Fiction, Graphic Novel, Reviews, Teen, Teen Non-Fiction, Tween

Review: Last of the Sandwalkers by Jay Hosler

Last of the SandwalkersHosler, J. (2015). Last of the sandwalkers. New York: First Second.

The last time I went to the library, I may have gotten a little carried away. You see, our local branch has three sections of graphic novels. One section is for juvenile titles, one is for teen and the other adult. Being a huge comic lover, I have a weakness for graphic novels and spent an inordinately large amount of time selecting a rather large stack from the latter two sections.

Being that I have worked with entomologists in the past (that is a scientist who studies insects), I immediately noticed the insect on the cover and figured, if it turned out to be half-way decent I would let my former co-workers know (they have both retired), as they still help educate volunteers and the community. No harm, no foul. Right?

Unfortunately, my lackluster expectations led to this title sitting on my dining room table for 2 renewal cycles, until it made it’s way to the coffee table where my teenager picked it up during the summer break from school, and reported back that it was “good.” Gee. Thanks for the detailed synopsis, kid.

I should have taken that as a sign of its merit. I am constantly recommending books and media to my kid, who promptly tells me “Nah, no thanks,” only to decide a month or two down the road to tell me about about this great new book or media site…the exact same one, but obviously much more enjoyable now that Mom’s recommendation has passed some imaginary statute of limitations. Yes. This is where I am sticking my tongue out at my child.

With this glowing review, I thought, ok, I really should dig deeper into this pile of novels to get them back to the library. I picked it up, arrogantly glanced at the black and white panels, and thought about how the artwork is just as important as the storyline in a graphic novel, and how, to use a Jane Austen paraphrase, it wasn’t handsome enough to tempt me. UGH! I’m kicking myself now.

I got an email notice from the library to return the book, lest the unmentionable happen (therefore I’m NOT mentioning it), and figured, well, the kid said it was good, and if I’m going to assess that statement AND save my library account, I need to read it now. And read it I did.

Yes, the panels are in black and white. Some have a lot going on, which made it difficult for my over-stressed eyes to settle down and take it all in (I think it’s important to note my kid had NO problem with them, so I KNOW it was me). But, by page 3, I had adjusted fine and was starting to see scientific accuracy within the artistic expression . By page 6, the story-line had me dialed in and by the end of the book I was wishing it was a series.

This is a graphic novel about beetles, all sorts of beetles working with, and against each other; about chosen families; adoption; exploration; scientific discovery; treachery; villainy; the fight of science against ignorance; mystery; history; perseverance and science fact! It’s CHOCKED-full of facts about nature, beetle behavior and anatomy, and it’s woven effortlessly into the story-line. It’s absorbed organically, and then for those that want to know more information, there are notations in the back of the book.

last of the sandwalkers 3

Lucy has decided she wants to explore other life outside the oasis, New Coleopolis. She’s been granted a small stipend for her, and her team (Mossy, Raef, and Professor Bombardier), to venture out and record their observations. This might seem like small potatoes, save for the fact that no one has left New Coleopolis for generations, since the original Coleopolis was destroyed, in what citizens were told was the displeasure of a deity they failed to appease. Unfortunately, the government toadie, Professor Owen, has insisted that he tag along to oversee their efforts (IE. boss them around). The part he forgets to mention is his intention to sabotage their mission, dispose of the team and take credit for their findings, presenting his own spin on their meaning…all in a most insidious manner.

Initially, you can tell that Lucy’s team is close, though you never question they are colleagues. Later you learn their interpersonal relationships go much, much deeper. You watch their talents and capabilities emerge, their backstories and their natural traits. Then you find that the rabbit hole goes much, much deeper, in large part due to the actions of the two eldest team members when they were young, and a daring mission to do what was right, versus what they were told.

Add to that a cyborg beetle, heroic rescues, exiled storytellers, gadgets, assassination attempts, intrigue, love and triumph and by the end, you wonder how in the world all of that plot came out of so few words. It’s one of the things I love most about graphic novels…good graphic novels. They tell stories and convey information across multiple receptors, multiple dimensions. Just as written word and verbal storytelling are/were traditional during different periods of time, I see the rise in graphic novels as a 21st century storytelling tradition building out of 20th century roots. It’s a new era of storytelling that combines elements of previously accepted types, and has the ability to reach broader audiences and different types of learners, especially reluctant readers, helping to educate on topics that may be sensitive or complex in ways that allow increased information retention. I’ve been saying that for years!!!

The good news is, this is not the author’s (Jay Hosler) first rodeo! In addition to being a professor and biologist, he makes science comics…on all sorts of subjects! Before this book he wrote a book on bees. He has others on mites, evolution and the eye. And his comics…oh my gosh…his COMICS!!! (if you can’t tell, click on that giant, underlined, contrasting word “comics” (see, I did it again!) to go to his website and see individual science comic strips) Where were these when I was a kid trying to learn basic science concepts?! I mean, I got most of them, but this would have made some of the trickier nuances SO MUCH EASIER to remember, especially in a non-neuro-typical brain!

So what did  I do? I ran straight to the entomologist I used to work with and started absolutely gushing over Hosler’s work and she is pretty jazzed to read it. I will admit, the online list I maintain for her, of science books and resources, was definitely on my mind when reading Last of the Sandwalkers, as a great way to encourage kids in elementary, middle school and up, to give science concepts they may have struggled with, one more chance. This work proves that a book can be both fiction and non-fiction at the same time. These novels and comics make science relatable, entertaining and easy to understand and that’s the way that information sharing SHOULD be.

Major kudos to Jay Hosler for the reminder that learning should be fun, joyful, exciting and riveting and for showing us all what kind of a difference a good story makes.

Thank you.

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Fiction, LGBTQ+, Life Lessons, Reviews, Teen, Uncategorized

Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Saenz, B. A. (2018). Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Place of publication not identified: Thorndike Press.

It is not often that I lament having to return a library book, but this, this is one of those times.

I walked into my local library to pick up a hold during Pride month (June). There was a small but impactful display of LGBTQ+ titles, and being the book and philosophy nerd I am, not to mention aficionado of teen and juvenile fiction, I was immediately drawn to this title. I especially like books for younger readers on what can be considered difficult or complex topics, like coming to terms with your sexuality or gender identity, anxieties, expectations, familial and community reactions.

Materials (not just books) of this type are essential, as they help younger patrons explore these complicated topics, experience diversity and empathy, see feasible “real-world” examples that might mirror their own, and provide insight and connection. Do you know what’s even more wonderful about it? These types of titles ALSO help adults in the exact same way, providing a more personal, poignant and less intimidating format to learn, and grow.

It’s like that Jeopardy champion who won millions of dollars and people wondered how he would ever be stopped and if he could be beaten (FYI he was beaten by a LIBRARIAN. BOOYAH!) . When asked how he prepared to answer so many questions on so many different titles, he said that at first he had a hard time figuring out how he was going to understand and remember difficult information that he might not necessarily want to, if he was reading it from a dry reference book. So he went and looked up the same topics but in the children’s section! The principles, stories and facts were presented in such a way that they were more easily explained, absorbed and retained in children’s books! And while teen literature is arguably a lot more complex, in some ways, than juvenile literature, being that it is not adult literature, I feel like it can still come under the umbrella of children’s services/literature, and there you have it. What a great tool to foster community understanding in a non-threatening manner for all ages.

But back to the book.

Angel Aristotle Mendoza is a Mexican-American (third generation) teenager in the 1980’s, living in El Paso; a loner, with a complicated back story and a whole lot of unexpressed and repressed emotions. His dad, a postal carrier, was never the same after Vietnam, quiet and a little lost, almost fragile. His mother, a teacher, is firm but loving. His twin sisters are so much older than he, that it’s almost a generational gap, and they have long ago moved out and married. His brother, Bernardo, they never speak of. It’s almost like he doesn’t exist. All his photos have been packed away and no trace remains. This has never sat right with Aristotle (Ari), and he just doesn’t know why it has to be this way.

Bernardo is in jail. He was sent away when Angel was younger, and the silence surrounding the gaping hole left in the aftermath is oppressive to Ari. He just doesn’t understand his parents. He feels alone. He has no friends. He is an old soul in a young body, weary and confused. Where once he loved to tell stories, he now just locks all the words away, but there is fire. Oh there is fire, deep inside of him, and it rages. He doesn’t go looking for fights, he says, but he can hold his own.

One summer day, knowing his mother is fretting over him, he ducks out and tells her he is going to go swim at the local pool. There’s just one hitch. Ari doesn’t know how to swim. But, he goes to the pool anyway. Enter Dante Quintana.

Dante’s smile seems to light up the world. He is personable, helpful, smart, creative, emotional, and friendly. Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim, and for some reason he doesn’t immediately know, the ever independent Ari agrees, quickly building a strong bond with Dante and eventually, Dante’s affectionate parents, an English professor and a psychologist. Much like Ari, Dante’s also a third generation Mexican-American and feels a bit like he doesn’t belong, though he constantly tells Ari that Ari is “more Mexican” than he is, but they are both good boys who want to be bad.

“All afternoon, I sat in a large comfortable chair in Dante’s room and he lay down on his newly made bed. and he read poems.

I didn’t worry about understanding them. I didn’t care about what they meant. I didn’t care because what mattered is that Dante’s voice felt real. And I felt real. Until Dante, being with other people was the hardest thing in the world for me. But Dante made talking and living and feeling seem like all those things were perfectly natural. Not in my world,. they weren’t.

I went home and looked up the word “inscrutable.” It meant something that could not easily be understood. I wrote down all the synonyms in my journal. “Obscure.” “Unfathomable.” “Enigmatic.” “Mysterious.”

That afternoon, I learned two new words. “Inscruptable.” and “friend.”

Words were different when they lived inside of you.”

Ari and Dante automatically feel normal together. They talk, or don’t, sit or read, swim or run. They spend every spare moment together, laughing, playing, learning, growing and one day, in the midst of a rain storm, Ari saves Dante’s life. Ariends up in the hospital, with both legs and an arm in a cast and a strong desire to not ever discuss the accident again, nor everyone’s undying gratitude. Ari makes a lot of rules, and “Do not talk about the accident” is top on the list.

Not long after, Dante’s family moves to Chicago for a year, to do a trial run with a university that wants to hire Dante’s father, the professor.  Dante writes and writes. Ari, more angry and confused than ever, reads but only responds belatedly, and then infrequently at best. He thinks about his brother, a lot. He listens to Dante test boundaries and stretch wings as he tries pot and beer, and kissing a girl. He also listens when Dante finds that he’d rather be kissing boys, and eventually that Dante would rather be kissing Ari, though they don’t really say anything about it.

Eventually, Dante moves back to El Paso, and that’s when things have to be dealt with, they have to change, and as with most transitions there is confusion, and pain but also light and breath and release and joy. And not just between Dante and Ari, but Dante and his parents, a potential suitor, bullies and another hospital episode: between Ari and his parents, the ghost of Bernardo, bullies, potential friends and in particular, between Ari and himself.

Honestly, this novel has everything. It is fast paced with short chapters that read like a biopic, from Ari’s perspective. It’s gritty and real, difficult and wonderful. It makes your heart ache, your pulse race, and your eyes glisten. It shows such a depth of love and understanding in a world where we all frequently feel out of joint and you feel like you are right there, in the thick of it;  in the rain storms and fear, the sunlight and acceptance, the street, the car, the fights, the hugs, the hospital rooms and Ari’s chair and even his sick bed. It talks about the struggle to fit in within your town, your country,  your sub-culture, your ethnicity, your gender, your family and yourself. It talks about expectations and living genuinely. There’s a dog, a gorgeous old truck, a desert, human foibles, death, life, rebirth and most importantly love. There is so much of it. And revelation. And healing. Palpable.

“As Dante was watching me search the sky through the lens of a telescope he whispered, “Someday, I’m going to discover all the secrets of the universe.”

It was so wonderful that I literally hugged the book after I read the last page, with tears in my eyes, and despite the fact that I have already read it, one day I will own this book, and it will definitely be re-read over and over. And the biggest testament of all: I have already recommended it to my favorite, 13 year old.

 

Fiction, Graphic Novel, Reviews, Teen

Review: Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

512OP4XRiJL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Hicks, F. E. (2012). Friends with boys. New York: First Second.

Since I was a kid, the library was a place for adventure. Sure, I could just reliably (most of the time) go to pick-up the books or media I had previously requested. But, when I was feeling particularly daring (I’m actively working on getting back to that feeling more often now-a-days), I would wander the stacks, caressing books spines, or silently uttering titles, until something would call out to me.

Now, often we say don’t judge a book by its cover, but books where graphics are a huge part of the storytelling medium (and even some that don’t), rely on the appearance of the cover to give a glimpse, a flavor, a taste of the content within. It’s a reflection, and sometimes, that reflection, or even just the title are enough to make the hand that was previously gently tracing the paper, linen, plastic and glue based ley-lines of the library stop and grab hold; the first step being almost divine-spiritual, the second being intellectual-spiritual once we begin to flip through the pages looking for a preview of its hidden secrets.

One such recent adventure reminded me that I haven’t lost my touch and that this wandering (“Not all who wander are lost”, so my e-mail signature and J.R.R. Tolkien have told me for the better part of 20 years), this not knowing, this discovery is incredibly thrilling, connecting, and essential to me. It is intuition and magic, and the steady guiding hand of the Universe.

This is how I found “Friends With Boys” by Faith Erin Hicks.

Maggie is starting her very first day of high school. In fact, it’s her very first day of public school. She, and her three older brothers, were all home-schooled by their now-absent mother, and are being raised by their newly appointed police chief father. She’s nervous. Her older brothers are less than supportive, with more of a “sink until you swim” kind of methodology. She has no friends. She loved being home-schooled but it is the appointed time and she goes forward with some righteous fear, but tenacity none-the-less and on the way to school her first day we find, she can also see the 100 year old ghost of a woman in the town graveyard, that has been coming and going since she was a child, never saying a word.

How will she navigate high school with a ghost, and the memory of her mother tailing her? How will she find friends and what happens when the friends she just might find don’t meet with the approval of one of her brothers? What is with the animosity raining down from the boy’s volleyball team? Is her oldest brother actually one of the cool kids? Will one of her twin brothers succeed in running away? Is there a way to appease the ghost? Can she find herself among the madness, how is she going to get out of jail and what is the bombshell that her brothers reveal at the end of the book?!

This little book packs SO much into it. The graphics are all in black and white, which can be a turn-off for some people, but it is so beautifully rendered, both realistic and emotional, reminding me a little bit of the illustrations I saw in Neil Gaiman’s (non-graphic novel version) “The Graveyard Book.” At some point you just instinctively see the colors in your own mind and the heavy inking relays every emotion, so much so that it just pulls you along with it. But the fun is in the myriad of plot points and stressors, problem solving, and joy, trouble and sadness, all the chaos of a daily teenage experience with the paranormal thrown in for flavor (totally up my alley). The characters are all well developed and rich, relatable and personal. You become invested.

I’m happy to report that a little digging had me finding out that not only is the author, Faith Erin Hicks, a Pacific Northwesterner (Vancouver, B.C.), but, more often than not now, it seems, this too started off as a web comic (http://friendswithboys.com/). But,  I can’t seem to find that it was continued much beyond the printing of the book, though Faith Erin Hicks work definitely has, including many popular comic book titles and recently her first novel (can’t wait to read it!)! Check them out on her website: http://www.faitherinhicks.com/.

I love web-comics in that they are such a solid, grass-roots way of getting independent artists’ work into the world, where previously only print could do that, and only then if you were fortunate enough to fall into a place where printing was an option. So, support them if you can and share, most definitely, regardless. This is, without a doubt, a graphic novel I intend to own, and revisit, even though the cliff-hanger ending will always leave me wanting more! But, that’s a testament to her mastery of the genre.

In the meantime, I will be following her on social media, thanking the local library for carrying this graphic novel (I love how my local branch has a teen AND an adult graphic novel section!!!) , and going back to the library catalog to see if her novel will be counted among the collection soon, and if not, well, that’s what the suggestion button is for.

Ciao!

Fiction, Historical Fiction, Reviews, Teen, Tween

Review: Mare’s Ware by Tanita S. Davis

81tK28vVUjL.jpgDavis, T. S. (2011). Mares war. New York: Ember.

Two teenage girls are forced, by their parents, to take a cross-county trip with their grandmother for a “family reunion,” a grandmother who they find to be eccentric, who they believe they have nothing in common with, and whose presence they find inconvenient at best.

In an age of technology and consumerism, what could these teens possibly find as common ground with a wild, grandmother, who refuses to use the title, but instead goes by Mare, a short form of her name “Marey Lee”, but also phonetically the same sound as “mother” in French? As the road wears on, and Mare tells the girls about her time in the 6888th battalion, in the Woman’s Army Corp. during World War II, they realize how much of a trailblazer she was, how unique her experience and how much they can learn, even if it’s subconscious. They draw closer, in their efforts to understand one another, and see Mare for who she is rather than what she may appear to be on the surface.

She tells them of how she served in the only African-American women’s unit to serve overseas during the war. She weaves the tale of her humble beginnings, her tenacity of spirit, her protection of family, how she accomplished what her own mother assumed she never would. They learned how she took a hand full of no’s and made them into her kind of yeses. The learn to be brave through her tales of bravery, hardship and tenacity. They learn camaraderie, and gratitude for the trail that she blazed, which directly affected their own privileges, two generations later. They learn to appreciate each other, and the world on a whole different level, because of her stories, her sacrifices, understanding, and grit. They come to understand how far the world, and the county has come, but how much farther it still has to go, and how those of color fought more than one war simultaneously, one abroad, and another one here at home they never thought they’d win. Now it’s her granddaughters’ responsibility, and our own, to take up her fight, for equality.

 

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Four women from the 6888th (Source)

 

This is marketed as a YA (Young Adult) book, but would be good for high level readers in the 4th or 5th grade, through middle school. It’s short chapters and interspersed postcards from the girls’ to their parents and friends help bring the stories of the past into the future, appeal to shorter attention spans and reminds you that this isn’t just a story, it’s part of current affairs, it’s part of life, it’s part of the fabric of society and relevant to all.  It was a great book to read during Black History Month, though I did not check it out with that in mind. I checked it out looking for Y.A. novels on WWII and there is a surprising lack of them, particularly in non-fiction! This fiction, however, allows an emotional connection and exploration that most non-fiction can’t hope to touch and I can only hope that this review will serve as the impetus for more people to read it!

It never ceases to amaze me, the stories of those who gave everything to fight for a country that treated them as second class citizens or worse, the consequence of which may also have left them alienated from their own homes and families as well, particularly once the war was over. There are many such stories during WWII (W.A.C.s, W.A.S.P.S, Tuskeegee Airmen, 442nd Infantry, Navajo Code Talkers, just to name a few!) and while the hardships these groups encountered and lived through are dark chapters in American history, they need to be told, taught, learned from and built upon. The sacrifices and experiences need to be respected and never, ever forgotten.

Thank you, Ms. Davis, for giving us one such perspective, and telling it so beautifully, thoughtfully, personally and insightfully. You can’t help but want to be just as tough and driven as your Marey Lee Boylen, and want to fight for the justice she so rightly deserves. I hope she, and her story, will inspire future generations to change the world for the better, so that we aren’t doomed to repeat our past mistakes, or those that came before us.

Fiction, Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Book)

8110V2WqqLL.jpgShaffer, M. A., & Barrows, A. (2008). The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie society. London: Bloomsbury.

A while back I reviewed the Netflix movie version of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (here, if you are so inclined) and not long after I requested the book of the same name from the library, after discussing with my neighbor how she read it, loved it, put her name in it (like in the book) and donated it, in an effort to share it with others, only to find it in Victoria, Canada years later!

Long story short, there were many holds and I just NOW received notification that a copy was ready for me to pick-up. Well, earlier today, at any rate. Granted, I have 18 books (Down from 20) on WWII sitting at the end of my bed as I pick my way through them (ok there MIGHT be a graphic novel or two in there, Scott Pilgrim and Squirrel Girl #2, respectively) BUT, I’ve been waiting for a while to read this book, so I ran straight away to the library once I read my email notification. I picked up just after 5pm, and by midnight, I’d finished all 290 pages.

I adored the movie adaptation, but in reading the book, you really remember it is just that…an adaptation. It is wonderful on its own. The book is wonderful in a completely different, yet oddly similar way. The book has more characters, particularly in the society itself. I can see why a television adaptation would have morphed them into one or two. It’s easier to form an emotional connection that way.

In the book, Juliet is never engaged to Markham, though he has asked. In the book, Kit does not call Dawsey “Daddy” and everyone in the society takes turns, for a week or more, to care for her, in the absence of her mother, including Juliet (that’s part of the movie that I am disappointed in…they really gloss over Juliet’s attachment to Kit, independent of Dawsey). Remy, a survivor of the same concentration camp that Elizabeth was sent to, comes to stay in Guernsey in the book, leading Juliet to think that Dawsey cares for HER instead of Juliet. Remy is no-where to be found in the movie. In the movie, Mark is a diplomat. In the book, he’s a publisher. In the book, Isola finds 8 letters written to her granny from none other than Oscar Wilde, and gives them to Sidney (Juliet’s friend and publisher) to publish, helping her amass some financial security after the war. In the movie, Juliet boards with a persnickety grouch who reveals details about Elizabeth and the literary society, when in the book, she has a completely different name and Juliet never boards with her.  In the movie Dawsey meets Christian during the difficult birth of a calf. In the book, it’s much different, with Christian helping collect and delivery seawater to the townsfolk, as a substitute for salt. In the movie, Dawsey had a broken shoulder that was never set right. In the book, it was his leg. In the movie, he has blue eyes; in the book, deep soulful brown, almost black. In the movie, Sophie is never mentioned, Sidney’s sister and Juliet’s best friend and former flat-mate. Susan, Billee Bee, Gilly…also, never mentioned. And the further connection between Juliet and Dawsey and Charles Lamb is played down. In the movie, Juliet doesn’t live in Elizabeth’s house, like she does in the book. In the movie, Juliet’s father’s paperweight doesn’t say Carpe Diem, and that is SO important at the end of the book and to the fate of Dawsey and Juliet.

These may be little details, but they change some of the flavor of the story. I still love the movie, and as a matter of fact, I am watching it again as I’m writing this, but the book, with it’s truth, candor, and rawness, will always be my favorite, I think.

The book is written, not strictly as a narrative, but as a series of letters, chronological…Juliet to Sidney, Juliet to Sophie, Susan to Sidney, Dawsey to Juliet, Isola to Juliet, etc. etc. etc. At first, and I’ve read others have had a similar experience, I didn’t know if I was going to like that format, but I did. Just like Shaffer mentions Jane Austen in the book, I found myself falling in love with the characters in the same way I did with Pride and Prejudice. Dawsey was my more attainable, more down to Earth Darcy. Juliet in the book was even more adorable, sweet, and endearing that the movie. She was more well rounded, human, sharing her fears and foibles, hopes and dreams in a back story you barely glimpse in the movie. My favorite parts (WARNING: spoilers ahead!), well two of them at any rate, are the end when Juliet sees the “Carpe Diem” engraved in her father’s paperweight and ignores her fears to grab life by the horns. The other is a quote by Thomas Carlyle, as written by Will Thisbee:

“Does it ever give thee pause, that men used to have a soul-not by hearsay alone, or as a figure of speech; but as a truth that they knew, and acted upon! Verily it was another world then … but yet it is a pity we have lost the tidings of our soulswe shall have to go in search of them again, or worst in all ways shall befall us.

Let that sit with you a bit. Reminds me of how we are doomed to repeat the history that we don’t know, learn or understand. The same can be said when we lose our souls, our humanity…oh the mistakes we, as a species, make when we forget it.

Any way, this book is a quick, lovely, beautiful read. Personal, loving, divine. Reading their letters you learn to love the characters in a way that a straightforward narrative couldn’t hope to accomplish. They’re letting you into their secrets, their pain, their lives, their loves, their losses in “letting” you read their letters. It was a brilliant way to write a novel, and you can’t help (or at least I can’t) leaving the book hoping that some day you find a love like Juliet and Dawsey’s; that you hope to love and be loved like Kit; and that you will find yourself, someday on Guernsey’s glimmering silver shores. It’s no wonder it sat on the best sellers list for so long.

Fiction, Historical Fiction, Reviews

Review: No-No Boy by John Okada

5158Jff09cLOkada, J. (2014). No-no boy. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Originally published in 1957, No-No Boy is the only surviving novel of John Okada.

While researching Japan Gulch in Mukilteo, WA and the archaeological dig there (it was a Japanese immigrant manned lumber mill from the 1890’s to the 1960’s) I started looking for local connections between it, the area and Japanese internment camps of WWII, and  I ran across reference to this novel.

Now if you didn’t know, during World War II, all Japanese immigrants (Issei, or first generation) and Japanese Americans (Nisei and Sansei, second and third generation) were incarcerated (those that weren’t deported) in concentration camps, otherwise called internment camps, losing property and civil rights left and right. That amounted to about 120,000 people, the vast majority of whom lived, worked and died on the West Coast. Somehow the government got into their heads (though I understand how they talked themselves into it, huge disappointment there FDR) that because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, those of Japanese ancestry already living in the states could be working for the enemy, especially on the West Coast. That fear, rather than evidence, led them to a decidedly racially motivated “relocation” effort, as was proven and documented by the U.S. government during the Reagan administration. (for more history, you can visit the Densho archives and though I don’t normally link to Wikipedia articles, this one is very well cited here).

Eventually, able bodied men (mostly) in these camps were given the option to be reviewed for release, if they were willing to swear loyalty to the U.S.A., renouncing any loyalty to Japan (or being Japanese, really) and if they were willing to put their lives on the line for the same country that had turned its back on them, treating them like criminals simply for being of Japanese descent. Many Nisei said yes, joining the 442nd Infantry Regiment. The most decorated unit in U.S. history, these fellas appeared to feel, more so than even other bands of minority servicemen and women, that they had something to prove, often engaging in courageous, difficult and extremely hazardous warfare actions to get the job done. They put their lives on the line, many losing them in the process. Their motto was “Go for broke” and they meant it, but that was the story for those who said yes. (Read more here )

If you, as an internment camp prisoner, said no to the two questions, demanding loyalty, service and sacrifice, you were slapped with the moniker “No-No boy” and sent to prison, a traitor. Later pardoned, they were forced to re-enter society, often a pariah among their previous friends, family and communities, damned if they did and damned if they don’t, and that’s what Okada wrote about.

John Okada was from Seattle. He attended the University of Washington, served as a translator during the war and was buried in the Evergreen Washelli Cemetery in North Seattle. So you may find it interesting that he wrote this novel from the perspective of a “No-No Boy,” Ichiro (how appropriate that his character would have the same name that most of us came to know and love as the name of one of our favorite local sports heroes decades later!), who offers to join the military, and give up all his “Japaneseness” if his parents are allowed to habitate in the same internment camp, as they were currently separated. The judge tells him no, and Ichiro tells him where to go. Then Ichiro goes…to prison for 2 years, along side serial killers, thieves, and fallen clergy men.

He returns, after the war, to Jackson Street, a familiar street to anyone who has lived in or near Seattle proper. It was once known as Japan-town, adjacent or even part of Chinatown and his family (his parents and younger brother), returned there after they were released from the camps, to severely restricted circumstances, running a dilapidated store and living in the back two rooms. But it is not all he may have hoped it would be.

His mother has become delusional, thinking that Japan won the war (her friends tell her so) and that all the newspapers and radio saying otherwise are just propaganda. But she is proud of her recently pardoned eldest son for telling the judge no, and serving time, because it meant he was loyal Japanese. His father, dealing with this delusion, resorts to drinking and trying to appease his wife, emasculated but surviving. His younger brother Taro is about to turn 18, and wants to leave high school to join the army, in an attempt to make up for what he see as his brother’s mistake, and remove himself from his parents and his mothers steadfast delusions, opinions and unpatriotic momentum. He is ashamed. Ichiro, meanwhile, has to deal with all of this, his growing hatred for his mother, who never apologizes for her part or his, who he blames for so much, who makes his life increasingly miserable as he tries to figure out how to be Japanese enough to please her, and American enough to please everyone else, how to reconcile his place in a country that he loved but that tried to throw him away. He is in utter chaos and turmoil.

He sees people he has known since he was a child, other No-No Boys, other veterans, women, parents, children. Some sympathize. Some have been in his position. Some hate him for not fighting. Others understand. But Ichiro himself is floundering. He can’t remember exactly who he is or where he fits, in his home, on his street, in his community, in the county, in the world. He doesn’t remember what joy is, but eventually he will remember he wants it and he has to go through a whirlwind of experiences, tragedies and self-loathing before he can even step foot onto that road. But do it, he must.

And that’s just the short description. Yes, I know it doesn’t seem very short but listen here!

As I said, this book was published in 1957 and it was almost lost to history. Apparently 12 years was still too fresh a wound for Americans to appreciate the turmoil and struggle that occurred during the war, for a marginalized and wrongfully imprisoned contingent of people. Nobody bought it. Nobody reprinted it, until a few fellas formed a combined American-Asian writers group, found his book and saved it from the annals of history. It is now, get this, considered an Asian-American classic. If only John Okada, had lived to see that day. He died at age 47 of a heart attack.

The flavor of his writing is very reminiscent, to me, of the greatest books of the fifties. It’s intense, and real, deep and somehow poetic. It gets under your skin and won’t let you go. It will have you sick to your stomach and crying into your bathwater. In short, it is nothing short of spectacular.

Ichiro’s mind goes around and around and around and around, getting better, sinking back, feeling hope, then devastation, over and over and over again, but you see it building. You see the tightly knotted rope that was forged when he was removed to the internment camp, and re-knotted at the review panel, and again every day in prison, slowly unravel as he slowly comes back to himself, as he meets exceptional people, even when the intolerable bigots keep him down, even when he doubts his own worth, he will eventually find it again. He finds that his feelings, his thoughts, his experiences, are all valid. The way he wades through the seemingly insurmountable problems over and over and over again, refusing to give up, then giving in, then the Universe refusing to let him give-in…that inner monologue, reminds me, in many ways, of how many more of us deal with trauma. It just tears him apart, again and again.

But it’s these monologues, dialogues, stories that teach us about humans, about fear, about moving forward, healing and finding the light in the dark, in admitting what was wrong and finding ways to make sure it is a mistake never repeated, and in this case, it can only be told effectively in fiction, because the emotions and the tragedy could never fully be relayed in non-fiction. (Okada’s brilliance at seeing all perspectives in ONE book is absolutely unparalleled). It’s how we learn, how we grow, how we adapt as a people and move forward from our mistakes as a world-nation, as singular nation, as families, as communities, as well as individuals. They are stories that need to be preserved, and re-told again and again, because, as we all know (thank you Winston Churchill who was paraphrasing George Santayana) “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

We can do it. We can learn from the past. We can be better. We can make a better future for ourselves and our children, for everyone’s. But you can’t do that by sweeping it under the rug, and burying a shameful piece of national history. Thank you, John Okada, for bringing that story, that heartache, struggle and realism to life so brilliantly. It’s the stories that make us connect. It’s the stories that inspire empathy in those who previously could not understand. It’s those stories that help people find a common thread. I wish desperately that we had read this book in high school, in the same way we read about the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a perspective, in literature and also in American and World History that is sorely lacking, but fills the niche as long as people can find it. Therefore, I have made it my mission to tell everyone I can about this book, or heck, even the play, which I understand was produced in 2010. This is a MUST read!

And now, I want to go read more about the author himself. So in the future we will hear about:

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Dark Fantasy, Dystopian Literature, Fiction, Reviews, Teen

Review: Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

Mortal Engines Book CoverReeve, P. (2018). Mortal engines. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Hundreds of years after humanity has permanently altered the landscape of the planet and wiped out the majority of its population and resources in what is know as the “Sixty Minute War”, Earth has gone from being “dog-eat-dog” to a “city-eat-city” world.  The last remnants of human settlements have rebuilt their cities onto mobile platforms, capturing and consuming those smaller or less fortunate than themselves across the wastes of “The Hunting Grounds”, otherwise known as the Out-Country, which is roughly what we would know, geographically, as residing across the (now) large open area and marshes stretching between Portugal and Tibet.

Those who live in these traction cities, both small and large, tend to look down upon surface dwellers, i.e. those who have founded permanent settlements on islands, inhabitable areas or in the “Anti-Traction League” capital, which sits behind a great defensive wall near near what was once known as Mt. Everest. They consider them uncouth and unsophisticated, barbarians who are no more than beasts. Imagine the surprise of one life-long traction city tenant, Tom, when he finds himself inadvertently behind enemy lines after a string of unfortunate events, only to discover a colorful, lively, flourishing civilization among its people, a people who do not deserve to die due to the greed and corruption of politicians gone mad with power and delusion. People like his own honorable mayor of London.

Ah yes, but how does Tom reach the Anti-Traction League? How does he find himself removed from his traction-city, a sentence tantamount to death for any traction-city citizen? How has he survived the Out-Country? Who is the horribly disfigured girl, Hester, who he now travels with, and how have their paths intertwined? You’ll have to read the book!

Ok, ok. I’ll give you some spoilers. Don’t read on if you want to be surprised.

Tom is about 16 years old and working as a level 3 apprentice in the History Guild of the traction-city, London. After hiding for many years, with resources dwindling, the great city of London is on the prowl for fresh prey, with a new secret mission privy only to the mayor, some of the his former Engineer’s guild, and the head of the Historian’s Guild (and Tom’s personal hero), Thaddeus Valentine, famed archaeologist and explorer, who also happens to have a daughter Tom’s age, who he develops a crush on. It’s all for the glory of the great city of London (the mission, not the crush) a way to show its supremacy and ensure its survival, so the citizens are led to believe.

Enter Hester Shaw. Stealing aboard London city, Hester attempts to assassinate Valentine, which leads to a near fatal leg would, a chase by Tom , a sudden and unexpected betrayal, and in short, he and Hester find themselves in the Out-Country, would-be-enemies, that find common purpose and common ground in their quest to return to London, initially for different reasons, only to find their reasons become more similar as the know each other better and the way of the real world becomes much clearer. But first, they have to survive.

In the course of their survival, Tom learns that his idol was the cause of not only Hester’s disfigurement at a young age, but also the loss of her parents, a fate that Tom, also an orphan, feels keenly. (Hester also finds out a shocking connection to Valentine’s daughter, Katherine). At the same time, he learns of a mysterious artifact from the time of the Sixty Minute War, the apparent impetus for Valentine’s betrayal, and Hester’s suffering, only to find out , that it is was the missing component for an ancient weapon set to destroy the Anti-traction nation of Shan Guo and it’s massive wall, opening up the resistance’s resources to London, with the ultimate aim of stripping the planet itself bare,  growing and moving on to destroy other worlds…a planet eater, like a galactic virus…eating and consuming, destroying everything in its path, “for the glory of London”, leaving nothing but devastation in its path.

Tom meets steampunk-like air-ship pilots (my favorite), pirates, monks, love interests, new friends, betrayals, destruction and rebirths. He learns more about himself, what he needs, what he wants, and what he believes through hardship, but also, about the real plight of the world, instead of the fantasy version he was brought up in and now, he aims to set things right, even if he didn’t start out that way. While Hester was a lot more world-wise than Tom, Katherine was not, and neither was the late comer, the ill-fated, young Engineer Pod, but all of them develop a new, keen sight throughout the course of the story, even when they may wish they did not.

You see them go through all the stages of grief and more  (see below) as the world they thought they knew slowly crumbles before them and they have to reassess and rebuild their perceptions of reality, including their beliefs and relationships with people they thought they knew, based on a fuller, more informed view, something that, even without the similarities in politics and international relations right now, is something that every person has to do at some point in their life, whether as a child moving into adulthood, or as an adult overcoming trauma, conditioning, and/or coming into your own.

Image result for stages of grief
Source: Via Google Image Search from BetterHelp.com

 

 

It’s no surprise that I loved this book. I put it on my Christmas list, with the anticipation that I would read it before passing it along to my kid, but I absolutely fell in love with the story and by the middle of it, I couldn’t put it down. I absolutely love that experience.

YA or Teen literature, and dystopian literature in particular, is one of my most favorite genres, and Philip Reeve does not disappoint. Some people have drawn the similarity between this story line and Star Wars, and I can totally see it, and you will too, particularly with the introduction of MEDUSA. But also, its the story of a reluctant hero, fallible and imperfect, floundering around the world until he gets it right, making mistakes left and right, until he begins to really find himself. It doesn’t make things any easier, and it doesn’t prevent mistakes, but it definitely provides clarity of purpose. I also drew some very strong similarities between this story and our own international affairs, which is exactly what dystopian literature is supposed to do. It’s supposed to keep, upfront in our minds, repressive regimes who often use propaganda machines to promote a utopian view, a holier-than-though image of the regime which keeps people submissive, or delusional, in this case, even in the light of savagery, loss of humanity and empathy and slavery in both life and death. It’s a fictional way to process some very real circumstances, and hopefully gives the reader a frame of reference they may not have previously had that will allow them to objectively assess bias and move forward in a more informed, educated, enlightened, and hopefully humane way. And while many of these dystopian novels are tragic, dark and sad, they also give me hope for enlightenment and again, rebirth. Knowledge is power. Knowledge means life.

Phew, that was deep.

Ok. So, Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings (film) fame, upon reading these books, bought the film rights and, after giving it to a director from his crew, this first book’s adaptation was recently released into the theaters to less than stellar reviews. HOWEVER, I fully intend to see it and give my two cents (though Hester in the movie stills is not NEARLY as disfigured as she is in the book, which I think detracts from it in someways, but that is typical Hollywood fashion, trying to downplay her disfigurement to make her more palatable to a larger audience, so take it as you will. Also I hear they downplayed the steampunk element which really makes me sad!), while trying to shelve my typical “it didn’t happen that way in the book” response (not doing so hot so far am I…keep trying, keep trying! 😉  ). Sometimes you just have to enjoy a movie for entertainment purposes, but I hear that Philip Reeve was pleased with the adaptation, so there is that.

And on that note, I am off to request the second book in the series from the library. Oh yes, there are three more, and then three prequels I hear. Wish me luck!

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