Guess who’s on the Printz 2016 Ballot…

16 Mar


With Benjamin Alire Saenz at the 2013 Printz Awards Reception.

Some of you may or may not be aware, but I’m on the ballot for the 2016 Printz Committee. I only realized after submitting my information (and reading the profiles of the other fabulous candidates) that I left out some stuff. Therefore, if you’re a member of YALSA, and are planning on voting between March 19 – April 25,  I’d like to share with you a teeny bit more about myself, and why I would be a good fit for the Printz Committee.

I’ve served on several children’s and YA book selection committees since 2009, which include: YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Readers (2009-2011), the ALA Amelia Bloomer Project (2012-present), the 2012 CYBILS Awards (Book Apps category), and the 2013 John and Patricia Beatty Award Committee (California State Library Association). My service on these committees demonstrates my passion for engaging in critical discussions on youth literature, as well as the ability to hear and take into consideration diverse viewpoints. These are vital qualities for selection committee members to have in order to move deliberations into a positive and productive direction.

Much of my professional career has been spent in youth services – I was a full-time teen services librarian until late 2010, when I shifted to a position as a part-time youth services librarian (working with children, tweens, and teens). In this role, I am primarily responsible for selecting picture books, early readers, and juvenile replacement items, and programming and reference for ages 0-12. While we were in the process of recruiting and hiring a new teen services librarian, I was the interim YA selector from August 2013-February 2014. Additionally, I have been an adjunct community college librarian since 2011, serving adult patrons who range from fresh-out-of-high school to non-traditional students returning to the classroom after a long hiatus). My varied work experiences have given me several opportunities to share my expertise in great depth, whether it’s co-planning a quarterly readers’ advisory program with our teen librarian, or teaching college students how to find and organize resources for an upper-division English assignment on fairy tale tropes in young adult literature.

The Printz Award is given to books that embody the highest quality of writing in young adult literature. As a librarian, I always want amazing books to have wide readership, but in the case of the Printz Award, popularity and appeal are not criteria. Friends and colleagues who have served on the Printz Committee say it’s an energizing and impassioned experience–understandably, tensions run high when you’re trying to pick THE BEST book of the year! Beyond that, members must deal with external reactions ranging from elation to downright disappointment–that can be an incredible burden. But I promise you, I AM READY FOR IT.

While YALSA’s Quick Picks committee had me reading and evaluating massive amounts of YA books during a brief window, ultimately our final decisions were heavily informed by teen feedback. In ABP, we solely rely on our professional expertise and deep understanding of feminism (and its constant evolution) to create our selection list. ABP criteria states that “feminist books for young readers must move beyond merely ‘spunky’ and ‘feisty’ young women…feminist books show women overcoming the obstacles of intersecting forces of race, gender, and class, actively shaping their destinies.” The committee votes by consensus, meaning each member who has read the book weighs in–in this respect, each voice is heard, and when opinions strongly differ, committee members strive to find a common ground (which IS NOT always easy).

The most important thing I’d like voters to know about me is that I want to offer a feminist, multicultural perspective to the Printz Committee mix. I cannot overemphasize the significance of honoring books that draw attention to underrepresented areas in teen literature including the experiences of people of color, LGBTQ issues, mental and physical disability, and mental illness.

I also want to add that on the ballot, I left the area under “accomplishments” blank. Therefore, I’d like to share a few professional endeavors of which I’m especially proud:

*Providing an engaging weekly baby story time (“Wee Wigglers”) whose regular attendance has grown from 10 to 50 people in 3.5 years.

*In July 2012, I wrote a successful grant to acquire early literacy iPads for our children’s department.

*Since late 2012, I have co-planned and co-presented Escondido Public Library’s Burritos & Books teen readers’ advisory event, which involves creating a Prezi of titles and trailers, speed booktalking 9-10 (there are 3 of us, so we present between 25-30 titles), and giving away tons of free books.  When we last presented this program (June 2013), we had about 80 attendees!

*In August 2013, I proposed a middle-grade book club called R.E.A.D. (Read, Eat, and Discuss) that garnered a fantastic reception among our tweens. We had about 20 attendees at our first discussion of Raina Telgemeier’s Smile. In April, we’re going to be reading Pickle and skyping with author, Kim Baker!

*Since 2012, I have done an off-site summer reading program for our local Boys & Girls Club where I provide two back-to-back weekly storytimes for about 50 children from ages 3 to 6. It blows my mind when kids remember me from the previous summer!

*One of my longest library-related projects to date has been with the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Women’s and Gender Studies Section’s Core Books Database – I’ve been the updater of the Transnational Feminism section since 2002 (!).

I’d like to close out this post by saying that it would be absolutely wonderful to serve with all of the candidates running for the 2016 Printz Committee. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how one of them, in particular, has had a profound influence on my understanding and appreciation of YA literature. Since 2010, I’ve been reading Kelly Jensen’s outstanding blog, Stacked Books, which is co-written with her friend and fellow librarian, Kimberly Francisco. In addition to writing in-depth and honest reviews, Kelly has shared innumerable fantastic insights on topics related to YA literature, including cover trends, analysis of bestseller lists, and readers’ advisory. There is no doubt in my mind that she would be a stellar addition to the 2016 Printz Committee – please vote for her, too!


Mysterious fantasies: City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster

22 Mar

city_of_a_thousand_dollsCity of a Thousand Dolls Bhinian Empire #1

Pub Date: February 2013

Publisher: HarperTeen

Level: Young Adult/Grades 8 and up

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

I received Miriam Forster’s City of a Thousand Dolls as an ARC several months ago from Miriam’s editor, Sarah, and I’m deeply ashamed about the fact that my review is only going up now. However, last winter, I was in the middle of committee turbo-reading (consuming 4-5 books/week in a one month span) in preparation for ALA Midwinter. We also have a fun teen reader’s advisory program planned for next week (“Burritos and Books”) and I’ve been turbo-reading for that, too. Hence, not enough time to write the thoughtful, cogent post this book truly deserves.

City of a Thousand Dolls is an Asian-inspired fantasy/mystery featuring light magical elements, intrigue, romance, and some commentary on women’s expected roles in society. I was initially interested in reading this book because much of it is East Indian-inspired, with nods to Chinese and Japanese cultures. The City of a Thousand Dolls is a haven for unwanted and/or orphaned girls who are sent there to become apprentices in a variety of arts and vocations: healing, combat, music, seduction, even assassination. These skills are used to draw potential husbands/mates during a ceremony called “The Redeeming.” In the City, girls serve in various houses representing said arts and vocations. Houses have lofty, vaguely Oriental-ized names such as  “House of Jade,” “House of Beauty,” and “House of Flowers.” Sixteen-year old Nisha Arvi, the main character, was abandoned as a young girl at the gates of the City. She now serves as an assistant to Matron, who oversees the operations of the city.

Nisha somewhat exists on the margins – she isn’t part of any house, and doesn’t belong to a particular caste. She’s also engaged in a clandestine romance with Devan, a handsome courier from the nobility. The romance is fairly one-sided and more physical than emotional–given the class structures governing the City, it’s clear that Devan and Nisha don’t really have a future (he’s a noble, she’s casteless). The fantasy element of this novel is related to Nisha’s ability to communicate telepathically with cats. Other than that, much of the novel is steeped in mystery.

The basic storyline (it’s a little hard to pin down because there are so many things going on in the book, and the pacing is slow) is that several girls in the City have been murdered and it’s up to Nisha to investigate the criminal motives behind the deaths. Nisha has an advantage because she seamlessly moves between the houses, acting as a spy for Matron. In the course of her investigation, Nisha discovers some truths about her own heritage, and ultimately resists the jarring, unacceptable traditions perpetuated by the City.

Forster does a great job of creating atmosphere – I very much felt that the descriptions were lush and evocative of–to me, at least–the Mughal Empire. I also commend her for infusing the YA fantasy/mystery market with some diversity (based in part on real-life cultures). That said, I wanted to highlight some elements of the book meriting deeper discussion–given the theme of my blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them:

1. Correlation of Caste/Class Systems to Skin Color

The connection between caste/class and skin color is pretty clear in the book. Tanaya, Nisha’s friend, is a member of the House of Flowers (Flower caste) or the aristocratic class and is described as having light hair that “shone like polished beech wood, and…smooth hands [that] danced like butterflies.” Nisha, in contrast, is described as “common” with darker skin and rough hands. Nisha’s secret romance with Devan underscores the rigid class structures. “Devan tar’Vey was a nobleman’s son and a member of the high-ranking Flower caste. Nisha was…well, Nisha wasn’t sure what she was, besides an errand girl. She was certainly no noble.”

Personally, I felt a little uncomfortable about the caste/skin color correlation especially because it’s part of a fraught, complicated history in South Asia. Given that Forster has written a fantasy novel, why the need to stick with such a troubling characterization that serves no purpose in this novel?

2. Could’ve done with a little more feminist agency and less frilly romance.

I admired Nisha’s tenacity in her investigation of the murders, but ultimately, I felt her character could’ve been invested with more feminist agency. Now, to a lot of people that may not matter, but I felt it was very relevant here. Nisha, in many instances, relies on her intelligence and powers of deduction to seek out information – that’s incredibly empowering to read. And, Forster had a lot of great material to work with (caste system prejudice, sexist social structures, disempowerment/empowerment of women, etc.) but stopped short of taking the story to a satisfying level (for me).

I also love a good romance as much as anyone, but I never felt there was any believable chemistry between Nisha and Devan (maybe that was the author’s intention?). But, then again, I also felt the same way about Nisha’s other romantic connection (don’t want to say with whom). City of a Thousand Dolls is truly Nisha’s story, and I think Forster might’ve extended the mileage of her story if she’d  either done away entirely with romance, or maybe made it a more central element in the book. Perhaps most disappointing to me was the whole motivation behind the murders. I won’t reveal spoilers but I will say that the conclusion strengthens my feelings on the lack of feminist agency.

3. Why is Nisha a toothpick on the bookcover?

This is nitpicky and has NOTHING to do with the writer AT ALL. But the cover appeal for this book is questionable – the main character is depicted as a barely visible toothpick. I don’t quite understand it. Does it have to do with the perceived notion that books featuring people of color on the covers don’t sell?

Since City of a Thousand Dolls is the first in a series, I’m interested in seeing where Forster goes next, and will definitely pick up the next book. Fans of this novel may also enjoy Cindy Pon’s Kingdom of Xia Duology, Malinda Lo’s Huntress, and Dori Jones Yang’s Daughter of Xanadu.

As a bonus recommendation, I’d like to suggest Indu Sundaresan’s Twentieth Wife, which is a fictionalized version of Empress Nur Jahan’s life at the Mughal Court.

Cybils 2012 Book App Finalists!

6 Jan

The Cybils 2012 Finalists were announced on January 1, 2013. After going through a hefty list of over 80 submissions, the Cybils book apps committee came up with a well-rounded shortlist of five titles representing the year’s best. Getting everyone to agree on a list is generally the hard part, but we had a lot of cogent discussions and were able to come to consensus fairly quickly. It was a privilege to be on this committee, and I learned so much from my fellow colleagues/app-enthusiasts. I can’t wait to see which title will be selected by the Round 2 judges as the top app of 2012!

2012 Cybils Book App Finalists

Bats! Furry Fliers of the Night written by Mary Kay Carson; created by Ellen Jacob; developed by Bookerella and Story Worldwide

Excellent interactive design expertly melded with engaging non-fiction content made Bats! Furry Fliers of the Night! a standout title. Round 1 Panelist Cathy Potter noted, “The vivid animation of bats flying in the night sky coupled with sound effects from nature (bat wings flapping, wind howling, water babbling, and bats screeching) give readers the sense they are watching live bats in the wild.”

I especially liked this app because the 3d animation and the top-notch graphics reminded me of a video game, possibly elevating its appeal among children. Chock-full of interactivity and fascinating facts, this app will be enjoyed multiple times by young readers.

Dragon Brush created by John Solimine and Andy Hullinger developed by Small Planet Digital

Bing-wen, an artistic rabbit living in ancient China, loves painting eagles, tigers, but most especially dragons. Because he and his family are poor, Bing-Wen can’t afford art supplies. But one day, he receives the unexpected gift of a paintbrush made from the whiskers of a dragon. Children will be enchanted by this fanciful story about letting your imagination run wild.

The soft illustrations, painted in a muted, delicate palette reminded me of one of my favorite books from childhood: Tenggren’s Arabian Nights. The folksy, gentle guitar music has a lulling effect, making this an ideal bedtime read. Youngsters will revel in uncovering Bing-Wen’s artful drawings with a few swipes of their fingertips. It’s a big favorite with my sons.

Rounds: Franklin Frog written by Emma Tranter illustrated by Barry Tranter developed by Nosy Crow Apps

Nosy Crow’s non-fiction Rounds apps–Franklin Frog, and the more recent Parker Penguin–focus on animal lifecycles. In fact, the cyclical storytelling in these apps means that there isn’t a true conclusion – reflecting the cycle of life, the story keeps going.

Franklin Frog is a fabulous title brimming with valuable facts about amphibians, their environment, and feeding and mating habits. Child actors with charming British accents narrate the app, making it less didactic and especially accessible. Readers swipe the screen to make Franklin jump, do somersaults, catch tasty flies for lunch, and a whole lot more! Soft illustrations in earth tones, and soothing music add to the gentle ambience of this app.

The Voyage of Ulysses
developed by Elastico Srl

Taking on The Odyssey seems like it would have been an ambitious task, especially when it came to presenting the centuries-old epic in a new light for young readers. But Elastico Srl breathes new life into Homer’s beloved classic in this innovative, gorgeously designed app. Boasting beautiful artwork, clear narration, and stunning interactivity, Voyage of Ulysses had me enamored beyond the first swipe. Round 1 Panelist, Paula Willey wonderfully sums up the value of this app, saying it “succeeds in communicating the themes of loneliness and exile that make Homer’s epic emotionally arresting three thousand years later.”

Where Do Balloons Go? An Uplifting Mystery
written by Jamie Lee Curtis; illustrated by Laura Cornell
developed by Auryn, Inc

Jamie Lee Curtis’s 2000 picture book gets a make-over in this lively app from Auryn, Inc. Curtis’s engaging narration coupled with Cornell’s bright illustrations, not to mention tons of interactive surprises, will engage readers for hours. No, seriously, it will. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a fantastic balloon theatre feature that allows little ones to literally tap into their own creativity and tell their own stories. Round 1 Panelist Carisa Kluver isn’t kidding when she says, “…Don’t read it before bedtime–it’s way too much fun!”

Dear Teen Me…

16 Nov

Dear Teen Me

Eds. E. Kristin Anderson and Miranda Kenneally

Published by Zest Books (distr. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

November 2012

Finished book kindly provided for review by publisher

Zest Books just published a terrific anthology of letters written by authors to their teen selves. The writers don’t hold back and many of their revelations are gruesomely honest, filled with  heartbreak, longing, humor, but overall, hope for the future. Readers can also see more teen letters at the Dear Teen Me website and find out that we’re not all so different from each other after all. Edited by E. Kristin Anderson and Miranda Kenneally, contributors include Gretchen McNeil, Ellen Hopkins, Geoff Herbach, Mitali Perkins, Kekla Magoon, and many other fabulous authors.

Dear Teen Me is one of those books with universal appeal, and while teens are the intended audience, I definitely got a lot out of this book, too. How many of us wish we could go back and have do-overs, or clarify what we really meant/felt as teenagers? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t always articulate myself in the best way during adolescence, and I often wish I could go back and slap some sense into my teen self. The writers of Dear Teen Me show that with age comes the benefit of wisdom. But seriously, if I could do it all over again, I would NEVER wear a bathing suit in P.E. again. Just sayin…

To get into the spirit of the Dear Teen Me’s blog tour, I decided to write a letter to my own teen self. And, of course, no post about the past would be complete without a photographic blast from the past. Enjoy!

Kindergarten, 1983

Dear Teen Me,

Obviously the above picture isn’t of you as a teenager, but it symbolizes the beginning of the end of innocence. Now, I’m not talking in sexual terms here (Eww! Besides, I’m not Captain Obvious, and that’s not where I’m going with this at all), but more like you won’t smile like that for a very long time in photos. Your kindergarten self is unguarded, unlike you at ages 11-17. When the photographer says to smile, you’ll really take him at his word and think it’s okay to show your inner self.

But later in elementary school, you’ll learn the hard lessons about being culturally different – to them, you’re that weirdo who’s brown but doesn’t speak Spanish or eat meat. Not to mention, also dresses very badly. One of your worst offenses? Actually LIKING the school library over P.E. Relentless teasing and having very few friends who truly understand you takes its toll and you enter middle school slightly hardened. In seventh grade, you meet your best friends, Mildred and RaeLynne, and oh! The trouble you get into! But you’re still not accepted by the popular kids (not that you wanted to be, but you wish they’d stop making fun of you!), and your intelligence earns you the moniker “School Girl,” except it’s thrown at you like a pejorative.

Seventh grade, 1990. Ugh, split ends!

By eighth grade, much of the awkward has disappeared. Your parents allow you to join chorus with Mildred and RaeLynne and you write for the school newspaper. Academics and social life seem to be going great, with some minor bumps in the road. You start thinking you’re all that, and pretty soon you earn the ire of your English teacher who screams at you one day for not finishing an assignment because, as you put it, you had “other things to do.” Um….whaaat?! Well, you weren’t all that – you were kinda obnoxious and still a fashion disaster. Purple lipstick? Really, dude? No worries – surely ninth grade is better?

Eighth grade, 1992. In no universe is this photo layout cool. Just. No.

Everything I’ve just written about is really a prelude to the high school years. The time where things do get a bit hairy for you (ew! Not even what I was referring to, I promise!). Freshman year is filled with lots of silliness – you’ll meet new friends, Julian and Vanessa. Sadly, you’ll drift apart from Mildred (who moves away after the school year ends. Don’t cry – she comes back later on 🙂 ) as well as RaeLynne. Your connection to Julian and Vanessa will be filled with stitch-inducing laughs, as well as profound moments of sadness. More on that later. Ninth grade also earns you new enemies among your peers in the honors curriculum – none of these people like you, and you can’t figure it out. Well, I might have somewhat of a clue – maybe it has to do with being too snarky/sarcastic? Sometimes you’re just not that funny, dude. Over and over again, you’ll try to reach out to those girls who simply don’t like you. But I’m here to say it really doesn’t work out and that’s ok. BTW, nothing much happens in sophomore year except you tweeze your eyebrows too thin and you concede that you’re terrible at tennis.

Junior year, 1994. Those cheekbones could cut glass, I tell you. Just so you know, they’ll fade into oblivion before you hit 30. (Ignore the iPhone silhouette…)

Fast forward to junior year – very sad, indeed. And not just because you hacked off all your hair, though that’s part of it. There are highs: joining the school newspaper (where, once again, you acted like an a**hole. Jennifer, and Mr. B – if you’re reading this, I want you to know I’m sorry for being so difficult), going to your first concert (The Cranberries at the Wiltern, y’all), and having a completely chaste, Victorian-style romance with Julian. That’s where things get messed up, truly. I’d like to save you all the heartbreak and tell you NOT to have a romance with anyone, including Julian (who’s actually gay – he’ll tell you this in a year), but you wouldn’t listen to me. Having a boyfriend back then had nothing to do with hormones, but rather with wanting someone to acknowledge that you were pretty. I mean, isn’t that what every 16-year old girl wants? Well, you did, anyway. But let me tell you, your pursuit of Julian costs you dearly. You will lose Vanessa and Julian as friends for the remainder of junior year. There was no major explosion…slowly you stopped talking to Vanessa. And Julian, not wanting to be caught in the middle, decided he’d stop talking to you. Sure you wallowed in anger and confusion, but hey, there were some positives. You became really good at chemistry and developed a lifelong love of the Smiths – can  you believe Morrissey’s music saved you? It still does, even today.

Ugly top from Contempo Casuals, old lady shorts + sweater, and white (why?!) gladiator sandals. You were hot, girl!

You’ll regain some of your footing senior year. Mildred has come back, but she and your sister hang out more. You and Julian are on speaking terms again, and thank goodness, because how else will you understand calculus?! (Sorry to say, but you never really get it…things get confusing after differentials). Sadly, things never really pick up again with Vanessa, but don’t worry – you’ll reconnect through Facebook many years later, and she’ll give you excellent real estate advice.

Don’t forget! I have some lessons for you, 17-year old self. You’ve still got that problem with pride and a wee bit of a superiority complex, and need to be taken down a notch. You’ll display some reprehensible, unsportsmanlike behavior during the class quiz bowl, senior year. You assembled an unbeatable team, for the purposes of, well, winning. You didn’t just win – you guys completely smashed the other teams. But it’s not about winning. It’s how you play the game. And you played very badly.

You’ll swallow tears when your senior year English teacher who you respected more than anyone says that she doesn’t understand how you keep friends when you treat them so badly. You’re not sure from where that criticism stems, but it’ll stay with you for years. After all, what gave her the right? Perhaps she meant well, but at the time, it didn’t feel that way. All year long, you’ll sit in the front row of her class, feeling her barely contained contempt for you. She has to deal with you because you’re her student, but you know now that she couldn’t wait for you to graduate and GTFO  of her classroom. If you could, you’d go back and let her know you’re different. You don’t take people for granted, and most of your friendships (the ones that truly matter) have endured in spite of long-distance moves, moving jobs, the birth of children, and more. Because you made an effort. Because you cared.

Okay, so it seems like your adolescent years had a good balance of pain and happiness – pretty typical of most teenagers.  Sure, your 34 year old self wishes she could go back in time and re-do lots of stuff. But just know, each of these mistakes has been part of a lifelong path that’s taught you a valuable lesson and led you to this moment, including a life with this guy:

Bryan and Lalitha, aged 18 – 1996

Now, what can beat that?

This ain’t your gramma’s Ramayana: The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

5 Nov

The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

US Pub Date: October 2012

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic)

Level: Middle Grade (ages 11+)

Digital copy purchased for review.

I can’t believe it took me THIS long to discover Sarwat Chadda’s The Savage Fortress! Y’all, this book is BANANAS! Bah-nah-nuhs, I tell you! Thanks to Cindy, who first told me about it, I devoured this book in 2 days last week. For those of you who don’t think that’s impressive reading, trust me, it is, for a busy mom of two hyper boys under age 5. For reals.

13-year old Ash (Ashoka) Mistry and his younger sister, Lucky (Lakshmi) have traveled from London to see their Uncle Vik(ram) and Aunt Anita for the summer in Varanasi, India. Ash is a mythology buff particularly fascinated by the Hindu epic The Ramayana–he’s hoping that Uncle Vik (a scholar on ancient Indian history) will give him a first-hand look at India and its rich culture. Uncle Vik has also been hired by the wealthy, but odd Lord Alexander Savage to translate a Harappan-language scroll discovered in a recent archaeological dig in Rajasthan. Unbeknownst to Vik, Savage plans on using the scroll to resurrect Ravana, the demon king from the Hindu epic The Ramayana.

During an evening picnic at an excavation site near Savage’s castle, Ash stumbles into an underground chamber and discovers a statue of Rama (the hero of The Ramayana); Ash pricks himself on Rama’s arrow (aastra), and that’s when sh*t gets real. Ash sees his worst nightmares coming true – people close to him die, and rakshasas (flesh-eating demons) lurk at every turn. With the aid of Rishi, a badass sadhu (holy man) and Parvati, half-human/half-snake rakshasa girl, Ash and Lucky must fight the ultimate battle between good and evil.

Okay, so it’s obvious that I loved this book. I grew up hearing and reading stories from The Ramayana, and even took college courses on Hinduism. For Hindus, this text is deeply ingrained in our religious and social conscience. I felt a mixture of pride and curiosity, hearing about a book that: 1. Is released by a mainstream publisher; 2. Contains lead characters of South Asian descent; and 3. Makes Indian culture appealing to reluctant readers!

Beyond the fantasy elements of rakshasas, aastras, avatars, and death-eating goddesses, at its heart, The Savage Fortress is about the confusing landscape of adolescence. Ash feels in-between in more ways than one – he’s not really a kid/not really a teen, not English-enough/not Indian-enough. Ash is relatable to most of us who, at some point or another (doesn’t matter about your gender or cultural background), have walked in his shoes. The Savage Fortress is about making choices and not being consigned to the roles/perceptions defined by others. Ash ultimately decides that he is Indian enough. That he is mature enough to take on the world. Love this kid.

Another thing that struck me is the endearing relationship between Ash and Lucky. They bicker, but Ash would truly lay down his life for his sis. Family duty is a valuable component of Indian culture – older siblings, especially brothers, are duty bound to protect their sisters, and Ash mentions this many  times throughout the novel. The fact that his sister is named Lakshmi wasn’t lost on me, either. Rama’s wife, Sita, is an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi, and she’s kidnapped by Ravana in the epic. Essentially,  The Ramayana focuses on getting Sita back. In The Savage Fortress, Chadda makes clever parallels between Rama and Ash’s dilemmas – Rama has to protect his wife and Ash needs to protect his sister.

Chadda is careful not to fall into any dangerous stereotyping about East vs. West – Ash complains about India but it’s clear that he loves being there. His respect is genuine, and that’s refreshing to those of us who tire of hearing about Delhi-belly and jokes about holy cows. There were some things I wondered about, though. Like, are the rakshasas Indian, too? And there is an interesting point to be made about Parvati as a subaltern

The Savage Fortress’s vivid and bloody descriptions (um, limbs get ripped off…it’s sooooo gross! 😀 ) lend themselves well to a graphic format *cough*graphic novelization*cough*.  Personally, I think this book falls nicely in the middle of scholarly texts like Wendy Doniger’s translation of the Rig Veda, and the fun, but completely cheesy (well, the older editions, anyway) Amar Chitra Katha series of comics I grew up reading.


(L to R: Penguin Classic’s The Rig Veda trans. by Wendy Doniger, Amar Chitra Katha version of The Ramayana)

Fans of epic storytelling that effectively incorporates mythology (think Rick Riordan, Michael Scott, and Cindy Pon) will swoop up The Savage Fortress. Best part of all? Chadda is working on the sequel right now! SQUEE!!!

It’s not like any other love: Eleanor & Park

22 Oct

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press

Expected publication: March 2013

Previously published in the UK by Orion in April 2012

Digital copy for review kindly provided by the publisher.

“It’s not like any other love – this one is different, because it’s us…”* Naturally I have to use lyrics from The Smiths to discuss Rainbow Rowell’s eloquent forthcoming novel. After all, imagine my delight over finding this quirky story set in Omaha, Nebraska during the 1980s (an especially good decade for cartoons) about two teens slowly falling in love over comics, the maudlin sounds of Morrissey and Joy Division, and a shared sense of being completely out of sync with the world around them.

Park has always been somewhat of an outsider in the Flats – his musical tastes, predilection for X-Men and Alan Moore, and biraciality (he’s half-White/half-Korean) sets him apart from his classmates. His pseudo-friends, the oafish Steve, and his mean little girlfriend, Tina, find Park curious. Sure they tease him, good-naturedly, but deep down they’re confounded by him, and in Tina’s case, definitely attracted, too. Enter Eleanor.

Eleanor’s bright red hair, and her off-beat fashion makes her the target of ridicule on her first day of school. On the surface, Eleanor reminded me of Andie Walsh (played by Molly Ringwald) in Pretty in Pink. Like Andie, Eleanor outwardly appears stoic, quietly enduring the jeers and taunts; inwardly, she’s self-conscious, and the choices she makes aren’t always dictated by a need to go against the grain. Kicked out the year before by her abusive stepfather, Eleanor is just returning home, uncertain of everything and everyone around her.

When they first meet, Park is taken aback by Eleanor – his reaction partly stems from how his peers perceive her. Even though he knows he’s different from his them, he doesn’t want to be ostracized. Park grudgingly lets Eleanor sit next to him on the bus. Rowell builds up their relationship ever so slowly – moving from the mundane details into deeply emotional territory. In many contemporary stories, love swoops in almost too quickly, and that’s largely because we live in a culture of immediacy, demanding instant gratification. Rowell’s novel is soporific – sure there are nightmarish moments (especially Eleanor’s family life), but their romance truly feels dreamlike – like a paused moment in time.  While their connection has all the bright intensity of an indie love song, it’s clear to readers that Eleanor & Park won’t go the distance. Not because love isn’t enough, but because love doesn’t always conquer all.

Rowell intercuts the romance with poignant dialogue about Park’s feelings about his Korean identity –sadness over being misunderstood by his white father, and insecurity over Eleanor’s attraction to him. In a particularly telling scene, Park tells Eleanor, “Look at M*A*S*H. The whole show takes place in Korea, and the doctors are always flirting with Korean girls, right? But the nurses don’t use their R & R to go to Seoul to pick up hot Korean guys. Everything that makes Asian girls seem exotic makes Asian guys seem like girls” (Location 2824 – Kindle). When Park tells Eleanor that he doesn’t understand what it means to be Korean, she asks, “Does it matter?” (Location 2838 – Kindle) It’s not such a minor question, considering that Park spends a significant amount of time analyzing all the dissimilarities between himself and his father, including, racial differences. Eleanor’s Danish heritage is revealed in a violent scene in which her drunken stepfather hurls a bowl of risalamande (Danish rice pudding – traditionally served during Christmas) against the wall. Eleanor’s Danishness is a wistful reminder of how things were before her mother married an abusive man; it’s not surprising that she wonders about the importance of one’s cultural background.

Rowell writes with brilliant clarity, expertly using alternating voices to draw readers into Eleanor and Park’s world. If you’re looking for a happy ending neatly tied up with a bow, this novel doesn’t provide that. Rather, Eleanor & Park’s appeal stems from its stark realism, and the sense that this story could happen to anyone.

*Hand in Glove by The Smiths

Cybils Awards~Nominate an App TODAY!

11 Oct
This is the second year that Books Apps are being recognized by the Cybils Awards. The Children’s and Young Adult Literary Bloggers’ (Cybils) Awards annually recognize the best in children’s and young adults books.  As I mentioned before, I am a Round 1 panelist for the Book Apps category. Anyone can nominate books (and apps!) between October 1st and October 15th. Time is running out, and there are only 5 DAYS left until public nominations close.

The process to nominate is simple – go HERE to nominate, and enter your favorite titles. All titles nominated must fall within the publication range of October 16, 2011-October 15, 2012.

We currently have approximately 20 excellent book apps nominated, but we would like to see more! Here are some worthy nominations that I hope you’ll consider submitting. If, by the time you read this blog, some of these titles have already been nominated, Kirkus has excellent app recommendations for consideration.
[All quotes and links from Kirkus Reviews]
Mr. Sandman published by Manon Aidan and Yanick Gourville. Illust. by Cyril Jedor
A moody, beautifully rendered dreamscape, this app about conquering a fear of the dark takes full advantage of the iPad’s capabilities.”
Leah & the Owl by Cori Doerrfeld
Because I love owls, of course I had to include this title. 🙂 “Leah’s adventure with the owl is a lovely dream, and so is this whimsical app, which makes the magic feel effortless.”
Hiding Hannah by Mike Johnson. Illust by Melanie McCall
“A child’s frustrating habit of hiding things (including herself) around the house is offset by the cuteness of the hider and the light, playful tone of this app.”
“Ever a guilty pleasure anyway, the popular but violent preschool hand rhyme takes a gothic turn in this startling iteration.”
Sneaky Sam by Josh Stewart. Illust. by Binny Talib
“A brief but endearing tale about a mischievous little boy.This app proves the notion that an interactive storybook need not be super slick or brimming with tricks to leap the “average” bar.”
The House That Went On Strike by Rania Ajami and John Casey. Illust. by Walter Krudop
“In an episode both funny and pointed, a family of slobs receives an ultimatum from their filthy house and its disgusted appliances.”
Even Monsters Get Sick by Michael Bruza
“Zub looks like a bad bargain until his new young owner, Harry, realizes that the monster isn’t sad and boring but actually ill…Children with wheezles and sneezles of their own will sympathize with the droopy monster and perhaps feel a little less anxious about doctor visits, too.”
Where Do Balloons Go? An Uplifting Mystery by Jamie Lee Curtis. Illust. by Laura Cornell
“…The stratospheric level of interactivity transforms the verse into soaring, imaginative exploration”

Continue reading

Let the fun begin…2012 Cybils!!!

17 Sep

This morning, the 2012 Cybils panelists were announced, and, boy is it exciting! The Cybils are the Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards, annually recognizing the best titles in children’s and young adult literature. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the Cybils are akin to the Academy Awards of the children’s/young adult blogging community.

There are several Cybils categories and they include:

I’m please to announce…that I’ve been selected as a Round 1 Panelist for the Book Apps category! Squee!!! I’m so excited to be a part of this particular panel, because one of my favorite things to do is share book apps with my two young sons. Of course, we still enjoy reading picture books, but you can’t deny the magic of a book app. A remarkable app with effective interactive elements has the potential to enhance (not take away from) a beloved print book. In addition, my library was recently awarded a grant to purchase iPads for our children’s room, and we’re looking forward to using them in our programming and services. I. Cannot. Wait!

For the Cybils, there are two rounds of judging, and Round 1 is the preliminary evaluation, occurring between October-December 2012. Round 1 panelists come up with a shortlist of 5-7 titles and submit them to the Round 2 judges at the end of December.  Round 2 judges have the super difficult, but ultimately fun task of picking the winners in February 2013.

Anyone can submit one nomination per genre during the nomination period (October 1-15), using the online form on the Cybils website. Books and apps published between October 16, 2011-October 15, 2012 are eligible for nomination.

Given that so many parents, educators, and librarians are implementing transmedia in their curricula and storytelling, the Book Apps category is such a vital part of the Cybils. As soon as nominations open up, I’m looking forward to hearing about your favorite apps!

Congratulations to my fellow panelists and judges in Books Apps:

Round 1: Carissa, Cathy, Lisa, and Paula

Round 2: Alyson, Sara, Helen, Elisabeth, and Melissa

And a shout-out to our fabulous chair, Mary Ann!

Let the fun begin!

Soaring the Skies: Flying the Dragon by Natalie Dias Lorenzi

25 Jul

Natalie Dias Lorenzi’s lovely book pictured with my treasured wood block print of a cat looking at Mt. Fuji (purchased in Kyoto six years ago).

Flying the Dragon
by Natalie Dias Lorenzi

Pub Date: July 2012

Publisher: Charlesbridge

Level: Middle Grade/Ages 9-up

Natalie Dias Lorenzi’s eloquent middle grade debut, Flying the Skies, told in alternating narrative is about two cousins from different worlds who overcome vast cultural differences to find common ground. Fifth-grader Skye Tsuki lives with her Japanese-born father, Issei, and American mother, Cathy in Virginia, and has just found out she’s made the All-Star soccer team. But Skye knows something is up with her folks, especially her dad, who hasn’t been acting like himself lately. “The first sign of trouble was when her dad switched from silverware to chopsticks. Maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, her dad was Japanese. Sort of. He’d been born and raised in Japan but hadn’t been back since he married her mom. To Skye he was pretty much American.” (pg. 1) Her suspicions are soon confirmed when her parents tell her that she must take Japanese language lessons, which unfortunately conflict with soccer practice. Skye learns that Issei’s father is very ill, and will be traveling to the United States for medical treatment; in order to properly communicate with her grandfather, Skye needs to improve her rudimentary Japanese. Also accompanying Grandfather is Skye’s cousin, Hiroshi, and his parents.

Hiroshi is none too pleased about being uprooted from Japan to travel to America and visit relatives he doesn’t really know. More importantly, the trip coincides with his first rokkaku kite battle for which he and Grandfather (a master kite maker and rokkaku champion) have diligently prepared. Hiroshi and Skye’s initial meeting is awkward and confusing–both feel self-conscious around each other, which affects their ability to verbally communicate with each other. As Skye introduces herself to her Hiroshi, we learn that her birth name is Sorano (“of the sky” in Japanese), but that she changed it years earlier to avoid explaining her background to her inquisitive classmates. Names are often the very first clue about a person’s ethnic/cultural heritage; for many, a name reveals family origins, even right down to what town/city you’re from. But for Skye, it’s easier and less complicated to blend in by using a Westernized version of her birth name.

Lorenzi astutely captures Skye’s feelings about straddling two cultures. “She wasn’t pretty like the Ambers of the world or even pretty like the Chinese American Lucy Lius of the world. Skye was somewhere in the middle–not Asian, not white. Caucasian applied perfectly to her–‘Asian’ hiding in a word meaning ‘white.'” (pg. 33) Indeed, with the arrival of Grandfather and Hiroshi, Skye finds herself caught between her Japanese and American identities.  At school, she is embarrassed to be seen conversing with her cousin in Japanese, but at home, she longs for the deep connection Hiroshi has with their grandfather. Hiroshi also feels lost, and struggles to get his bearings in Virginia. The only thing that keeps him going is his time spent with Grandfather, flying kites in the park. However, when Grandfather suggests including Skye in their excursions, Hiroshi wrestles with jealousy. Skye also begins to realize how fleeting and precious her moments are with her grandfather. She endeavors to see him more, knowing but not caring that Hiroshi sees her as an interloper.

However, there are moments when the tension eases between Hiroshi and Skye. Observing her classmates’ insensitivity towards Hiroshi, Skye shares language tips with her cousin, teaching him how to use American slang/colloquialisms. By novel’s end, both cousins have developed a friendship, bonded together by their mutual love and respect for Grandfather.  Skye grows throughout the book, and we see her eventually take pride and ownership of her Japanese heritage.

The storytelling is so authentic and palpable that readers will relate equally to Skye and Hiroshi. Both characters are fully realized, and Lorenzi adroitly maps out their flaws and strengths, adding dimension to the story. Lorenzi also expertly covers complex family dynamics as seen in the reasons behind Issei’s estrangement from his family in Japan, following his marriage to Cathy. There are so many things going on in this book, but rather than feeling bogged down by it all, readers will feel as though they’re peeling back layers, and getting more invested in the characters and their plights.

I especially loved the multi-generational component in this novel – as I mentioned in an earlier review on this blog, the relationship between different generations is a significant element in multicultural storytelling. Grandfather’s relationships with Hiroshi and Skye are uniquely defined–he bonds with Hiroshi over kite-making and shares tender stories about Grandmother with Skye. You’ll want to have Kleenex while reading, just sayin’.

Readers will also appreciate Lorenzi’s detailed research of Japanese culture, evident in the many Japanese phrases and kanji included throughout the book. Flawless writing, nuanced storytelling, and reverence and respect for diversity make this book a treasure.

For more on Natalie Dias Lorenzi and her writing process, check out these fabulous interviews:

Interview with Natalie Dias Lorenzi by From the Mixed-up Files of Middle-Grade Authors

Interview with Natalie Dias Lorenzi by YA Librarian Tales

Finished book for review kindly provided by Charlesbridge.

Dream Ride: Tia Isa Wants a Car

7 Jul

Tia Isa Wants A Car by Meg Medina/Illustrated by Claudio Muñoz

Pub Date: 2011

Publisher: Candlewick

Level: Picture book/ages 5-up

About a year ago, having been newly appointed to ALA’s Amelia Bloomer Project, I was on the lookout for picture books with feminist themes. For ABP, it was relatively easier to find YA books that highlighted feminism. But finding picture books with significant feminist content presented a slight challenge. Picture books have the ability to convey a sophisticated message through simple text and evocative artwork. According to selected criteria, ABP nominated books should show some awareness of gender inequities (Is the main character overcoming stereotypes/oppression?), reflect empowerment, but also be age-appropriate. Basically, there has to be a balance between the content and appeal to readers. A heavy handed message about feminism could go over readers’ heads by coming off as too pedantic. On the other hand, if the message is too light, it’s practically non-existent.

So, you can imagine how happy I was to read Meg Medina’s Tia Isa Wants A Car, which was personally recommended to me by Raquel Matos, Marketing Services Supervisor at Candlewick Press.

Tia Isa Wants A Car is  about a woman and her niece who defeat incredible odds to reach their ultimate goal. With beautiful simplicity, Meg Medina shares a profound message that resonates with many folks, particularly those of us who are immigrants: We all possess the ability to perservere and achieve our dreams. On the surface, Medina’s story is about a little girl and her aunt saving assiduously to buy a car that will take them far out of the city, to beaches that remind them of the native home and family they dearly miss.

Tia Isa Wants A Car was inspired by the memory of Medina’s beloved aunt, Ysaira, who had a “light-blue Wildcat that stalled everywhere and was awful to park on crowded streets…but that car could take us anywhere we wanted in this new country; it was freedom.”(rear bookjacket) Medina sprinkles her book with expressive Spanish phrases, and rich descriptions of Latino culture. She also shows us what it’s like to truly struggle for something…sometimes a novel concept in picture books.  We see Tia Isa saving to send remittances to family in an unnamed Latin country. When she and her niece try to buy a car, they are derided by Isa’s brother who proclaims their idea to be “Rrrridiculo.” At the car lot, the dismissive salesman tells them that they don’t have enough money. And here’s where the story really begins to tug at your heart.

Tia Isa’s enterprising niece begins approaching members of her community, offering services for fees that include helping out at the grocery store, feeding kitties, and teaching a librarian Spanish. Before long, she has saved up enough money to supplement her aunt’s savings, and they have enough for a car! Tia Isa and her niece exerted their independence (very feminist!), ignored naysayers (who all happened to be dudes), and purchased a car (a metaphor for freedom). When Tia Isa and her niece tape a picture of the family they hope to see very soon, we realize that the car is simply a promise of better things to come. Beautifully brought to life by Medina’s lively prose and illustrator Claudio Muñoz’s lush watercolor artwork, Tia Isa Wants A Car stayed with me long after the last page had been turned.

Review copy kindly provided by Candlewick Press.