review: My Name is Not Tuesday

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title: My Name is Not Friday
author: Jon Walter
date: Scholastic, 2016
main character: Samuel “Friday”
YA Historical Fiction

My Name is not Friday is British author Jon Walter’s sophomore novel. The beginning is slow moving and a bit disorienting. It feels odd in that we’re in one of the most racially charged eras in American history yet we never learn anyone’s racial identity until the protaganist is referred to as a ‘nigger’ at a slave auction thirty nine pages into the story. I have not seen the British version of this book, it is possible some things were changed as the book was translated into American English.

We soon find that young Samuel has been removed from the orphanage where he grew up and is being enslaved, leaving behind his younger brother, Joshua; his only remaining family member. Samuel feels responsible for his mischievous sibling (his brother’s keeper?) and wants to get back to protect him. Instead, he’s held in bondage on the Allen farm.

I still cannot figure out why Samuel (look up Samuel in the Old Testament), who is renamed Friday (nod to Robinson Crusoe) doesn’t make everyone know that he is free. He enters into bondage fearlessly. Why?

It seems that Samuel falls easily into the role of one who is enslaved, keeping his eyes downcast, not engaging with the whites around him. His life in the orphanage seemed good, not great but good. Perhaps life there as a free boy was not much better than being enslaved. Was there just no good place for a black boy to be in the American south in 1880? Perhaps he was subjugated all his life. Several scenes indicate that Friday does not know how to carry out routine duties of an enslaved person and has no idea how to be a slave. Rather than wonder why he doesn’t know, it’s assumed he’s lazy. However, many see Friday as someone quite special, almost chosen. This is part of the strong moral and Christian undertone in the book.

Friday’s actual owner is Gerald Allen, a young white boy not much older than Friday. Mrs. Allen, Gerald’s mother, manages the estate while her husband is off to fight for the Confederacy and  she seems unsure most of the time. Having been influence by a father who is compassionate toward those he has enslaved, Gerald wants to be Friday’s friend although his mother wants him to grow up and treat Friday as someone who is enslaved.

I’ve read several reviews of My Name is Not Friday that refer to the story as being brutal. Please rid yourself of the notion of smiling slaves. Please. My friends, this is a story of enslavement, a story where one group of humans forces domination over another based upon their skin color. Walter understands this and does not shy away from the inhumanity of this institution. He communicates the humanity of the enslaved as well as of the enslaver and the most honest way he can do this is by creating opportunities to show the inconsistencies of this system, the exact inhumanity of enslavement.

Remember, Gerald actually owns all the enslaved people on this property. At one point, he’s bullied into whipping an enslaved person, Hubbard. He doesn’t want to whip this man whom he’s known all his life and Friday calls him on it.

“Why’d you do It, Gerald? Why didn’t you stop it?”

Gerald stamps down, lifts another spade of earth up out of the grave, and throws it farther than he needs to. “Hubbard deserved what he got. He was caught fair and square and we didn’t have no choice but to whip him. My daddy would have done the same thing. I’m sure he would. Maybe he wouldn’t have done it himself, but he would have made sure someone did it.”

“You could have refused!”

“They’d have done it anyway!” He stops his digging and stares at me, exasperated. “There are folks who think that darkies ain’t good enough to be free. Now, I ain’t one of ‘em, but that’s who you got to convince-and you can’t do that when they’ve brought in a runaway and everyone’s howling for blood.”

The entitlement! Gerald throws the earth farther than he needs to; a wasteful action, a waste of the soil. Digging in the dirt.

Gerald rationalizes that because of his actions, Hubbard deserves to be whipped and it’s Hubbard’s own fault and besides you can’t convince some people otherwise, at least not when they’re angry. And, his daddy? He wouldn’t have whipped Hubbard, he wouldn’t soil his own hands like that. No. He’d get someone else to do it. These enslaved people are Gerald’s property but everything tells him he has no choice to make. It’s 1864ish and the war is almost over but the south has become a slave society. Not even whites have the freedom to act outside the guidelines. Yea, that’s brutal.

Walter does have a few problems with the story. With so much richness brought to the character of Friday/Samuel, he’s still poorly developed. At many points, Samuel seems to be a moral compass, a child with a mission. Yet, he never seems to develop in any cognitive, emotional or spiritual perspective. With all that Friday faces over a protracted period of time, he seems to remain the same child from start to finish. And, too often racial identity is omitted.

Then, there’s the ending. The third segment of the book is written in a completely different tone and even at a different pace than the previous portion and this makes the conclusion difficult to accept.

Walter admits that he didn’t set out to write a story about enslavement, but this is where the character’s voice let him. I like that he didn’t hold his character an arm’s length away as too many whites do when writing enslaved blacks. Rather, he embraces him and writes him with care. I like that his portrayal of enslavement is complex and multilayered and that Walter did his research. This isn’t a perfect book, but it is a good one.

book review: See No Color

+-+132197954_140title: See No Color
author: Shannon Gibney
date: 2015 CarolRhoda Lab
main character: Alex Kirtridge

See No Color is a coming of age story about a young biracial girl (White/African American), a transracial adoptee, who is trying to figure out her identity. Alex is a gifted athlete with hopes of building a career in baseball. When the story begins, Alex is narrating her father’s life. This is off-putting in YA, where we typically hear little from or about parents. In this instance, Gibney is using Alex’s voice to indicate how little self-confidence the character has. Alex’s hair also brings this point across. Her hair is wild and untamed. I would imagine it to be long, curly and very dry; tough to comb and impossible to style. Alex has been adopted by a white family who denies Alex’s racial identity and their blindness leads Alex to wonder just who she really is, and how to manage her hair. When she begins to date a young man who is African American, she begins to realize that she doesn’t relate to her own blackness. Where does she fit in?

When I finished reading the book, it didn’t sit well with me and I believe this is simply because I didn’t take the time to relate to the character. There are many things that Alex does as she stumbles through her search for identity that come across as signs of weakness. Well, of course this young girl was weak in some sense, but in another sense she was had the strength to undertake this journey by herself. I’ve come to admire her strength.

I enjoyed the language in this book.

I touched the base and then took a reasonable lead as my teammate stepped up to the plate. The black kid on the mound looked back at me once, over his glove, but I was confident that he wouldn’t try to pick me off. He knew exactly how fast I was now. Today, anyway, I was stronger that he was. (p. 10)

No doubt Alex that wasn’t only talking about baseball. Here, she was foreshadowing the doubt and confusion that would soon overtake her.

The key to Alex discovering who she is lies in how she manages her relationships with the young African American man she’s dating and with her African American father. While this book wants to empower this young women, it fails to do so in two instances. First, it lets her development rest upon relationships with males. Second, the story has her physical ability decline as her body to develops. I wasn’t an athlete, so I don’t know that my rounding hips would prevent me from running at high speeds and I tend to thing that Venus and Serena Williams tend to disprove this logic.

I’d be remiss in my duties as a librarian if I didn’t remark on how well written the scene is when the librarian relates an abundance of information about transracial adoptions. Rather than hearing the voice of the author as often happens in thee moments, I felt the librarian’s passion and emotion. This debut author did a very skillful job of creating a complex and believable story.

See No Color is a rare gem in that little else is written for teens about transracial adoptions, biracial teens or female athletes. Here, in this book it all intersects quite nicely.

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?