Saturday, March 31, 2012

The good news and the bad news about the Hunger Games

The bad news is that Katniss is played by a white girl, even though the book describes her as olive-skinned and dark-haired.

The good news is that a number of significant characters are played by people of color.

The bad news is that some audience members were so offended that Rue and Thresh were played by black people, even though the book describes both characters as dark-skinned, that they posted predictably but still infuriatingly stupid comments in Twitter. (Lenny Kravitz as Cinna was not as big a deal, apparently, although there was some stuff about him on Twitter when the movie posters first came out.)

The good news is that Rue and Thresh elicited the most powerful emotional reactions of any characters in the film, and that isn't allowed to happen in the mainstream media as often as it should be.

The bad news is that Rue and Thresh were sort of magical negroes.

The good news is that the book is better than the movie, because it spends more time developing Rue and Thresh's characters. Oh yeah, and in the book, we could see Katniss as a woman of color.

At least, that's what I got out of the debate. I also like the New Yorker blog post, which talks about how rarely blackness is equated with innocence and how often white readers just assume everyone's white--at least everyone they find themselves caring about.

I wonder what Suzanne Collins will eventually say, if she says anything.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: Tall Story by Candy Gourlay

At the children's literature discussion last Wednesday, Cheryl read the first few sentences of Tall Story, and someone who hadn't read it was like, that narration is so teenage boy:
"Rush hour.
So many armpits, so little deoderant. The whole world is heading out to Heathrow to meet long-lost relatives. I am wedged between the tummies of the two fattest men in the world.
Rank" (1).
Guess what? The narrator is a girl! I loved Andi for being a 13-year-old girl whose main problem is that her parents are making her switch schools just when she made point guard on the basketball team. Her problem is not, "Oh no, all my girlfriends are getting into hair and make-up and boys and I just want to be a tom boy." Thank you, Candy Gourlay!

However, it took me a little while to warm up to Andi. I thought it was cool that she was a pint-sized point guard with spikey hair who didn't mind being mistaken for a boy. But I didn't click with her instantly.

What drew me into the book was her brother, Bernardo, who lives halfway around the world in the Philippines and is 8 feet tall. Eight feet tall! Andi's mom wants Bernardo to join her new family in London, but you know how immigration is. The paperwork finally goes through near the beginning of the book. This is great news, but complicated, because 1) Bernardo's mom doesn't know he's 8 feet tall, and 2) the people of the town where Bernardo lives believe he's their savior. How can the savior abandon his people?

The chapters alternate between Andi's and Bernardo's perspectives, and Bernardo's side of the story is what won me over. He describes a town carved out of the mountains by giants, populated with larger-than-life tailors, barbers, and witches. While Andi tells a straightforward story of adolescent angst, Bernardo is a secretive, sensitive narrator with a strange, almost magical story to tell.

The only problem with these alternating chapters is that they don't go in chronological order. The novel starts with Bernardo and Andi meeting at the airport. I thought of this as sort of the midpoint of the narrative. After starting in the middle, the narrative goes back a few years to the last time that Bernardo saw his mom, then it goes forward a few years to when Andi finds out that her family is moving. And it keeps zig-zagging around like that so it wasn't always clear when things are happening.

At other times, the author uses the alternating view points to great effect. When Bernardo shows up in England, we see his velcro suit and sandals with black socks through Andi's eyes and we hear his broken English through Andi's ears. But in the next chapter, we get to hear Bernardo's true voice, the way he sounds in his head. It's a multifaceted look at the immigration experience. Very smart.

By the end of the novel I was racing through the short chapters. There were near-death experiences, rabid dogs, earthquakes, curses, and season-ending basketball games. I wish the beginning of the novel introduced the themes and plot lines a little more elegantly, only because I really want kids to stick with this story. What the book lacks in narrative structure it more than makes up for in voice and vision.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Strange Chemistry

How beautiful is this cover art? I'm really excited for this publisher's debut in Sept. Meanwhile, I'm liking their lists of essential YA fantasy.

The book is Blackwood by Gwenda Bond and the artwork is by Steven Wood. Apparently, it's about Roanoke Colony. From the blurb:

Miranda, a misfit girl from the island’s most infamous family, and Phillips, an exiled teen criminal who hears the voices of the dead, must dodge everyone from federal agents to long-dead alchemists as they work to uncover the secrets of the new Lost Colony.


Now I love E. Lockhart forever

I think I already loved E. Lockhart, but she did exactly what I hoped she would do in her decision: choose Chime and take Daughter down a peg. Love this line:
"the incredibly romantic ending of Chime had great strength, because it wasn’t a fantasy of a bad man tamed—it was the fantasy of loving a deeply good man, and how healing that can be."
And on a timely note, I think Hunger Games demonstrates that when you put the damaged bad boy and the nurturing nice guy in the same book, the nice boy wins.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Never fear, white people are here.

I could relate this to children's books--how many characters of color exist in children's literature just to help the white character have some kind of revelation?--but I think everyone should read what Teju Cole says about the White Savior Industrial Complex, whether it has anything to do with kidlit or not.

Elephant and Piggie and the fear of death

Psyched about the Slate Book Review but not sure what to make of this essay on Elephant and Piggie. Is the author serious? Or taking things a little too seriously?

Too school for cool

I stumbled on this thanks to the Morning News Tournament of Books. Is that what everyone thinks about the Newbery? That it's medicinal?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Have you been following the SLJ Battle of the Kids books?

My favorite decision so far has been Jeff Kinney's. Partly because he did not choose Okay for Now and partly because he admitted that he hasn't read a book in over a year. All he does is listen to audiobooks. Oh, and partly because he didn't complain about having to choose a winner. I hate it when the judges do that.

However, the decision I am most looking forward to is the next one: E. Lockhart chooses between Chime and Daughter of Smoke and Bone. It's interesting because the books are actually well-matched: both supernatural romance stories with evocative settings and killer girl heroines. And E. Lockhart is sassy, so I'm pretty sure she won't disappoint me by equivocating.

I also hope she'll agree with me that Chime should be crowned. I loved the first two-thirds of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but I lost interest when it went back in time to the epic love story. I respect non-linear storytelling, but the book lost its intensity and drive when it was no longer about solving the mystery of everyone's identity and reopening the portals between worlds.

Also, epic love is a little boring. I'm not sure why. But judge Sara Zarr seems to feel the same way. I loved what she said about it: "This kind of all-consuming Romeo-and-Juliet-impossible-love romance has become what is to me a less interesting version of a greater question: Can love that is not romantic be powerful enough to triumph and change circumstances and people (or angels, or chimaera) in meaningful ways?"

So I'm enjoying the Battle of the Kids Books, but in comparing it to the Morning News Tournament of Books, I do find it lacking in the commentary department. The judges give you their experience of the book, so I'd like the commentators to connect the decisions to trends and issues in the field of kidlit ... instead of just saying whether they agree or disagree.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

A short review this time, ladies and gentlemen: Hurray for Asian heartthrobs! The End.

Just kidding. But seriously, I'm always on the lookout for leading Asian men in YA lit, because my boyfriend's Asian, and one thing he often points out is how rare it is to see an Asian man paired with a black or white woman in the media. You'll see Asian women with black or white men, but not the other way around. He believes this is related to the long history of stereotyping Asian men as asexual. So that's another fun game to play while watching commercials: tallying the varieties of interracial couples!

While I'm on the subject, shout-out to Jenny Han's North of Beautiful, which features a wonderfully complex Asian love interest.

Now back to Cinder. This book is based on a concept I wish I'd thought of: setting a fairytale in the future. Donna Jo Napoli, Gail Carson Levine, and Shannon Hale have mined the rich vein of fairytale plots for a number of popular and acclaimed novels. But usually, they use historical settings. Cinder is straight-up Sci-Fi. I can see this launching a whole subgenre, the way Pride and Prejudice and Zombies launched a mash-up subgenre including Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and Android Karenina. Perhaps this book is even related to that adult lit phenomenon.

In this case, our Cinderella character is a cyborg mechanic working in future East Asia, where a strange plague is mowing down citizens. Cinder tries to hide her cyborg status, because cyborgs are considered second class citizens who can be drafted or sold by their legal guardians to undergo plague research--in other words, to be infected with a disease that has no cure and kills within days. Thus, Cinder tries to keep on the good side of her guardian, harvesting parts from the dump to keep her repair service running and handing over all the proceeds.

Shortly after we meet Linh Cinder, her market stall is visited by a surprising customer: Prince Kai. He wants her to repair an outdated robot. Mysterious, eh? Some chapters of the novel are told from the Prince's perspective, and he has problems of his own: his father has just been infected with the plague and he's being pressured to marry the evil ruler of a colony on the moon. Everyone on Earth fears the "Lunars," because they have evolved differently from Earth-bound humans, developing the ability to manipulate the thoughts and emotions of people around them.

Now, this is one aspect of the book that confused me a little. The story is set in future East Asia, and most characters have Asian names. The prince has "copper" eyes and straight dark hair, so I assume he has some Asian physical characteristics, and I assume the other characters with Asian names do, too. The Lunars, on the other hand, are described as almost preternaturally pale (milky white skin, etc.). So wouldn't the Lunars stand out in an Asian community? However, we learn part way through the book that there are a number of Lunars hiding in plain sight. So I guess it's better to assume that future East Asia is a very diverse community.

This is believable, since the story is set 200 years in the future--plenty of time for migration and intermarriage. And I bet the author didn't want readers to put her futuristic characters in census survey categories. But I wish she's been more explicit about the appearance of the characters since the plot hinged on Lunars being able to blend in. Since she wasn't explicit, you can actually read the novel as though everyone in future East Asia is white.

Although I had questions about the future society in which the story is set, I did like the setting: a gritty, high-tech city overlooked by a gleaming castle and research facility. I also found the main characters endearing, although I didn't find their romance entirely believable. But what really kept me reading were the more villainous characters--the doctor who studies Cinder and the Lunar Queen. The doctor was interesting because he was hard to figure out--he did some despicable things but didn't seem cruel. You could sense that he had reasons for conducting his experiments on cyborgs, and I found him interesting precisely because I didn't trust him. And the queen was wonderful because she was just so powerful. With a villain that evil and in control, you really wonder how the characters will defeat her.

Of course, you don't find out in this book, because it's the first in a series, which I didn't realize until I got pretty close to the end. In fact, despite what I liked about the book, I wasn't sure I wanted to finish it. I guessed some of the twists way before the author confirmed them, and I wasn't sure there were any surprises left. But as I got closer to the end, I found myself sucked into the action. One thing I can definitely praise this book for is the rollicking good story. There were times when I wondered why Cinder wasn't working a little harder on repairing the prince's android, but I can't complain about the pace at the end. It was action-packed!

So after going back and forth about this first installment, I can promise I'll be reading part two. I think this book had brilliant ideas plus a few problems in execution. It still stands out as a romantic adventure story with plenty of action and a unique concept. Oh, and a sweet Asian hero.

*Edited to add: And there's a prequel called Glitches on the Tor site (via Read Now Sleep Later)! You can also buy a Kindle whatever-you-call-it-one-shot thing. But I remain conflicted about Kindle things. My favorite line from the prequel: "Condensation sprang up on Cinder’s steel hand as she went from the chilled air to the house’s warm entryway." And check out the artwork! The illustrator shows sketches and explains the concept here. Something about the Lunar Chronicles seems to inspire the kind of art I want on my wall.