Proxy by Alex London

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“Only humans could stand in for one another. They all began as equals, but a contract, like a confession, changed their relationship. One became debtor, one became creditor… A goat would always be a goat, but humans could change how they defined one another and how they defined themselves. That was civilization. But beneath it all, everyone bleeds” (London 2013, p. 234).

I went into this novel with no earthly clue what it was about, intending solely to review it for a local publication I occasionally contribute to. I gathered from the title and cover that it was going to be sci-fi, and knew that it contained LGBT themes (which is, incidentally, why I am reviewing it), but otherwise went into this book fairly blind. What I discovered, however, was that it is a delightful work of dystopian fiction with both complex themes and likeable characters. I will admit that my copy of this book is a galley, meaning it is not the final print version of the book. Because of this, some parts of the writing seemed a little rough (there were grammatical errors and a few typos), but I will not be judging the book based on the merits of its ARC. This is also a disclaimer in case I get any details that might have changed wrong.

Proxy follows the stories of two teenage boys: Syd (short for Sydney) and Knox. While Knox has grown up in a world of wealth and privilege, Syd knows only poverty and desperation. Knox is a patron, meaning his family has enough money to instantly forgive any and all of his crimes, pushing the punishments onto a proxy. Syd, a proxy, has been indebted to Knox since birth, brutally punished for each and every crime Knox has ever committed. And, unfortunately for Syd, Knox breaks the law quite frequently. When Knox gets into a car crash and accidentally kills one of his friends, Syd is sentenced to a life of hard labor for his crime. Fed up with the system, Syd decides to run away, but not before taking his patron with him. On the run from both the law and Knox’s father, the two teens begin to forge a bond that neither of them ever expected.

I will first begin by addressing the LGBT content, my initial reason for reviewing this book. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was not only a gay character in this novel, but a gay character of color. This is becoming increasingly more common in the world of young adult literature, and I could not be more thrilled about this fact. I am a proud supporter of the We Need Diverse Books movement, and I think it’s important for minorities and marginalized groups to be represented in all literature, not simply relegated to their own niche genre. By including diverse characters, authors are showing not only the reality of our diverse society, but implying that minorities deserve just as much attention as the majority culture in fiction.

Another thing I admired about Syd (the aforementioned gay character) is that his sexuality does not define him as a person. While it’s certainly a part of what shapes him as a character, Syd is ultimately a product of his upbringing, growing up poor and indebted to those much more powerful than he is. Though he is mocked and looked down upon for being a “Number Eleven” (meant to be a derogatory term for homosexuals in this universe), Syd’s story does not focus on his sexuality. In fact, there isn’t even a forced romantic subplot, just a few good-humored jokes between the ramrod-straight Knox and Syd. Instead, it focuses on unraveling his personal history in order to embrace an inevitable destiny. This is certainly no run-of-the-mill coming out story, though those narratives are certainly equally valid in young adult literature.

I was also pleased by how interesting and creative this dystopian universe was. While I sometimes wished there had been more detail in the technology and inner workings of this world, I was fascinated and intrigued by what was shown. The idea of constant ads being played for everyone made me think of M.T Anderson’s Feed, and I was also intrigued by the idea of a zoo of genetically engineered “extinct” creatures (though I will admit the scene with the penguin being eaten by a lion traumatized me a bit).

In addition to the subtle commentary on “Number Elevens,” I also liked the subverted religious themes of sacrifice and chosen ones. At one point, proxies are compared to sacrificial goats, unique only because of their ability to ascribe worth and meaning to other human beings. This thread continues as the novel progresses, making the reader think deeply about concepts such as morality and self-sacrifice. When is it okay for a few today for the greater good? How many deaths are too many? Where do we draw the line between morality and self-serving evil? These are deep questions explored in this novel, and while I wish the author had delved deeper, I was impressed to see how he worked religious faith into this dystopian novel about debts and social injustice. The themes of self-sacrifice and debt come to an ultimate head at the very end of the novel, though I won’t spoil it for you here!

Though imperfect, this was an extremely entertaining work of dystopian fiction that kept me on my toes and wanting to read more the entire time. It’s incredibly easy to write bad dystopian fiction, and I commend London for finding an interesting way to explore deep concepts. I was also impressed to see a gay character for whom coming out was not the focus. While coming out stories are important, it’s nice to simply see gay characters be heroes every once in a while. Because of this, I would recommend Proxy not only to LGBT youth, but to fans of dystopian fiction in general. Trust me; you will not be disappointed!

Reference:

London, A. (2013). Proxy. New York: Philomel Books.

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Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi

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“‘Crispin,’ said Bear, ‘a wise man – he was a jester by trade – once told me that living by answers is a form of death. It’s only questions that keep you living (Avi 2002, p. 111).'”

I apologize for my long absence from this blog, but I’ve been doing a fair amount of ‘fun’ reading, and haven’t found anything quite worthy of reviewing here until now. I had the distinct pleasure of getting to meet Avi at a conference for youth literature recently, and I was quite impressed by both his humor and his sincerity. While speaking of his life and his decision to write for children, Avi shared one of his most famous quotes with the audience: “Writers don’t write writing, they write reading.” Though Avi grew up without knowing he had dysgraphia, he strove constantly to prove to both his teachers and the world that he had ideas worth writing. These ideas later became the inspiration for many children worldwide, compelling him to write over seventy books throughout his lifetime. I found his story to be extremely inspiring, and thus decided to pick up one of his most famous and critically-acclaimed works.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead tells the story of a young boy living in a small, poor English village in the early 1300s. While his life has never been entirely pleasant, the boy (known at the beginning of the novel only as “Asta’s son”) has recently endured the tragic and sudden loss of his mother, catapulting him into a new world of danger and misfortune. Crispin’s only friend, a priest known as Father Quinel, is murdered shortly after the death of the boy’s mother for knowing a terrible secret, one he intended to share with the boy. Before the priest’s death, however, the boy learns that his name is Crispin, and that he must do all in his power to flee the only home he has ever known.

While fleeing his home, however, Crispin is also fleeing the cruel John Aycliffe, a man who has become the steward of the land on which Crispin lives in the absence of Lord Furnival, the land’s true owner. Terrified, Crispin flees with a little bit of food and his only possession, a lead cross given to him by his mother. While on the run, Crispin meets Bear, an odd and interesting red-bearded man who makes his living as a jester. Together, the two embark on a journey that will teach them that the family we choose is sometimes far more important than the family we were assigned at birth.

Though this wouldn’t have been the type of book I would have picked up as a child (I read a lot of fantasy and books about talking animals), I find that I really appreciate it as an adult. Reading stories about history, even fictional ones, is incredibly compelling, making me ponder what it might’ve been like to live in different time periods. While I would’ve liked to see how the story might’ve changed if the main character were female, Crispin’s story was both heart-breaking and incredibly empowering, showing that it’s possible to pull oneself out of even the most terrible of situations and find true joy.

What begins for Crispin as a fight for his life soon leads him to the best thing that has ever happened to him: meeting a true father figure in Bear. At first, Bear seems gruff, cruel, and uncaring; but the reader soon learns that he knows Crispin’s secret and longs to protect the boy from those who would kill him. As they travel, Bear begins teaching Crispin useful skills such as hunting, trapping, and fighting, as well as how to play music and earn a living. When they happen across trouble, Bear protects Crispin, sacrificing himself to keep the boy out of danger.

I’ve always said that characters – and the relationships between those characters – are my favorite part of any story, and this was no exception. Even at his worst, I instantly adored the character of Bear, knowing that his cruel exterior masked a soft and caring interior. Even Avi, when I shared this with him, acknowledged that he thought Bear to be the far more compelling character (despite the book’s title and chosen lead character).

I liked that Bear seemed to represent progress, challenging and criticizing the status quo in the hopes of finding something better. He struck me as being an incredibly brave man, and one who would stop at nothing to make the world a better place – even at the cost of his own life. I think it’s important for children to see that family can encompass many things; it does not have to be defined by biology. As Crispin himself states, Bear is far more of a father to him than the biological father he has never known, and I think that sends a wonderful message about choosing family based on those who love and care for us even when it isn’t required of them.

I was also intrigued by the heavy theme of religion that permeated this novel. While I am a Christian myself, I couldn’t imagine letting my religion dictate my entire life, to the point where I so feared the wrath of my God that I would refuse to break a promise to save my own skin. I can imagine that a modern child reading this story would be highly confused by this time period, as religion today isn’t nearly as life-or-death as it was in England during the 1300s. In fact, children might have trouble reading this novel altogether, as it contains both an extremely advanced vocabulary and several words (such as ‘mazer’), that children have likely never come across before. This is definitely a title I would recommend for either advanced readers or those reading far above their grade level who would like a challenge.

Despite the difficulty of the text, however, I think children would be fascinated to see how different life was during this time, and how hard many people had to work just to survive. A child already facing poverty might understand (at least to some extent) Crispin’s struggles, but a child who was born into wealth might find this novel to be an excellent window into the struggles of others. This novel would be of excellent use in a history class, as the teacher could explain that this time period was incredibly difficult for many people, who lived both in poverty and constant fear of deadly illnesses like the Plague. Stories like Crispin’s have the power to teach both empathy and understanding, alerting children to the privileges that come with growing up in the United States in the present day.

Though it was short and simple, this story was powerful, and I could easily see why it earned a Newbery Medal. It takes place far from our own time, but the lessons Crispin learns are universal. He learns both to defend and stand up for himself, while also learning how to survive in an incredibly cruel and unforgiving world. He transforms from a passive character, afraid of his own shadow, to someone willing to fight for the people he cares most about. This shows children that they have an innate power to change their lives, and that they don’t have to resign themselves to simply living with injustice or cruelty. As mentioned above, Crispin also teaches children the true meaning of family, and that the strongest bonds are sometimes forged when we are at our lowest points.

I felt incredibly honored to have met Avi, and I hope to read more of his work in the near future. Reading Crispin, I had a hard time believing that the author suffers from a learning disability; his writing is detailed, emotional, and incredibly well-structured. Avi, much like the character of Crispin, is proof that (with a little effort and determination) anyone can pull themselves out of a terrible situation and turn it into a lesson or an inspiration, and I think any child in need of such a lesson could greatly benefit from reading this book.

Reference:

Avi. (2002). Crispin: Cross of Lead. New York: Hyperion Books for Children.

 

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd

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“Home isn’t just a house or a city or a place; home is what happens when you’re brave enough to love people” (Lloyd 2015, p. 302).

This was such a fun and whimsical story to read! Friends and trusted former coworkers of mine recommended this book to me many times, but I never had the chance to read it for myself until recently! I chose to listen to the audio-book version of this story, and I loved the narrator’s quirky voice. It seemed to fit not only Felicity, but each of the other characters as well (the narrator performs distinct voices for almost all of them). I have many good things to say about this book, however, so I won’t bore you with my thoughts on the format!

The instant I started this book, I couldn’t help but feel that it was Natalie Lloyd’s response to a growing trend of magical realism in young adult literature. While I’ve read many wonderful titles like When the Moon Was Ours and The Strange anf Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, I hadn’t really come across magical realism in the realm of children’s literature before this book. While I’m sure they exist, this was a first for me, and it was really refreshing to see some magical realism for younger audiences.

The story focuses on Felicity Juniper Pickle, who has just moved to the town of Midnight Gulch with her mother and sister. While Felicity’s mother explains that Midnight Gulch was once full of magic, it’s obvious to everyone that very little remains. Though Felicity and her family have wandered all over the country, she wants nothing more than to put down roots in a permanent home. In a tale full of blackberry sunrise ice cream, hot air balloons, and word collecting, Felicity learns that sometimes magic can be much easier to find when we know where and how to look for it.

I absolutely adored the character of Felicity. She’s just so spunky, quirky, and full of energy! And, though it’s clear she hates having to move constantly, Felicity rarely complains, wanting to find genuine happiness for her mother while looking out for her younger sister. Felicity struck me as being an incresibly selfless character, one who enjoys making others happy far more than pleasing herself.

I also really enjoyed the relationship between Jonah and Felicity, which was (in my opinion) the best part of the book. In life, most of us can only hope to find a friendship as rare and beautiful as the one formed by these two characters throughout the novel, and I was incredibly moved by Felicity’s selfless act (without spoiling, the one involving the bird on her wrist) near the end of the book.

Part of me wonders how on earth Lloyd came up with such a wacky and inventive narrative, but I applaud her creativity. I certainly couldn’t have come up with ideas like memory-inducing ice cream and a literal moving tattoo of hope (in the shape of a bird, of course). At every turn, I was exposed to a new twist, and I really appreciate how neatly everything was tied together in the end. This definitely took some excellent planning!

I also really enjoyed the idea of the Beedle, a mysterious figure who does good deeds around the community while remaining completely anonymous. Without giving away too much about the Beedle’s identity, I loved this aspect of the novel, and I think it could do a lot to inspire children to do kind things for others without being prompted. I think the overall message of this book is that everyone has a little magic, magic that can be unleashed when we decide to value others more than ourselves.

This book was quirky, funny, and utterly charming, and I only wish I’d chosen to read it sooner! The characters were genuine in unique, with stories and personalities that make the reader instantly care about each and every one of them. Though magic features heavily in the plot, the world is so real that the entire story seems like it could really happen in our world. Nothing ever seems unrealistic or preachy, and the book teaches important lessons while never being afraid to take a leap of faith when it comes to humor and whimsy.

A Snicker of Magic, while being a genuinely witty and fun read, reminds us that it’s crucially important to remember the things that make life meaningful and worthwhile. Themes of friendship, family, and showing kindness to others come up frequently throughout the book, sending an incredibly positive and uplifting message to children about how we can find our own brand of magic in the real world. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to once again view the world from the eyes of an innocent child, as I truly believe that A Snicker of Magic has a lot to teach each and every one of us a new lesson, whether we are children or adults.

Reference:

Lloyd, Natalie. (2015). A Snicker of Magic. Turtleback Books.

Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin

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“Everything starts this autumn, she suddenly thinks. So stupid. Does anything ever start with autumn, really? Autumn brings darkness, quiet, rest, death, trees lose their leaves and the earth grows hard… Maybe the snow will come soon. She feels herself smile. And maybe, just maybe, things are different from what she had thought. Maybe everything starts with the first snow” (Kaurin 2017, p. 95).

According to her author’s note, Marianne Kaurin was inspired by a single idea to write this story: What if, during the German occupation of Norway in 1942, a single member of a Jewish family happened to be away from home when the Nazis came to take them to the concentration camps? As Kaurin explains, 532 Norwegian Jews were sent aboard the Donau to Auschwitz, where only nine survived. In addition to being inspired by her own family’s history (many of the characters in the book are named after family members or friends of her family), Kaurin wanted to explore the idea of a bizarre twist of fate that would spare one member of a large family during this dark time in history. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’ve always been fascinated with the history of World War II, as well as the history of the Holocaust. Because of this, I usually find historical fiction based upon this time period to be incredibly engaging and thought-provoking. This work was no different.

The novel focuses on a young girl named Ilse Stern, who is eagerly awaiting autumn, when she believes her life will change for the better. Devastated after being stood up on a date by Hermann Rod, her crush since she was a little girl, Ilse scolds herself for being so easily tricked. What Ilse doesn’t realize, however, is that Hermann is hiding many secrets – both from her and his entire family. The year is 1942, and Ilse’s family is Jewish in Norway, a country being occupied by German soldiers. Ilse’s sister, Sonja, longs to work as a seamstress in a local theater, though her father has always expected her to take over the family business when he retires.

Sonja and Ilse’s father, meanwhile, has been coping silently with a failing business and a steady stream of hate, trying to hide the nasty messages on his shop windows every morning. The novel jumps from character to character as the story progresses, allowing each character to share his or her ambitions and desires with the reader. The story reaches its climax one day when Isak (Ilse and Sonja’s father) is taken suddenly and sent to a labor camp, prompting his worried family to wonder whether they should flee for the safety of neutral Sweden.

I really enjoyed the poetic quality of this book, as it helped to immerse me in this time and place. Marianne Kaurin’s writing has an almost lyrical quality, making it very pleasing to read. Autumn, as its place in the title implies, is incredibly important to the story, as it represents the season in which warm, bright summer transitions to hard, cold winter. At the beginning of the novel, Ilse feels like being stood up is the worst thing that could possibly happen to her, but soon finds a much darker and colder winter coming for her and her family. I thought this use of foreshadowing was both inventive and well-placed, as it warns the reader of what is to come. That being said, I found myself getting a little thrown off by the constant tense switches, as Kaurin would swap from past to present tense within only a couple of sentences. I suppose there was likely a symbolic reason for this that I was missing, but it was sometimes confusing to read.

Even though I love reading historical fiction about the Holocaust and World War II, I’m usually fully aware going into it that it’s likely not going to end happily for any of the characters involved, even if they’re non-Jewish Germans. In this case, however, I had no idea this was historical fiction until after I started reading it, as I went in mostly blind. At first, it seems like it’s going to be a simple love story between Ilse and Hermann, but turns much darker and deeper as the novel progresses and more is revealed. The instant the novel Ilse explained to the reader that she and her family were Jewish, my stomach dropped. I then knew exactly what I was in for with this story. It’s nowhere near as dark as The Book Thief in tone, but it still manages to be devastatingly sad in the end.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, as this would ruin the entire book, but I will say that this was an incredibly powerful and moving read. I don’t think I will ever tire of devouring stories about the Holocaust, even if they often leave me feeling depressed and wondering why any of this was allowed to happen. Books like this are a grim reminder of all that was lost during the Holocaust, but I believe it’s incredibly important to continue sharing stories from this time period, both fictional and true. If we refuse to let the horrors of this time period dull with time, we are far less likely to let another Holocaust happen. Experiencing how inhumanely our fellow humans were treated simply because of their religion should not only horrify us, but inspire us to take action when we see injustices taking place in our own time period.

Almost Autumn, though short, is beautifully written and will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction, especially historical fiction that deals with the Holocaust and World War II. It’s a fairly quick read, and one that appeals to reluctant readers. I’m very pleased that I had the chance to read it, even if it did trod mercilessly on my heart.

Reference:

Kaurin, M., & Hedger, R. (2017). Almost autumn. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

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“Tonight, there was a brilliance in the hall, a communion of spirits, as if Ivy and the conductor and the pianist and the orchestra and everyone in the audience were one, breathing in and out to the same tempo, feeling one another’s strength and vision, filling with beauty and light, glowing beneath the same stars… and connected by the same silken thread” (Ryan 2015, p. 578).

This book was absolutely incredible in every sense of the word. It was told incredibly creatively, with three realistic stories that intertwine with just a hint of magic thrown in. I listened to the audio-book version of this title, which added beautiful pieces of music and distinct narrators for each child’s story. As I read each section, I desperately wanted to know what would happen to each child. I got invested in each story, only for the narrative to move onto the next story. Fortunately, all three stories were equally captivating, with believable characters who each had very compelling conflicts to overcome. Just as I was itching to know what happened to Friedrich, I became equally invested in Mike’s story, and then in Ivy’s story after that. Ryan did a wonderful job leaving me in suspense, but making me care just as deeply about the third child as I did the first.

Echo begins with the story of Otto Messenger, a boy who is sold a mysterious harmonica by a gypsy woman in his small German town. With the harmonica is an unfinished story book about three princesses who are left to die by their cruel father the king when they are born. Thanks to the interference of a kind nursemaid, however, the three sisters – Eins, Zwei, and Drei – are given to a witch in the forest to be cared for in her cottage. After the death of their father, the three princesses are given the chance to return home to their brother and mother, but not before the witch curses them, confining them to a woodwind instrument until the day they are able to save a soul on the brink of death. Otto hears their tale and helps seal their souls into the harmonica, which is then passed on to three children many years later. The rest of the novel follows the stories of Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California, each of whom is facing their own tribulations related to the conflicts of World War II. As the harmonica comes into each of their lives, the children’s stories become intertwined in a way that none of them could have ever expected, culminating in the moment the three sisters are finally able to save the life of a person on the brink of death.

Though I enjoyed all three stories, it was Friedrich’s story that affected me the most. I have read many fictional stories about World War II and the Holocaust, and they never fail to fill me with anxiety and leave me worrying about the fate of the characters involved. Friedrich’s story was unique in that he was not Jewish, but a pure-blooded German who happened to have a highly visible birthmark on his face, thus making him an “undesirable” in Hitler’s Germany. While his older sister finds herself sucked into Hitler’s regime, he and his father turn against it, putting themselves in extreme danger as political dissenters. It was interesting to see the perspective of an average German who did not agree with Hitler during this time, as many stories about this time period tend to focus on the horrors of the Holocaust. As someone with German heritage, I found Friedrich’s story to be the most compelling of the three.

Though Friedrich’s story personally affected me the most, I appreciated the portrayal of injustices in each child’s story. In Mike’s story, he and his brother are mistreated by both the owner of the orphanage and by others (such as the shop owner) who see them as lesser and unworthy simply because they are poor. Even though both Mike and Frankie are highly educated and well-behaved children, they are treated differently because they were not born into the upper class. In Ivy’s story, she directly observes the injustices done to Japanese citizens in America during World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She also experiences injustice herself, when she realizes that Mexican children in her town are forced to attend a different school than the white children because they are seen as dirty and uneducated. Ivy, like Mike, is treated differently than others even though she is well-educated and speaks fluent English. Each child’s story portrays injustice in different ways, but helps to teach readers about darker parts of American and German history, during times when certain individuals were treated as being lesser because of their race or social status.

My favorite thing about this book, however, was how Ryan skillfully tied each child’s story together with the magical harmonica. The fairy tale at the beginning, as well as Otto’s story of finding the book, helped to set a mystical tone before the novel jumped into reality with the story of the three children. Ryan uses this story as a bookend at the very end of the novel, when the three sisters are finally able to save a life and return to their castle. The most powerful words in the opening are, “Your fate is not yet sealed. Even in the darkest night, a star will shine, a bell will chime, a path will be revealed” (Ryan 2015, p. 6). Though this isn’t mentioned again until the very end, each child’s story seems to (no pun intended) echo these words, as each one is able to pull themselves out of a terrible situation through the hope and power provided by the harmonica’s music.

Even when I had a clear idea of where the story was going, Ryan still managed to surprise me with the sheer amount of detail she worked into the narrative to tie the five stories together. The most magical part of the book, in my opinion, is the concert at the end, when the three characters (as well as the magical harmonica in Kenny’s coat pocket) come together, and we are finally able to see how the harmonica affected each of them in positive ways. We also get to see how the harmonica ended up in Friedrich’s possession after being given away by Otto, and what eventually happens to the three sisters who first enchanted the harmonica. I had a feeling that Kenny would be the one the harmonica ultimately saved, as Ivy transfers it to him to keep him safe during the war. That being said, the harmonica saved all three of the children in a way, as it gave them hope during a time when hope seemed entirely lost. Each of them ended up being world-renowned musicians due to their experience and talent with the harmonica, fostered by their passion for music.

I found the ending of this book to be incredibly clever, and while it was already wonderful, it was the epilogue that really sealed the deal for me and pushed this book into the “spectacular” category. I’ve come to love historical fiction in recent years, and the element of magic only helped to further my enjoyment of this novel (as fantasy is my favorite genre). The novel discusses themes such as intolerance and injustice without talking down to children, showing them parts of history that some people would rather forget. I could easily see this novel appealing to children who don’t normally enjoy historical fiction, as the fantasy element and narrative quality of each of the stories makes it feel much more like a fairy tale than traditional historical fiction.

I would also highly recommend listening to the audio-book version of this story, as the music is integral to the emotions behind each character’s journey. I found myself getting chills and goosebumps when the orchestra played “Some Enchanted Evening” at the end of the novel, as it seemed like a perfect way to tie all of the stories together through music. I also enjoyed the melodic quality of each narrator’s voice, and the fact that each character was given a distinctive voice for their part of the story. Intricate touches like this made the audio-book a wonderful performance, and I likely enjoyed this more than I would have if I[‘d simply been reading silently to myself. Regardless of how you enjoy it, however, I highly recommend giving Echo a try, even if you don’t generally enjoy historical fiction. It’s an incredibly engaging and beautiful story that speaks to the power of music to improve lives and fill people with hope for the future. It was a truly magical tale, and one I’m glad I was finally able to read for myself.

Reference:

Ryan, P. M., Bramhall, M., De, V. D., Andrews, M., & Soler, R. (2015). Echo: A novel. New York, N.Y: Scholastic Audiobooks.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez

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“It wasn’t that Beto wanted to tell the story. It was that he had to. He hoped that, after, he could begin to dream of the fragile joy of the months before the explosion and of the family that they had made for themselves in the woods. They had been happy, for a time, before the rules found them. Before the terrible price was exacted for their transgressions. For the crossing of lines. For friendship, for love” (Perez 2016, p. 196).

This book was incredibly difficult to get through, and I found myself having to take frequent breaks in order to process what I was reading. On the one hand, I found it incredibly powerful and engaging, with characters who feel like real people rather than caricatures. On the other hand, I felt like the book was a constant slog of misery and heart-break, only serving to depress me and remind me of the horrors and injustices of the world. I found myself gasping in shock at some of the events of the novel, and often wanted to step in to protect the characters from what was happening. Ashley Hope Perez is, without a doubt, an amazing author, and it’s very clear that she did intense research when writing and preparing this book.

Out of Darkness takes place in New London, Texas, in the year of 1937. The story focuses on Naomi Vargas and her two half-siblings, Cari and Beto, who have just been sent to live with their estranged father Henry. Henry has a history of sexual abuse and alcoholism, and Naomi resents him for inadvertently causing the death of her mother after repeated miscarriages and the bloody birth of her half-siblings. While he is the biological father of Beto and Cari, Henry is merely Naomi’s stepfather, giving him all of the excuse he needed to sexually abuse her at a young age. Perez uses the 1937 New London school explosion to frame the narrative, telling a compelling story about love, loss, family, and the compassion and humanity we can find in others during times of tragedy.

The first thing I feel like I have to say about this book is that I wanted Henry to die from the very first page. I absolutely hated him as a character, and found myself grinding my teeth at some of the horrible things he did to Wash, Beto, and Naomi. He is a textbook abuser, using his authority as the head of the household to not only make advances on Naomi, but to emotionally abuse Beto and Cari at every opportunity. He threatens to kill Beto’s cat several times throughout the novel, and frequently treats Wash as being less than human simply because of the color of his skin. As if that weren’t enough, he feels ownership over Naomi, claiming a right to her and her body and becoming enraged when he later learns that she has fallen in love with Wash. Terrible as it might be, I had to cheer when Beto finally killed him in the end, ending his reign of terror over those around him.

Vile as he was, there were times when I felt that Perez was almost trying to make Henry sympathetic, leading the reader to believe he was trying to do better and live an honest life. I would find myself sympathizing with his desperate attempts to make things work… And then I would remember how he frequently raped Naomi’s mom until forcefully impregnating her (despite protests from her doctor), and how he forced a young Naomi to perform sexual acts on him for his own twisted pleasure. I quickly lost any and all sympathy I might have had for him when I was reminded of his past actions, especially after seeing how they continued to affect Naomi, who was forced to tiptoe around him for fear of setting him off. Despite his own faults, and the fact that he was a raging alcoholic, Henry still had the nerve to treat Wash like trash, making me wish <i>he</i> had been in the school instead of Cari near the end. I recognize that Henry’s viewpoints reflected the views of many during this time period, but he somehow managed to be so vile and unforgivable that I judged him even more harshly for it than I would other characters.

The romance between Naomi and Wash felt extremely authentic, and I found myself rooting for them despite the odds. Because this book had already gone to incredibly dark places, I knew it wasn’t likely to end well, but I kept hoping anyways that they would somehow make it out okay. Perez was obviously looking to portray realistic circumstances, but the novel felt so dark and devoid of any hope at times that it was hard to continue. To be fair, I didn’t really expect a book centered around a massive tragedy to be happy and end well, but I wished there had been just a little more joy in the book before all hell broke loose at the end. The quiet moments with Naomi and Wash were touching, and I was happy to see the two characters (both of whom had been treated terribly by society) find solace in one another. I only wish they’d managed to escape Henry’s control and abuse in the end.

This book honestly didn’t feel like a young adult novel; it felt more like reading a horrific piece of adult historical fiction, with themes such as racism, rape, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and violence. I felt so incredibly sorry for Naomi, who’d lived an incredibly rough life up until the beginning of the book, and was severely punished for trying to enjoy the only small modicum of happiness she’d been able to find in Wash. I must admit that the ending of the novel left me a sobbing puddle of emotion, wondering why such horrific things have to happen to such genuinely kind and caring people. I was concerned for Beto, who likely carried the scars of what happened for the rest of his life (as the end of the novel hints). I was happy to see Henry punished for his actions, but also devastated that Wash, Cari, and Naomi had to die first. The characters are fictional, but written in a way that makes them seem real, so I felt a genuine loss at their tragic demise. The story was heart-breaking and frustrating, and while realistic, I think it needed more light moments to balance out the tragedy of it all.

Another thing I really appreciated about this book was the commentary on religion. Though Henry claims to have found religion throughout the novel, it doesn’t stop him from doing vile, terrible things. Similarly, Perez hints throughout the story that religion often gives individuals an excuse to be hateful towards others while patting themselves on the back and feeling holy. Even the preacher, though he seems to be more tolerant and forgiving of others, sees no problem with Henry trying to woo and marry his underage stepdaughter as long as he doesn’t “give in to his urges” before they’re married. Part of this might just be a mark of the times (couples married much younger back then), but it still left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I applaud Perez’s efforts to demonstrate that religion does not always make a holy person; in fact, it can often give someone an excuse to be even more vile than they were before.

Though this book ripped my heart out and repeatedly stomped on it, I had to admit that it is an amazing work of young adult fiction. This isn’t a story I would recommend to the faint of heart, nor to the inexperienced or reluctant reader. It is powerful, but incredibly heavy and depressing, filled with moments that will leave the reader screaming at the injustice of the events taking place. Perez injects a sobering amount of realism into the work, never letting you forget that this is taking place in 1930s America rather than a fantasy universe. Though the characters are fictional, their experiences are based on real world accounts from the time period, reminding us of the horrors of the past. If you are interested in an engaging work of fiction about a real disaster, or if you’re simply a masochist who loves being made to cry, I would highly recommend Out of Darkness.

Reference:

Perez, Ashley Hope. (2016). Out of Darkness. Paw Prints.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

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“I remember the conversation Jasmine and I had in the cafeteria. ‘The right note sounds right and the wrong note sounds wrong.’

‘Ha!’ [Rabbi Heschel] says. ‘Look.’ She opens the book by Abraham Joshua Heschel, flips through the pages, and reads. ‘Our effort is but a counterpoint in the music of His will.’

‘What if we don’t hear the music?’ I say.

‘That’s what faith is, isn’t it? Following the music when we don’t hear it'” (Stork 2009, p. 279).

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about this book is simply, “Wow.” What an amazing, touching, heart-breaking, powerful book. Unlike The Book Thief and The Fault in Our Stars (both of which I adore), however, Marcelo in the Real World doesn’t have to kill off a single character to move me. This book made me ponder the very nature of humanity, something not many books have been able to do, young adult or otherwise.

Marcelo in the Real World, as you might expect, deals with many real world and difficult topics such as cognitive disabilities, infidelity, rape, and blackmail. The story is told from the perspective of Marcelo, a teenage boy with a cognitive disability similar to Asperger Syndrome, on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Though Marcelo is brilliantly intelligent, he has spent his entire life going to a school for children with cognitive disabilities, something his lawyer father hopes to mend for his final year in high school. Marcelo’s father makes a deal with him; if Marcelo can spend the summer following the “rules of the real world” at his law firm, then he can decide where to go to school next year. Marcelo reluctantly agrees, convinced that he’ll be able to choose his old school at the end of the summer, where he’s most comfortable. This, of course, doesn’t go as planned, as Marcelo begins to learn more about the “real world” he’s been avoiding his entire life.

The fact that Marcelo is one of the most innocent teenage characters I’ve ever come across in literature makes the story that much more interesting to me, as it allows the reader to see the world through the eyes of an innocent. When Marcelo meets Wendell, he is only concerned with befriending the conceited and spoiled son of his father’s law partner; he doesn’t immediately see that Wendell is playing nice in order to use Marcelo’s disability to his advantage. Wendell later uses this naivety in an attempt to blackmail Marcelo into hooking him up with Jasmine, a mutual coworker who befriends Marcelo on his first day at the firm. What Marcelo doesn’t realize, however, is that Wendell plans to drug and rape Jasmine, though he senses that Wendell’s intentions are less than pure. The story is a constant battle for Marcelo as he struggles to figure out the difference between right and wrong, navigating difficult circumstances he’s never had to face before.

One such circumstance soon becomes Marcelo’s sole focus, leading him to question everything he’s learned about the world so far. While organizing files for a case his father is working on, Marcelo stumbles upon a photo of a severely injured girl, a victim of faulty windshields produced by a company that Marcelo’s father (and the rest of his firm) are representing. Consumed by the image of the girl, Marcelo sets off on a quest to aid her, soon learning that the world is full of both horrible sadness and tremendous light. He learns, as we all eventually learn, that there is no such thing as black and white; there are many shades of gray in the world, and individuals are complicated. Marcelo, who has always seen his father as a kind and positive figure, has to contend with the fact that his father has also done some pretty terrible things in his lifetime, such as refusing to help the injured girl and cheating on his wife. Despite this, Marcelo learns to forgive as he begins to see humans as flawed beings who can make mistakes. Along the way, he is forced to question everything he thought he knew about the world and the people in it, leading to an incredibly profound and moving story.

My favorite quote from this book sums up the points I’ve just made fairly succinctly:

“Then it comes to me. It cannot be that this is the first time I realized this, but it is. We all have ugly parts… How do we live with all the suffering? We see our ugly parts, and then we are able to forgive, love kindness, walk humbly” (Stork 2009, p. 299).

This is both incredibly beautiful and full of truth, defining the very essence of humanity that we all share. This is the quote that urged me to add this book to my list of favorites, as it points out an inherent truth about the world: we might all have darkness inside of us, but it is the brief moments of light that make the ugliness and suffering bearable. Though Marcelo comes face to face with greed, deceit, and hatred, he also meets Jasmine, an intelligent and kind woman with a love for playing music. He meets the kind lawyer Jerry Garcia, a man who spends his time fighting to defend those without voices. His mother, Aurora, spends her time working with sick children to make their final moments brighter.

Though he discovers suffering, Marcelo is also able to see the good in the world during his journey, convincing him that entering the “real world” will be worth it in the end. This is a profound message, and one that should remind us all why we keep going even when the world seems bleak and dark. The book, as the above quote demonstrates, also brings up the issue of faith: both faith in God and in the goodness of humanity. As Marcelo begins to lose his faith in the divine, he finds it again in the goodwill of others, helping him to come full circle in his journey to join the “real world.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would encourage anyone interested by my (very long-winded) review to check it out. It’s a wonderful story of hope, resilience, and the moments in which we discover ourselves despite being faced with unspeakable darkness and tragedy. Much more than a book about a cognitively disabled boy who learns to live in the “real world,” this is a book about how a quiet, intelligent, and incredibly perceptive individual holds the power to change the world around him – a power that any one of us could wield to make the world a little brighter.

Reference:

Stork, F. X. (2009). Marcelo in the real world. New York City, NY: Scholastic, Inc.

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

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“Sometimes parents loved their sons so much they made a romance out of their lives.They thought our youth could help us overcome everything. Maybe moms and dads forgot about this one small fact: being on the verge of seventeen could be harsh and painful and confusing. Being on the verge of seventeen could really suck” (Saenz 2014, p. 239).

It’s been a while since I updated this blog, for which I apologize! It’s my final semester of graduate school, and I’ve found myself swamped with work and job applications. Though I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading, I haven’t had a chance to review any of the works in depth until now. I’ve been looking forward to Aristotle and Dante for most of this semester, however, so I knew I’d have to add a review once I finally read it. I had a feeling I was going to love this book before I picked it up, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed! After reading and enjoying Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (which I thought was incredibly sweet, funny, and adorable), I could tell this was going to be another favorite of mine. I’m happy to say that I was not wrong on this account.

The story follows two teens (named Aristotle and Dante, as the title implies) with Mexican heritage who meet one summer at the local pool. Aristotle, nicknamed Ari by his friends and family, is quiet and thoughtful, and has trouble making friends and meeting new people. Dante, on the other hand, is bold and loud, entirely unafraid of articulating himself. As the story progresses, the two form an unshakable bond of friendship that slowly grows into more (though neither boy is quite prepared to deal with the ensuing emotions). The novel deals with themes such as homophobia, family, friendship, and assault, and does so without ever feeling preachy or over-the-top.

As to be expected, my favorite part of this novel was the relationship between Dante and Aristotle, which holds all of the simplicity and innocence of first love while speaking to the difficulties of being an LGBT youth. As Dante slowly comes to realize that he likes boys more than girls, Ari finds himself pulling further and further away, uncomfortable and ashamed of his own feelings. This idea of shame is further solidified when Ari learns that his estranged aunt has been living with another woman for almost his entire life, causing her to be shunned by a majority of Ari’s family. Not only does Ari feel guilty for harboring feelings for Dante, but he also begins to feel guilty about never reaching out to his aunt (who he used to be incredibly close to), especially after her death later in the novel.

Both Dante and Aristotle are fortunate enough, however, to have incredibly loving and understanding parents, parents who encourage them to accept their feelings and be who they are. I found this to be incredibly important, and something that more young adult literature needs to embrace. Not all parents are homophobic and intolerant, and I think it’s important for questioning or LGBT teens to see that there are supportive adults in the world. At one point in the novel, Ari confesses to Dante’s parents that he admitted to liking boys more than girls, and Dante’s parents are shocked and hurt that their son would be afraid to confide in them (mostly because he didn’t want to disappoint them). It’s heart-breaking and powerful, and a true testament to the bond of love shared between parents and children.

Surprisingly, I failed to notice Ari’s inner turmoil as the novel progressed, as it seemed much more like he was asexual than bottling up his feelings towards Dante. Though he comes to accept his feelings in the end, their relationship seems one-sided at times, with Dante falling fast and hard while Ari struggles to feel any physical urges for anyone (male or female). I was sure that he was going to be revealed as being either asexual or demisexual at the end, as he didn’t seem interested in the discussions about masturbation or kissing. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but it was definitely something I picked up on as I read the novel. Regardless, I appreciated seeing this brought up or implied in a young adult novel, as I haven’t yet seen an author deal with the concept of asexuality before now.

That being said, I still really enjoyed the relationship between Dante and Aristotle, as it showed the importance of having people in your life to lean on and confide in as a teen. Even if Aristotle hadn’t turned out to be gay, he immediately accepts Dante for who he is, growing incredibly protective of his friend and resistant to any sort of homophobia hurled is way. This is evident in the way he hunts down the boys who beat Dante up near the end of the novel for kissing another boy, bringing out a rage in Ari that he wasn’t even aware he possessed. This also ties into Ari’s relationship with his estranged brother, who was jailed for killing a transgender prostitute when Ari was still very young. This is yet another subtle look into homophobia, as well as the relationships between family members that permeate the novel’s many plot threads.

Aside from the relationship between the two titular characters, I really appreciated the themes of love and support found throughout the novel. Not only do Ari’s parents learn how to heal from their own emotional wounds (Ari’s father has PTSD from his time in Vietnam, while his mother constantly grieves for his imprisoned older brother Bernardo), but they also encourage their son to express his own feelings instead of holding them in. There is also quite a bit of discussion about Dante and Ari’s Mexican-American heritage, and what exactly makes someone “Mexican” or “American” enough to pass. Though it was a small part of the story (taking a backseat to the LGBT themes throughout), I appreciated this small acknowledgement of those who come from mixed cultural backgrounds. I think this helps to reassure young people that it’s okay not to feel as though you truly belong to your culture, as  we are all trying to figure out who we are and where we fit in during our teenage years.

There is a lot of beauty in the interwoven plot lines throughout this story, and I like that they all come together to share a message of being open and supportive of those we care about. We never know what private battles someone is struggling with, so it is crucial to be sympathetic and understanding towards others, even when their actions seem to make little sense. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and it is definitely one of the best young adult novels I’ve read this year.

Reference:

Sáenz, B. (2014). Aristotle and Dante discover the secrets of the universe. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster BFYR.

 

Fire from the Rock by Sharon M. Draper

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“I don’t understand why people are so mean to each other, why one group of people can hate another group of people so much. It makes my head hurt to think of it, but I see it everywhere now. I can see it in the eyes of the bus driver who really doesn’t want me on his bus, and the man at the Rexall drugstore, who thinks I’ll probably steal something.I can feel it in the whispers of people who walk behind me on the street. I wish I was still young like Donna Jean, who is sitting in the middle of the living room floor, making long necklaces of Pop-it beads and only worrying about whether she’ll run out of red ones” (Draper 2007, p. 130).

Thus far in my “Youth Literature for a Diverse Society” class, I’ve been asked to read quite a bit of heavy material. This material has ranged from stories of abuse to stories about teenage pregnancy and the horrors of poverty. All of the literature on the list so far has helped to provide a window into the lives of others, whether they come from a unique culture (as in An Na’s A Step from Heaven) or from a lower socio-economic status (as in Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff). This week’s reading has been no exception to that rule, but it has been the first to discuss the hardships of integration in Southern schools. I found this book to be incredibly powerful and moving for many reasons, the most poignant being that this scenario actually happened. As Sharon Draper states in her author’s note at the end of the novel, “Sylvia Faye and her family are fictional, but the nine students who integrated the school are very real” (Draper 2007, p. 229). Though I’d heard of the Little Rock Nine before, I’d never given much thought to how difficult their journey to integration truly was… until now.

Fire from the Rock, though dealing with the very real issue of integration in public schools in the 1950s, focuses on the story of a fictional girl named Sylvia Patterson. Until now, Sylvia has only had to worry about doing well in school, navigating the social world of boys and school dances, and being a good daughter and role model to her younger sister Donna Jean. The novel begins in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, as the school district is beginning the process of integration. When Sylvia is recommended for the list of students who will integrate into Central, the local all-white high school, she and her family must make a crucial decision: Should Sylvia risk her safety (and the safety of her family) to help change the world, or keep things exactly the way they are?

Though this book does a wonderful job of describing the hardships of African Americans during the time of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, I was impressed to see that this wasn’t the sole focus of the novel. Sylvia’s best friend is a white girl named Rachel Zucker, whose family fled from Germany during WWII. It is made clear throughout the novel that Rachel’s father survived the horrors of Auschwitz, only to come to America and be faced with more scorn from other white people. One of the white women on the school board actually remarks to Sylvia that she doesn’t have any “real” white friends, as there was heavy discrimination even within the white community during this time. In addition, Draper doesn’t paint all white people as being racist, bigoted and hateful; there are actually quite a few young people who are entirely willing to integrate, and only a few (specifically the Crandalls) who still see African Americans as being lesser than white people. I appreciated Sharon Draper’s ability to show the horrors of segregation without painting all white people as the enemy; I think she did an incredible job of portraying this difficult time in history accurately and fairly.

Along with portraying some of the white characters as helpful and sympathetic, Draper also added several African American characters who handled integration the wrong way as well. For example, Sylvia’s brother Gary, as well as her school crush Reggie, are both portrayed as being full of anger, willing to bomb stores and hurt people to enact change. Near the end of the novel, Reggie’s flirtation with violence comes to a head when he accidentally bombs the Zuckers’ store, nearly killing Sylvia and everyone else inside. Draper is clearly using this to show that violence is never the answer, and that answering hatred with hatred never works. Again, this was incredibly eloquent, wise, and fair to the time period, showing that things were not quite as clear-cut as we may believe. The addition of historical details (mentions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Little Rock Nine, Elvis Presley, etc.) help to paint a fairly accurate picture of what it might have been like to live during this tumultuous time in American history, and I feel as though I learned a lot more about integration and the conflicting politics of the time period.

Often when I read books set during particularly controversial periods in history, I can’t help but compare them to the political climate of today. It seems that history has a dangerous tendency to repeat itself, and I see many parallels between the civil rights movement for LGBTQ people and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. I often wonder what I would have done id I’d lived during the time of segregation. Would I have stood up for my fellow human beings, or would I have hidden on the sidelines, afraid to make waves? I’d like to think that I would’ve been one of the white people helping with the integration process, as I try my best to advocate for the civil rights of others today. The uncomfortable truth is, however, that I’m not sure how I would’ve reacted if I’d lived during the time of segregation; none of use really are. Reading books like Fire from the Rock help to propel us out of our privileged comfort zone, reminding us that things were far from equal not even a century ago in the United States.

It might be a tired old cliche to say that “those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it,” but I think there’s a reason this phrase has not died out over the years. It’s crucial that we never forget historical events like slavery, the Holocaust, and segregation; these are supposed to make us feel uncomfortable, because we now recognize how fundamentally wrong these things were. If we choose to ignore the historical truths that make us uncomfortable, we risk forgetting they ever happened, leading us to discriminate against others in entirely new ways in the future. It’s a dangerous cycle, and one that I think novels like Fire from the Rock are trying to end. By putting ourselves in the shoes of others, we can build empathy and understanding, helping us to work with other cultures, races, religions, and sexualities to create a world that is accepting of everyone, not just the majority.

I’m of the belief that we are far more alike than we are different, and I’m grateful to this book for reminding me of the privilege I’ve had for most of my life. I’ve never once had to fear for my life while heading to school, or worry that there might not be a school tomorrow for me to go to in order to get my education. I’ve never been discriminated against because of the pigment in my skin, or bullied and spat on because I’m part of a minority group. I think more people need to recognize that privilege does exist, and be empathetic to those who have not grown up with the same privileges. Reading diverse literature helps us to experience the hardships of others through the comfort and safety of our own homes, and open our eyes to the lives of those who are different from us. Sylvia and her family might be fictional, as Draper says, but the students who bravely faced the hatred and opposition of angry mobs to go to school every day were very real, and they have my full respect. This was an excellent work of historical fiction, and one that I would encourage everyone to read. If you’re willing to leave your comfort zone in order to face uncomfortable truths from the past, there’s no telling what you might learn.

Reference:

Draper, S. M. (2007). Fire from the rock. New York, NY: Dutton Children’s Books.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

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“Eleanor was right: She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something” (Rowell 2013, p. 165).

“What were the chances you’d ever meet someone like that? he wondered. Someone you could love forever, someone who would forever love you back? And what did you do when that person was born half a world away?” (Rowell 2013, p. 301).

The more I read for this blog, the harder it is to choose a favorite. This was the first book by Rainbow Rowell that I’d read, and I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t waited quite so long to pick up some of her work! I absolutely adored this book; it had such a simple story, and yet the main characters were so pure and innocent that it was hard not to be completely absorbed by their romance. The book explores many tough themes, from child abuse and alcoholism to bullying and self-esteem, but it never once feels preachy or forced. Instead, this novel feels honest; each of the characters is incredibly believable, and none are without flaws or imperfections. As someone who enjoys fantasy and sci-fi, I’m always surprised when I find a work of realistic fiction that really resonates with me.

Eleanor & Park, as you might imagine, follows the story of two misfit teens, Eleanor Douglas and Park Sheridan. At the beginning of the novel, Eleanor has only recently moved back into the area, and is now attending Park’s school for the first time. Eleanor comes from a broken home; her parents are separated, and her mom remarried an alcoholic man who is verbally abusive to Eleanor, her mom, and her four young siblings. Eleanor struggles with self-esteem and weight issues, and frequently suffers from vicious bullying at the hands of her new classmates, who refer to her as “Big Red.” Park is Korean and somewhat popular, hanging around with a group he doesn’t necessarily like in order to avoid the bullying. Though his parents have a strong marriage and clearly love him, he constantly struggles to live up to the expectations of his strict father, who sees him as a bit of a “sissy.” When Eleanor steps onto the bus on her first day of school, nobody is willing to give her a seat. That is, of course, until Park reluctantly moves over, sharing his space with the new misfit. The two slowly begin to form a friendship as the year drags on, learning more and more about each other until they’re completely inseparable. Eleanor & Park is a heart-warming story of acceptance, friendship, family, and the courage to pursue young love even when you know it has no chance of lasting.

This book reminds me a lot of Judy Blume’s Forever, as it toys with the idea of first love and how it rarely lasts in our modern society. While Forever deals more with sex, consent, and contraceptives, however, Eleanor & Park focuses on issues such as bullying and broken homes. While Eleanor and Park experiment a little with their sexuality, they never actually go “all the way,” putting the focus much more on the emotional side of their growing relationship. One of the biggest themes I noticed throughout the novel was acceptance, and what it took for Eleanor to be accepted by her peers and those around her. When the novel begins, Eleanor is the weird new girl, whose weight and bright red hair make her an instant target for bullies. As the novel progresses, she continually finds crass, obscene things written in her textbooks, and at one point her clothes are even thrown in the toilet, forcing her to walk home in nothing but her tight gym uniform from school.

After reading the novel, I found myself wanting to know what happened next, leading me to Rainbow Rowell’s FAQ page. To my dismay, I saw that one of the most frequently asked questions was “whether or not Eleanor was actually fat.” This saddened me, as I don’t think anyone’s weight (fictional character or otherwise) should matter as long as he or she is healthy. In fact, Eleanor is malnourished throughout the story, only getting proper meals when she visits Park at his home. Her weight clearly has nothing to do with an unhealthy lifestyle, and yet she is ridiculed and ostracized for it by her peers. I could tell that Rainbow Rowell was disheartened by receiving this question as well; she linked to a very powerful article in her response, in which a woman describes her own struggle with acceptance due to her weight and low self-esteem. Eleanor is overweight, yes, but finds love and acceptance anyways, thus proving that her weight never really mattered at all. She is strong, smart, and tough, and manages to find her own happy ending despite her struggles with weight and bullying. The author of the article, Kaye Toal, describes in immense detail what reading about Eleanor’s struggles at age 23 meant to her:

“I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d met Eleanor Douglas earlier. If Eleanor and Park had existed when I needed it most, would I have read it instead of She’s Come Undone? Would I have developed an eating disorder so violent that I still can’t think about it too hard without wanting to crawl under a bed and stay there in the dark and quiet for several hours? Would I have been able to forgive my parents sooner? Would I have been able to forgive myself? I think maybe the answer to some of these things is yes” (Toal 2015).

If this isn’t proof that representation matters in fiction, I don’t know what is. It’s no secret in our society that young girls are often self-conscious about their bodies and their weight, and their doubts are often perpetuated by media that portrays women as unrealistically thin and fit. All too often, “being fat” is seen as an ultimate taboo, a reason to be shunned and picked on and made to feel inferior. For Eleanor, her weight becomes a source of empowerment, as she meets someone (Park) who loves her for who she is, curves and all. This was a heart-warming and much-needed change in fiction, and especially YA fiction, as it teaches girls that it’s okay to love yourself and your body, and that the right person will love everything about you.

While Eleanor is an excellent example of representation, however, I was a little more confused by Park. He is frequently described as being half-Korean (his father met his mother in Korea while serving in the military overseas), but it sometimes seems like the author is doing this for the sake of adding diversity to the story. On the one hand, I think it’s wonderful that an Asian character is being portrayed as a love interest, as this rarely happens in young adult literature. Similarly, Park seems to be Korean without being reduced to a stereotype; he doesn’t act any different than any of his peers. In fact, if Rowell had decided not to mention that he and his mother are Korean, I doubt the audience would even have noticed, which can be either negative or positive depending on your point of view. White people, for example, come from a variety of European nations; you wouldn’t know just by looking at someone whether their ancestors were from Spain or Germany or France. While you can clearly tell if someone is of Asian descent, their appearance tells you nothing about whether or not they’re Korean, Japanese, Chinese, or from another culture entirely. Park’s mother is very traditional (and speaks in sometimes disjointed English), but otherwise doesn’t flaunt his Korean heritage. This seemed to be the effect Rowell was going for; that people are just people, regardless of their heritage or place of origin.

That being said, Park’s Korean heritage didn’t quite add to the story in the way Eleanor’s red hair and weight did. He was never bullied for it (he mentions at one point that he’s been called racial slurs like “chink” before, but it doesn’t appear to have had a significant effect on him), and it is only brought up in passing as a joke every once in a while. I can’t pretend to know the reason for this, but I would hope that the author didn’t intend to pass Park off as the “token Asian” character. Similarly, Eleanor makes two friends in school named DeNice and Beebi, who stand out almost as “token African American” characters. While they seem to be the only two girls who treat Eleanor like a person instead of a punching bag (they protect her and make her feel more welcome and accepted at the school), they sometimes speak in a stereotypical manner, and serve no other purpose to the plot other than helping to build up Eleanor whenever she can’t be with Park. I didn’t have a huge problem with them, but I can’t help but wonder how a young African American reader might feel about their interactions with Eleanor. Sadly, I cannot speak for that demographic; I can only speculate as to whether or not the characters of DeNice and Beebi are respectful or offensive.

Despite the novel’s sometimes mixed messages on race, however, there are many themes explored in Eleanor & Park that I found to be extremely well done. For example, Eleanor comes from a broken home. Her parents divorced sometime before the beginning of the novel, and her mother is now married to a man who physically and verbally abuses his wife, and also verbally abuses Eleanor and her siblings. In addition, he spends the family’s hard-earned money on booze instead of buying food and necessities, only pitching in when he’s in a decent mood (which, as you can imagine, is rare). This character, named Richie, was absolutely terrible; I couldn’t stand him, and I kept hoping something awful would happen to him at the end of the book. The saddest part of reading this book, however, was knowing that there are real children out there suffering at the hands of abusive parents just like Richie; reading a book like this might give them hope that a better life exists out there if they can only hang on a little longer.

I also like that, while Park had a seemingly “perfect” and “normal” family (his parents are still together, and clearly making enough money to live comfortably), this doesn’t mean that Park’s life is “perfect.” Based on his father’s reaction when Park starts wearing eyeliner near the middle of the book, I can only imagine what he would have done if Park had turned out to be gay. His father clearly loves him, but is incredibly harsh on Park, berating him for every little thing he does that comes across as being “less than masculine.” This juxtaposition of the two families shows young readers that, no matter your situation, everyone is facing their own demons. The “perfect family,” or the family we might see a version of on our Facebook feed, does not exist; it’s merely an illusion covering up battle scars that we know nothing about. Eleanor and Park have very different problems, but are able to help one another through those problems by being supportive and empathetic towards one another. This was a very poignant message, and one that I think comes across exceedingly well.

While Eleanor & Park definitely has its flaws, it is ultimately an endearing story about hope, family, and the power love has to lift us out of miserable situations. Eleanor and Park are able to find a refuge in one another, if only for a brief moment in time, and I think both of them are better off for it in the end. Through their relationship, those around them (such as Park’s mother, who dislikes Eleanor at first due to her strange clothing and quiet nature) begin to learn both tolerance and acceptance; even Tina, the source of most of Eleanor’s misery at the beginning of the book, ends up helping to hide her when her step-father comes looking for her near the end. Though the book deals with incredibly heavy themes (abuse, divorce, alcoholism, etc.), I somehow still found it to be an incredibly pure, simple story. It is a story about how love can transform us, allowing us to see others in a completely new light as we learn more about their hopes, flaws, and daily struggles. My only real gripe is that this book doesn’t currently have a sequel; I would love to know what happens to Eleanor and Park’s relationship after the conclusion of the book. While, in reality, they likely wouldn’t last past high school, something in me still hopes that these two characters might find a happy ending despite the odds.

References:

Rowell, R. (2013). Eleanor & Park. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Toal, K. (2015, March 11). How Finding A Fat YA Heroine Changed My Life. Retrieved January 22, 2017, from https://www.buzzfeed.com/kayetoal/that-knife-of-recognition?utm_term=.phjn2LBMn#.sx2ozqlro.