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.

Fiction, LGBTQ+, Life Lessons, Reviews, Teen

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.