Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Matt de la Peña

Last Monday, Matt de la Peña gave the 2011 Multnomah County Library Teen Author Lecture. I didn't know there was such a thing, and was glad to see a link to the press release on the library website the day before. I would've been so sad to miss it.

But they publicized it somehow, because there were a lot of people there. There were a lot of students and a lot of teachers--it was an evening thing, though, so I was trying to figure that one out. They were older students--late teens--maybe part of a program like Portland Youth Builders...?

Anyway. It wasn't really a lecture. He talked about his books, and read a little bit from Mexican White Boy, and was clearly excited about the crowd and the demographics of the crowd (lots of Latino kids--holding his books!). He asked whose grandmas made tortillas, and lots of hands shot up. He said something along the lines of, "Well you know how grandma gives the first tortilla to the most important person, and then it goes down the ranks?" and he talked about how after he'd gone to college, he got the first tortilla, and he felt bad and like it should've gone to one of his uncles, but it was because he got an education. He also talked about being the first in his family to go to college--he said, "Who here will be the first in their family to go to college?" and lots of hands went up. He said, "Well I want to tell you guys something--" and he proceeded to talk about how much going to college alienated him from his family for a long time, how they treated him differently and related to him differently, but he said, "Eventually you'll figure out how to be a part of the family, and it'll be okay again. It'll be hard for a while, but then it will be okay again."

I'd never heard anyone say that to a group of students before, and it's so important. How many first-generation college students drop out for exactly the reasons he was talking about? It must be so scary to be in a community different from anything you've known, and then to also be alienated from everything you've ever known. But he was matter-of-fact about it, and I thought he was pretty cool before seeing him speak, but now--yeah.

He told a lot of stories. He talked about how reading The Color Purple his sophomore year of college was what turned him into a reader, but he wrote a letter to Alice Walker and she sent it back unopened because she doesn't read fan mail, so he doesn't really like her. I think he must've poured his heart into that letter.

Anyway. It was an evening well-spent. He and the audience were both excellent--though I wanted to yank headphones out of some ears. Oh, high school kids.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Karma, by Cathy Ostlere

I read my second novel off Julianna Baggott's list for NPR, "Hooray for YA: Teen Novels for Readers of All Ages." I just finished Cathy Ostlere's Karma, which I almost didn't finish. I almost didn't finish it because I felt weird about this story being written by a white woman. It's a fascinating story, with a great setting that I'd never seen in fiction, but it didn't feel like Cathy Ostlere's story to tell.

It's the story of an Indian-Canadian girl who goes "back" to India with her dad, bearing her mother's ashes. It's 1984, and they are in New Delhi when Indira Gandhi is murdered. She is killed by Sikhs, and Maya is half-Sikh, half-Hindi--her father is a Sikh, and suddenly there are riots and Sikhs are being killed all over New Delhi.

Her father leaves her in their hotel room when he goes to try and get help from an old friend--but he doesn't come back.

So this is the story of what happens to her.

Is it weird that I don't have a lot of enthusiasm for what is an engaging story, because of who wrote it? Would I like it more if it had been written by an Indian-Canadian author? Except I don't think it would be the same book if it had been written by an Indian-Canadian author. Though Ostlere clearly did her research, somehow this doesn't totally ring true to me. Obviously others disagree--she got great reviews. Is this weird that this felt like such an issue for me?

I was trying to think of an example of something that didn't ring true, and here's one. Maya's mother killed herself. No mention is ever made of the Hindu standpoint on suicide, and that doesn't seem to be a factor in bringing the mother's ashes back to India, where Maya and her father will have to deal with the mom's family, who already don't like Maya's dad because he's Sikh. At least, it's never mentioned--and granted, the book is written as a journal, so maybe Maya wouldn't have had anything to say about it--but--I don't know. She is clearly grieving, but--yeah.

Anyway. I liked this book, but am not sure how much I liked it, and am also not sure how much my not loving it has to do with the fact that I feel like the author was really writing a story both outside her experience, but also perhaps writing a story that wasn't hers to write. This is something I've thought about a lot--who gets to tell which stories, whose stories--and I clearly haven't figured it out yet.

I keep thinking about who I think would have the right to tell this story. It's fiction. Do I think the writer would have to be Indian? Maybe an Indian couldn't tell this story either. Maybe s/he would have to be Indian-Canadian. But would s/he have had to be in New Delhi for the riots when Indira Gandhi was killed? Maybe Ostler was--according to her website, she was traveling in 1984, and that's when she went to India.

I don't know.

First Day on Earth

Before Mockingjay came out, I emailed Scholastic to ask them to send me a copy of it to review for my blog. They did, and I'm now on their list, which is fabulous! They just sent me First Day on Earth, by Cecil Castellucci, whose name is so familiar to me though I don't think I've read any of her other books. She co-edited the anthology Geektastic, which I loved, but I don't think that's why her name is dinging in my brain. My guess is that I read a story she wrote in a magazine ages ago, and her name is memorable. Somehow I feel like I read one of her stories in Sassy or Seventeen back in the day.

Anyway. I liked this book a lot, and I already told a student about it and am going to loan it to him on Monday now that I've finished it. This student went off in class last week about having been homeless and how hard it is and how people don't understand. All of which is true, I'm sure, but the class looked at him, confused, because what he was saying was very tangentially related to our discussion, about "The Kicking Queen," an article from the New York Times about the only girl on her school's football team elected homecoming queen. Somehow what he said started off being related to the conversation (which was awesome, by the way, with some football player boys chiming in about how cool it was, and some other school athletes noting that usually really athletic girls don't get elected homecoming queen... it was a good conversation) but then it wasn't related, and I know I wasn't the only one who realized he just had to say what he had to say.

So I think he might like this book. Others will like it too, but I thought of him first.

The main character, Malcolm, narrates the story, and in the first brief chapter, we learn that he has "been to outer space and back again." The first chapter ends, " day, I'm going with them. And I'm going to be free."

We meet his drunk mom, hear about his father who left, go to an Al-Anon meeting with Malcolm--and then he walks into the wrong room, goes to the wrong meeting: it's a group for people who have been abducted by aliens.

This is a short book that covers a lot of territory. No pun intended, really. Anyway, I liked it. I'll be glad to add it to my classroom library, and I'll read more by her, for sure.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Anna to the Infinite Power

I loved this book when I was a kid. I read it over and over--checked it out from the library, again and again--and I thought it was so creepy and great. Then there was a thread on the child_lit listserv about books in which children participate in a scientific/social experiment. Her given examples were "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, The Giver or, of course, The Hunger Games." Someone mentioned Anna, and I thought "How could I have forgotten about it?!" So I put it on hold at the library.

It was published in 1981. It's by Mildred Ames.

It was amazing upon reread, but it wasn't at all the book I remembered. Or I should say--I didn't really remember it, but even after rereading it, I didn't remember it like that! I remembered something about clones, and that it was creepy.

This, also (like my last post), is a book about the Holocaust, sort of. If you're going to put The Book Thief on the same shelf with The Diary of Anne Frank, this one might belong there too. Oddly.

It's aged very well, I think. It's sci fi, so their ideas about the future--i.e. now--are very 1984, in how it's so clearly a future seen through the perspective of that moment. (How else could you see the future?) But I liked it. I think I'll read it again. I want to keep thinking about it. It's easy to dismiss sci fi set in a future that's now the past--the 1990's, say--but it's interesting to think about how, sure, she was wrong about a lot of the technology stuff--but she was thinking about reproductive technology, and making guesses about that. It went a different way than in the novel, but... yeah.

I never know how to talk about a book without telling the story of it. And I could tell the story of it. But I'm not. I want you to find this and read it. It's out of print, but my library had it, and Amazon has fifteen used copies for sale. I might be buying one. Probably not from them, but--yeah.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Book Thief

I just finished The Book Thief, ten years (well, five years) after everybody else. I loved the last third of it, but I'd set it down once before soon after starting it, and I forced myself through this time, interested in it if not fully engaged, and figuring that if everyone else loved it so much, it had to be worth reading. I'm extremely annoyed by the blurb on the back from the USA Today review: "Deserves a place on the same shelf with The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank..." looking at that full review now, though, I see that the reviewer also notes that "the first forty or so pages are dismal and tough to slog through."

Anyway the blurb annoys me because this book has so little in common with Anne Frank, really. The protagonists are about the same age, and both are set during WWII and have a lot to do with Nazis persecuting Jews. But one is fiction, one non-fiction; one is the story of a German girl in Germany, the other is the story of a Jewish girl in Amsterdam. I love Anne Frank, but this is such a different book in so many ways. One is narrated by death, the other by Anne Frank.

Though I guess, yeah, in your own personal library, you might put them on the same shelf.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Ten Miles Past Normal, Toys Go Out

Author Julianna Baggott posted a link on the child_lit listserv I'm on, to a recent article she did for NPR: "Hooray for YA: Teen Novels for Readers of All Ages." I, of course, immediately put all of them (there's only five) on hold at the library. So far I've only read Ten Miles Past Normal, by Frances O'Roark Dowell. This was partly because of Baggott's review, partly because of the inside cover text, largely because of the cover.

This is one of those nicely balanced books that good YA and every kind of good book has to be: about much more than just living in the country, about much more than just being fourteen, about much more than learning to play bass, about much more than realizing that your best friend since elementary school is actually kind of annoying and maybe you don't have so much in common anymore. All of these elements--and much more--make up this funny sweet completely accurate little book about one experience of being a fourteen-year-old girl--very specific to Janie's life, but also universal, of course.

And I love that in fourth-grade, she went on a field trip to an organic farm, came home and told her parents they should "move to an organic farm and raise goats." She has presented other ideas to her parents in the past: "Let's keep a horse in the backyard! Let's adopt a homeless person!" and her parents always reject them, so she doesn't expect her mother to get "...very quiet. She looked at my father, her eyes sort of glimmering, a dreamy expression on her face."

"Eight months later, we were farmers." And when she starts high school four years later, living on a farm is cramping her social life: "And suddenly I realized that living on a farm was weird. Milking goats and pushing a chickenmobile around the yard every morning, dumping eggshells and coffee grounds into the composter every night after the dishes were done. Knowing way too much about manure and fertilizers and the organic way to grow bok choy. What kind of normal teenage girl lived this way?"


Then this morning I read Toys Go Out; Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, A Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic, by Emily Jenkins--illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky! It's a short chapter book; six stories presenting the adventures of three of the beloved friends of the Little Girl, two stuffed animals and Plastic, who discovers what he is over the course of the story. I loved it. Yay anthropomorphism and becoming friends with the scary washing machine in the basement and going to the beach.