A Lesbian Retelling of Cinderella: Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash by Malinda Lo is a refreshing retelling of the classic fairtytale Cinderella, in which the title character, Ash doesn’t fall in love with a prince, but rather a royal huntress. I was very eager to read this book as I am a fan of fairy tale retellings in general, and I love seeing the ways that different authors reinterpret different stories and bring in different themes. Using lush, lyrical language suitable for a story of fairytale origin, Lo tells the story of Ash, who lives with her mother and father in a small village, where the people no longer believe in magic. However, Ash’s mother still believes in the old magic and tells Ash about fairies.  Ash’s mother dies due to a sickness and Ash’s mother followed the old ways of the fairies, so she is buried with gold dust scattered on her grave to keep the fairy hunt at bay. Ash’s father remarries and Ash now has a stepmother and two stepsisters.

When Ash’s father also dies, with a great deal of debt in his name, Ash is stricken with grief, which is exacerbated by the fact she is treated with extreme cruelty by her stepmother and stepsisters, and is forced to serve them by cooking and cleaning for them from the time she is 12 until she is 18 to pay off her fathers debt.

Desperate to find some escape from her wretched existence, Ash retreats into a book of her mother’s fairy tales. Ash also meets and befriends the king’s huntress, a beautiful and mysterious woman named Kaisa and they spent time together hunting and riding. The stories become real when walking through the woods one day, Ash meets the fairy Sidhean. Sidhean desperately wants Ash’s hand in marriage, but Ash is reluctant, so Sidhean grants her one wish, which is to go to the the grand ball of the kingdom, but for a cost. At the ball, Ash spends time Kaisa and their relationship develops into something more than just friends.

Ash is beautifully stylistically with a great premise, but unfortunately it falls a bit short of its full potential. In some ways, the characters are not well developed or vividly drawn enough for the reader to feel a strong connection with them.  Perhaps if Kaisa and Ash were better characterized, their romance would come across more strongly and the reader would feel more invested in them.  Greater detail of the the feelings and motivations of the character would have enhanced the novel greatly. Overall, Ash is an engaging book with eerie, lush, atmospheric language that draws the reader in, but ultimately fails to deliver on plot development or character development in a satisfying way.

Fan art by deviantart user SephyStabbity

Fan art by deviantart user SephyStabbity

Review: Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

When eighteen year old Seattle dweller Piper makes a deal with band at her high school that if she finds them a paying gig, she will become their manager, she may have gotten more than she bargained for. Piper tries to set up the band, named Dumb, for success by recruiting her classically trained percussionist friend to join the group. Piper also struggles to unite conflicting personalities of the five band members. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that Piper is deaf, so she’s not sure if Dumb’s music is actually good. Things at home are just as complicated for Piper when her parents raid her college fund to pay for her profoundly deaf sister’s cochlear implant. The story follows Piper in her senior year as she deals with her family’s perception of her deafness and plans for her future all while wrangling the five flavors of Dumb, trying to find them a paying gig.

                In this book, Seattle’s music history is featured prominently, particularly significant sites such as Kurt Cobain’s house and the house that Jimmy Hendrix grew up in, which adds richness to the setting of the story. Five Flavors of Dumb brings up many issues about how the world perceives deafness, which is exemplified not only in Piper’s journey to become the deaf manager of a band but also in her struggle to have her hearing parents come to terms with her deafness. Piper’s story is told in an engaging manner and will have appeal for teens interested in stories about music, family issues, self- discovery and coming of age. Recommended, for an engaging and uplifting story about a deaf girl finding her inner rock star.  14+

Review: The A Circuit by Georgina Bloomberg and Catherine Hapka

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The A Circuit has all the makings of soapy teen fare-with the addition of horses. The A Circuit follows the lives of three different girls who all ride at the same prestigious show stable.The book switches between the first-person perspectives of Tommi, a wealthy heiress who is trying to prove she is serious competitor, not just a spoiled rich girl, Kate, who is lower middle class and works at the barn in order to compete, and Zara, the reckless, indulged daughter of a rock star who is out to prove herself as well. The drama reaches a fever pitch when barn bad boy Fitz, a late night party and disaster threaten to endanger the all the girl’s dreams in some way. The characterization of the three main characters falls flat in many ways, the character of Zara in particular, who is written in an over-the-top exaggerated way as overly reckless and not at all sympathetic, despite the first-person perspective. At times, the endless designer name dropping feel tiresome and contrived, and have the potential to make the book quickly dated.

Although not expertly plotted, the A Circuit is nonetheless engaging and keeps the reader wanting to know more about this exclusive, competitive world where the stakes, financial and otherwise, are high. Some familiarity with the equestrian world is an asset to the reader as the book as specific and technical equestrian terms are used with little to no explanation. This book has appeal to readers who enjoyed equestrian themed books in the middle grades and are looking for more mature horse-themed fare as well as to readers who enjoy the drama, glitz and designer name-dropping of series such as Gossip Girl and the A-List. Recommended with some reservations, to teens who like equestrian themed books or teen dramas. 14+

 

The Importance of Representation: Multicultural Young Adult Literature and the Role of the Teen Librarian

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, an example of multicultural literature

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, an example of multicultural literature

 

A primary impulse for readers of fiction, particularly teen readers of young adult fiction, is to find characters they can identify with that are going through experiences that are mirrored in their own lives. Through finding stories they can relate to, readers feel validated, comforted and empowered. However, what happens when a diverse readership of teen is exposed to young adult books featuring predominantly white, cisgender, heterosexual teens? Teens of colour and teens that are part of the LGBTQ community will now see their realities mirrored in young adult literature, and will begin to feel invisible. As Sandra Hughes-Hassell discusses in the article “Multicultural Young Adult Literature as a Form of Counter-Storytelling”, increased diversity in young adult literature can not only allow young people of colour to connect with characters they can relate to, but also has the ability to “act as a counter story to the dominant narrative about people of colour and indigenous peoples.” (Hugh-Hassell) In the article,  Hughes-Hassell primarily discusses people of colour as a marginalized group, which is how I will frame my discussion here.

As Hughes-Hassell details in the article, multicultural young adult literature helps to challenge the “single narrative”, a phrase coined by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. The single narrative is often a one-dimensional stereotype of a particular group, such as “Asian nerd” or the “delinquent black youth”. Young adult literature, about people of colour, and by people of colour, challenges this narrative and allows youth to see other representations of themselves besides the racist stereotype pushed forward by white dominated Western culture. Multicultural young adult literature helps to expose the effects of racism and alternate ways of being than those typically portrayed in young adult fiction. In this way, these narratives help to expose the “counter-story” that Hughes-Hassell speaks of.

Multicultural young adult literature is important, and it needs to be fostered and promoted. This is where librarians play a critical role, not only librarians of colour, which remain in the minority, but also white librarians, who must act as allies and promote multicultural literature. While many librarians of colour are aware of the need for multicultural materials from their own experiences, the same cannot be said for many white librarians. It is important for white librarians in particular, including myself, to recognize their role as gatekeepers between teens and literature. Collection development does not happen in a vacuum, and book do not get written in a vacuum-both are often defined by the dominant white culture and the dominant white narrative.  In order to form a store ethical and intellectual basis for practice as a teen librarian, white librarians must examine their privilege, in that their stories are the central stories in the young adult literary canon. Through this examination of privilege,  white librarians must promote books by authors of colour, featuring people of colour, as well as express to publishers the need to see more multicultural and diverse literature being released. In this way, librarians can play a critical role in helping to embrace a diversity of narratives and promote young adult literature that offers up a counter-story to the “one story”.

Heart-Breaking Honesty and Life Affirming Humour: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Illustration from "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie

Illustration from “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie

Books from the perspectives of  Native American teens are rare in young adult literature and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” brings a hilarious and much needed voice to the genre through the perspective of Arnold Spirit Jr, (aka “Junior”) a Native American teen who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state.

Junior was born with a condition called cerebrospinal fluid, which he describes as “water on the brain” which has given him numerous physical disabilities such as poor eyesight, seizures, stutters, lisps and oversize hands and feet. The book follows Junior on his journey of switching schools, from the underfunded reservation school to the upper class, almost all-white public school in the nearest town over. Although the the book deals with very heavy and serious themes-such as addiction, death, cultural identity, poverty, and class issues, it is very different from many books directed towards teens that tackle such issues. Junior’s narrative is all at once poignant, hilarious and heartbreaking. As well, the book has such authentic voice in part due to Sherman Alexie’s life experience of growing up on the Spokane Reservation and being born cerebrospinal fluid. The illustrations throughout the books enhance the narrative and are often-laugh out funny.

Although this book has received much critical acclaim, even winning The National Book Award, it also has been the subject of much banning, becoming one of the top banned book in the United States at schools in Idaho, Illinois, Oregon, Missouri and Washington state. Much of the talk surrounding the banning of the book states that the subject matter is inappropriate for teens. This shows the fundamental disconnect many adult, particularly parents who have not read the book itself, have about the lived experiences of teenagers and as a result, what is appropriate for them to read. Alexie’s book is powerful because Junior’s voice comes across so authentically. In response to the book being banned for “inappropriate subject matter” Alexie has stated that “ “I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that.” Alexie’s book is one of the most unique and arresting YA books I have ever read, and I think it is important for such books as this to be included in library collections and protected against banning, for the benefit of teens.

 

Further reading on the banning of this book: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/08/sherman-alexie-schools-ban-idaho-diary-part-time-indian-anti-christian

http://bannedbooks.world.edu/2011/06/26/banned-books-awareness-absolutely-true-diary-parttime-indian/

Not Just Kid’s Stuff: Picture Books for Teens

Picture books are not the first thing that pop into my head when I hear “young adult lit”, but through my exposure to them through this class I have gained a new appreciation for the medium, and thought about ways that picture books could be used to great effect with teen readers. The bibliography of picture books entitled “Picture Perfect” by Mary Anne Nichols and Carolyn S. Brodie features a variety of books innovative picture books that handle topics more serious topics suitable for teens, such as life behind the Iron Curtain, the Holocaust and the L.A Riots. Mature picture books such as these titles offer a way for reluctant readers, low level readers and ESL readers to engage with themes that are age-appropriate, unlike many of the easy-read books which are aimed at very young readers. The books in the bibliography are divided into following categories: artistic styles and mediums, curriculum connection, multicultural, wordless books, writing prompts, critical thinking and reflection, teen read alouds for younger audiences and just plain fun.

Smokey Night by Eve Bunting is a picture book that discusses the aftermath of the 1992 L.A Riots

Smokey Night by Eve Bunting is a picture book that discusses the aftermath of the 1992 L.A Riots

Another helpful bibliography of teen picture books is compiled by Megan Schliesman at the Comparative Children’s Book Centre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (link) This bibliography is very extensive and features various categories such as books about the arts, books about music, books about history, books about math and science, books about politics and identity, books featuring sly and sophisticated humour and fractured fairy tales. This expanded bibliography is an excellent compliment to Nichols and Brodie’s bibliography and would be a useful tool for a teen librarian aiming to develop their collection of picture books suitable for teens.

Like graphic novels, which have wide appeal to teens, picture books can also appeal to teens, and help them learn concepts which may be difficult from them to learn via plain text. Teen picture books are a fairly small subset of YA, and for this reason, many picture books suggested for teens are originally intended for children or family audiences. This doesn’t mean that such materials don’t appeal to teens however-much like the widespread appeal of Pixar and Disney animated films, there is something for people of all ages to take of picture books. In particular, picture books with humour that works on two levels, for both children and older readers are popular such as “I Want My Hat Back” by Jon Klassen and “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. Through reading these bibliographies and learning more about picture books for teens during the in-class presentation, my mind has been opened to the wonderful possibilities and learning experiences the medium can provide for teens.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs is a fractured fairy tale with teen appeal

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs is a fractured fairy tale with teen appeal

 

 

Eleanor and Park: An Unconventional, Bittersweet Tale of First Love

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“Eleanor and Park” is a book aimed at young adult that explores very mature themes that are relevant to the lives of young adults. The fact that it a young adult novel does not make it less important and significant. In the article, “Young Adult Literature is Better Than You Think”, YA author Nick Hornby is quoted, stating“I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I’ve discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that’s filled with masterpieces I’ve never heard of.”

“Eleanor and Park” approaches the level of “one of these masterpieces” that Hornby speaks of.  is one Eleanor and Park was a book that instantly made the reader invested in this unconventional pairing. Set in 1986, the two teens meet on a school bus. Eleanor is the new girl in school and faces abuse both at home and at school. The book has faced censorship in school libraries, particularly in the midwest. Rainbow Rowell in an interview on the website The Toast, discusses this censorship and how librarians were her biggest allies in keeping the books on the shelves in school libraries.Rainbow Rowell  goes on to say in the interview “When these people call Eleanor & Park an obscene story, I feel like they’re saying that rising above your situation isn’t possible. That if you grow up in an ugly situation, your story isn’t even fit for good people’s ears. That ugly things cancel out everything beautiful.”

Although Eleanor and Park is excellent in many respects, it really falls short on its treatment of race. The author is white, and this really shows through her writing which is laced with exoticism  in regards to the character Park, who is half Korean.  In many descriptions in the novel, Park is fetishized, emasculated and Othered consistently in such descriptions as:

“Maybe Park had paralyzed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold…”

Using tired East Asian stereotypes, such as using the word “ninja” in descriptions of an Asian character show latent racism and shows lazy characterization and writing.  Throughout the novel, there are many more examples of this racism, though it appears that the authorial intent is supposed to show Park’s Korean heritage in a favourable light, but ends up relying on stereotypes, resulting in a kind of benevolent racist tone in the novel. On Tumblr, the blogger angrygirlcomics reviewed the novel, pointing out many instances of racism and fetishization in the novel, how the Othering of Park is so extreme he becomes a kind of dehumanized “magical boyfriend”, like Edward Cullen in the Twilight series, stating “But when you use those kinds of descriptors for a character who is very visibly POC and then give them an uncommon feature like ~green eyes~, do they not become a kind of mythical creature in, the stuff of exotic fantasy? Do they then become dehumanized and not real, only the kind of boyfriend a girl can aspire to get?”

In this way, “Eleanor and Park” brings up many issues, such as child abuse and first love, directly in the text, and indirectly the issue of racism in characterization of people of colour in a white-dominated genre such as YA.

Eleanor and Park fanart by Irene Freitas (http://imnot12.tumblr.com/post/52876142657/i-just-finished-reading-eleanor-park-by-rainbow)

The Toast “A Chat with Rainbow Rowell About Love and Censorship.” http://the-toast.net/2013/09/17/chat-rainbow-rowell-love-censorship/

Marisa Reichardt “Young Adult Literature is Better Than You Think” https://medium.com/geek-empire-1/f76f53473537

Angry Girl Comics Review of Eleanor and Park http://angrygirlcomics.tumblr.com/post/72519376982/angry-girl-review-eleanor-and-park