week and the National Book Award last year) but that wasn’t why I read it either.

I read it because I needed some hope.

When earlier this week, I opened a new box of books at school, I breathed a sigh of relief to find March among them. It’s been a rough week, hasn’t it? It’s hard to not feel hopeless every time I turn on the news or scroll through my social media feeds, and after getting a little less sleep than normal due to my husband’s knee surgery on Monday, by this weekend, I was feeling weighed down. Hearing from one of our country’s leading civil rights activists who has really been through it all, that’s what I needed.

If you’ve read the first two volumes of March, you know what to expect in this one. The third volume picks up with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, when four young girls died and dozens more were injured. It then carries through the assassinations of JFK and Malcolm X, the killings of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, Freedom Summer (with the major push to register black voters in Alabama), and culminating with the marches in Selma. It’s a dark story, darker than the first two for sure. There were more than a few scenes that make my neck prickle at purchasing this for middle school.

But there’s no way I can let this one stay off the shelves. There’s too many important things in these pages, things that I don’t think my students are aware of. I know before reading the first March, I had very little knowledge of John Lewis and the incredible role he has played in our country’s history (and modern politics),  and I was raised in a much more diverse population. It seems as though we teach about MLK, Rosa Parks, maybe Malcolm X in more liberal classrooms, but that’s about the extent of it. The fact that Lewis chose to tell his story through graphic format is genius. Not only does it meet students where they are (in the graphic novel section), but also it brings the reality of the horror of our nation’s past to very bright light. And the thing is, it doesn’t take much to see how relevant this story from 50 years ago is in our current situation.

The thing that I think makes this book so powerful, though, is what I mentioned at the beginning: the hope. Lewis does not shy away from the violence, from the language, from the very real darkness he lived through. But interspersed with that darkness are scenes from Inauguration Day in 2009, when President Obama took office. These little glimpses show us that despite all the terror Lewis has witnessed, he knows the value, the purpose, the goal and that it’s all worth it. He knows that those terrible years in the 60s were just the beginning of a lifetime of hard struggle (as is evidenced in his 30 years in U.S. Congress so far), and yet he’s not giving up. He’ll keep doing the work, and so can we. As sad as I am that Obama is no longer in Washington, I can remain hopeful, because Lewis is. And even when he finally does take a well-deserved rest, there will be others there, maintaining the fight.

3 stars, Mr. Lewis.

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

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad cow world

Going Bovine, by Libba Bray (2009)

Opening line: “The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.”

Oh boy, this book. Where to begin.

I guess let’s begin with a summary. Cameron is your average dissatisfied high schooler, just trying to get by with the minimal effort. His parents and twin sister seem uninteretsed and disconnected, and Cam isn’t motivated to fix anything, until he gets a serious health diagnosis: Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, more commonly known as “mad-cow disease.” This perfectly sums up the contradictions of this book. It’s a whirlwind combination of perfectly mundane ordinary high school personalities and reactions, mixed with the absurd. I mean, really, who gets mad-cow disease?? Then things get weirder. Cam starts having what he’s sure are hallucinations, involving a pink-haired punk angel named Dulcie, fire giants that are hunting him, and a speaking garden gnome. Dulcie convinces Cam to go on a wild journey to find Dr. X, the only person who can cure him. He must also bring along a kid from school, a hypochondriac dwarf named Gonzo. Cameron decides he has nothing to lose, so off they go.

The whole story supposedly parallels Don Quixote (although I don’t remember much from when we read it in Spanish senior year), which Cameron is reading at school before his diagnosis. It’s an epic roadtrip novel, a journey of self-discovery, mixed with the super weird. I don’t know. It has great elements and hilarious characters, but something about it… I had a really hard time getting into it and then also finishing it. After listening to the whole first section of my audiobook, I realized I had already started listening to it the year before, but had moved on to something else. I’m trying to figure out why it was awarded the Printz, because they usually know what they’re talking about, but I’m just not sure. I think most teens wouldn’t hold out for the whole thing, as I didn’t the first time around. I think it’s just a little too off the rocker for me to connect with. Those fire giants, man.

Anyway, I did finish it eventually, although I had to renew it (which I hardly ever do with audiobooks). Maybe I’m not a huge Libba Bray fan. This is the third Libba book I read (Great and Terrible Beauty and Beauty Queens), and for both of them I thought I would like them more than I actually did. (Beauty Queens was the best of the three, though.) I’m still holding out hope for The Diviners, though, because it looks real good.

1 star

And the moon and the stars and the trees

I’ll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson (2014)

Opening Line: “This is how it all begins. With Zephyr and Fry – reigning neighborhood sociopaths — torpedoing after me and the whole forest floor shaking under my feet as I blast through air, trees, this white-hot panic.”

With just this opening line, you get a sense of the complex, somewhat magical narrative voice of Noah, twin brother to Jude, our other narrator. These two teenagers wind a twisting tale of the years between the ages of 13 and 16. The story is not told chronologically, however, but jumps between Noah’s point-of-view at age 13 and Jude’s perspective at age 16. Once two halves of a whole, by the time of Jude’s story, the twins are barely speaking verbally, not to mention the ax on their twin telecommunication. While it’s unclear why, it is clear that their lives have completely changed following some terrible circumstances surrounding their mother’s death. Secrets were kept, hearts were broken, and futures were altered. Noah, at 13, bound for greatness with his outstanding artistic talent despite his outsider status among his classmates, has completely stopped painting and has become a quiet part of the popular crowd at the public high school by 16. Jude, queen of the parties and jealous of the fact that her brother is the apple of their mother’s eye during Noah’s story, is now a loner hiding under hats and seeking a mentor for her artwork as a part of the program at the fancy arts academy. As each twin tells their tale, we start to see how they overlap and what really happened that fateful day.

Unlike some in the YA canon, this is not a quick read. It’s meaty; 371 pages of meat, to be exact, and at least for me, a lot of it was slow-going. In the last 100 pages, though, it picked right up and I couldn’t put it down. My breakfast cereal waited in the closet, the dog went un-walked (not that the lazy guy minded), and I didn’t get out of bed until it was finished this morning. I love the twists and turns and the trying to figure it out-ness of this one. Also, the language! Like the opening line up there suggests, these two narrators don’t storytell in the most ordinary way, but in somewhat fantastical, round-about voices. Each have their own unique tendencies, but they are cut from the same cloth to be sure, and make the reader work a little harder for their supper. Not a bad thing, in my book.

Another winner for the the YA Bibliobitches book club. 2.5 stars.

A New Nation

Nation, by Terry Pratchett (2008)

This semester I am taking a young adult literature class, which means my shelves are currently filled with YA books. Nation was the first book on the reading list. So read it, I did!

We meet Mau, who is setting off from Boy’s Island in the canoe he recently made. He is on his way home where everyone in the Nation will be there to greet him and celebrate his transition into Manhood. But on his journey, he is swept into the largest wave he’s ever seen and is thrown off course. When he finally arrives to his island home, all he is greeted by are smashed huts and lifeless bodies. His entire Nation has been destroyed by the giant wave.

After he tends to all the dead villagers in a comatose haze, by taking them out to sea where their spirits will turn into dolphins until they are called back to human form, he explores the rest of his Nation to find a huge ship, much bigger than any canoe he’s ever seen.

On the ship is Ermintrude, daughter to a prominent man who was made governor of colony halfway around the world. On her way out to meet her father, Ermintrude’s ship is caught by the wave and thrown onto the Nation. All of the crew perished, but Ermintrude, hiding in her cabin, survived the crash.

And here on the Nation, Ermintrude and Mau find each other. Through pantomime and drawing the sand, they learn to communicate. Soon, others from neighboring islands show up, hoping that the Nation fared better than their own, only to find a “ghost girl” and a boy/man as the chief.  But together, Mau, Daphne (Ermintrude’s new name for herself), and the others rebuild the Nation.

A combination of humorous interaction, spiritual reflection, and deep shared sadness, Nation is one of my new favorite books. A good start to the semester, I’d say.

Three stars.