The Ballad of Huck and Miguel

A friend who has a daughter working with Friends of the LA River took a few of us 29FD737E-999D-43C3-B763-0540BB07EAF9on an LA River tour for our birthdays. It was odd to see the sections of the river that have a soil, rather than a concrete, bottom. Though narrow and contained by steeply sloping concrete walls, this section of the river provides a much-needed respite from the surrounding city. As the adjacent railroad tracks and their noisy trains turned away from the river, we saw more and more wildlife: geese, mallard ducks, coots, a blue heron, birds of prey. Their songs and sounds were a welcome change.

As we walked, we saw children of various ages, apparently YMCA summer camp participants, enjoying the river. Older children, about fifth grade, were on the river, exploring. Younger ones, about second grade, were doing a science lesson at the LA River Park. They each had a cup of river water and were noting the visible life—mostly tiny snails—that lived there.

How strange that I didn’t even know the location of this natural space in the city. I had only thought to explore it because I had seen articles about it in the LA Times. This fact—that the river exists without many people knowing about it—is one of the premises of the novel “The Ballad of Huck and Miguel.” If you are a fan of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” you’ll have a lot of fun reading this book. If you are also familiar with the LA River, you’ll probably give this novel a five-star review.

The set up here is similar to Twain’s novel: Huck is living with his racist, drunken, abusive father and hopes to escape. And many of the same characters appear on this journey although they have different personalities and sometimes different purposes. For example, the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson are now Ms. Douglas and Ms. Watson—and rather than good cop/bad cop (with Miss Watson being the slave owner of Jim and a deeply, hypocritically pious woman)—they are a married lesbian couple (thespians, Huck thinks, mixing up words as he does in the original, to humorous effect). Both are kind guardians to Huck.

Characters who have the same purpose now use modern schemes to employ them. So the Duke is a rapscallion here, but his schemes to dupe and steal are related to medical fraud rather than bilking girls out of their inheritance.

In another updating, Huck finds himself on the run with a ‘Mexigrant’ (undocumented Mexican immigrant)—Miguel—on the LA River.

Pap isn’t as easy to get rid of in this tale, so he provides a lot of action. In places he is directly quoted from the original to great effect, especially in his racist rants about the government, and his fury that Huck is getting an education and is too high and mighty.

It’s a lot of fun to see how DeRoche has stayed true to the spirit of Huck with his update. Another joy are the numerous linocuts by Daniel Gonzalez that illustrate the story (the cover illustration is one example with color added). If you’re a Huck fan, you really can’t go wrong with this one.

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Navigating the Darkness

I know I’ve been slacking on my book reviews, but only because I’ve been working on some other teen-centric literary stuff, including getting the word out about the teen issue of Inlandia Literary Journeys. I’m so excited about all the submissions we got! It’s going to be a great spring issue.

Meanwhile, I just posted on my blog about the Ontario Teen Book Fest. I thought that might be of interest to School Library Lady followers as well. It’s here:



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Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide


I was excited to learn that Isabel Quintero wrote a new YA book because my students had enjoyed Gabi: A Girl in Pieces so much. (I only use the past tense because I retired; they are most likely still enjoying it.) However, it wasn’t until I went to a reading event last weekend in Riverside, where Quintero was one of the authors, that I realized the new book is not a novel, but graphic nonfiction.

Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide was commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, I imagine, because Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide deserves to be known by young people. Since Quintero is a poet as well as a fiction and nonfiction writer, she was a great choice to bring this book into the world. Her language is a perfect for the discussion of creative vision. Zeke Peña illustrated the book and he does a beautiful job. (You may recognize him as the cover artist for Gabi.) Some of Iturbide’s photos are included beside Pena’s black and white illustrations.

Iturbide’s story begins with her path of marriage and motherhood, a typical journey for a Catholic girl from a conservative Mexican family in the 1960s. In fact, a typical path for many young people throughout history. However, she was always creative; she wasrestless. She decided on the path of a photographer, using only black and white film because it expresses reality for her. This choice is not an easy one, as Quintero reminds the reader. “Do you know how painful sacrifice can be? Graciela gave up a life of comfort and convention—choosing instead the path of the artist and risking everything.”

Iturbide had the opportunity to work with other very talented photographers including Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who showed her that photographs should not be staged, but rather waited for. It takes talent to catch the right moment, and Iturbides does it regularly, becoming famous and having the opportunity to travel the world. She documents her vision through many cultures “where ritual is survival. How else can culture be held onto?” Even in her native Mexico, she encounters the women of Juchitan and sees freedom from patriarchy that she couldn’t have imagined in her conservative upbringing.

While Iturbide is a renowned photographer, I’m sorry to say that I had never heard of her until I read this book. Happily, both Quintero and Peña had seen and been influenced by stagings of her photographs years ago. They knew they were the right people to bring Iturbide’s story to a younger generation. And, happily, to me, too.

I recommend Photographic to all teens. Since it’s a graphic novel, the illustrations aid the emergent reader. For those reading at grade level and above, the the story of sacrifice and creativity will inspire. For artists, there are the illustrations. For photographers, there are nice details about finding a subject and making it art. For poets and writers, there is the lovely language.

Posted in Biography/Memoir, Family Problems, Graphic Novel, Historical Fiction/Historical Element, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Orca Limelights: “The Frail Days”

frail days.jpg Stella Wing (because it sounds more ‘new-punk’ than Wang) with her nose piercing and fire-engine-red hair is no Disney princess. She’s a drummer in a nameless band that needs a singer.

Jacob is her guitarist and Miles plays the bass. “‘The problem is,’ Jacob says, . . . ‘every person who wants to sing in a band is either a poser or a diva or a wanker.’”

Every girl they audition sings without soul.

It’s ironic, then, that a girl who has been kicked out of Fantalicious, the locally popular all-girl group with tweener-appeal, might be the perfect fit. Fanticilious members have talent in butt wriggling and lip-syncing to their own Auto-Tuned voices. So Tamara Donnelly hasn’t been kicked out because she can’t sing. She is shunned because she’s not rocking a tiny body (she, too, is no Disney Princess). But she can sing like “the love child of Annie Lennox and David Bowie.”

As they look forward to auditions for a summer festival, Stella, Tamara, Jacob and Miles all have to answer for themselves the question that haunts all creative souls: do they answer the call to a creative life? In the case of the band, the choices are many. Do they go with the safer bet of covering a popular song? Individually make backup plans and forget how well they work as a group? Go for it all and risk the opportunity to perform if the judges don’t grasp their off-beat creativity?
High school housekeeping: The Frail Days is part of the Orca Limelight’s series. It’s meant for teens reading below grade level. The Lexile level is 680; it’s under 120 pages. It addresses a universal issue about seeking a creative life, so it will speak to most teens. Budding musicians will particularly enjoy it. People who have been judged for their appearance, including their weight, will find familiar ground but may be delighted by the characters’ manner of dealing with prejudices.

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“Challenger Deep”

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

“‘But dreams give you insight,’ I point out.challenger-deep

“The captain leans closer, the acrid smoke of his pipe stinging my eyes. ‘Not these dreams.’”

Fifteen-year-old Caden Bosch is sure that someone at school is trying to kill him. When he finally opens up to his father about the situation, the details aren’t just sketchy–they don’t exist. The other boy is just someone walking the halls of school. He doesn’t know Caden and has no reason to hurt him. Caden’s father hopes that after their talk, he will feel better. Caden pretends to be better; he stays out walking for hours in an effort to make his parents believe he is on the school’s cross-country team.However, Caden’s good friends Max and Shelby are aware that he is not himself. For two years they’ve been designing a computer RPG. Caden is responsible for the graphics, but they now see his work as sloppy; he sees his work as failing because he can’t keep up with his vision.

Caden allows readers some of his secrets, things that neither his parents nor his friends would understand: the sprinklers in the yard sound like the hiss of snakes, the dolphins he painted on his sister’s bedroom walls are plotting deadly scheme, he feels termites eating the wood of the house. He can’t sleep as he wrestles with what is real and what is not. “Holding these two incompatible truths together takes skill at juggling.”

And always lurking under all the effort at restraint is the captain, the parrot, the ship, and the journey to Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the deepest trench on earth, entirely under the sea. The ship’s navigator tells Caden that he is the compass, that his visions show the way the ship must travel.

Caden is schizophrenic, and those around him are just coming to terms with this. He is hospitalized and is given a cocktail of powerful drugs, one that must be monitored and altered until he can stop hallucinating.

While at first, the novel moves into and out of reality without transitions, once Caden is in the hospital, it becomes clear that his adventures at sea have direct correlations in life–that is, the ship’s figurehead, Calliope, the navigator, the swabby–all have parallels in Caden’s life. The crow’s nest and its vast cocktail bar is full of meaning. Caden thinks “I conclude that it would be a good place to be alone with my thoughts, but I should already know that my thoughts are never alone.”

At the story’s satisfying end, author Neal Shusterman tells readers that his own son Brendan has experience with mental illness, experience that the author is trying to bring to life. He succeeds mightily. Brendan Shusterman, Neal’s son, is the novel’s illustrator. All of the work included was “drawn in the depths.” Brendan’s work adds much to the novel’s sense of exploring an unknown world.

The novel’s extended metaphor of sea navigation representing the exploration of the depths of a human mind is truly wonderful. But I also enjoyed a paragraph that compared life to creating on the potter’s wheel :

Centering, however, is easier said than done. This I learned from a ceramics class I once took. The teacher made throwing a pot look easy, but the thing is, it takes lots of precision and skill. You slam the ball of clay down in the absolute center of the pottery wheel, and with steady hands you push your thumb into the middle of it, spreading it wider a fraction of an inch at a time. But every single time I tried to do it, I only got so far before my pot warped out of balance, and every attempt to fix it just made it worse, until the lip shredded, the sides collapsed, and I was left with what the teachers called “a mystery ashtray,’ which got hurled back into the clay bucket.

No matter our mental stability–we’ve all made ‘mystery ashtrays’ out of life situations. So, we can empathize with the truly dark and difficult stretches of Caden’s path, exponentially worse that what we may have experienced. It is this relatability that makes Challenger Deep shine.

High school housekeeping: While the reading level of Challenge Deep is not difficult, it does take on the very serious issue of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia. Since we are in the mind of Caden Bosch, we must, with him, sort through reality and illusion. Early on, when there are no transitions, this may make the reading more difficult for the reluctant reader. However, with all of Caden’s high-seas adventure, even the reluctant reader may quickly dive into Caden’s world. Challenger Deep won the National Book Award. All readers will recognize that Shusterman is an excellent writer worthy of the honor and that his weaving of reality and illusion is highly skilled. This is a not-to-be-missed book.

If you are a teen who hasn’t had the chance to see the work of the artist Hieronymous Bosch, look it up. While Caden doesn’t want to think of himself as a participant in the strangely nightmare world of Bosch, there’s a reason the author has given the protagonist the same last name.

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LQBTQ+: “Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda”

Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli simon

Although Simon believes that coming out as gay isn’t going to be a big problem in his life, he is hesitant to do it. His family will still love and support him, but they make a big deal out of absolutely everything the kids do. He doesn’t want the attention and discussions. Since he attends school in the state of Georgia, he knows that some kids (not all) may bully him. While he stays in the closet, he does have a secret crush on an anonymous guy (known as Blue)–one that Simon knows goes to his high school because he found this heartthrob on the school’s underground Tumblr.

The two boys email one another in order to keep their anonymity. Very early in the novel, Simon makes the mistake of not closing down his computer at school. A guy named Martin sees what Simon has written to Blue and puts it together. Now Martin has a crush on one of Simon’s best friends–Abby. So Martin decides to blackmail Simon. Either Simon causes things to happen and makes sure that Martin is around Abby or Martin will out Simon to the school.

So while Simon is not super concerned about himself, he is angry that someone else is trying to take away his autonomy–coming out when and where he wants to should be his choice. He is also worried about how this will affect  ‘Blue’ and his relationship with him. What if Blue finds out how careless Simon was with the emails?

All this leads to the usual angst and humor. However, Simon and Blue’s online conversations, as well as Simon’s relationships with his parents, two sisters, and many friends are beautifully crafted. Simon realizes that everyone has some sort of ‘coming out’ issue in life, even if it isn’t always as significant as his. As Simon missteps, he accidentally causes pain to others. As Martin missteps, he causes Simon significant grief.

High school housekeeping: Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a book just about every teen will enjoy. Simon’s troubles are very real, and–because Simon is able to make a larger connection between his life issues and the issues of everyone he knows–any reader will sympathize with him. Meanwhile, there are many fully-formed characters in Simon’s friends and family. Even Martin, the blackmailer, is not a one-dimensional stereotype of a bully. He has issues and concerns that drive him into his misguided plans.

Another thing I loved about this novel is that the issues that all the characters have are dealt with. So if a reader deeply identifies with any of Simon’s family or friends, s/he will enjoy a satisfying resolution to all the problems that have arisen for that character in the course of the novel.

Really–just a lot of fun, very sweet. Another one that I will get more copies of for the library to use in book talks and literature circles. Happy reading!

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“My Kind of Crazy”

My Kind of Crazy by Robin Reul   my-kind-of-crazy

Hank Kirby comes up with a great idea for asking popular Amanda Carlisle to the prom. How then does he manage, with just a box of sparklers, to light up Amanda Carlisle’s yard, bring on the fire department, and start schoolwide rumors–all without ever popping the question?

Hank says it’s because everything he does, he screws up. And, in fact, there is a witness to his romantic gesture gone wrong. Peyton Breedlove lives across from Amanda Carlisle. Unlike Amanda, Peyton is a loner, someone Hank doesn’t know, but now feels compelled to hang around and cater to. After all, won’t she tell on him if he doesn’t?

Peyton has many odd behaviors. Hank soon learns that she enjoys watching a good fire, striking matches, and burning her enemies in effigy (OK, burning her enemies in Barbies). She hints at the trouble in her life, which includes her mother’s series of boyfriends (Steve the Sociopath, Dave the Dealer, and now Pete the Deadbeat).

Hank’s home life has its own quirks. His mother has died and his dad has sunken in behavior and personal hygiene. His girlfriend, Monica, is an exotic dancer, one who thinks she can save men from self-destruction. Hank is betting on her to help his dad. Meanwhile, Hank works in private on his comic, Freeze Frame, which he hopes to publish.

Hank’s best friend, Nick, has the reputation of being the son of a mafia boss. He lives in a nice house, but secrets surround the source of the family’s income. Even good-natured Amanda has her secrets. Hank’s disaster is the beginning of an Amanda challenge among boys at the school to take credit for the deed and to take Amanda to the prom. With Nick hoping to get together with Peyton, we wonder how this crazy group of friends/acquaintances/frienemies will negotiate their futures-with or without each other.

Everyone has a bit of crazy spinning in his or her life. Maybe the best thing to do is to match craziness and learn how to deal with it.
High school housekeeping: I’ve been hoping to read My Kind of Crazy since the Ontario Teen Book Fest last year, when it was introduced to me. I’ve finally been able to get a hold of it. It’s a lot of fun to read and a lot of fun to root for the ‘crazies’ as they navigate high school cliques, culture and teen issues. It’s also interesting to see how the adults and their behaviors affect the lives of the teens. And yet, as everyone, more and more, gets their crazy on, there is true understanding of people’s faults and a poignant acceptance of life on its own terms. My Kind of Crazy has a certain joy to it, so I’m ordering multiple copies and book talks are coming up!

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