Murderino Mayhem

30037870Allegedly, by Tiffany D. Jackson (2017)

Opening line: “Some children are born bad, plain and simple.”

Ever since a grad school friend visited last month and introduced me to the My Favorite Murder podcast, I’ve been a little true crime crazy. I finally watched The People vs OJ Simpson on Netflix and have been diving into some deep Wikipedia holes. So when Allegedly was selected as our next book club read, I was stoked.

Mary Addison was nine when the infant daughter of her mother’s friend was found murdered in Mary’s home. Mary’s distraught mother told police that Mary and the baby, Alyssa, had been alone in Mary’s room sleeping. But now, baby Alyssa was dead, due to asphyxiation, not to mention the purple bruises covering her tiny body. Something terrible happened, and Mary’s not talking.

The public outrage over the murder quickly convicts young Mary of this horrifying crime, and she is sentenced to six years in “baby jail”, where she ends up spending a lot of time in isolation. when she is released, she is placed on house arrest until age 18 in a group home of other teen girls, who apparently hate her. Part of her sentencing includes daily volunteer hours at a local retirement home, where she has fallen in love with fellow parolee, Ted, and now finds herself with a baby of her own on the way. But she quickly learns that with her criminal history, the state isn’t likely going to let her keep her baby. For Mary, that’s what finally pushes her over the edge. It’s what finally pushes her to tell the truth about what happened that night seven years ago. It’s finally time that everyone knows she didn’t murder baby Alyssa.

The narrative here is incredibly compelling. We’ve got major elements of an unjust criminal justice system, mental illness, abuse, bullying, narcissism and sociopathic tendencies, race, teenage motherhood, and romance. The pages just fly. NOT TO MENTION an unreliable narrator who is clearly not telling us everything. I love stories that aren’t necessarily mysteries (where the characters are trying to solve something) but that the reader has to piece together clues and hints until the real picture unwinds. Gave me memories of Gone Girl and We Were Liars.

Like those two, this also has a twist ending. Unlike those two, this one unfortunately brought the entire thing way down for me. Without going into the specifics so as not to ruin it for you, the last chapter felt like a betrayal of the reader. The author gave us a sharp turn, without giving us the space to accommodate, which left me feeling unseated and disappointed.

Despite the jarring ending, still a worthwhile, disturbing, and quick read for any fans of the genre. 2 stars



A Must-Read


32075671The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (2017)

First line: “I shouldn’t have come to this party.”

If you are active in the #kidlit world, you have probably already heard about this book. After all, it’s currently sitting number one on the NY Times Bestseller list, and was one of the inaugural winners of the Walter Dean Myers Grant awarded by We Need Diverse Books. It’s getting LOTS of buzz, one of the reasons I dropped what I was reading to squeeze it in when my hold came in at the library.

The title, The Hate U Give, is reference to Tupac’s explanation of the meaning of “Thug Life” (“the hate u give little infants f***s everybody”), meaning that what society gives its youth, comes back to affect us all. When the author experienced the aftermath of Oscar Grant’s shooting in Oakland, CA, in 2009, Tupac’s words seemed to bring up new relevance, and from that Starr Carter’s story was born.

In the first chapter of The Hate U Give, 16-year-old Starr finds herself at a house party over spring break in Garden Heights, the neighborhood where she lives and has spent her entire life. She feels uncomfortable, though, because for several years Starr has been attending a predominately white private school in the suburbs, 45 minutes and a world away from the Garden. She has become acutely aware of the two different parts of her identity, and is adept at code-switching between the two, not wanting to seem “too ghetto” while at school, but still wanting to be able to fit in in the neighborhood.

While at the party, Starr runs into Khalil, her childhood best friend but a guy she hasn’t seen in a couple years. At once, he’s the same little kid she used to goof around with but also somehow grown up. When the party gets out of control and they hear gunshots, Khalil offers to drive Starr home. On the way, they are stopped by the police for “a broken taillight,” but soon Khalil is asked to get out of the vehicle, and while he is looking back in the window to check to make sure Starr is okay, he is shot in the back 3 times. Starr holds him in the street while he bleeds out.

Starr then finds herself in another very uncomfortable situation. While she grieves for her former best friend and fears all white cops she encounters, she also hears her current friends refer to Khalil as a thug and a drug dealer, as if that justifies his death. They stage a protest at school, just to get out of class, and simultaneously sympathize with the family of the cop who shot him. And Starr has no idea what to do.

I quickly understood what all the buzz was about when reading this book. It was heartbreaking, eye-opening, real, and hilarious all at once. I recently saw Jason Reynolds speak at an author panel, and he mentioned that in his writing, he tries to show not only some of the injustice and dark side of neighborhoods like where he (and Starr) grew up, but also how those people love to laugh, have favorite foods, goofy habits, best friends, etc. That people from the hood are people first. I think Angie Thomas does a superb job of this as well. I found myself fully attached to these characters, laughing and loving right along with them. Despite the dark content matter, there were some hilarious parts of this novel. This blend is what I think makes it so powerful.

I am so pleased that this novel is getting the attention it deserves. The more who read it, the better. It will do what novels do best: create empathy, build bridges, and cause change to those who read it.

3 stars


Marching Still

March: Book One (2013) and Book Two (2015), by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

Opening line: “‘John? Can you swim?'”

It’s amazing how relevant this story is today.

In the first two parts of the planned trilogy, readers of this startling graphic novel series will get a full picture of the life and times of U.S. Representative John Lewis. The only one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement still alive, Rep. Lewis partnered with a member of his D.C. staff and a graphic novelist to tell his story to a younger generation. Book One starts with the morning of President Obama’s first inauguration, a day that blends itself in between the stories of previous decades, before going back to John’s childhood as the son of a sharecropper in Pike County, Alabama. Believing it was his destiny to be a preacher, he started speaking his gospel to the chickens he was in charge of on the family farm, but eventually realized that his mission lay elsewhere. While in college, he met with other students who were practicing non-violence in preparation for protests they intended to do at lunch counters that refused to serve black customers. Before long, John was heavily involved, becoming an active member in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), helping to organize the lunch counter protests, movie theater protests, the Freedom Rides to Birmingham and Montgomery, and then the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

It is clear from the structure of the book that Rep. Lewis (and his co-writers) meant for the reader to connect the events of the past with today’s current situation. As I mentioned above, snippets of President Obama’s inauguration day on January 20, 2009 appear throughout the text, often overlapping with images or word bubbles from events during the 50s and 60s. Perhaps this project began as a symbol of triumph for John Lewis, showing that all the hard work of he and his fellow civil rights activists paid off as we elected our first black president. I wonder, though, if and how the third installment will be different. As I poured through these pages, I couldn’t help but see images that look haunting like the ones I see on the news and internet today, the words of President Kennedy sounding so similar to those of President Obama in response to another tragedy.

Earlier this month, Rep. Lewis spoke in Atlanta with other civil rights leaders, addressing this issue. “I tell you,” he said, “we have a fight on our hands. I happen to think we’re too quiet.” He seems hopeful though, that with some “good trouble and necessary trouble” we can keep marching more toward equality. Let’s hope he’s right.

Dark, graphic, yet hopeful. 2 stars.

Introducing the Documentary Novel,204,203,200_.jpg

No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (2012)

Opening line: “Everybody keeps saying be satisfied with Jesus’s love, and he will give us our daily bread. I keep waiting, but we never get any bread, so I have to go out and do things for myself.”

I’ve been immersed in the realm of non-fiction lately, trying to find extended informational texts for our ELA teachers to use in their classes (since, according to CCSS, students should be reading 2 extended informational texts per year at the middle school level — yikes). This has led to all sorts of confusing conversations about what qualifies as informational, what qualifies as extended, etc. And this new “genre” introduced by Nelson only muddles the conversation even further.

What a peculiar book. As the subtitle states, it chronicles the life and work of Lewis Michaux, evidently an incredibly influential Harlem bookseller in the 1940s-70s. Has anyone heard of this guy before now? His bookshop was the gathering place for famous poets, writers, activists, and leaders, most notably, Malcolm X. Not only did he house the great leaders of the civil rights movement, but he was an outspoken voice himself, loudly displaying controversial signs in his windows, shouting as he pulled book carts down the sidewalks, always advocating for African Americans to educate themselves with materials written by them, for them, and about them. He believed in his store and what he was selling, calling it “The House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda.” Because according to Michaux, “Knowledge is the thing that is needed among young people today. You can’t protect yourself if you don’t know something.”

So not only was this content new and exhilarating, but the format too was something different than I’ve ever read before. Nelson (or her publishers, as the case may be) describes it as a “documentary novel,” which means it’s a blend of various character voices in little paragraph or page-long snippets and media (photographs, newspaper clippings, FBI reports, etc.) to create a picture of a historical figure. The actual voices are created from the author’s imagination, but the characters and clippings are almost all true and historical. So does this qualify as an “extended informational text”? It’s conventions (photos/images/graphs with captions, index, references, bibliographies, etc.) would suggest so. But it’s structure is one very much of a storytelling narrative, so I think all in all, no. Does that mean it does not share information with readers? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I learned all kinds of information I didn’t know before by reading Nelson’s book. It’s definitely informational, regardless of Common Core’s definitions.

Although I learned a ton and powered through this in less than 24 hours, the content is a bit dry for teen readers. I have a feeling it would take quite a motivated reader to pick up this selection and read it in its entirety. A powerful story, and one told in a new and inventive way, but not quite as engaging as I had hoped.

1.5 stars

Trying too hard in Mississippi

Glory Be, by Augusta Scattergood (2012)

I somehow read two middle grade books about Southern race relations right in a row, which may be why this one won’t get as good of a review.

It’s the summer of 1964, and Glory is anxiously awaiting awaiting her 12th birthday, which she plans to spend as she does every year: at a pool party with her family and friends. But this summer is different from summers past, because there are some new folks in town who are making certain people very nervous. The Freedom Fighters, as the new folks are called, are making a stand for racial equality and integration, and those who disagree with their views become defensive. Before Glory fully realizes what is happening, the town council has closed the pool in an effort to keep it from becoming integrated. And the changes keep going from there.

I have to tell you, this book didn’t do it for me. There were some good parts, but mostly, I felt like it was just trying too hard. Glory is too earnest, writing a powerful letter to the editor of the town paper about her disgust about racial segregation, when really her motivation seems almost entirely directed toward getting the pool reopened for her birthday party. Sometimes Scattergood writes her characters’ dialogue with elements of Southern speech, sometimes she doesn’t. Glory’s father is almost non-existent except for when he all of a sudden stands up for her in a moment of heartfelt pride. Glory’s friendship woes don’t seemreal. None of it did, to be honest.

Which is why I was surprised when I read the author’s note at the end, in which she explains that large parts of  the novel she pulled from her own personal history growing up in Mississippi. I’m wondering if this was the book’s downfall. Maybe  Scattergood had these memorable experiences of her childhood that she felt would make a good story and she just tried too hard to get all the parts to fit, rather than allowing the story (and its characters) to become its own.

One perk: since Scattergood herself is a former children’s librarian, the public library plays a pivotal role in the novel and the librarian is the only one who truly sticks to her guns in terms of what is right. Obviously, I’m a fan of this.

Fine, but not fully convincing: 1 star

Children’s fiction surprising me with American history, once again.

Crow, by Barbara Wright (2012)

It’s hard to know where to start with this book. Initially, as I was reading, I was coming up with a list of complaints I had that I would share with you in this post, but by the end… most of them seemed kind of petty. The last 90 pages of Crow are extremely powerful, and I’m feeling a little overwhelmed as I write this. So to have a chance to organize my thoughts, let’s start this off with a summary, shall we?

It’s 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Moses Thomas is a smart 11-year old boy living with his mother, Sadie, who is a housemaid in the home of a rich white family (a la The Help), his father, Jackson, newspaper man at the only black daily in the state and one of 10 town aldermen, and his grandmother, Boo Nanney, a former slave who freely shares her wisdom and folk remedies with all who care to listen. Moses’ father is a big proponent of education, giving Moses “challenge words” to research in the dictionary (great language arts tie-in!) and assuring him that with hard work and commitment, Moses can achieve anything.

But as elections for the state and federal government approach, things start to heat up in Wilmington. In the years since the Civil War, Wilmington, the largest city in North Carolina, had become a black-majority community with a rising middle class and a biracial local government (as represented by fictional Jackson Thomas). The state had even elected four black Congressmen to represent them in Washington (incidentally, another African American from North Carolina was not elected to U.S. Congress again until 1992). Because of this, Moses is seemingly unaware of the kind of racism possible, until a group of White Supremacists known as the Red Shirts arrive in town to keep blacks from voting. For days, Moses and his family and friends are kept in their homes for fear of leaving. Following the election, the fear and violence escalate, and even though the Red Shirts were successful at securing an all-white representation for the state and nation, they now demand an all-white local government as well (despite the municipal elections being slated for the following year). What unfolds is bloody chaos as the Red Shirts take over and the black families struggle for safety.

According to Wright’s historical note at the end of her book and the little research I did after finishing reading, the events depicted in Crow are pretty accurate to what happened in Wilmington on the day that is now called “The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898.” Although Moses and his family are fictional, most everything else is a result of careful research. Once again (like with Fever 1793) I found myself incredibly surprised by this event in our country’s history that I had heard nothing of before, an event that was pretty crucial to the shaping of race relations in the south for most of the 20th Century. Had this coup d’etat never happened, things may have progressed in North Carolina (and the rest of the south) in the way it seemed to be shaping–with more African Americans in leadership and government positions, with a growing middle class, and with Jim Crow laws being forgotten. But instead we had a century of oppression for those who weren’t white and equality still hasn’t been fully realized.

Moses’s naive view of the world made this book a great one for those just learning about race relations in the south, I’m thinking especially for communities that are fairly homogenous and may not know racism as well as others. With Moses, the reader’s eyes are slowly opened to the injustices that have accompanied having darker skin in America.

I loved the characters Wright gradually developed, particularly Boo Nanney, Moses’s father, and Tommy, a white kid Moses befriends. This is where Wright shines.

But it’s certainly not a perfect book, so finally, back to my complaints (although they are somewhat minor in retrospect): For the first 150 pages of this book, there is no plot. It kind of reminds me of Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963, in this way, with the many chapters of plateau to a sudden climax and conclusion. But at least with Watsons, each chapter has a story of its own. In Crow, the chapters seemed to be marked somewhat haphazardly. Hit 25 pages, and we’ll throw in a new chapter heading. And they draaaaggg on. I think it would take a persistent kid to commit to this book. That being said, I think it would work great as a book read with a class, either as part of a small group reading circle or as a full class. One thing to watch out for: the n-word is used pretty heavily in the second half of the book and the violence is pretty graphic. Keep an eye out for anxious parents. And when they do come, explain to them the incredibly valuable contributions this book has to make.

2 stars

(PS: This marks my second debut for the Debut Challenge! Note: Wright is not a brand new author, but her first two books Easy Money and Plain Language are for adult audiences.)


Seeing the world from someone else’s skin…

  To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)

I. Loved. This. Book. Oh, gosh, it was so wonderful.

Most of you are probably like, Duh, Emily, it’s To Kill A Mockingbird, of course it’s wonderful. But I skipped the English course that read this book freshman year of high school, and just never got around to it. My bad.

For those of you in similar boats, do yourself a favor and go get one of the hundred copies probably at your library and check it out. But in the meantime, here’s a quick summary:

Scout and Jem Finch live with their lawyer father, Atticus, in small town Alabama in the 1930s. Always a tomboy, Scout spends the summers playing with Brother Jem and their quirky friend Dill. One of their favorite games (much to their father’s disappointment) is trying to make Boo Radley, the town recluse, come out of his house. Meanwhile, Atticus is busy preparing to represent Tom Robinson, a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. Although Atticus is normally a well-respected member of society, his decision to represent Tom leads to rumbling among the townsfolk and taunts toward Scout and Jem from the local kids. The reader gets to watch the case unfold and the reactions from the racist village from Scout’s point of view, giving a fresh, innocent, often humorous perspective to the well-known struggle between black and white in our county’s history.

It’s nearly impossible to read this and not wish you were able to share the porch swing with young Scout, watching the fireflies, kicking your dusty bare feet, and contemplating the wild wonders of the world around you.

Charming & challenging…three stars.