Censoring Empathy: Let’s Challenge Erasure

Recent History of YA Book Debates

Back in 2011, writing for the Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Guerdon began a heated debate over whether young adult literature was too dark and explicit. Seen simplistically, YA fiction represented either a bastion against censorship or a destroyer of adolescents, who could otherwise avoid foul language, absent parents, molestation, or suicide.

Today’s Censorship Erases Reality

That debate was a tiff compared to today’s battle over teen books, with book censorship having reached the national stage. While earlier censors may have feared the violence of The Hunger Games, today’s censors want to erase reality. Sexuality, sexual abuse, STDs, race, oppression, and slavery are verboten. Parents can search school library catalogs for words such as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ (as one Spotsylvania County parent did), and demand removal of titles they are completely unfamiliar with.

As a former high school teacher librarian, I find this brave new world alarming. Speaking to the Tennessee House of Representatives, country music star John Rich compared school librarians to pedophiles for including “obscene books” in their collections. The state of Virginia encourages informants to call a tip line to report teachers whose materials are “divisive.” Texas, under the supervision of state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), chairman of the House General Investigating Committee, has created a list of over 800 suspect books. 

How to Erase Reality

The Washington Post finds the Texas list “anything but painstakingly curated. It’s as if someone typed in the keywords ‘Black,’ ‘racism,’ ‘LGBT,’ ‘gender’ and ‘transgender’ and simply poured the results into a spreadsheet.” I’m guessing “sex” was included in the keywords since Everything You Need to Know about Going to the Gynecologist is on the list. In fact, many Need to Know books are suspect: About Teen Pregnancy, About Teen Motherhood, About Growing Up Male or Female

And yet, the Everything You Need to Know series is widely available in middle and high school libraries. Teacher librarians purchase these titles because they are ‘hi-low.’ Highly informative and engaging, but written at a level that almost all students will comprehend. 

Erasing the “Other”

Book censorship is far more threatening than it was ten years ago because it erases anyone who doesn’t look or think like the censor. Right now many teens who are stigmatized won’t find books validating their experiences. This matters. As the character of C.S. Lewis says in William Nicholson’s “Shadowlands,” “We read to know we are not alone.” Silencing diverse stories segues into an effort to protect teens from uncomfortable narratives. A parent’s objection to the assignment of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” in an AP literature class made me wonder: When should students study difficult subjects? The goal of AP classes, after all, is to earn college credit. 

A Random Look at My Recent Reading

I recently tried a random experiment using two YA novels I’d read this summer, books I recommend to teens. Do they offend the censors? Are they on the suspect book list? They are certainly in school libraries. Teacher librarians seek recommendations from professional review journals such as Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal prior to making purchases. Both books were positively reviewed. (Despite hysterical accusations, there’s little chance of actual obscene materials landing in the collection.) 

The End of Our Story by Meg Haston deals with the break up of a first love. But it also delves into family secrets, domestic violence, teen sexuality and profanity. The End generates lots of discomfort. It also creates empathy, an understanding that anyone may be fighting a secret, difficult battle. 

Published in 2017, The End deals with topics censors now rally against. Yet I didn’t find it on Texas’ list of suspect books. I’m guessing that’s because it can’t be found in a search using the keywords listed above. Significantly, the characters are White.

Kirkus, a well-regarded review journal, called Bitter (2022) by Akwaeke Emezi “A compact, urgent, and divine novel.” The protagonist studies at a school for creatives. Through her artwork, she joins students from a nearby school to protest social injustice. In doing so, she unleashes an avenging angel who causes damage and death.

The characters in Bitter are, generally, Black and queer. Their desire for social justice serves as an entry to discussion about the subject. Bitter also engenders conversation about the role of creatives and their contributions to society, a discussion that is anathema to censors. It would be a great teen book club choice. It’s a recently published prequel to Pet, which is on Texas’ list of suspect books. If the list is updated in the future, I know where Bitter will land.

Why We Need Books that Challenge Us

Access to such novels provides teens the opportunity to develop a trifecta of life skills: compassion, imaginative thinking, and the ability to analyze and evaluate ideas. As Barbara Kingsolver noted, “Fiction has a unique capacity to bring difficult issues to a broad readership . . ., creating empathy in a reader’s heart for the theoretical stranger. Its capacity for invoking moral and social responsibility is enormous.”

A vocal minority can keep marginalized students from books that validate their lives. The same minority can keep all teens from accessing works that empathize with historically underrepresented people. As a parent who raised thoughtful readers, I can’t imagine allowing other parents to make that choice. 

Anti-censorship parent groups are forming, a positive development. Yet, as if it were a meaningful way to fight back, many people have taken to their social media accounts to make two suggestions: take the books that are removed from school libraries and put them in the public library; and build a little box library in your yard and stock it with forbidden books. Neither of these is a good solution.

Many students, particularly those with few resources, can’t get to their public library, which may not be within walking distance of their home. The school library meets its patrons where they’re at. And little yard libraries, while often very cute, quickly become tiny storage facilities for neighborhood book discards. The school library has thousands of books on hundreds of subjects, and is regularly weeded and updated. It also has, importantly, one or more employees who are dedicated to providing service to the school population. If equity matters to you, fight like hell for the school library and its staff.

A Challenge for You

As the school year begins, encourage any teens you know to read widely. To read wildly! Tell them to introduce themselves to their school librarians. Teacher librarians are a great resource for readers’ advisory. They welcome all and relish getting the right book into the right hands at the right time. 

Posted in "Banned Book", Controversial Issue/Debate, Fiction, Human Rights Issues, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Small Town Monsters: Book Review

Image of the book cover for "Small Town Monsters."
Small Town Monsters by Diana Rodriguez Wallach

A Small Town, Some Monsters, and Messy Families

Small Town Monsters takes place in the fictional town of Roaring Creek. Vera Martinez, rising high school senior, is a lifelong outcast because her parents are demonologists, who work with the Church (Catholic) to hunt down and nullify evil beings. Unlike her parents, Vera appears to have no special skills in fighting the supernatural dark forces. However, when Maxwell (Max) Oliver’s mom starts behaving in a truly bizarre way, he knows he needs help and, afraid to go to the authorities because they will remove him and his little sister Chloe into foster care, he asks Vera. 

Enemies to Romantic Interest

The pair soon find links between past tragedies in the small town, including a hurricane and a gas explosion which killed seventeen people including Max’s dad, and what appears to be a new age cult that has brought many of the town’s citizens under its spell.

Cults, Demons, Suspense, and Bonus Fun Language

I’ve just written a YA book about a girl trying to escape a cult and am soon to start work on a novel with supernatural forces. So, when I saw a description of Small Town Monsters, I thought it would be the perfect read for me right now. I was right. The characters are well drawn, the pace kept me in suspense, and the writing was a lot of fun. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but here are a few images/metaphors I liked:

Her aunt is like Mary Poppins with a spoonful of religion.

Joan of Arc at the stake couldn’t have sounded like she was in more pain.

Her hair was the color of hamburger.

Hits All the Tropes

Small Town Monsters is a thoroughly enjoyable book for anyone seeking YA. It’s well paced, engages us with the fight against demons, and has a teen girl coming into her powers against evil. It has all the usual fun as well, particularly the requisite outcast girl and the cool boy falling for her. 

If you’re looking for the spooky stuff, give it a try! 

Posted in Family Problems, Fiction, Grief, Horror/Mystery/Suspense, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Serious Summer Reading

Note: I wrote this for my author website, but am adding it here because many of the books are YA or great for high school aged teens.

When we think of summer reading, we think ‘beach reads,’ books we can’t put down that provide an escape from reality. But in these longer summer days, we may find ourselves with time to tackle a goal that eluded us during the busy months of the academic year: reading intellectually stimulating books that engage with reality rather than run from it. However, out in the sunshine, a lengthy classic tome is more than we want. Here’s the solution to the dilemma: A ‘Serious Summer Reading’ list. 

Like beach reads, the books have narrative momentum, an engaging plot, and brevity. In addition, to deserve the designation of ‘serious,’ titles include at least one classic element—dazzling language, a puzzle to ponder, psychological depth, or thoughtful engagement with social issues. A shorter version of this post is in Southern California News Group’s newspapers. If you happen to have arrived here via that article and want to skip to the additional titles, I am using bold print for the titles of the books that were not included in the article.

You Should have Read it in High School

If you relied on Spark Notes in your youth, four short, engaging classics with thematic connections to our era are The Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and My Antonia. When my writing workshop fellows read the rough version of this article, they added to the above suggestions: The Call of the Wild by Jack London, The Trojan War by Olivia Coolidge, and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

Classically Diverse

A wonderful novella from the same time period as The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises has recently come to my attention. Passing by Nella Larsen is a great selection for high school reading and for adults as well. Protagonist Irene Redfield is a Black woman who passes as white when it is convenient (shopping, restaurants), but who lives in a Harlem townhouse with her physician husband and two sons. (She has a maid and a cook and a wide social circle in the community.) While visiting Chicago, she runs into Clare Kendry, whom she knew in childhood, but finds untrustworthy. Clare is passing for white and is married to a wealthy white businessman who doesn’t know her secret. She misses terribly the sense of belonging and kinship she had in the Black community and wants Irene to include her in social gatherings. Though Irene tries to rebuff Clare’s overtures, she finds herself more and more enmeshed in Clare’s life and deceptions. This is a tightly-paced little book about the color line and a tragic pair of frenemies. I learned about it in this article in Electric Literature, which has links to more in-depth discussions of the book and its author. After I read that Larsen was the first professionally-trained Black librarian, I looked for Passing and found that Audible offers a free audio version to subscribers. So if that’s you and you want to listen, grab it.

Short Historical Fiction

I’m going to stick with the YA here because lots of adults enjoy it. If you want to learn about history, but find historical novels quite long, read books by Ruta Sepetys. She tackles periods you don’t always find. While the protagonists are teens, adults are very much a part of the story. Between Shades of Gray is about Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1940s and includes life in a Siberia labor camp. I wrote a full review here. A new Sepetys novel I just finished reading is I Must Betray You, which takes on Romania in 1989, under the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. It’s about living in a environment where one can’t trust anyone, spies are everywhere, and defying the state is a torture or death sentence. But it’s also about the resiliency of the human spirit and the fight for freedom. 

Creep Factor

In a New York Times interview, Dan Chaon said, “Personally, I love writers who just don’t care what you think about them, and they don’t necessarily want to be ‘good for you.’ For me, a ‘guilty pleasure’ is a work that’s transgressive enough that you may think twice before recommending it to just anybody.” So, I thought twice, and now I’m recommending Rotters by Daniel Kraus to you. Chaon describes it as “the most out-of-control Y.A. book I’ve ever read.”  I reviewed it here if you’d like to see what you’re getting into.

Get with the Program

For the newspaper version of this list, I left off  Neil Gaiman because he is so omnipresent in media–children’s, YA, and adult novels, graphic novels, movies and television–that I’m pretty sure every reader has some familiarity with him (and the article had to be short). However, if you’ve just returned from your trip to Mars and need a quick introduction to the beauty of his writing, here’s your summer novel. While it’s marketed as adult fiction, it’s perfect for YA as well. My review of it begins: “The narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is back in Sussex, England to attend a funeral. He is drawn to the farmhouse at end of the lane through his memory of the girl who once lived there, Lettie Hempstock. As he stakes out a spot near the duck pond, he remembers that Lettie once called this an ocean. Through memory, he dives in, and takes the reader through its magical and metaphoric depths. //And while magic is afoot, a great deal of it is pure evil. That is, from the narrator’s point of view. Lettie dismisses monsters as creatures who just do what they were created to do. But what they were created to do is deadly business.” Find the entire review here.

It’s a Mystery

Consider tackling the entire Sherlock Holmes collection. As a friend reminded me, “Each book is short enough for the summer attention span, but the collection can take you from Memorial Day to Labor Day.” And if you’ve never read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, summer is the time to do it. 

You’d Like to Learn Something but Need to Laugh (a lot)

Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods also fits in the ‘Vicarious Vacation’ category if you can’t get away this summer. The only nonfiction on this list, it’s a modern-day adventure classic. Bryson and a friend attempt to hike the (entire) Appalachian Trail. While you learn about human nature, hiking, and the trail, you’ll also be in stitches.

A Bit of Magic

If you enjoy fiction with supernatural elements, try Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights. While Salman Rushdie is one of the great writers of our time, the length of his masterworks may have kept you away. Two Years is a short, highly entertaining story in which a storm causes the veil between the world of the jinn and the ordinary to tear. A war between light and dark ensues, lasting a thousand and one nights. I agree with the publisher: it’s “satirical and bawdy, full of cunning and folly, rivalries and betrayals, kismet and karma, rapture and redemption.”

Classic California

Pulitzer Prize winner Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner tells the story of a nineteenth-century woman’s desperate efforts to follow her husband through his California scheming. They move through unpopulated areas as he works to develop irrigation systems and other infrastructure the state isn’t quite ready for. Through letters to her friends ‘back East,’ Susan makes apologies for her husband, laments being removed from culture and society, and longs for good books and her family. I reviewed the novel here. Note: there has been some discussion (argument?) about Stegner’s use of the source materials (plagiarism?) mentioned in my review. For a recent discussion of this, see “Wallace Stegner and the Trap of Using Other People’s Writing” in the New Yorker.

Short Novel by Famously Talented but Famously Long-winded Writer

Haruki Murakami has written several novels approaching a thousand pages. For a shorter summer read, try Norwegian Wood. Two college students in Tokyo are haunted by the death of their best friend years before. College life marks their differences with Tori acclimating and Naoko withdrawing into her shell. Tori is drawn to a woman who expresses the independence and sexual liberation of the 1960s. So—romantic coming of age, but there’s also that Beatles thing. 😉

Mythology Reimagined

Modernist takes on classical Greek myths are pretty hot right now, and so they’re pretty easy to find. Circe by Madeline Miller is a very popular one I read and think you might like for its feminist take on the goddess Circe from The Odyssey. Those guys deserved being turned into pigs. 😉

A Master Class in Fiction

I think of the slim volume Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid as a collection of linked stories rather than a novel because I first read it as a series in the “New Yorker.” Kincaid has a way of circling back to a theme repeatedly and, in doing so, presenting something entirely fresh. You will learn a bit about island life in 1950s Antigua while relating to the drama of a tightly woven mother-daughter relationship. If you’re a writer as well as a reader, you need this book. 

You Want the Challenge of Difficult Topics and You Love Dogs

In The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a woman who doesn’t care much for dogs inherits a Great Dane when her longtime friend and writing mentor dies by suicide. This is a study of loss and grief and the narrator’s first canine connection. It’s a National Book Award winner. I wrote a review here.

Underrepresented American Stories

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward narrates the trials of an impoverished Black family in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi before and during Hurricane Katrina. Winner of the National Book Award, it is a story of familial love and the struggle for survival. 

More Underrepresented American Stories

Louise Erdrich has written many short novels about Ojibwa people. The Round House is a National Book Award winner dealing with the sexual assault of a Native woman. I reviewed it here. Erdrich’s most recent novel is The Sentence, about a haunting and a reckoning in a bookshop. What’s better than that?

Astonishingly Original

Book cover of Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

In Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, Ada, born in Nigeria, develops separate selves as a result of having an Ogbanje (a godlike Igbo spirit) inside her. With “one foot on the other side,” Ada comes of age and attends college in America. The group of selves within her grows in power and agency, and their protection of her is, paradoxically, a danger. Being enthralled by this novel, I later read Emezi’s Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir about being a creative spirit in the human world. It discusses gender and the human body. Emezi also has two othe adult novels, and two YA novels, Pet and (next on my YA TBR list) Bitter.

Highly Recommended as a ‘Can’t Miss’ by Me, Your Book Talking Librarian

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund is one of the best books I’ve read in the last five years. The writing is gorgeous, the story thoroughly compelling. In rural Montana, Linda babysits regularly for her new neighbors. She has been disturbed by events at school involving her favorite teacher. Now she has a sense of belonging. But the choices she makes in the Gardner household will haunt her for the rest of her life. (I know it’s vague, but otherwise, too much of a spoiler alert. Trust me! Read it!)

Tackling Poetry for Those Unfamiliar

Yours truly at a Billy Collins book signing

If your goal is to read poetry and the reason you haven’t done so yet is that it scares you, try Mary Oliver and Billy Collins. They are two of America’s best loved poets. One reason is that their poetry is wonderful, but another is that their poetry is so accessible. It would also be fun to pick up Americans’ Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology. The book includes two hundred poems that Americans selected as their favries. There’s an introduction to each poem by someone who selected it telling why it resonated so deeply. This is a great way to see what others see in poems. You just might get hooked.

Happy summer reading!

Posted in Fiction, Grief, Human Rights Issues, Mature Readers, Non-fiction, Supernatural, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tales of an Inland Empire Girl

Image of the book cover of "Tales of an Inland Empire Girl" set against a prickly pear cactus.
Another book that reminds me of the beauty of a cactus–prickly for good reason, yet still blooming.

“I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth, the pink kind you get at Dairy Queen.” 

Adversity as Environment

Tales of an Inland Empire Girl is a memoir told in a series of snapshots of growing up in the IE in Southern California, an area that wealthier, coastal Californians often deride. It’s the story of loving but dysfunctional parents, of being one of a pair of ‘Wonder Twins’ who use their superpowers to defeat the forces of disruption and poverty. However, the author’s journey to successful lawyer and finally to punk rock deputy public defender progresses along a convoluted path, one that backtracks in her high school years.   

Much of Mantz’s memoir focuses on the obstacles she has to overcome as a child and then adolescent, so it’s a positive book for teen readers, some of whom may be contending with similar issues. Her love of punk rock helps her to get through some of her worst moments and encourages her to restart her life when it seems she will be little more than a high school dropout.

Mantz grows up in the IE city of Ontario, in the poorer south side, with an identical twin and a younger sister. Of this she says, “Ontario is known as the apex of the Inland Empire (“the IE”), which is like being called King Shit on Turd Island.”

Another image of a prickly pear cactus with the book "Tales of an Inland Empire Girl." The blossoms here are red.
Prickly pear cactus with red blossoms.

Love and Dysfunction

Her parents are hardworking, but deeply stressed. “Mom is like two different characters. If this were a fairy tale, she would play both roles, the wicked stepmother and the fairy godmother.” Her mom is frequently screaming at her kids or her husband, whom she sometimes threatens to leave. None of this is without cause. Her husband is an alcoholic. Her oldest child, a boy who was deaf, was hit by a car and killed years earlier. She works two jobs, is a waitress who is always on her feet. When she is gone, her kids, particularly the twins, create havoc. During one unsupervised afternoon, Mantz’ twin Jackie starts a fire, destroying the family’s best chair and the curtains their mother had saved for months to buy.  

The poverty in their family is intergenerational. As a child, Mantz’s father lived in an orphanage for a few years because his parents didn’t have the money to raise him. And while her parents have their own house early on, they lose it when her father makes a bad investment in a dive bar. They move into a condo from which they are later evicted.

Wonder Twins

Even in kindergarten, Mantz wants to be called Lynda, after the actress Lynda Carter, who plays Wonder Woman and is half Mexican and half white, just as Mantz is. Both she and her twin sister roleplay ‘Wonder Twins.’ As they grow into adolescence, the twin Jackie will become the fighter. And while Jackie graduates from high school, Mantz sits under the bleachers and cries. Though she had been a very good student for most of her high school career, she lost interest.

By the time Mantz is a high school upperclassmen, she has come to the conclusion that ”what Mom doesn’t understand, and will never understand, is that if life means working and fighting and hating each other and then waking up every day to do it again, I don’t want any of it. I just want to dance and listen to music and have fun. … If a ‘life’ is what my parents have, I would rather be dead.” She ditches school, goes to keg parties, throws her own keger and causes her family to be evicted again. “The worst part is I never made a conscious decision to drop out. Instead, it was just one small decision after another that added up to me becoming a dropout. … I remember Mom saying there was no money for college. I had no idea about student loans. I just gave up. … It was easier to sleep all day than trying to make my way through the darkness.”

image of a blooming prickly pear cactus
Prickly pear cactus bloom into a sort of candelabra, which makes me think of light in difficult places.

Love and Clarity

Fortunately, life is not all sad or depressing. There are good times in the Mantz family including a vacation to Flintstones Land, trips to Huntington Beach, lots of music and good books. There are also many of the kind of stories that aren’t funny at the time, but that the family can look back on and laugh about. And finally, there is Mantz’ realization that her own adult success and happiness are possible.

High School Housekeeping: Mantz went to high school at a campus where I was the teacher librarian in two stints totaling twenty-five years, so I was interested in her story. (She did not go to the school at the same time I worked there.) While this is an adult memoir (not classified as YA), so much of it is about a childhood in a loving but very dysfunctional family that it is a very good fit for teens. It’s hopeful and shows that even when one feels like a failure as a teen, a brighter future is entirely possible. I recently reviewed a chapbook Mantz wrote here. It details how she found her calling in life as a public defender and advocate for the mentally ill. 

Posted in Biography/Memoir, Family Problems, Grief, Humor, Multicultural | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Girl Made of Stars

Image of book cover of Girl Made of Stars alongside a ceramic tile with an abstract design and three votive candles.
Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake

Realistic Portrayal of Trauma

Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake is a realistic portrayal of how people react to learning about the rape of a classmate. Lately, I’ve been seeking realistic fiction dealing with teen trauma and the effect it has not only on the direct victims but on the people who love them as well. While this novel was published a few years back, I only recently found it. 

Mara narrates the story of her twin brother, Owen, being accused of rape by his girlfriend, who also happened to be one of Mara’s best friends. She wonders how it is possible that her beloved brother could do such a thing, but feels the truth of Hannah’s story. She wishes she could work through it with her ex-girlfriend, Charlie, who seems to have moved on to another relationship.

Keeping Secrets and Telling Truths

Compounding her feelings is Mara’s own trauma from an experience she has kept a secret and the fact that her mom, who is proud of her feminism and activism, automatically assumes that Hannah has made some sort of mistake in saying that Owen raped her. 

Students at the high school line up in Team Hannah or Team Owen. Hannah is the victim of slut shaming when she returns to classes. Everyone has to confront questions of sexual assault, consent, victim blaming, and betrayal by trusted adults. 

Still, Girl Made of Stars ends hopefully. And hope is another thing I’m seeking in realistic YA fiction. 

High School Housekeeping: Girl Made of Stars is a good book for high school students. The characters work through honest discussions of difficult topics. That’s something that teens need.

Posted in bullying, Family Problems, Fiction, Mature Readers, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail

Three Young Women on the John Muir Trail

As a college graduation gift to themselves, the author, Suzanne Roberts, and her friend Erika decide to hike the John Muir Trail. They cover the 211 miles from Mt. Whitney to Yosemite, a 28-day trip for the women. Roberts is struggling with her feelings about her alcoholic father and what her post-college future will bring. While thoughts on resolving these issues may have helped launch the month-long backpacking trip, I think one of the most important lessons here is Roberts’ evolving understanding of the male gaze and how powerful it is for young women to be able to move outside of it. 

Before Erika and Suzanne leave for their trip, Suzanne invites a third friend, Dionne, along. She knows that Dionne suffers with bulimia but believes the trip will help her. She doesn’t tell Erika about the issue, thinking Erika will not want Dionne (a weak link) on the trip. 

The Male Gaze

While Erika is a strong, experienced hiker, Suzanne is middling—and carrying a far too heavy backpack—while Dionne is new to the experience. The three move at varying speeds. They pack a minimum of food, not accounting for possible obstacles to their daily mileage goals, such as rain. After hiking with two men—one known and one stranger—and sharing their food with the two, the women’s rations quickly diminish. Having placed others’ needs before their own, they are completely out of food in the last days before they arrive at their food drop off. Thankfully, kind strangers give them a few meals. 

The stranger among them feels a bit scary to the author and the reader will likely find him so as he plays a game of twenty questions asking Roberts, “How would you like to die?” when they are separated from the group. She tries to think of an answer that is in no way related to ‘falling off a mountain.’ 

Friendship and Connection

The three personalities of the young women clash, and they sometimes bicker. Erika is focused and always looking to chalk up the completion of her goals. Suzanne lives more in the moment. She often writes and draws in her journal and likes to relate her experiences to those of John Muir and how he saw this wilderness. She often quotes him. Dionne is constantly contending with her bulimia and finds it easier to be on the trail, where there is no extra food, than in civilization with its temptations. 

A month of backpacking is a long time. Besides issues with food rations, the women have a few run-ins with bears, some terrible weather, and injuries ranging from foot blisters to bad knees. But they are most alive to their experiences when they manage to shuck off the males and go it alone. This is particularly important to the author who admits to always seeking male attention. (She tells some funny lies on the trail to get male approval.) 

“I felt grateful that Jesse left when he did and that we didn’t end up hiking the rest of the trail with him or even Mark. Without them we have come to rely on each other and on ourselves. Luck and circumstance provided the chance to find our ‘girl power.’ We found our connection to each other or place within the wilderness.”

“The end of our trip was in sight; the next day we would be back in the world of cars and freeways, buildings and beds. Before, I had counted the days until a shower or a chocolate shake. Now I was sad to see the end. I had proven to myself that I could do it, which meant that I would always be able to look back on this trip whenever faced with a difficult thing, no matter what it was. I would remember that if I did it yesterday, I could do it today.”

The Female Gaze

Alone, the women have intimate conversations and tell each other their truths. By the time they have been on the trail for four weeks, the author no longer worries about her appearance or her thoughts in front of men. Dionne speaks openly of her eating disorder and finds it therapeutic. Erika comes to appreciate the company of the other two. All three see their experience and the wilderness itself through the female gaze. And that is the most powerful aspect of the journey.

“The end of our trip was in sight; the next day we would be back in the world of cars and freeways, buildings and beds. Before, I had counted the days until a shower or a chocolate shake. Now I was sad to see the end. I had proven to myself that I could do it, which meant that I would always be able to look back on this trip whenever faced with a difficult thing, no matter what it was. I would remember that if I did it yesterday, I could do it today.”

The book is organized in a chapter for each day on the trail. Each begins with a quote from John Muir. The reader can see what Muir found in the wilderness and then what Roberts found. Near the end of the memoir, Roberts realizes, in Yosemite, that “love for this place” connects her to her father, who has been mapping each day of her trip. She has a new appreciation for what is good in him.

A Good Book for High School Age Girls

HIgh school housekeeping: when I was a teen, I did a lot of backpacking, including on some of the same trails Roberts discusses in Almost Somewhere. Mostly, I was with Girl Scouts, so other than a male leader, who was sometimes with us, I was beyond the male gaze. These were among the most formative experiences of my teen years. I wish every girl had such an opportunity. The physical exertion, the beauty of the natural world, the long days without meeting other people, and the ‘I-Thou’ sense of a creator and creation were all important. Roberts captures all of these beautifully in Almost Somewhere. It’s a good memoir for teen girls, those who are seeking examples of empowerment. (Side note: I have had a complaint that I recommend books for teens that are not suitable for eleven year olds. Honestly, eleven year olds are not teens. However, I will mention here that I don’t think this is a book for children because the hikers do a couple of typically adult things on the trail that speak to more mature readers. But generally they backpack, admire nature, and become strong.) 

Almost Somewhere is a good book for teen girls, a chance to see how important relying on themselves can be. A chance to see an example of young women re-forming themselves. 

Note: I’ve been working on reviewing books which school librarians would not typically see in review journals, but are good choices for teens. 

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Portrait of a Deputy Public Defender: How I Became a Punk Rock Lawyer

I’ve been reading a series of chapbooks from Bamboo Dart Press because I like the idea of quick, short form books. When I opened Portrait of a Deputy Public Defender, I had a nice surprise. The author, Juanita E. Mantz, attended a high school where I worked as the school librarian for many years (though not at the same time). Having a particular interest in Tiger alumni, I happily read about her journey from high school dropout to lawyer and advocate for the indigent and mentally ill.

From Ruin to Success

This 55-page memoir opens on graduation day, 1989. The author’s twin sister is graduating. However, Mantz is crying behind the bleachers, having gone from gifted classes, swim team, and yearbook, from “goody-two-shoes to punk rock high school dropout. It only took me months to ruin my life.”

Happily, Mantz’ life is not ruined. “I decided at that moment, under the stinky bleachers, that I wanted to live. . . . To prove myself to everyone who gave up on me. . . . I just need[ed] a plan.”

Though it takes years of hard work at jobs that keep her on her feet for long hours, Mantz eventually graduates magna cum laude in English literature from UC Riverside. From there she goes on to law school at USC.

“Ironically enough, being a high school dropout is my magic wand. My history is what makes me a great deputy public defender. I have been where my clients are, hopeless and sad. I have had no car, no money, and no hope. But I made it out.”

Post graduation, she goes into corporate law, but finds it soul sucking. She finds her life’s calling in public defense, particularly in defense of the mentally ill, who cannot negotiate the system without an advocate.

Becoming a Defense Lawyer and Finding Her Passion

“Public defense is the opposite and the antithesis of corporate law. It is fighting the powers that be for your clients in the system that is stacked against them. At times, there is too much autonomy and not enough help or oversight or resources. But if you’re a good lawyer, you make it work. If you love the underdog and a comeback story, you find your passion.“

Mantz mentions several good books about the prison system, an important one being The New Jim Crow. She gives many examples of how very ordinary youthful mistakes can move the very poor, people of color, or the mentally ill into the system permanently. She gives examples of her own youthful mistakes being forgiven. Hosting a kegger at her house when her parents are away is one. She is not punished, but is merely warned by police to behave. She reminds the reader that all drug offenses in her county used to be charged as felonies. Now, they are misdemeanors and marijuana is legal for personal use. The only thing that has changed is society’s attitude. So we need to rethink what makes a criminal.

A Life Filled with Hope

“My clients are all in dire situations, but no matter what their circumstances are, I always try and give them hope. I tell my clients what I told myself that day underneath the bleachers so long ago. 

“Tomorrow is another day. You will be OK.“

“Ironically enough, being a high school dropout is my magic wand. My history is what makes me a great deputy public defender. I have been where my clients are, hopeless and sad. I have had no car, no money, and no hope. But I made it out.”

A Good Choice for High School Readers

High school housekeeping: This little book is full of hope for teens who are not succeeding in high school. It’s a reminder that their futures are not set yet. It’s too small to shelve—it’d be lost. But it’s a great choice for a display spinner, where a student might be looking for just the right library book.

Note: I’ve been working on reviewing books which school librarians would not typically see in review journals, but are good choices for teens.

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A Face for Picasso

Image of the book cover for “A Face for Picasso”
A Face for Picasso by Ariel Henley

“People assume that because I had an unconventional appearance growing up, I did not have friends. People assume that because my eyes are crooked and far apart, I am not intelligent. People assume that because I do not meet arbitrary standards of beauty, I am not a strong, beautiful woman.”

Being Defined by a Condition

Ariel Henley (Belle to her family) and her twin sister Alixandria (Zan) are born with Crouzon syndrome, a craniofacial condition where the bones in the head don’t grow. In the preface to A Face for Picasso, Henley describes her purpose in writing her memoir:

“My story is one rooted in the idea of beauty. So to write honestly about coming of age with Crouzon syndrome, I had to write about beauty through a lens of disfigurement. As a woman, I am defined by beauty; and as a woman with a facial difference, I am also defined by my very lack of the thing. This is a lesson I began learning in childhood. It’s a lesson I want to destroy.”

Wearing a Mask

In order to survive, Ariel and Zan require multiple surgeries. The medical procedures—opening up the skull, adding bones from the hips, etc.—are painful and require a lot of recovery. Though identical at birth, the surgeries cause the twins to look less and less like one another over time. As Ariel points out, she looks less and less like herself as well, a circumstance that makes her feel her identity is being stripped. Eventually, Ariel describes her face as a mask she can’t remove.

All the while, the girls suffer the rejection and outright taunts of their peers. School is a perpetual nightmare. Though the girls have friends in the neighborhood, they both desire acceptance outside of that insular world. After being denied positions on their elementary school cheerleading squad, they cheer for another school, having found openings where conventional beauty standards are not part of the evaluation.

Bullying, Taunts, and Eating Disorders

There are times in middle school when Ariel reaches her limit with being bullied and taunted. When a classmate belonging to the same breakout group cohort continually makes comments about her appearance, Ariel finally claps back, telling him it’s no wonder his father committed suicide with a son like him.

This incident made me think of how difficult middle and high school are—how many students are consistently in survival mode and desperate for acceptance. Because of Ariel’s appearance, this situation is amplified. She gets away from school when she can, choosing homeschooling when possible. Due to her self-criticism, she ends up with an eating disorder. 

Where are the Adults?

The chapters on school also made me wonder about the unwise choices adults in the educational environment make. In one homecoming scene, the Panthers’ cheerleaders must be escorted by the football players. The boys are each to give their assigned girl a rose, link arms and walk together to their court position. The boy escorting Ariel gives her the rose, but refuses to link arms (to touch her). At the end, some boys on the team make fun of him for having any proximity to her at all. Others congratulate him as if he’s survived a trial by fire. Why do such traditions exist in the first place?

Worse are teachers who behave like children but have authority over the lives of the kids. Ariel’s wood shop teacher is a jerk. He has a reputation for liking the pretty girls, getting too close to them, touching their shoulders. (I wonder how this would play out in today’s environment?) He hates having Ariel and Zan in his class. He doesn’t grade Ariel’s work. As she is about to fail the class, her parents get involved. The teacher is so awful and dismissive of the girls during the parent conference that the parents have the girls removed from the class. When other students ask why the girls are no longer in class, the teacher tells them the girls’ appearance was too distracting to the other students and not conducive to their learning. Why are such people not fired? 

Beauty, Difference, and the Ultimate Outsider

Henley is able to prevent her story from being inspiration porn, a thing we are inundated with daily on social media. She’s not writing to make the reader judge her as a hero or (worse) to feel ‘but for the grace of God . . ..’ Her work is a serious meditation on beauty, difference, and the effects of being the ultimate outsider.

From this meditation comes the title of the book. When Ariel and Zan are nine years old, they’re interviewed for the French edition of Marie Claire Magazine. “The article didn’t mention that Zan and I were people and not a medical condition. Then, stretched across the page, in big bold letters, I saw it: ‘Their faces resembled the work of Picasso.’”

Yet one of Ariel’s favorite teachers in middle school is her art teacher, Ms. J. She challenges students to think of beauty in new ways. She imparts an important lesson: 

“Art isn’t about what you see. It’s about what you feel. I want you to show me what you feel.” (In an ironic twist, while the woodshop teacher keeps his job. Ms. J is fired for assigning too much work.) 

A Face for Picasso

Her experiences lead Ariel to study Picasso and cubism as she grows up. As the reader, we learn that Picasso was a misogynist and an extremely abusive man—physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Henley draws a line between Picasso’s images of women pulled apart and put back together and the way he pulled women apart to remake them in his own image in real life. 

A Face for Picasso is a memoir I couldn’t put down. Henley’s experience and insights are valuable not only for an adult audience, but for middle and high school students as well. While reading it, I kept thinking this would be a great book for a schoolwide read. The classroom discussions would be meaningful, perhaps incredible. 

Middle School/High School Housekeeping

I found this book through an online writers’ group. In a comment on a post, someone mentioned to me that I would enjoy reading it. Once I started, I worried that school librarians might not hear about it. I decided to write a book review to post in multiple places hoping to connect with librarians somewhere. A few days later, the book won the Schneider Family Book Award Honor Book for Teens. I looked it up and realized it is also a 2021 Booklist Editors’ Choice and a New York Public Library Best Books of 2021. So—no worries about librarians ordering this after all. But if you are one and your school is looking for a schoolwide read, have a read yourself and consider nominating A Face for Picasso. 

If you are a teen or a parent of a teen, you might not know which books win awards—and may have missed this one. Buy it. You won’t be disappointed. 

Note: While the author makes a clear distinction between her nonfiction memoir and the middle-grade novel Wonder, if you want a refresher about that novel to consider the difference, I reviewed it here

Posted in Biography/Memoir, bullying, Human Rights Issues, Over 375 pages | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Girlz ’n the Hood

Girlz ‘n the Hood: A Memoir of Mama in South Central Los Angeles by Mary Hill-Wagner

Hill-Wagner is one of eleven children who grew up with an often single mother in South Central LA. Though her mother worked as a nurse’s aide, money was tight. At times, she was unemployed and her welfare benefits didn’t stretch to the end of the month. The school-age children would bring part of their school lunches home for the younger kids to eat. Mary collected returnable RC Cola bottles to buy herself treats. And while the family gets through these hard times, more serious troubles haunt siblings who become addicted and land on the wrong side of the law. At one point, the family loses its home to fire and spends weeks homeless. However, Mary’s mother manages to keep the family together. A Jehovah’s Witness, she abides in her faith, her quick-wit, her persistence, her hard work, and a number of handy guns. (Yes, those guns really do come in handy, but no spoilers.)

With Mary Hill-Wagner at her Barnes and Noble launch event, October 2021.

We know immediately that little Mary is an incipient writer. She loves to listen to adult stories and repeatedly risks punishment in order to eavesdrop on adults. In one funny scene, she puts a glass to the door and wonders why she can’t hear the conversation on the other side since it always works in the movies. 

Girlz ‘n the Hood concludes with poignant reflections on how much is enough when one is helping family members and also trying to escape a cycle of poverty. I highly recommend it. 

High School Housekeeping: I’ve been focusing on books that teens and librarians might not otherwise know about, but that are great choices for their reading and school libraries. Girlz ’n the Hood is an adult memoir, but an excellent choice for high school readers.

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The Groveland Four

From LA Times article, November 28, 2021

An article in yesterday’s LA Times about the ‘Groveland Four’ being exonerated (they are all dead) caught my eye. I happened to have just finished reading a great book about the case: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. The article states: “Gilbert King, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 book about the case, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, attended the Monday hearing with Thurgood Marshall Jr., the son of the NAACP lawyer and future U.S. Supreme Court justice who defended Irvin during his second trial.”

Devil in the Grove is about Thurgood Marshall, pre-Brown v. Board of Education. The major action begins in 1946, when Black veterans, having come home from fighting in WW II, were beaten in the streets if they dared wear their uniforms. The book has a lot of background on various work the NAACP was doing at the time, particularly research for equity and integration in schools. However, as indicated in the title, its main subject is the work of Marshall and others in a Groveland, FL case of rape accusation, an accusation against four Black men that was clearly false. A case that had all the elements of systemic racism, corruption, lying, and cheating that you could imagine. Every single one in a single case. The corrupt, murderous (and likely criminally involved in a gambling ring) Sheriff McCall feels like a caricature, and, yet, he is all too real. 

I didn’t start this on purpose thinking of the current trials—the Rittenhouse shame and the Arbery case. It’s an audiobook I bought quite a while ago and forgot I had. (I buy a lot more books than I can read and sometimes find titles in my own personal backlist.)  I found it when I was searching ‘unread titles’ on Audible. But the Rittenhouse case and the Arbery murders were being conducted as I went through the book. That this particular case took place in 1949 is relevant now. Sadly, there are moments when I was thinking “seventy-five years ago or today?” 

As it won the Pulitzer Prize, it’s probably evident that this is a great book. But now is a particularly consequential moment to read it as much of the subject matter plays out in our national news and is debated in our legislative bodies. The reader also learns about heroic people who are not as well known as Thurgood Marshall. The story of Harry T. Moore, executive director of the Florida NAACP, is particularly tragic. When he calls for the arrest of Sheriff McCall for the murder of one of the Groveland Four, his house is firebombed by (never found) KKK members on Christmas Night 1951. 

High School Housekeeping: Devil in the Grove is an important book because it tells the story of a representative injustice, one not taught or discussed in school. It’s adult nonfiction that I recommend for high school students.

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