Friday, April 20, 2018

Shelf Awareness--Dread Nation

YA Review: Dread Nation

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (Balzer & Bray, $17.99, hardcover, 464p., ages 14-up, 9780062570604)

Life would have been very different for Jane McKeene if the dead hadn't "rose up and started to walk" in Gettysburg two days after she was born. As a black child born to "the richest white woman in Haller County, Kentucky," Jane might have become a "proper house girl" or even "taken Aunt Aggie's place as House Negro." Instead, now 17-year-old Jane attends Miss Preston's School of Combat for Negro Girls, located just outside of Baltimore. She and her classmates learn the fine art of killing the undead ("shamblers") who have terrorized the country since the end of the War Between the States. Jane's education at Miss Preston's is important: a trained student from Miss Preston's may be hired as an Attendant to a fashionable white woman. As an Attendant, Jane will keep "her charge from being killed by the dead, and her virtue from being compromised by potential suitors." The War may be over, but the popular Survivalist Party freely compares black people with "apes" and "livestock" while it focuses on "securing the safety of white Christian men and women" and restoring the nation to "its former glory."

When sweet-talking, also multiracial ex-beau Jackson Keats asks Jane to help him find his missing sister, Jane sneaks out of school accompanied by her "passing light" classmate and nemesis, Katherine Deveraux. In their search, the two girls and Jackson find themselves swept up in a plot wherein white families and Attendants are going missing. Witty and subversive, Ireland deftly tackles important issues from our nation's past and present. Themes of racism, power and humanity are blended into this action-packed adventure with a cast of well-developed characters who practically jump off the page. A neat conclusion ties up most plot points, but readers will hope for a sequel. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Since the onset of the undead plague, black and indigenous peoples are being trained to protect white Christians who are struggling to re-impose pre-Civil War values on the nation.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

April Recommendations


In BLOOD WATER PAINT, by Joy McCullough, seventeen-year-old painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, works as her father’s apprentice in 17th-century Rome, where women are merely "beauty/ for consumption.” When she’s raped by the man giving her art lessons, she immediately understands: "He is teacher, I am student,/ man and girl/ power, nothing…." Artemisia brings charges against her rapist even though she knows it's unlikely she will win. This is historical fiction about an iconic painter, based on transcripts from her trial. Told in luminous verse, it tackles issues of gender and power in a way that is relevant today. (YA)

In DREAD NATION, by Justina Ireland, life would have been very different for Jane McKeene if the dead hadn’t “started to walk” in Gettysburg two days after she was born. Jane, aged seventeen, attends Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls just outside Baltimore, where she learns the fine art of killing “shamblers” who have terrorized the country since the War Between the States. When Jane, along with ex-beau Jackson Keats and fellow student (and nemesis) Katherine Deveraux, stumbles upon a plot that has white families and their black Attendants going missing, the trio find themselves captured and loaded aboard a train bound for a Survivalist compound in Kansas. There, they encounter a society based on the message of “securing the safety of white Christian men and women,” and restoring the nation to “its former glory.” Witty, subversive, and full of action, this is another story about power--and lack of it —that should be relevant to readers today. Great characters. I’m hoping for a sequel! (YA)

TESS OF THE ROAD, by Rachel Hartman, is the first in a fantasy duology by the author of Seraphina and Shadow Scale. When high-spirited Tess Dombegh is six, her energetic attempts to discover "the mystical origins of babies" disappoint her devout mama, and Tess realizes that she'll have to work much harder than her twin sister, Jeanne, to make it into heaven. Ten years later, Tess is a lady-in-waiting at court. She has the "whiff of scandal" about her, so it's up to sweet, virtuous Jeanne to marry and save the family from poverty. When eligible Lord Richard proposes to Jeanne, Tess dares to hope that she might finally be free to pursue her own interests, but after making a horrible, drunken mess of Jeanne's wedding, a convent becomes Tess's only apparent option. That is, until Tess is gifted with a pair of fine leather boots that "[seem] to be a suggestion” and she runs off to a distant city to make a new start as a seamstress. She meets up with her old best friend, the "lizardy" quigutl (a subspecies of dragon) named Pathka, who is on a journey of his own. This is the same world as the Seraphina books, but this time we get to know the unquenchable Tess, whose life has so far been constrained by shame and the medieval expectations of others. Three thumbs up! (YA)

Picture Books:

With delightful illustrations, rhythm, rhyme, and lots and lots of onomatopoeia, WATERSONG, written by Tim McCanna, illustrated by Richard Smythe, follows one fox through a rainstorm and out the other side. Really fun to read aloud!

Poems by Nikki Giovanni, art by Ashely Bryan, what more can I say? I AM LOVED will “lyric you in lilacs” as you feast on its sumptuous spread.

THE FISH AND THE CAT, by Marianne Dubuc, is a wordless picture book, featuring an undaunted cat chasing an elusive fish through water, air, and outer space. Dubuc’s appealingly stylized art perfectly captures the nature of her cat (while her fish defies categorization!) in this unhurried pursuit through realms of imagination. Quirky with plenty of charm.


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Shelf Awareness--The Heart Forger

YA Review: The Heart Forger

The Heart Forger by Rin Chupeco (Sourcebooks Fire, $17.99 hardcover, 528p., ages 14-up, 9781492635857)

By the conclusion of The Bone Witch, Tea had tamed the monstrous, three-headed dragon-like daeva known as the azi and led the capture of one of the Faceless, Aenah, a bone witch turned fully to the Dark. In the story's alternate thread, which features an older, wiser Tea preparing to take revenge on those who have wronged her, she raised her lover from the dead to become one of her familiars.

In this second installment of the series, Tea and her brother Fox (her first familiar) visit the kingdom of Odalia to search for her mentor Mykaela's heartsglass. Like all the children in Odalia, on Mykaela's 13th birthday, her emotional core was spelled into a magical case to keep it safe from treachery and heartache. Years ago, the adult Mykaela foolishly gave her heart (and heartsglass) to King Vanor, knowing that if he rejected her but kept the heartsglass, she would die. Even though Tea is an extremely powerful necromancer, she cannot compel the dead King Vanor to reveal where he hid Mykkie's glass. And, as she works to save her mentor, Tea finds herself fearful of her own growing abilities, worried she may, like Aenah, come to "crave... the Dark beyond her own limits." When the prince of Odalia falls victim to a sleeping disease, Tea begins yet another hopefully heroic journey to find a cure. Meanwhile, in the alternate thread, future-Tea invades the kingdom of Daanoris, bent on harming old enemies, Faceless and royal alike.

Chupeco has crafted a glorious world for her twisting, turning plot, rich with magic, exotic beasts, romance and treachery. The alternating narratives are masterfully designed, drawing readers ever closer to their inevitable convergence. A mesmerizing tale, this sequel is even stronger than its precursor. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: In this sequel to The Bone Witch, Tea struggles to keep the eight kingdoms safe from monstrous daevas as well as from the dangerous Faceless Dark asha who seek power and immortality.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Shelf Awareness--Tyler Johnson Was Here

YA Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here

Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles (Little, Brown, $17.99 hardcover, 304p., ages 14-up, 9780316440776)

Home for 17-year-old Marvin Johnson and his twin brother, Tyler, is Sterling Point, a "hood" defined by "[s]treetlights smoldering in a fog of cannabis smoke, potholes mazing the roads, gravel driveways, and garden gnomes with bullet holes." But, for Marvin, "the ugliness... is its own kind of beautiful. So, [he's] learned to embrace it." In reality, he has no choice. His mother struggles to support the three of them, while his father, wrongly accused of a crime, is in jail. And now Tyler is hanging around with Johntae, a "notorious drug dealer," bully and gang member, looking for a way to help pay the bills and send Marvin to college.

Marvin's excellent grades and test scores lead him to believe he can get out. He sits through honors classes "meant for the white folks" in hopes of making it into MIT. He and his best friends, Ivy and G-mo, are "high ability geeks" who don't want any trouble. But, recently, violence has come to the neighborhood, with police beating and shooting unarmed young black men, accusing them of crimes they didn't commit.

When Marvin and his friends go to one of Johntae's parties to keep an eye on Tyler, it's broken up by gunshots and Tyler goes missing. He's later found dead, and in the aftermath, Marvin himself feels like he'll "f*cking die from brokenness and rage." Suddenly, MIT doesn't seem like a chance he deserves--it's more important that he do something to stop the hateful, racist messages popping up on social media in response to Tyler's death. Uncompromising and intense, this heart-wrenching novel sends out an anguished cry for justice to all who are willing to hear. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: 17-year-old Marvin Johnson's world falls apart when his twin brother gets involved with a drug dealer and then disappears.

Monday, April 2, 2018

April's Book of the Month--Far From The Tree

April’s Book of the Month is the recent National Book Award winner, FAR FROM THE TREE, by Robin Benway. This heartfelt homage to the wonderful messiness of families follows three teenagers, all with the same birth mother, as they meet at particularly crucial points in all of their lives.

Adopted sixteen-year-old Grace has just had a baby. She’s devastated, but she knows she must put her own daughter up for adoption, too. After hunting obsessively for the perfect parents for “Peach,” she realizes she needs to find her birth mother, "a woman who had maybe hurt (and maybe was still hurting) like Grace was hurting now.” She talks to her parents and finds out, although she has grown up an only child, she has biological siblings. Two of them, in fact, and one, a girl, lives only twenty minutes away.

 Maya is younger than Grace, even while she’s the older sister in her adoptive family. Though much loved, she and Lauren (biological daughter, conceived soon after Maya was brought home) have been watching their parents' marriage implode for years, helped along by their mother’s escalating drinking. The girls find her passed out in the bathroom shortly after their dad finally moves into his own apartment. She’s sent to rehab, and mostly absent during a time when Maya could really use a mom around.

Older brother Joaquin is the only one of the three who has not been adopted. He’s gone through the foster care system and it's left him with plenty of scars. Right now, he’s living with a great couple now who really seem to want to adopt him, but Joaquin can’t afford to let himself believe it will work out. When Grace brings the three of them together, they embark on an emotional journey to find themselves and, in the process, they find the meaning of family.

At times funny, at times heartbreaking, FAR FROM THE TREE digs deeply into many kinds of family bonds on its way to a satisfying conclusion.


Thursday, March 15, 2018

March Recommendations


YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR, by Mitali Perkins, is a multigenerational story beginning with two sisters, Sonia and Tara Das, who move from London to New York with their family. Their Bengali traditions and people’s expectations make it difficult for them to fit in. The story follows as they grow into themselves and fall in love, and then follows their children as they do the same. It’s in these later chapters that we actually learn more about the girls mother, through the eyes of her grandchildren. It’s a lovely look at the way one family thrives while balancing the old and the new. (YA)

TEMPESTS AND SLAUGHTER, by Tamora Pierce, is the first book in The Numair Chronicles. It begins the origin story of a powerful mage who previously appeared in Pierce’s Wild Magic (of The Immortals series). Ten-year-old Arram Draper is a talented student at the Imperial University’s School for Mages. He’s been moved ahead two terms, but he’s still bored. Until the day he taps into “the strange shove of power” within, loses control of his Gift, and nearly drowns his entire class. Together with “leftover prince” Ozorne Tasikhe, and Varice Kingsford, the three friends are seen as “the most rapidly advancing students in the Lower Academy,” brought together by “[s]ome special thread.” Pierce is a wonderful writer. (YA)

In THE CRUEL PRINCE, by Holly Black, when a tall stranger mysteriously appears in the home of seven-year-old twins Jude and Taryn, "as if stepping between one shadow and the next," he proceeds to murder their parents right in front of them. Then he whisks away the twins and their older half-fey sister, Vivi, to live with him in Faerie. Now seventeen, Jude knows that life as a mortal in Faerie will never be easy. When she’s recruited to spy for Prince Dain, she takes the opportunity to prove herself and is drawn into dangerous games of power and intrigue. Fabulous, fabulous fantasy!!!! (YA)

Picture Books:

WHEN I AM BIG, by Maria Dek, is a beautifully illustrated counting book. From the beginning, where the narrator will be "really big, like 1 big giant!” all the way up to the lovely finish for the number 25, this book perfectly channels the magic of a child’s imagination. Gorgeous color, design, and whimsy from the creator of A Walk in the Forest.

OWL BAT BAT OWL, by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, is a wordless picture book showing how Mama Owl worries for her babies when a bat family moves into their tree. The babies want to play. And then it gets windy… A sweet reminder not to prejudge others, and a good example of how to write an engaging book that’s got a message.

WHY AM I ME? with words by Paige Britt and pictures by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, is an expressive, child-friendly meditation on what makes us who we are. With questions like “Why am I me…and not you?” and “If I were someone else, who would I be?” this stunning book, illustrated with acrylic paint, colored pencil, and collage, will have readers wondering, too.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

Shelf Awareness--Blood Water Paint

YA Review: Blood Water Paint

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough (Dutton, $17.99 hardcover, 304p., ages 14-up, 9780735232112)

Seventeen-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi lives for the moments when she connects "the brush to the paint to [her] breath to the canvas." Her father, Orazio Gentileschi, is a professional painter of "mediocre" talent. Artemisia labors as his apprentice, touching up his commissions with "strokes/of [her] own choosing," while always striving to better her craft. It's Artemisia's skill that brings in the clients who pay for their bread, but she's virtually invisible, as Orazio Gentileschi, rather than Artemisia, signs the finished art. "

In this "world of men"--17th-century Rome--women are merely "beauty/ for consumption." So when Agostino Tassi, who's been engaged to give her art lessons, actually seems interested in Artemisia's skill, she's easily smitten. All too soon, though, "Tino" shows his real interest is in taking Artemisia for his mistress. Devastated, the girl spurns him, and Tassi rapes her: "I've no authority," the fictional Artemisia recounts, "He is teacher, I am student,/ man and girl/ power, nothing..../ The sudden realization/ of what's going to happen next/ descends."

The real Artemisia brought charges against Agostino Tassi, even though she knew it was unlikely she would win. This piece of historical fiction, told in luminous verse and based on transcripts from that trial, tackles issues of gender and power in a way that is relevant today. In the novel, Artemisia's mother, before her death, told her daughter stories of two women, Susanna and Judith, who triumphed over the monumental injustices they faced because of their gender. Susanna and Judith serve as Artemisia's spiritual mentors, and from them she draws strength to paint her own path. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI."

Discover: Seventeen-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi struggles to make her way as a woman and a painter in a time where women are seen as little more than property.