Recently I participated in a panel put on by RART (Readers’ Advisory Round Table,) called RE & RA: Racial Equity and Readers’ Advisory. These are the books I talked about. Astute readers might notice that a few of them are slightly modified versions of reviews I’ve previously published here, while others are new.
The Gaither sisters, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, live with their father and grandmother in Brooklyn, and have ever since their mother walked out shortly after Fern was born. Suddenly, Cecile takes an interest in her children, and the girls spend the summer of 1968 with their mother in Oakland, California. Instead of trips to Disney Land and the beach, however, they spend every day at a summer camp run by the Black Panthers. While the girls initially balk at this, they come to cherish their one crazy summer.
The following school year has more changes afoot for the girls. Their Uncle Darnell returns from the war in Vietnam a completely different man than when he left; their father is dating; their grandmother refuses to let them dress like all of their friends; and the Jackson Five are coming to Madison Square Garden. Sometimes it’s hard for Delphine to remember to just be eleven.
The summer of 1969 sees the Gaither sisters off to Alabama to visit their grandmother and her family. The girls learn about their own complicated family history, and get up to a surprising amount of mischief. But when tragedy strikes, the girls learn that some bonds run deeper than expected, and family will always be there for family, even if they have gone crazy in Alabama.
Hà and her family live in Saigon. But because her father is a soldier for the South Vietnamese army, and has been missing in action for nine years, when Saigon falls, Hà and her mother and brothers are forced to flee. They end up in Alabama, sponsored by a local family. Each member of the family finds life in America difficult to adjust to, each for individual reasons. This novel in verse is inspired by the author’s experiences as a child.
Mai lives with her parents in California, a thoroughly modern girl. But instead of having the summer on the beach with her friends that she dreamed of, Mai is forced to go to Vietnam with her father and grandmother, to search for her grandfather who disappeared during THE WAR. Mai’s parents seem to think that this trip will help their daughter get in touch with her roots, while Mai knows it is just going to be a colossal waste of time. But as she learns to listen, slowly, Mai discovers a lot about herself, her family, and her past. And comes to realize that perhaps her grandmother’s quest isn’t such a waste after all.
Jackson Greene has turned over a new leaf, but no one will believe him. While he may be famous for the Shakedown at Shimmering Hills, the Blitz at the Fitz, and the unfortunate Mid-Day PDA, he’s gone straight. No more cons, no more schemes, nothing. It may be tough (and boring) toeing the line, but Jackson is determined to do it. But when notorious bully Keith Sinclair announces that he’s running for school president against Jackson’s former best friend Gaby de la Cruz, Jackson knows he has to do something. Because there is simply no way that Keith will run a clean campaign. So Jackson assembles a crack team to run the biggest con of his life: THE GREAT GREENE HEIST.
Josh and Jordan Bell are twins, almost thirteen. They are both on their school’s basketball team, and together they are the two best players on the team. But while they may seem to be interchangeable, they are not. Josh is intensely focused on basketball and school, while Jordan is starting to notice other things–namely, girls. And this drives a wedge between the two formerly inseparable brothers. But sometimes life intervenes in unexpected ways, and then you learn what really matters.
Seventeen-year-old Chinese-American Samantha is on the run from the law after killing a man who tried to rape her, but she manages to escape with the help of Annemarie, a slave. Determined to head west and start a new life, the girls quickly realize that they will attract far too much attention on the Oregon Trail, and disguise themselves as boys. “Sammy” and “Andy” fall in with a group of young cowboys who take the two youngsters under their wing—but how long can the deception be maintained, and at what cost?
Ida Mae Jones wants to get her pilot license now that she has finished high school, but because she is a girl it is proving difficult; because she is African-American it is proving impossible. After the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, the US Air Force begins the Women Air Force Service Pilots program (WASP) to free up men for combat. Ida Mae is light-skinned enough to pass as white and enroll in the WASP, but her joy at finally being able to do what she loves battles with her shame and anger at having to hide who she is.
Theo is well on her way to becoming a professional ballerina; school and friends and her health are all going as well as can be expected, when suddenly the unthinkable happens: Theo’s best friend Donovan suddenly reappears after being abducted four years earlier. Now Theo has to decide whether or not to reveal her unwitting role in Donovan’s disappearance—which could very well risk everything she has worked for her entire life. But sometimes doing what is right is more important than doing what is easy, and Theo struggles with what choice to make.
Gabi Hernandez is about to start her senior year of high school, and uses her diary to record her thoughts about everything going on in her life. And there is a lot going on. In addition to all of the normal school things (grades, boys, college applications, and so on), Gabi is also dealing with one of her best friends coming out as gay, her father’s addition to meth, and more than one unexpected pregnancy in her circle of friends. Despite all of the trappings of what could be considered a “problem novel,” this is a true-to-life portrait of a modern teenager, and a joy to read.
Married as a child bride and then whisked away to live in her husband’s haweli with only her grandmother for company, Mili Rathod has done everything she can to make herself into a model modern wife—all in the hopes that someday her husband will come claim her as his own. When Mili is offered the chance to go to the US for graduate school, she takes it. Unbeknownst to Mili, her husband wants to dissolve the marriage, and sends his brother Samir to Michigan to track Mili down and make her sign the necessary documents. But much to Samir’s surprise, the woman he encounters is neither a simple village naïf nor a cunning gold-digger, and he soon becomes caught up in Mili’s life. Will everyone be able to secure a happy ending?
The book opens with Claire running away on the evening of her seventh birthday. As her distraught father searches for her, we travel back in time to examine the lives of several residents of Ville Rose in Haiti. Only as the story slowly progresses do we understand how the seemingly unconnected people and events come together to bring us back to the starting point; some connections are obvious, while some have to be teased out slowly. The book closes where we began, with Claire running away. Nothing was resolved, nothing even really happened, but the story was told in such gorgeous and luminous language that it’s clear that the journey itself was the most important thing that we experienced.
Oscar Wao is a fat ghetto nerd who can’t get laid. His older sister Lola rebels at every turn. Their mother Beli had to flee the Dominican Republic after a disastrous love affair when she was only 16. Their grandfather ran afoul of Trujillo and ended up in a prison camp. The family is cursed by a powerful fukú that follows them from generation to generation, ruining lives completely and utterly. But despite this they persevere. For a while it looks like Oscar and Lola have broken free of the curse, even though their lives are difficult and complicated and messy. When the fukú finally strikes, it does so with terrible consequences. There is a lot that happens in this book, it’s fast-paced, brutal, and graphic both in terms of language and violence, yet it also has passages of great beauty.
A funny book about John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, an event credited as being an impetus to the American Civil War? Well, yes, actually. Very funny, until you realize that there are also quite a few uncomfortable and ugly truths being exposed by the humor. Henry Shackleford may only be 12 (or possibly 14), and mistaken for a girl at that, but he observes with a sharp eye, and has an even sharper voice. It’s a tragedy told as low comedy–you know that it’s going to end badly for pretty much everyone involved, but you have to go on the journey with them because it’s such a good ride to get there.