Archive | November, 2012

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!!!