Dear Martin, Nic Stone

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Laquan McDonnald.  Quintonio LeGrier. Jordan Edwards. Christian Taylor. Tony Robinson. Kendrec McDade. Ramarley Graham. Antwon Rose Jr.

The names above are just a short list of the young black men who have been shot and killed by police officers (or George Zimmerman) in the last few years. It seems like we can't go a month in this country without someone (usually white, usually male) perpetrating an ex officio execution on some black man, for everything from petty crimes to entering their own apartment. Young adult novels are beginning to explore this topic, with books like On a Clear Day and The Hate U Give being two of the most recent examples. In that spirit comes Nic Stone's Dear Martin.

Justyce McAllister is an excellent student, one who escaped his rough neighborhood school for an elite private school, where he is one of a very few students of color. But his superior grade point average couldn't protect him from being racially profiled by the white police officer who put him in handcuffs for no reason. Trying to reconcile his identity as a "good" kid with his treatment by the police, he begins writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr., using them as a journal for processing his feelings and basically asking "What would Martin do?". When his friend Manny is shot by an off-duty police officer, Justyce has to reckon with the way he is portrayed in the media. Even though he did everything right, it still wasn't enough to keep society from seeing him as a stereotype.

While not carrying quite the same emotional weight as The Hate U Give, Dear Martin does a good job of exploring many of the themes related to the impact of white supremacy on young men of color. It also does something that feels a bit irreverent, which is to honestly explore whether MLK's insistence on non-violence is actually the best way to affect change against a system that perpetrates violence against people of color as a regular part of the functioning of the state. I think that there are many young people who would relate to Justyce. His story demonstrates the challenges that youth of color face just existing in a world where who they are is less important than what they are perceived to be.

I'm hoping to use this novel as a literature circle option for an African-American lit class, and another teacher wants to use it with his leadership class as a way to talk about the importance of social justice. Regardless, this book should be in any well-stocked classroom library!

My Year of King, #15: Pet Sematary

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Considering the many, many scary things Stephen King has written about, you wouldn't think a story
about an old Indian burial ground that causes things buried there to come back to life would be his most disturbing book. But boy, howdy! Pennywise the Clown and the Man in Black have NOTHING on poor little Gage Creed turning into a bloodthirsty killer toddler.

OK, that last sentence almost makes it sound like a joke, but Pet Sematary is probably King's most disturbing book. When the Creeds moved to rural Maine, they chose a house on a logging road. Most of the time, the road was quiet. But when the trucks come through, they are flying at speeds that are dangerous to anyone who has the bad luck to be in the road. Louis Creed and his family discover this the hard way when their daughter's beloved cat is killed. Louis's friend and long-time area resident Jud takes Louis and the dead cat to the Pet Sematary, where local children have been burying their pets for decades. But Jud doesn't stop in the main cemetery-he continues past it to an old Indian burial ground where things that are buried don't stay dead. Sure enough, the cat comes back, but it is definitely NOT the same as it was when it went into the ground. Louis vows never to use the burial ground again-until his three-year-old son Gage is hit by a truck. But if the cat came back different, what will the burial ground do to a person?

This book is so dark that King didn't even want it published. It was inspired by his family's experiences living in Orono, Maine for a year while King taught a class at the University of Maine, during which his daughter's cat was killed, and his son had a close call with a truck on the road. His wife and his good friend Peter Straub, with whom he wrote The Talisman and Black House, agreed with him that it was too dark for publication, but up against a deadline to complete his contract with Doubleday he turned it in, and it became one of his most popular books. I'm not sure what that says about us as readers-it is so bleak, and there is really no happy ending or moment of redemption.

I guess I must be one of those readers who like it bleak, because I loved this book when I first read it in high school, and I enjoyed it again rereading it now. I remember how much I loved Jud's character and the sweet relationship he has with his wife. He is definitely the moral foundation of the book, and yet he is the one who sets up the situation that leads to so much grief and horror.  I remember the movie version of this book not being great, though there is that scene where Gage takes the scalpel to Jud's Achilles that is just chilling. This story definitely demonstrates its tagline: Sometimes dead is better.

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

I have always considered myself non-racist, and over time came to consider myself anti-racist. But it is one thing to call yourself anti-racist, and another thing to actually live an anti-racist life. As a white person born and raised in America, it has only been with time and conscious effort that I have begun unlearning my own implicit bias. Looking back on my early, clumsy attempts to be anti-racist, I am amazed at my own lack of understanding and naivete. I went through all the stages "good" white folks go through-being colorblind, thinking that knowing black pop culture somehow made me culturally competent, feeling defensive when the white supremacist history of the US was pointed out to me. I've had to unlearn the messages I internalized about things like "personal responsibility" and what it means when someone describes something as "ghetto". I've had to process the ways in which I have unthinkingly caused harm, and change the way I speak about things like "proper" English and "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps". But, as the wise and wonderful Maya Angelou said, "When you know better, do better".

If you are someone who follows me on social media, you know that over the last year or so I have posted a LOT of articles and videos about white supremacy and white fragility. While it is systemic racism that functions to uphold white supremacy in America, individual attitudes towards race and the way we as white folks participate in those systems will determine whether they will continue to function as a way to continue a racial caste system that has existed in the United States in one form or another since the first white colonizers traveled here from Europe. The research will tell you that most white folks see themselves as non-racist, and believe that the choices they make about where to live, who to hire, who their friends are, and what types of activities their children participate in are race-neutral. Despite this, all of us who are called white are acting at least in part in response to the unconscious biases ingrained in our psyche through years of social conditioning. The only way to effectively dismantle white supremacy as a system is to recognize and unlearn those biases.

Michelle Alexander provides a strong case for how the racial caste system in America has morphed from literal enslavement and Jim Crow to the current era of mass incarceration. She traces the history of the racial caste system in America, and describes in great detail how the War on Drugs and the criminalization of black people, especially black men, has created a justice system that is anything but just. Unlike the period of chattel slavery and the era of Jim Crow, Alexander argues that the current weaponization of the criminal justice system against poor black and brown people is permitted and supported by the very policies and legislation that were meant to end the oppression of people of color in American society. Because the laws and policies LOOK race-neutral, they are perceived as being race-neutral, even though they are applied in racist ways that uphold the system of white supremacy that has been a feature of American institutions since before the Revolutionary War. Lacking overtly racist motives, the courts have routinely said that the unequal rates of incarceration for black and brown people cannot be challenged on the basis of racial discrimination, despite the fact that even a cursory study of the effects of things like three-strikes laws, racial profiling, and probation and parole practices disproportionally affect black and brown people, keeping them under the control of the state, and allowing for legal discrimination in voting, housing, and employment.

Alexander's book is a stunning condemnation of the prison-industrial complex, and a rebuke to those people who think that we are somehow living in a post-racial America. She also takes to task those in the black community who continue to emphasize respectability politics in the search for racial justice, pointing out that even within the black community there are those who have internalized the idea that the overwhelming numbers of black and brown people currently incarcerated are a result of personal choices on the part of those who are imprisoned, rather than on a system that is specifically designed towards exactly this outcome.

When people ask me why I focus so much on calling out the toxic effects of whiteness, I often say, "You can't change what you can't name." White folks who really care about being not just non-racist, but actively anti-racist, MUST educate themselves about the ways white supremacy is baked into the very fabric of American society. Once you see how systems of oppression work, it is impossible to stop seeing. I suspect this is what keeps some well-meaning white folks from doing the work; they are operating under the "ignorance is bliss" principle. But willful ignorance will not protect us from the corrosive effects of systemic racism on our society. White supremacy is a sickness in the soul of white culture, and until it is rooted out and excised like the cancer it is, it will continue to harm not just black and brown people, but white people as well.

Book Scavenger, Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Friday, December 14, 2018

Twelve-year-old Emily's family does not exactly lead a conventional home life. Her parents, blessed (or cursed) with wanderlust, are trying to live in each of the 50 states. For Emily and her brother, this
means every few months they are dragged to a new city, a new neighborhood, and a new school. Emily doesn't really mind too much, though she's learned the hard way it's easier to leave a place if you don't put down any roots there-which for a 12-year-old means friends. Emily finds her books to be better company anyway.

One thing her parents' quest to live in all 50 states is good for is the game Book Scavenger. Created by Emily's idol Garrison Griswold, the game entails hiding books in public locations and then posting clues to their whereabouts online. Other players read the clues, puzzle out the locations, and retrieve the book. Every book you find earns you points towards the ultimate goal of becoming a Book Scavenger master. And now, just when Griswold is getting ready to release a new puzzle game, Emily's parents are moving them to the center of the Book Scavenger universe, Griswold's hometown of San Fransisco.

Emily's excitement is dampened, however, when Griswold is attacked. When she and her new friend James find Griswold's book of clues, they know they have to keep it a secret if they want to win the game. But they aren't the only ones looking for it. Emily and James have to race against time to discover the secret and save Mr. Griswold before it's too late.

Basically, I was Emily as a kid, and if the internet had existed and this game had been real I would have been ALL OVER IT. For sure I would have needed to get the most points. I'm not competitive about most things, but reading challenges or games of intellect, those get my competitive juices flowing. Plus, I love the idea of releasing books out into the world for other readers to find. When I read a book I love, it makes me happy to share it with other people.

The story is a good blend of tween friendship drama and exciting quest story. Emily and James are perfectly suited to each other as friends, and Emily's growing angst about her family's unusual way of life is both completely understandable and well-handled. Bertman has created a little gem of a series, one that avid readers will relate to, and fans of action and excitement will also enjoy. I look forward to checking out the other books in the series.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, by Isabel Quintaro

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Body image. Two short words that carry so much weight (pun intended). For American women andbecause men like some curves, especially in the baby-feeding area of the body, but certainly not FAT! Being fat means you're lazy. Being fat means you have no self-control. Being fat means you don't care about yourself. Being fat means people can dismiss you without guilt, because being fat is a seen as a character flaw, not a natural subset of human appearance.
girls (and, increasingly, girls anywhere in the world influenced by American beauty standards), the phrases "body image" and "weight problem" go hand in hand. There are certainly other (unrealistic) expectations for things like flawless skin, silky hair, etc..., but even those things won't make a female person "ideal" without also being thin. Not too thin, of course,

Being a curvy girl myself (Godbout hips, am I right aunts and girl cousins?), I have spent almost all of my life, from as far back as I can remember, ashamed of the size of my body. Especially when I was a teenager, which is ridiculous because looking back I was a perfectly average-sized person. But then, teenage girlhood is fraught with messages about the ways we don't measure up to feminine ideals-we're too skinny/too fat/too smart/too air-headed/too prudish/too slutty/etc...Isabel Quintero explores this through the lens of Latinx culture in her novel Gabi, A Girl in Pieces. 

The book follows the protagonist, Gabi, through her senior year in high school. Told through her journal entries, the story takes us through her struggles to maintain her grades, complete college applications, and manage a social life. Gabi's body image is pretty low, so when a cute boy named Eric wants to date her, she begins a relationship with him, despite the fact that they have nothing in common. Luckily, she soon finds Martin, a boy from her English class who shares her love of poetry.

Gabi is also trying to juggle all the stress of senior year with her concern for her father, who has been addicted to meth as long as Gabi can remember. When she comes home one day to find him dead of an overdose, it throws her into a tailspin that threatens to derail her plans to escape her dead-end neighborhood and find the life she has always dreamed of.

Quintaro expertly navigates the space between hope and fear with Gabi, who alternates between being sure her life is over and recommitting herself to the future she wants to have. Gabi's poetry demonstrates how she processes her life experiences, eventually finding her own voice. The novel takes on a lot-body image, first love, teen pregnancy, sexual assault, drug addiction/overdose-but it does a decent enough job addressing them all that the story doesn't feel disjointed. Quintero mixes the darker events with lots of Gabi's own self-deprecating inner life, creating a nice emotional balance. I think a lot of teenage girls would relate to Gabi, especially Latinx girls. This was definitely one of the best YA books I've read this year.

My Year of King, #14-Cycle of the Werewolf

Sunday, December 02, 2018

I know I read this when it was first released, but I remembered NOTHING about it. Turns out, that's because it didn't really leave an impression on me, then or now. But considering the strange journey this story took to make it into novel form, that's not really surprising.

Cycle of the Werewolf details a year in the life of Tarker's Mill, a small town in (where else?) Maine. In January, at the full moon, a man is mauled to death by what appears to be a giant animal of some kind. It happens again in February, March, etc...By July, the entire town is terrified. So terrified, they cancel the 4th of July fireworks. Marty Coslaw, a ten-year-old, wheelchair-bound boy, sneaks out to light off some firecrackers his uncle left, and is almost killed by what turns out to be a werewolf. Eventually, Marty discovers the true identity of the killer, and begins sending him anonymous letters, begging him to take his own life to spare the town. In the end, Marty sets himself up as bait in a final showdown.

The book actually began as short vignettes written to accompany a calendar being illustrated by comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson. Not surprisingly, King found the brief nature of the vignette too constricting, and decided to expand the story into a short novel. That initial structure, though, gives the narrative a choppy feeling, since the flow of the plot takes 30 day jumps from chapter to chapter.

By now you'll recognize that a couple of King's traditional motifs are present even in this short, contrived novel. The hero is a child-a boy child, specifically-which comes to be a feature of almost all of King's best loved novels. He also continues to explore the idea of normal, everyday people becoming monsters, though in this book he does it more literally than in others. Because of the nature of the narrative and the brevity of the text, most of King's signature character development is not present in this book, which may be part of why it didn't impact me enough for me to even remember what it was about.

It was turned into the movie "Silver Bullet" in 1985, because by then almost any new King book was likely to be turned into a movie. The film, starring a very young Corey Haim, as well as Gary Busey and Terry O'Quinn, opened to mixed reviews, and became something of a cult classic. I remember seeing it on VHS at some point in the late 80s or early 90s, but even that didn't help burn the story into my brain. I suppose it's an enjoyable enough read in the moment, but it's really a popcorn book; it lacks substance, but is oddly satisfying; it fills you up in the moment, but before long you're hungry again.

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Monday, November 26, 2018

I love me some fantasy novels, but I am willing to admit that for the most part, the stories I've been drawn to in the past have very definitely been from the same basic British-high-fantasy mold. Lots of elves and knights and magicians and fairies.

What I only recently came to realize was just how much adventure and wonder I was missing by not searching out diverse fantasy! Other than Melinda Lo and her excellent books Ash and Huntress, I hadn't encountered much in the way of diverse voices in fantasy (I don't count Octavia Butler, since she's sci-fi, and unlike most bookstores, I choose to recognize those genres separately). I tried a Nnedi Okorafor novel, Who Fears Death, but I'm not gonna lie, I couldn't get into it (please don't send hate mail; I was sort of in a reading slump at the time). At any rate, when I saw Children of Blood and Bone on a bunch of YA reading lists, I was excited to give it a go.

Zelie will never forget the day that magic disappeared from Orisha. It's the same day that the king, jealous of the powers of the magical race the maji, ordered the slaughter of all adult maji in the country. Since then, she and her remaining family have been eking out a living in a small fishing village. Zelie, like her mother, is a diviner. If magic still existed in Orisha, she would one day gain the magical powers that would make her a maji. However, since magic disappeared, the diviners have been under constant threat from the king and his guards, and Zelie and her family live in constant fear that the guards will finish the genocide that was started on the night Zelie's mother was killed.

Amari is the king's daughter, and from an early age has been taught that the diviners are evil and dangerous. Along with her brother, Inan, she has been forced by her fathe