Book Review: The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan

cover50965-mediumTitle: The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan

Author: Atia Abawi

Date: Penguin; 2014

main character: Fatima


synopsis: Fatima is a Hazara girl, raised to be obedient and dutiful. Samiullah is a Pashtun boy raised to defend the traditions of his tribe. They were not meant to fall in love. But they do. And the story that follows shows both the beauty and the violence in current-day Afghanistan as Fatima and Samiullah fight their families, their cultures and the Taliban to stay together. Based on the people Atia Abawi met and the events she covered during her nearly five years in Afghanistan, this stunning novel is a must-read for anyone who has lived during America’s War in Afghanistan.

I have to admit that the beginning of the book felt very much to me like it was written by an outsider looking in; someone who was taking the American notion of romantic love to another country. Abawi was simply pulling my American sensibility into Afghanistan. The story felt soft and sweet, didn’t I know how this was going to end? Then, Fatima over hears her father talking to her mother about war-time atrocities that he committed. This was not going to be an easy read! I had not idea how it was going to end, but I certainly wanted to know!

Abawi writes a story of contemporary Afghanstan, a country caught in crossroads and cross hairs. Abawi writes chapters in alternating voices, disallowing us from conceptualizing a single story for this perplexing country. Abawi develops complex characters that we despise for their actions, yet we know the conflicted rationale that leads them to behave a certain way.

I don’t know the various cultures in Afghanistan, don’t know the rituals of daily life or the nuances of religion and politics. I cannot review the accuracy in that regard. What I do appreciate is that we’re told a story that incorporates multiple perspectives so that readers will not expect those who live in the country to think, behave or live in one certain way. Not many writers would be able to trust their characters to tell this story, but Abawi did. Readers will develop their own judgments about compelling situations, They will approach the book with ideas about social justice, marriage, love and parental rights, yet as Fatima comes of age, the reader will certainly mature along with her. This book is a tough read; I think an important read for teens in our global society. It brings to life the fact that there are no easy answers.

Atia Abawi works as a journalist with CNN. She was stationed in Afghanistan for over 5 years, leaving that position for one in Jerusalem. Abawi was born in Germany and moved to the US when she was one year old. She is still based in the Mideast and The Secret Sky is her first book.


book review: The Great Greene Heist

TheGreatGreeneHeisttitle: The Great Greene Heist

author: Varian Johnson

date: Arthur A. Levine; May 2014

main character: Jackson Green

middle grade fiction

Intriguing! Has Jackson Greene changed? And, just how bad was he that he needed to change? Will Jackson get the girl? Will the girl get the guy? Will Gabriela win the election?

The cast of characters for this middle grade caper includes Victor Cho, Bradley Boardman, Megan Feldman and Charlie de la Cruz and their talents range the spectrum from inventing high-tech inventions to environmental advocacy. These middle grade students put it all on the line to save their friends and the student council election for their school. What could be more important to middle grade students?

I found the 3rd person voice in this book so refreshing and accomplished in a manner that few other than Varian Johnson can do. The story Johnson tells is as much Gaby’s as it is Jackson’s. I think he successfully nailed the voice of his characters, who were quite well-developed. The guys sound like guys and the girls sound like girls.

And, then there’s Principal Kelsey who manages to rest firmly on the marker for ‘stereotypical character’ on the Scale of Character Development for Children and Young Adult Books. With so much going on in the story, using him as a stock character allows the story to move at it’s quick pace. How stock is he? This guy is so self-involved that he doesn’t take any effort to get to know his students. He confuses his Asian students with one another as easily as he confuses Latino students. The students are so different from one another, readers wonder how he could do that.

Embedding elements from Oceans 11, Westing Game, Sneakers, Thomas Crown Affair and Star Trek 3: Wrath of Khan in this book, Johnson appeals to the mischievous intellect of this daring age group. Jackson is one of the best-developed MG male characters I’ve read in a long time. While his character relate more to reader’s creative side, his escapades relate to why we read in the first place: for sheer enjoyment.

themes: Elections; friendship; technology; reliability; integrity


book review: The Deep

Cover_v8.inddtitle: The Deep

author: Zetta Elliott

date: 2013; Rosetta Press

main character: Nyla

The Deep continues the stories of Nyla, Keem and D that began in Ship of Souls. While Ship of Souls was D’s story, The Deep is Nyla’s. We knew something happened to Nyla in Germany and now we find what it was and how that terror stole Nyla’s sense of self. She moves to Brooklyn with her stepmother and begins covering herself in an array of body piercings, spiked hair and black clothing. In appearance, she is oddly matched with Keem, an attractive athlete, but he seemed to give her the space and respect that she needed. She is as impulsive in her decision-making as any 14-year-old would be.

As a character, I found Nyla difficult to like just as I imagine a real life Nyla would be. A smart black girl struggling with so many personal issues, would indeed take some special love if you didn’t know her. This girl managed to build a thick, protective covering around herself that didn’t manage to interfere with her sense of independence or her core values.

Before leaving for Brooklyn, Nyla rhetorically asks if she could indeed belong in Brooklyn. Identity and fitting in are themes in this book and they’re themes that shape the lives of many nerdy black girls who rarely find themselves represented in American media. Nyla finds that she has a special purpose, a unique calling that comes from her mother; the woman who walked out on her and her father when she was 4 years old.

Elliott creates a strong sense of place as the Brooklyn landscape plays a prominent role in Nyla’s fate. Prominent public locations become portals that transport Nyla into the deep and deliver important messages to the characters. As D, Keem and Nyla ride the trains, visit the pizza shops and hangout out in the parks we feel such a strong connection to this place that we want to believe this is where they all belong. But our Nyla is being pulled away.

These three friends are once again confronted by powers from below the ground that  bring many threats, not the least of which is the threat to end their friendships. Nyla struggles with her new-found powers and with so many major elements in the book, yet Elliott lets these teens remain teens. Each of them wants to know how to maintain  relationships with parents, friends and lovers. And, each of them wants to find their place in the world. Well, D and Nyla do. We still need to hear Keem’s story!

Elliott continues to self publish imaginative and provocative young adult speculative fiction. Her commitment to her readers is evident in the honest portrayals that she gives them. Zetta sent me a copy of this book back in December when I was knee deep in BFYA reading. I never committed to when I would read The Deep and honestly, I didn’t want to read it because I didn’t want to not like it. I shouldn’t have doubted her skills.

Review: House of Purple Cedar

Hproductsprimary_image_215_touse of Purple Cedar

Author: Tim Tingle

Date:  February, 2014; Cinco Puntos

adult crossover

The House of Purple Cedar is set in Skullyville, Oklahoma at the turning of the 20th century. The New Hope Academy for Girls just burned down and a new Indian Agent has just arrived in town. Rose and her brother, Jamey joined Amofo, their grandfather, for a trip into town, a rare treat that would replace their daily chores. This outing actually placed them in the right place at the wrong time. The town marshall appears, alcohol leads to events and Amofo is struck with a board.

House of Purple Cedar unfolds as a story of how those who are disempowered choose to react when they are abused. The process of deciding how to react was a slow, deliberate process for Amofo as it was for Choctaw elders and Rose keenly observes this process. The narrative voice changes and we come to understand power balances throughout the community. We realize that while an individual’s actions define their own relationship, the community as a whole plays a role in allowing things to happen.

There are houses of purple cedar in the story, however, I’m not sure why ‘purple cedar’. I’ve spent some time researching this wood and can’t find anything about it. The more I looked, the more curious I’ve become about its significance.

Tingle manages better than most to weave in and out of time and back and forth between narrative voices. Rose, a young girl throughout most of the story, is the only character who has a narrative voice thus making the book appealing to young readers. Rose lives with her parents and grandparents in a home outside the city. Skullyville is a small community where Choctaw and Nahullos (Whites) all know each other, worship separately, maintain prejudices and come together in unpredictable ways. While Choctaw identity is essential to the story, this isn’t a story about being Choctaw.

‘Hearing’ the community sing “Amazing Grace” will give you goose bumps. Tingle brings faith to life and makes it another character in this story. No doubt, Tingle is a storyteller! He brings together many characters, details and events in this story in a very gentle, purposeful way.

Thank you, Bobby Byrd  of Cinco Puntos, for providing me a review copy at ALA Midwinter!

Book Review: If I Ever Get Out of Here

+-+447799563_70Title: If I Ever Get Out of Here

Author: Eric Gansworth

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books; 2013

Main character: Lewis Blake

Lewis is a smart kid who tested out of the Indian school on the Tuscarora Reservation and is now attending the nearby all white school. He wants to go to college and to have a better life so, he wants to know how to maneuver a world that is new to him.  As a result, he’s trying to figure  out how to come of age both on the rez and in the white world. Up until now, Lewis has been pretty much a loner; it’s difficult making friends when you live in two worlds. Then, along comes George. A new kid who’s literally been around the world. His father’s military career has taught him how to fit in, how to live by a code and probably how to recognize enduring qualities in others. George reaches out to Lewis and they bond over Beatles music. This bond extends to George’s family who immediately takes to Lewis.

In return, Lewis is embarrassed to bring his friend’s home because his home, indeed his reservation, appears so lacking. These two settings, the home and the reservation are central places in Lewis’ life. While they’re places he wants to get out of, they’re also places he cannot and will not leave behind. Gansworth does an excellent job of creating these spaces in our minds, both their physical presence and their cultural elements. We know these places are central to his identity.  We understand why these places embarrass him on a physical level but we are not embarrassed for him because we knew their greater importance.  Nonetheless, we want him to get out of there. We hope he find some of the wisdom that Uncle Albert has found.

Gansworth’s writing has a rhythm that builds in the nuances of planets, music and friendship and in the way all these elements all blend together. This is a book about being an Indian, a much needed book about being an Indian because most Americans know so little. At the same time, it’s just a very well written book about a kid who wants to be accepted for who he is and isn’t that something we all want out of life?


Book Review: Bird

Bird-covertitle: Bird

author: Crystal Chan

Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Release Date: January, 2014

main character: Jewell Campbell

12 year old Jewel is growing up in a house where people don’t talk to one another. They probably stopped when her grandfather caused her brother, John, to die. He nicknamed John ‘Bird’ and convinced him that he was in fact a bird. At the age of 5, Bird attempted to fly off a cliff. Grandfather never spoke again and her mother and father seemed to stop speaking about things that mattered.

Jewel was lost in this silence until John appeared. John, skin as dark as midnight, was sitting in her tree. But who was he, really?

Bird is rich in its Iowa setting. Jewel knows the ancient history of the land while John knows about space. Together, they climb trees and find arrowheads.

Bird is a story of mixed raced identity. John was adopted by a white family and struggles to find self-acceptance while Jewel is ½ Jamaican, ¼ White and ¼ Mexican. Her family mixes cultures, stories and magic and does not fit into this Iowa town. They don’t even fit into their own home. Chan writes not only about the superficial ways cultures blend, but she digs into the belief systems that deeply affect the ways people live together.

With identity as an overarching theme, readers want to know who this John really is. The name can’t just be a coincidence, can it? Jewel notices right away that something with John may not be as it seems and she asks on question too many.

The tension in the air suddenly grew so thick we didn’t need tree limbs to sit on anymore, we could have set on one of those words that just crawled out and got huge.

“Want to keep climbing?” I asked, scooching over to the trunk of the tree and standing up. “I can show you this squirrel’s nest.”

He looked at me, and his face shifted. Softened, no longer stone.

Jewel wants a friend. As she unravels her family’s truths, she also unravels John’s.

From Crystal’s bio page:

Crystal Chan grew up as a mixed-race kid in the middle of the Wisconsin cornfields and has been trying to find her place in the world ever since. Over time, she found that her heart lies in public IMG_7240-revised-241x300speaking, performing, and ultimately, writing. She has published articles in several magazines; given talks and workshops across the country; facilitated discussion groups at national conferences; and been a professional storyteller for children and adults alike. In Chicago, where Crystal now lives, you will find her biking along the city streets and talking to her pet turtle.

Reviewing: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

While I cannot review books eligible for BFYA, I can describe them and I can still actively promote books written by authors of color. One way I’ll creatively do that is by providing more guests posts this year. I am looking for guest reviewers, so if you have read or are reading any of the (FEW!!) MG or YA books that were written by authors of color and would like to write a review, please contact me at crazyquilts in care of hotmail dot com.

Today, I’m featuring Shadra Strickland’s comments on The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Arthur A. Levine; March 2013).


Click to read the first chapter on NPR

From the publisher’s website:

A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.

The lush city of Palmares Tres shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.

Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Tres will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.

From Shadra Strickland:

I just really enjoyed the book for it’s daring and unconventionality. The setting really made me use my imagination and create Palmeres Tres in my mind. I felt that all of the rules of the world that Johnson created in this novel made us stretch our imagination. I loved watching our heroine transform throughout the story. I loved the intimate relationships she had with Gil, which read to me less like a romantic infatuation but more like a relationship built through common ideas and support, and then watching her relationship with Enki evolve through art. As an artist who also had to leave her comfort zone and mesh with other artists before fully coming into her own, I can relate to the idea of seeing a reflection of myself through someone who is freer thinking and uninhibited by certain rules and trappings of modern society. I can relate to the excitement and energy she found when she combined her ideas with Enki’s to create something more powerful and daring than she could have imagined on her own until she learned to trust her own voice and create for herself.

I did not focus as much on the rules of the world our characters lived in. I was amused to see a futuristic world where so many ideas about love, sexuality, and freedom were expanded from what we know now, but how difficult it still was for people to embrace change and new ideas.

I think that was the overarching theme for me…transformation.

I enjoyed how Johnson answered many what ifs about society. What if women ruled the world? What if we could live for centuries (if not forever) and choose when we wanted to leave our physical bodies? What if technology merged with art; how would we use it? What if love was love and free from gender restrictions? What if the future really did belong to young people?

headshot_webShadra Strickland studied, design, writing, and illustration at Syracuse University and later went on to complete her M.F.A. at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She won the Ezra Jack Keats Award and the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent in 2009 for her work in her first picturebook, Bird, written by Zetta Elliott. Strickland co-illustrated Our Children Can Soar, winner of a 2010 NAACP Image Award. Shadra is also the illustrator of A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, 2010), written by Renee Watson: a story of four children in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Publishers Weekly called Strickland’s illustrations “quietly powerful,” and Booklist said, “In vibrant, mixed-media images, award-winning illustrator Strickland extends the drama, feeling, and individual stories.” from Shadra’s website