Tales Through Time: Pet, Women Talking, and The War I Finally Won

I’M ALIVE, SUCKERS!!

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You try looking this cute post-surgery.

Surgery went really well, and I’ve started the long process of learning how to (sort of) hear out of two ears again. I’ve got a cool-looking scar, a new cochlear implant, and three fantastic books to review, so let’s get to it! First, the futuristic Pet by Akwaeke Emezi.

Review of PET by Akwaeke Emezi. Novel published on 10th September ...

Look, I don’t often recommend hyped-up YA books, but this one is well worth your time. Pet follows Jam, a girl who lives in the city of Lucille. She and her best friend, Redemption, have been taught that the monsters who used to roam the streets and halls of power have all gone. But Jam starts to suspect that this may not be true when she meets Pet, a creature who says it’s here to hunt a monster. Even worse, Pet says that the monster lives in Redemption’s house–one of the safest places Jam has ever known. As she starts to unravel a sinister mystery, Jam must learn how to hunt a monster when everyone keeps denying they exist.

I’ll start by saying that the audience for this book is probably on the younger side–maybe middle school? But I still loved it as a high schooler, and I think adults would probably like it, too. For one, I was refreshed by the fact that Lucille is an actual utopia. Pet isn’t one of those YA novels where a dystopia masquerades as a utopia and the protagonist has to take it down. Lucille’s government and representatives genuinely want the best for their citizens, and they’ve built a city that serves that purpose.

The world-building was wonderful–Lucille feels lived-in and warm. Parents bicker jokingly, little siblings are annoying, the library is still a safe haven for determined kids solving a mystery. Emezi makes the point that a utopia might look more familiar than we think–and, by extension, that it’s more attainable than we think. It references a lot of things that readers are probably already familiar with, like prison abolition, rehabilitation instead of jail time, and protests as a force for change. (And if younger readers aren’t already familiar with these things, Pet provides a fantastic starting point to learn about them.)

Most importantly, though, Emezi warns us that the work of actually sustaining a utopia is never done. Transparency, empathy, and a willingness to listen to the most vulnerable members of society are values that even a utopia like Lucille must re-commit itself to every day.

Also, Jam is selectively mute and uses sign language! So this deaf girl was definitely geeking out the whole time. Honestly, I could’ve read a whole book just about Lucille’s sign language–is it ASL? BASL? Does it incorporate signs from other sign languages, the same way Jam’s parents frequently use Igbo in their conversations? I was literally searching through the pages to see if I could find any more clues about it. The way Emezi showed how Jam’s parents and friends respect her communication preferences was subtle but moving, too.

I loved the relationship between Jam and Redemption as well–there’s something wonderful about a really well-written friendship that doesn’t turn romantic. The range of sexuality and gender in the book also stood out. Jam is trans, but it’s not a huge plot point. Redemption has three parents. It was also something of a relief not having to worry if a trans or disabled character was going to die, because Pet isn’t the type of book to treat its characters so callously.

In conclusion, read Pet! Not only is it a story that shows readers what an attainable utopia might look like, it’s also funny, heartfelt, and overflowing with love for its characters. (You should also read this really great interview that Emezi did with Teen Vogue!)

Next, let’s backtrack to the present(ish) day and discuss Women Talking by Miriam Toews.

Amazon.com: Women Talking (9781635572582): Toews, Miriam: Books

In Women Talking, eight Mennonite women convene in a hayloft to debate whether or not they should leave the colony of Molotschna. For the past few years, they and their children have been repeatedly assaulted by a group of men, who are now in jail in the city. When the men of the colony leave to bail them out, the women and children are left alone–and face an impossible choice.

I don’t quite know how to feel about this book–it’s strong in a lot of ways and weaker in others. I’d say the biggest weakness is probably the narration. The story is told in the minutes of the meeting, which are taken by August Epp, a schoolteacher in the colony. He’s a fine narrator during the meetings–not so much when he’s talking about himself. The book gets off to a stumbling start when, within the first few pages, Toews throws a bunch of information about August’s backstory at us, which, to be frank, isn’t really that interesting, especially when the specter of a much larger predicament looms over the story. Even when the meetings actually start and August is taking notes, the book is continually bogged down with references to his life before re-joining the colony that feel excessive. I know that Toews is trying to endear him to the reader–he is the narrator, after all–but I’m pretty certain that there’s a more graceful way to do it.

A lot of the dialogue rings false, too. When Agata, one of the matriarchs, says, “This is a democracy, after all,” a teenage girl replies, “A what?” Ona and August reference poets and art and it’s revealed that August’s mother ran a secret school for girls. Many moments feel shoehorned.

It is caustically funny, though, one of the book’s major strengths. One of my favorite moments is when the women are discussing the certainties and uncertainties of leaving the colony:

Mejal defends Ona. Why couldn’t that be the case, that the only certainty is the power of love? she wonders.

Because it’s meaningless! Salome shouts. Particularly in this fucking context!

The story kind of reads as a Socratic seminar, with the women addressing philosophical and religious dilemmas with a slightly unbelievable amount of careful attention, given that they only have two days to make a decision. It’s a meditation on storytelling, patriarchal violence, and autonomy, and is trying very hard to be smart in the process. It would be smarter if it weren’t trying so hard.

Finally, let’s travel back in time to World War II with The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.

The War I Finally Won: Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker: 9780525429203 ...

In lieu of an actual review, please accept these screenshots of my grandma and I texting each other about it:

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Well, ignore that last part about the AP. But yeah! To say that my grandma loves Little Women with a passion is the understatement of the century, so comparing The War I Finally Won to it is a pretty big deal!

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I remember the conversation I had with my dad while I was crying! It went something like this:

“I didn’t expect it to be quite this emotionally devastating!”

“So it was really sad?”

“No!”

“Okay. Just…emotionally devastating.”

“Yes!”

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 4.36.29 PM!!!!!!!

Also, bonus: Here’s my grandma talking about The War That Saved My Life, the first book, in case you need some motivation to read it.

Screen Shot 2020-08-06 at 4.40.03 PMI mean!!

Maybe someday I’ll have the emotional fortitude to write a full review, but today is not that day, friends. I did try to write a review in June, but it was just a bunch of scattered thoughts, including the very bitter, “It’s a reminder that someone else has already written the book you want to write.” I mean, I really was so devastated by it that I couldn’t even look at it for a while.

A recap: The last time we saw London evacuees Ada and Jamie Smith, they were being reunited with their caretaker Susan in the seaside village of Kent after a bomb destroyed the house they’d lived in. The War I Finally Won begins a week after the end of The War That Saved My Life, on the eve of Ada’s surgery to fix her clubfoot. Soon after, Ada’s cruel mother dies in a bombing, Susan becomes the siblings’ guardian, and they move into a cottage on the property of the stony-faced Lady Thorton. And then Lady Thorton moves in with them, and later Ruth, a sixteen-year-old Jewish girl from Germany. As they wait out the war together, the world around Ada keeps shifting and growing in this moving, heart-wrenching, and ultimately healing sequel.

Here’s a very brief summarization of some of my thoughts, because I’m not even kidding when I say that if I think about this book for too long I start crying:

  • I’ll start with this: There’s this line in an Atlantic article about The Fault In Our Stars that has stuck with me since I read it. It’s, “This is a book that breaks your heart—not by wearing it down, but by making it bigger and bigger until it bursts.” Granted, I don’t feel that way about The Fault In Our Stars. But I do feel that way about The War I Finally Won.
  • The character development feels very, very earned. Ada’s trauma doesn’t just go away now that time has passed, but it’s obvious that she’s improved and trusts Susan more. (The relationship between Ada and Susan continues to bring me to tears, btw.) It helps that this book spans a lot longer than The War That Saved My Life. It begins when Ada is eleven and ends when she’s fourteen. (Do NOT even talk to me about how Ada would be in her nineties today or I will burst into tears.) And yet, the book never drags, either, for all the years that pass.
  • I’d recommend reading Bradley’s post about writing a character with PTSD while simultaneously having PTSD herself. You should also read “A Touch on Lesbianism,” a funny and incisive blog post about Susan.
  • The War I Finally Won is funnier than the first book, which I wasn’t expecting, but the humor feels very natural. Jamie is an excellent foil for Ada, just as before. When Jamie makes his cat a mourning armband, who quickly chews it up, Ada says, “Cats don’t mourn.” “They feel very sad,” Jamie retorts. “They just don’t like armbands.”
  • Horses continue to be the best (what else is new?).
  • It’s what I call a comfort food book, taking place almost entirely within the confines of the cottage and the surrounding property. It reminded me a lot of the first few pages of A Wrinkle In Time, when Meg, Mrs. Murray, and Charles Wallace are all in the kitchen during the storm. (It should come as no surprise to y’all that that scene was always my favorite.)
  • There’s a lot of other stuff I want to say about it, but you should really just read it.

The War I Finally Won is almost unbearably intimate, so full of tenderness and communal care for each other that I was undone when I read the last page. And while the shadow of war and death looms over the story, it’s also filled with bursts of gentleness and love so overwhelming that I had to stop and take a breath just now thinking about it.

“The only way out of this is straight through,” Susan says to Ada while she’s recovering from surgery. “Courage.”

“Is that the same as being grateful?” Ada asks.

“Sometimes,” Susan replies.

Whatever. WHATEVER!! I’m not crying! Anyway, excuse me while I go get some tissues for a completely unrelated reason.

Mosquitoland, Three Years Later: A Coda

Happy Monday, readers! I was sitting at my desk worrying obsessively about my surgery coming up in a few weeks (a post for another time) when I was like, “You know what I should do? Re-write this draft of a post I have saved about how much Mosquitoland by David Arnold disappoints me now.” So here we are!

My very first post on this blog was three(ish) years ago in April, 2017. It was titled Book Review: Mosquitoland By David Arnold. Within this review (all four paragraphs of it), I wrote the phrase, “I would like to start by saying that Mosquitoland is one of the best books that I have ever read.”

Cue my maniacal cackling.

I was twelve then. I’m sixteen now, the same age as main character Mim, and…hoo boy. I’ve thought a lot more about disability representation, the characterization of adolescent girls in YA, and what responsibilities authors who write stories that portray sexual assault have to their readers.

A quick primer for those who haven’t read the book: Mosquitoland follows teenager Mim Malone, who ditches her dad and step-mom to visit her mother, who’s sick in Cleveland. Road trip hijinks ensue, as can only be expected, and she meets a cast of eccentric characters along the way.

Mosquitoland will always be an important book for me–it informed the types of stories I wrote and the themes I explored for a good long while. (You would not believe how many stories I wrote in middle school involved traumatized girls going on road trips.) And when I couldn’t stand to be inside my own head–three cheers for terrifying medical situations!–I’d get inside Mim’s, and she helped. I’ve read and re-read it so many times that it’s almost as beat-up as my copy of The Prisoner of Azkaban. (Oh, look, it’s another book I have mixed feelings about due to recent events!) But I have some Thoughts with a capital T, so let’s get to it.

Let’s start with disability. Early on in the book, Mim meets Walt, a homeless boy her age with Down syndrome. Literally, I cannot think about the portrayal of Walt without grinding my teeth together. (Here’s my usual caveat, though, that I never have, and never will, speak for all disabled people.) I don’t know if David Arnold consulted with disabled people while writing Mosquitoland, but I’m gonna guess that he didn’t.

Within the first three pages of meeting Walt, we already have the “character who is intellectually disabled but says wise things inadvertently” trope. (I’m sure there’s an actual name for that trope, but frankly, I cannot be bothered to do the Googling today.) “What are you doing?” Walt asks Mim, who’s just woken up from a nap underneath a highway overpass. When Mim says as much, he replies, “No. I mean as part of big things.”

Why must disabled characters be mystically wise to subvert readers’ expectations? What’s the point? I’m disabled and I certainly don’t go around spouting deep nuggets of wisdom. I barely made it through my world history AP. (Honestly, what kind of prompt was that? Fight me, College Board.)

Walt is also constantly and infuriatingly infantilized by Mim and Beck (college junior-turned-love interest). When Walt dives into a lake, Mim describes him as looking like “a lanky five-year-old who just discovered what his arms and legs are for. It’s awkward, fumbly, and beyond beautiful.” (Again with disabled characters being unknowingly deep and moving to non-disabled characters.) When Walt hugs Mim, she feels his “childlike innocence.” She says that she’s “never once felt anything akin to a maternal instinct…But something about Walt has stirred [her] up, brought out a protective side [she] never knew existed.” (Disabled person being used to further the non-disabled protagonist’s character development? Check. Treating said disabled character as a child in need of her protection? Also check.) Watching a fireworks show, Mim says of Walt, “He’s like a kid on Christmas morning, huh?” When Beck visits his estranged foster sister, Mim lies to Walt to sneak out of the car and eavesdrop, telling him that she needs to “check the tires.” In a tense moment, Walt defuses the situation with what Mim describes as “nothing but blind innocence.”

Again, WALT AND MIM ARE THE SAME AGE. All these references to Walt being like a child and how innocent he is and whatnot, and they are both sixteen. I am seriously having a hard time comprehending how David Arnold read over what he wrote and was like, “Yeah, I want this to be in a book that will be published for people to read.” But Mim says all of this with genuinely good intentions; we see in everything she does that she cares deeply about Walt and his well-being. It’s a situation that’s all too familiar for disabled people: Infantilization, patronizing comments, and casual ableism done with a good heart but that ultimately serves to dismiss and minimize disabled people and our experiences. The paradox created by able-bodied condescension (that is, kindness that amounts to aggression) robs disabled people of both the validity of their own lived experiences and the anger that those experiences generate.

And yeah, Arnold robs Walt of his anger. His mom dies? His dad abandons him? Mim and Beck view him as a child? Nothing. He’s happy and excited the whole darn book, all 342 pages of it. Intellectually disabled people have other emotions. If you’re not willing to put in the time to write a well-developed disabled character, then don’t write a disabled character at all.

But nothing in this book makes me as mad as an episode toward the latter half of the book. When Walt has an adverse reaction to some Chinese food he ate, all the clinics are closed because it’s Labor Day weekend, so Mim and Beck take him to a vet.

Sorry, let me just re-type that sentence here. A non-disabled author decided to write that a disabled character’s non-disabled friends should take him to a vet.

I’m restraining myself from using profanity here because my mom says I need to leave a good digital footprint and whatnot, but I’ll have you know that it’s becoming increasingly difficult as this post goes on.

Listen, Arnold didn’t have to write this incident happening on Labor Day weekend (or at all) when all the people-clinics were closed, but he did, and that says something. It’s meant to be a humorous side adventure, to take up some page-time, to stir a little drama between Beck and Mim when another potential love interest is fleetingly introduced. But it doesn’t come across that way to disabled readers like me (or, hopefully, to non-disabled readers with an ounce of good sense). And then, as if it couldn’t get any worse, there’s this exchange:

Beck smiles down at [Walt, who’s asleep in the backseat after this whole episode]. “We totally just took Walt to the vet.”

“Yeaaaah, to be fair, he is kind of our pet, though.”

We laugh because we love.

Sorry, could you just–excuse me for a second?

[LOUD, ANGRY SCREECHING INTO THE PRIMORDIAL VOID.]

Okay, thanks.

There is so much about this interaction that makes me want to simultaneously scream into my pillow and cry. First of all, Beck smiles “down” at Walt. That is an intentional word choice that reinforces an intentional dynamic that Arnold has created. It’s like a parent looking lovingly down at a toddler asleep in the car–which would be fine, except for the fact that Walt isn’t a toddler, he’s sixteen years old. And then Mim calling Walt their “pet”–good lord. Obviously she’s joking, I know. She is a teenager, so she’s definitely not thinking about her word choice very much, but a couple things strike me here: 1) There’s about a bajillion other responses to Beck’s comment that don’t involve likening a disabled person to a submissive animal that Arnold could’ve chosen instead, and 2) If Beck is supposed to be somewhat of a foil for Mim, then foil, gosh darn it! Have him say something to counteract that! Also, they laugh because they love? Give me a break. See above, re: kindness amounting to aggression.

Oh, also, Walt is right there. He’s asleep, yes, but he’s right there. They’re talking about him like he’s not. Legitimately, that hurt to read. People talk over and about and behind and for disabled people like we’re not right in front of them all the freaking time. And it’s played off as something loving here. Loving! Honestly, I would be less mad if Arnold had cut the “we laugh because we love” line (which is so freaking condescending that I just can’t) and played it off as a joke–that’s how low my standards are at this point.

Phew. Okay. That was my first qualm with the book. (It was morning when I started writing this, by the way.) Onto my second qualm: The treatment of sexual assault.

Read the book if you want the full details, but basically, Mim is assaulted in a bathroom by a creepy guy she dubs Poncho Man. She ends up escaping. I’m…not really sure why it’s there.

Well, actually, here’s one hypothesis: Beck ends up punching Poncho Man after he assaults another girl, which is the oldest “good guy” signifier in the book–like, look, this guy punched a pedophile, so now you know he’s on our side!

But what about Mim? She feels queasy when she sees a man who has shoes similar to Poncho Man’s, and she has a…not panic attack, exactly–“dissociation episode” might be more accurate–toward the end of the book, and that’s about it. I’m not arguing that Arnold should’ve written in more instances of Mim being traumatized, but there’s lots of other things that he could’ve written about to give the story an emotional heft besides sexual assault. (Hey, what about that thing where she literally discovers her aunt’s body after she hangs herself? One would think, mayhaps, that this would have some lingering effects, no?) It feels more like a plot device than anything else. Arnold had to have known the optics of a middle-aged male author writing a teenage girl being sexually assaulted, so I kind of expected that he would handle it with more care than he did.

(Also, just while we’re on the topic–why are girls being abused by older men such a motif in his books? Mim in Mosquitoland, Mad and Coco–who aren’t even related–in Kids of Appetite…there are other ways to create tension. Also also, I gave a super positive review of Kids of Appetite as well. Guess who’s having second thoughts?)

Plus, similar to the “he is kind of our pet, though” passage above, there was another instance in the book that frustrated me a lot. Mim’s in the bathroom, trying to figure a way out of the situation with Poncho Man in front of her:

I’m shivering now, my bones and blood on full alarm–it’s a primordial instinct, Predator versus Prey, passed down from a thousand generations of women who, like me, feared the inevitable.

I’m having a little bit of a hard time articulating what about this passage makes me go “hm.” I guess…I know it’s Mim talking, but something about the “like me” just feels disingenuous? Or icky, somehow? And the part about how that instinct is passed down and whatnot–I mean, yeah, but it feels a little like Arnold is claiming a trauma narrative that isn’t his. That’s not to say that men don’t experience sexual violence, obviously, and I’m definitely not saying that men can’t write good stories concerning sexual violence. But again, the optics of a middle-aged dude writing a teenage girl being assaulted is a little bit uncomfortable, and I’m (tentatively) of the opinion that maybe the stuff about intergenerational trauma between women should be left to…women writers? Legitimately, I don’t know. I’m sixteen! Let me think about it for a while.

While we’re on the topic of uncomfortable interactions between gender and power in Mosquitoland, let’s talk about Beck and Mim’s relationship. Arnold, to his (very minimal) credit, is careful here–the most that happens between them is a kiss on the forehead. But it’s very clearly romantic on both sides, which wouldn’t be a problem if Mim weren’t sixteen. But she is, and Beck is twenty or twenty-one, so…um. Maybe let’s not? Seriously, I just…why? Mim might’ve had to be sixteen for the sake of it being in the YA genre, but Beck didn’t have to be a college junior. He could’ve been Mim’s age. Honestly, why choose to make it uncomfortable?

I never thought their relationship was creepy at all when I first read it, but I was twelve then. I’m Mim’s age now, and it’s extremely obvious to me that a college junior having romantic feelings for a sixteen-year-old is not okay. When Mim tells Beck that what she feels for him isn’t just a simple crush, Beck (responsibly) replies, “I’m too old for you,” then (not-so-responsibly) amends, “For now.”

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The red flag GIF makes a return!

Nope! Nope nope nopeity nope-nope. Even I know that you don’t tell a teenager five years your junior that you’re too old for them “for now.” It’s just not appropriate. I’m a little baffled, honestly. If Beck had just left it at “I’m too old for you,” it would be a heck of a lot easier to interpret their quasi-relationship as a misguided, youthful indiscretion on Mim’s part. But the “for now” takes it way off the rails. Are we supposed to be rooting for them? I don’t know, y’all. It’s just frustrating, because I feel like Mosquitoland is so close to being a book that I could re-read without having to squirm in my seat when I got to all these weird little moments that remind me, “Hey, this twenty-one-year-old dude is in love with a girl my age.”

There’s some other stuff that bothers me, too. I’m not going to say too much about the portrayal of mental illness (which is the central theme of the book) because I don’t have much expertise there, but at the end of the book, Mim dumps her pills out the window in a triumphant moment. There is a build-up, but so often, medication is demonized in YA, and I wasn’t super pleased to see that here. The American Indians in Children’s Literature website outlined some problems with the portrayal of Cherokee customs and culture in the book. The suicide of Mim’s aunt is ultimately glossed over in a way it shouldn’t be. It’s continually (and unnecessarily) emphasized that Mim is Not Like Other Girls™. I could go on if I wanted to, but I think you get the point.

I’ve stopped reading David Arnold books (which isn’t really that hard–there are, like, three of them). I read the first fifty pages of The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik before I gave up. I’m frustrated, and tired, and just a little bit angry with his books, because I want so much for them to be good. Mosquitoland meant (and means) so much to me. I still love some parts–there are bursts of beauty that transcend my problems with it–but he’s just not worth my time or money anymore.

Whelp, that’s all I have right now, y’all. It’s evening now, so I’ve successfully spent the day distracting myself from surgery worries and ragging on David Arnold books, so I’ll count it as a win. Also, this is my 50th post! Thanks for hanging around, everyone!

Until next time,

Sarah

Hey! This post is part of “Hi-Deaf,” a series where I write about deafness and disability. Click here to see other Hi-Deaf posts!

Things You Can Do Right Now To Start Promoting Racial Justice In Austin

Do you live in Austin? Great! Are you feeling a little uncertain about what you can do right now? Here’s some stuff:

The Big 5

  1. Learn
  2. Advocate
  3. Donate
  4. Recruit
  5. Work on being an ally

1. Learn

Spend time researching, reading, listening, and watching. There are a lot of great resources out there that can provide an entryway to thinking and talking about racial justice and policing. Here are just a few to get started:

  • Various pieces from the 1619 Project, including essays about how slavery continues to define our criminal justice system (here).
  • Police Use of Force Project: A large-scale study and findings about how use-of-force policies in police departments can help mitigate police violence. You can find specific stats about Austin here, too. Use this information to contact your representatives about legislative reform you want to see (more on this in the Advocate section).
  • Abolishing Prisons with Mariame Kaba: A podcast and transcript about how we can achieve a post-prison world and what that might look like. A good introduction to the topic of prison abolition.
  • Do a deep dive into a Black author’s work. Here are some suggestions:
    • Non-fiction: Ta-Nehisi Coates
      • Between The World and Me
      • We Were Eight Years In Power
      • Various Atlantic articles, particularly “The Case for Reparations”
    • Fiction (contemporary): Zadie Smith
      • White Teeth
      • Swing Time
      • NW
    • Fiction (YA): Tomi Adeyemi
      • Children of Blood and Bone
      • Children of Virtue and Vengeance

2. Advocate

Take action! After learning about a topic related to racial justice and doing your research, start advocating for change in your community.

  • Contact your representatives (here’s a great Austin-specific resource for that).
      • Tell them about issues you care about–everything from gentrification to community policing.
  • If you have credentials or a unique point of view, use it.
      • “As a doctor at [clinic/hospital], I have seen firsthand the importance of racial justice in healthcare…”
      • “As a student at [school], this issue is important to me because…”
  • Remember that police brutality and killings of Black men don’t just happen in other cities–they happen here in Austin, too. Learn about the recent shooting of Mike Ramos.
    • On April 24th, officers shot Mike Ramos with a beanbag round (intended to disable but not kill him) before he got in his car and started driving away. Another officer fired his rifle at Ramos, who died later that night. Ramos was unarmed.
    • The case will be presented to a grand jury.
    • Police chief Brian Manley misrepresented the case in his letter to the attorney general (see here for information about the letter).
    • The shot that killed Ramos was only fired because Manley changed an APD policy that forbade shooting at fleeing vehicles unless they were a part of a unit specifically trained for it.
    • Manley also revised the APD’s complaint process so that it is less transparent and trivializes serious complaints. (See this letter from Farah Muscadin, who leads the city’s Office of Police Oversight.)
    • For more information on Manley’s actions, read this.
  • Be specific and lend your voice to campaigns that represent your values. (For example, I will be sending a letter to Spencer Cronk, our city manager, calling for the resignation of Chief Manley. You can use the sample letter [toward the bottom of this post] if you also want to contact Cronk [his email is spencer.cronk@austintexas.gov], and here’s an online petition to call for changes in our public safety leadership.)
  • Educate yourself on the city’s budget priorities.
    • The Austin Police Department, as of 2018, had an annual budget of $442 million. Many feel that our resources should be allocated in ways that address the “upstream” conditions that contribute to arrests, rather than devoting more and more money to enforcement. Consider how communities that emphasize an enforcement model are different from communities that emphasize mental health care, addiction recovery, housing support, and conflict interruption. Read more here.
  • Tell the city how you think tax dollars should be spent.
    • I will be providing feedback on budget priorities by contacting my city council member. If you would also like to provide feedback, you can use the other sample letter at the bottom of this post.
      • Don’t know who your city council member is or how to contact them? Here you go:
        • District 1: Natasha Harper-Madison, natahsa.madison@austintexas.gov
        • District 2: Delia Garza, delia.garza@austintexas.gov
        • District 3: Sabino Renteria, sabino.renteria@austintexas.gov
        • District 4: Greg Casar, gregorio.casar@austintexas.gov
        • District 5: Ann Kitchen, ann.kitchen@austintexas.gov
        • District 6: Jimmy Flannigan, jimmy.flannigan@austintexas.gov
        • District 7: Leslie Pool, leslie.pool@austintexas.gov
        • District 8: Paige Ellis, paige.ellis@austintexas.gov
        • District 9: Kathie Tovo, kathie.tovo@austintexas.gov
        • District 10: Alison Alter, alison.alter@austintexas.gov
      • Don’t know what district you’re in? Check out this map.
  • Choose leaders who fight for racial justice. To find out more about voting in Texas, click here.

3. Donate

If you’re not doing it already, now is the time to start donating. Find Black-led non-profits, organizations that fight against racism in the criminal justice system, and GoFundMe campaigns that support victims of police brutality. Consider signing up to donate on a regular basis, if possible. Continual support will make more of a difference than a one-time donation.

  • VERIFY THAT THE FUNDRAISING EFFORT ISN’T A SCAM! Follow links from organizations you trust.
  • Research the cause to make sure your money is being put to good use. Here are some suggestions:
    • Justice For Mike Ramos: A GoFundMe organized by Brenda Ramos, Mike Ramos’ mother, to pay for funeral costs.
    • Austin Justice Coalition: An organization fighting for racial justice and serving communities impacted by institutional racism in Austin.
    • Official George Floyd Memorial Fund: A GoFundMe organized by George Floyd’s family. The only other legitimate George Floyd memorial fund is this one.
    • National Bail Out: A Black-led organization currently using donations to bail out Black mothers and caregivers as the pandemic devastates prisons.
    • The Bail Project: A nationwide organization helping to post bail for people who can’t afford it.
    • Communities United Against Police Brutality: An organization that provides services and legal help to victims of police brutality.
    • You’ve probably seen people telling you to donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund. DO NOT. They have been flooded with donations and are asking that you donate to Black Visions Collective (here; the donate button is at the bottom of the home page) and Reclaim The Block (here).

4. Recruit

If you’re a member of a club at school, a neighborhood association in your area, an activist group, a board in your workplace, or any other organization or group, actively recruit Black members–and work to put them in positions of power.

  • Try recruiting from your faith community–synagogues, churches, mosques, and other religious gathering places are a great way to find people passionate about your group or cause. Teens: Don’t be afraid to ask rabbis, imams, and other faith leaders for suggestions about who might like to join your youth group.
  • When you get back to school, seek out folks face-to-face (or mask-to-mask, rather).
  • If you know someone personally, try DMing them on Instagram or texting them to get involved. Now is a great time to recruit new members for many groups, since so much of what’s happening is now online.
  • Here’s the big point, though: Having Black members is a start, but having Black leaders is better. Black people in the lower ranks of organizations while the leadership is still all-white isn’t diversity–it’s just the status quo.

5. Work on being an ally

It’s a process, and not an easy one, either. We need to…

  • Understand our own privilege–without being defensive.
  • Call out racism in our faith communities, schools, and families–even if it’s awkward.
  • Be informed about issues! Get knowledgeable about racist systems, actors, and institutions so that we can join the fight to take them down. Read, read, read!
  • Listen to Black people when they speak about their experiences–don’t speak over or speak for.
  • Do our own research–don’t ask or expect Black people to do the emotional labor of explaining stuff.
  • Remember that ally is a verb. Show up and do the work.
  • More: Here, here, and here.

Sample letters

Sample letter to Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk

Dear City Manager Cronk:

My name is [name]. I am a [student/educator/doctor/activist/etc.] and [if you’re writing as a member of an advocacy group or organization, include a brief statement about that here].

I am writing to you to call for the resignation of Brian Manley for his negligence in his role as police chief. [Consider inserting a personal statement here that emphasizes your point of view–e.g., “As a member of a faith that espouses tolerance and the sanctity of life, I am outraged…”]. I am outraged at the shooting of Mike Ramos and Manley’s subsequent misrepresentation of the case in his report to the attorney general–and his refusal to implement reforms that address the institutional failures that led to Ramos’ death.

I am calling on you now to begin the search for a new police chief who will demilitarize the culture of the APD, use alternative emergency response programs that do not involve police officers in response to calls related to mental illness and homelessness, and who will ensure cooperation with the Office of Police Oversight.

Sincerely,

[name]

Sample city budget feedback

Dear Council Member [council member’s last name]:

My name is [name], and I am a [student/educator/doctor/activist/etc.] and [if you’re writing as a member of an advocacy group or organization, include a brief statement about that here]. [Consider adding a personal statement, similar to the letter above, if it’s relevant–e.g., “As a member of a faith that espouses tolerance and the sanctity of life, I am joining the call…”] I am joining the call for reforms to be made within our police department–and our budget.

I urge the City of Austin to reimagine its definition of public safety and then allocate resources accordingly. The lives of Black and other marginalized communities must not be put in danger, and spending money on more training and more diversity in the ranks of the Austin Police Department will only go so far. We need alternative emergency response programs that emphasize services like mental health care, addiction recovery, housing support, and conflict interruption. Positive results have been seen as nearby as Dallas, where social workers are being dispatched to certain 911 calls that involve mental health emergencies. Other cities send health care workers, not police officers, to the scene of a drug overdose.

I believe that emphasizing human dignity–both in the values we espouse as a city and in the budget we adopt to advance those values–will help protect vulnerable communities and improve our safety as residents of Austin.

Sincerely,

[name]

(Some Of) My Favorite Books

Happy Friday, readers!

Online school is still going strong in its second week. It can be a little tedious, but despite there being a global pandemic going on, my stress levels are down for the first time since this school year started.

I mean, this is what a typical week in my agenda looked like before they had to cancel school:

agenda pic 2.jpg
Why. Is. High. School. Like. This???

It was stressful! (That’s code for “crying two times a week at a minimum,” in case you’re wondering.) Oh, and I don’t have to wake up at 5:45 every morning to catch the bus anymore, so that’s definitely a bonus in my book.

But outside of school, I hope everyone’s doing okay–it’s a weird, daunting, scary time, which is why I decided to share some of my favorite books today. There’s nothing I find more comforting than reading. (Okay, maybe, like, the idea of there not being a global pandemic going on is slightly more reassuring than reading. But that’s about it.) I’d love to hear what your favorite books are, too, or which ones you go to in times of trouble. Here are mine:

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley ...

I know I mentioned this one a few weeks ago in my Coronavirus Reading List, but it genuinely is such a deeply affecting and comforting book. Ten-year-old Ada has lived all her life in London with her younger brother Jamie. Her mother, ashamed of Ada’s clubfoot, treats her cruelly, and Ada is forbidden to leave their flat. But when all children are ordered to be evacuated from London to escape the bombing, the siblings go to live with Susan, who I can only describe as an older, prickly, more flawed Sarah from Sarah, Plain and Tall. Jamie adjusts fairly easily, but Ada struggles to come to terms with the ramifications of her mother’s abuse as she navigates her new life in the English countryside.

I love Ada, but Susan is the rare adult in a kids’ book that has stuck with me in how well-developed her character is. The relationship between her and Ada never fails to make me cry in how complicated, nuanced, and deeply-felt it is, no matter how many times I read it; difficult themes are handled with such a depth of grace and empathy that I recommend this book to everyone I can. (Side note: The ever-excellent website Disability in Kidlit takes a more critical view of the portrayal of Ada’s clubfoot.)

“You must have been scared. Scared and angry.”

“Of course not,” I said, though I had been, at least until I’d seen the sea. “Of course I wasn’t scared.”

“Angry,” Susan said, putting her arm around me.

“No,” I said through clenched teeth. But I was. Oh, I was.

Spinning by Tillie Walden

Amazon.com: Spinning (9781626727724): Walden, Tillie, Walden ...

This graphic memoir takes place in early-2000s Austin, Texas, and is a coming-of-age story through the lens of Tillie Walden’s years as a competitive ice skater. It manages to be quiet and loud at the same time; it’s slow and melancholy, but it’s also an account of sexual violence, growing up gay, and the pain of being closeted so vividly rendered that it sears like a brand. It’s painful to read at points, but it’s also a portrait of hope and persistence that I go back to often during difficult times.

(I know I talk about Tillie Walden on here all the time, but I won’t stop until I’ve convinced each and every one of you to read Spinning.)

Screenshot 2020-04-17 at 4.48.56 PM

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

A fictional account of a real murder, Alias Grace imagines the life of Grace Marks, who may or may not be complicit in the killing of the wealthy Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Sentenced to life in prison, a charity group asks Dr. Simon Jordan to interview her to understand whether she is truly guilty or not. It quickly turns into a sprawling tale of just how ill-defined the line between truth and fiction is, as well as a blistering story of class and gender divides.

For all its dark moments, hope is the propulsive force of this book–hope for a better life, hope for freedom, hope for recognition and understanding. Gender politics in 1800s Canada may not sound particularly compelling, but I promise that it is. I read this book in eighth grade, and I kid you not, I have thought about it literally every day since. I’ll just be eating a cheese stick by the refrigerator and all of the sudden I’ll be like, Man, remember Alias Grace? That was wild, dude. It’s long, but it’s easy to lose yourself in the story, even if you’re re-reading it. Also, I cry over the last sentence Every. Single. Time.

Gone mad is what they say, and sometimes Run mad, as if mad is a different direction, like west; as if mad is a different house you could step into, or a separate country entirely. But when you go mad you don’t go any other place, you stay where you are. And somebody else comes in.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Amazon.com: A Wrinkle in Time eBook: L'Engle, Madeleine: Kindle Store

I was cleaning my desk out recently and found some very poorly-drawn fan art of Meg that I drew when I was in fifth grade, which should give you some indication of how much I love this book. Seriously, there was a whole year where I didn’t doodle anything on my papers, I just wrote A Wrinkle in Time quotes in the margins. Siblings Meg and Charles Wallace, along with their new friend Calvin O’Keefe and three mysterious not-entirely-earthly old ladies, embark on a journey through time and space to save the Murrys’ father (and also the world and maybe the universe in the process).

In addition to being superbly well-written but an easy and accessible read at the same time, A Wrinkle in Time is just hopeful. It believes, ardently, in the goodness of people. Also, as my mom pointed out to me as we were discussing how much we love this book, it’s surprisingly focused on intergenerational bonds between women–Meg Murry, Katherine Murry, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, Aunt Beast, so on. It strikes me more and more how profound these connections are every time I read it.

Plus, Hope Larson’s graphic novel adaption is wonderful, too, which is not something I’m usually inclined to say about graphic novel adaptations of classic books.

“Nothing is hopeless. We must hope for everything.”

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

Amazon.com: Turtles All the Way Down (0615145024912): Green, John ...

I’m usually not a huge John Green fan, but Turtles All The Way Down isn’t his usual work. It follows Aza Holmes, who’s struggling with severe anxiety and OCD. When her best friend Daisy drags her into a hunt to find a billionaire on the run from the authorities, things start to unravel as she tries to balance her grief for her father, her debilitating thought spirals, and the pressures of being on the cusp of adulthood.

Okay, that makes it sound really sad and the whole “hunt to find a billionaire” thing makes it sound like an *~uwu quirky~* John Green book, and in some ways it is–like, it falls into a lot of the tropes I don’t like about about his books (namely, the Kids Talking Like Philosophers thing–can they please just speak normally to each other for once??). But the mystery is relegated to a background subplot as a nuanced, complex, and deeply heart-felt discussion of mental illness takes center stage. Green, who himself has been open about his struggles with OCD, manages to make a wholly subjective and internal and painful experience at least a little understandable to readers. Aza’s argument with Daisy in particular has stuck with me–it’s both a scathing indictment of Aza’s privilege and what it means to be a “good” poor kid, but also an angry and unflinching examination of Daisy, who doesn’t understand how profoundly exhausting Aza’s OCD is.

Overall, though, what makes Turtles All The Way Down worth going back to in this moment is its deeply-felt empathy for its characters, in particular Aza, Daisy, and love interest Davis. Also, if you think you’re not gonna be crying at the (not exactly happy, but deeply moving) ending of this one, you’re dead wrong.

You remember your first love because they show you, prove to you, that you can love and be loved, that nothing in this world is deserved except for love, that love is both how you become a person, and why.

That’s all I have for now, y’all. My thoughts are with you, and I hope you’re all managing okay and getting through this.

It’s back to taking notes on industrialization in the Ottoman Empire for me, but hopefully I’ll be able to update again soon!

Until then,

Sarah ❤️

Disabled Girls in the Apocalypse: Some Thoughts on A Quiet Place, Deafness, and Power

Long time, no see. To be honest, I thought I would use my two extra weeks of break to write stuff and read stuff, but I did not! I did some WHAP homework, baked, and taught myself Game of Thrones sword-fighting choreography from YouTube, which should give you some idea of how stir-crazy I got.

Anyhow, online school started yesterday, and I’ve found myself with yet more time on my hands (I’m not complaining, though). I just finished up a module in English class that my teacher summarized as a “brief glimpse [into] the gaping void of absurdity and futility that defines modern existence,” which I think captures my mood these days pretty well.

Over the break, I re-watched A Quiet Place because I was sad about Part II being delayed, and I had some thoughts. And it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a girl in possession of too much time on her hands, must be in want of a blog post. (That was funnier in my head, but whatever.)

So here’s some thoughts on A Quiet Place, Regan Abbott, and deafness in the apocalypse (which suddenly seems eerily relevant).

Image result for a quiet place poster

It’s been nearly two years since Part I came out, so maybe you need a refresher on the plot. Some time after an alien invasion, the Abbott family is doing their best to survive on their farm in (unspecified rural place). To quote the tagline of the poster, “If they hear you, they hunt you.” The monsters have super-hearing, and they kill everything that makes a sound. The Abbotts–parents Lee and Evelyn and siblings Regan and Marcus–are at somewhat of an advantage because they don’t need to talk to communicate. Their daughter, Regan (played by Millicent Simmonds), is Deaf, and they use ASL.

Anyway, it’s a horror movie. You can probably guess what happens next. There’s some blood, some gore, some death, and a lot of corn. (Honestly, did this family learn nothing from Children of the Corn?)

I’m not really here to talk about the actual structure of the plot, so I’ll just say: It was good. The pacing was spot-on and I was properly scared the whole time, which is, I think, what I want out of a horror movie.

Also, like, it looks pretty. I mean:

Image result for a quiet place best shots

Image result for a quiet place best shots

But moving on to the real reason I like it so much: Regan Abbott!

Played by Millie Simmonds, Regan is the oldest of the three kids (which, uh, quickly becomes two kids). She blames herself for the loss of a family member (see above) and has a strained relationship with her father, who keeps fiddling around with hearing aids and cochlear implants to try and get them to work for Regan.

And here arises my first question having to do with Regan’s deafness: Uh, where exactly is Lee getting all this spare hearing stuff from? Is there, like, a deposit of abandoned t-mics and tubing somewhere? Seriously, at one point, he holds a handful of hearing aids, and I was like…Lee, buddy. What is this. (I’ve gone through one pair of hearing aids and one cochlear implant in my entire life, so I don’t think all of those devices can be Regan’s.) Now, readers, is this nitpick-y? Heck yes it is. But I need a whole side movie that’s just Lee breaking into the local audiologist’s office or something.

Also, why is Lee trying to fix the implant? Cochlear implant batteries are rechargeable, so what exactly is he doing? Did the implant stop working for Regan? Was the programming not right? This, I feel, is less nitpick-y: The viewer really does need to know why he’s trying to MacGyver an extremely complicated piece of technology, or else the whole thing falls apart pretty quickly.

Also also, Regan wears a Cochlear brand implant in the first scene and an AB brand implant for the rest of the movie. Drumroll here, people, ‘cuz within ten minutes I had figured it out: The reason Regan’s implant isn’t working is because she presumably has the Cochlear brand internal magnet, which isn’t compatible with an AB processor. So, uh. There’s your answer, Lee. That’s not the actual reason in the movie, of course, it’s just an oversight (?) that bugged me.

Screen Shot 2020-03-14 at 2.38.36 PM.png
The Cochlear brand CI at the beginning (and Millie Simmonds’ own implant, as far as I can tell).
Image result for a quiet place advanced bionics
The Advanced Bionics CI that’s introduced after the first scene (this is the best picture I could find online–you can see the earhook in the shell of her ear–but there’s clearer scenes in the movie).

Honestly, I feel like most of my qualms with the movie boil down to “John Krasinski needs to do some more research.” Although these issues aren’t really noticeable to anyone but d/Deaf/HoH viewers like me, they still irritated me just a bit. Also, in all the interviews I’ve watched, he calls cochlear implants hearing aids, which they are not! It’s possible he’s just trying to simplify stuff for the interviewers–I mean, whenever someone asks me what my implant is, saying that it’s a hearing aid is a lot simpler than trying to explain a CI to someone who doesn’t even know what their cochlea is. (Yes, you have one! It’s in your inner ear!) But that bugged me, too.

Not to nitpick even further, but this family is in ASL I, people. Although Noah Jupe (playing Marcus) is more fluent than the other hearing members of the family, they don’t manage to sell the narrative that they’ve been signing since Regan was born. Obviously, they’re actors, blah blah blah, but they lacked the look of fluency that was needed here.

Of course, the most glaring CI-related plot hole here is that cochlear implants don’t give off feedback.

I’ll say it again: COCHLEAR IMPLANTS DON’T GIVE OFF FEEDBACK, JOHN!!

Image result for yelling gif
(I know this isn’t the correct usage of the Meryl Streep yelling meme, but just roll with it.)

Look, the whole plot depends on this. If he wanted a hearing device that gave off feedback, you know what would’ve been a great choice? HEARING AIDS. Quelle surprise.

Okay, all logistics aside, though, I was entranced with Regan. We’re close in age and in a similar situation: Our families are hearing, and without our implant, we’re pretty much completely deaf. (This is Millie Simmonds’ real-life experience, as well.)

Although it’s a fast-paced movie, Regan’s experience of being the Deaf kid in a hearing family is given attention and care. A couple of scenes really moved me: First, when Lee and Regan argue over the CI. “It won’t work,” she signs, pushing him away as he tries to put it on her ear. “It never works.” I recognized her frustration with her implant; the narrative of it being a miraculous piece of technology has obscured how exhausting it can be to actually have one.

Millicent Simmonds as Regan Abbott and John Krasinski as Lee Abbott in "A Quiet Place."
Lee and Regan argue.

Later, though, Regan tries the tricked-out implant on alone in her room. She puts it on (even the way she fiddles with the headpiece for a second was immediately recognizable) and a kind of background ambience sets in. She snaps her fingers next to her ear, but it doesn’t make a sound. She captures the surreality and the displacement that I’ve felt when I’ve done that myself; it can be profoundly dislocating. And when she leaned forward and started crying, I teared up, too, because (surprise!) being deaf is hard, especially when the technology that’s supposed to help you doesn’t anymore.

Plus, when the camera focuses on Regan, the sound changes. It doesn’t completely cut out–it always bugs me when that happens in TV shows and other movies, because most deaf people have some residual hearing. Instead, the sound becomes muted and underwater-y (like mine does when I take my hearing devices off!). Regan’s deafness isn’t the complete absence of sound. It’s a confusing and sometimes distressing soundscape that I hope will allow more hearing people to understand a little more clearly what it’s like.

However, I do wonder, a bit, what this movie is trying to say about deafness. “In this movie,” Millie Simmonds signed while presenting an award for A Quiet Place, “deafness saves the day.”

That’s the problem: deafness doesn’t save the day, not really. Maybe she means that the family’s advantage of being able to sign is what has allowed them to survive for so long; fair enough. But Regan’s cochlear implant with its (fictional!!) feedback is what actually ends up defeating the aliens–not Regan herself. Signing is not enough to save them.

Plus, a Deaf reviewer writes, the absence of sound is depicted as a tragedy: “Without sound, the characters apparently can’t fully express their love for one another (the parents have to resort to sharing an iPod and dancing), nor can they fully express pain (loss, stepping on nails, childbirth).” For a movie that, in marketing and interviews, promoted the idea of ASL (and, by extension, Regan’s deafness) as the saving grace of the Abbott family, the narrative of deafness actually shown in the film is somewhat surprising in how negative it is.

What bothers me most about this movie is that Regan herself isn’t allowed to be the hero. The implant-feedback-thing is a convenient solution to the family’s problems that, to a hearing viewer, may even seem ingenious and a smart usage of assistive tech. For me, it gets into iffy territory. I don’t know what I wanted out of the ending, but it wasn’t that.

None of that makes me love A Quiet Place too much less, though. Seeing Regan wearing my model of CI and outrunning aliens while doing it was awesome, and I think the movie does some really interesting stuff in its exploration of disabled characters in disaster-genre films (for more on this, read Liz Bowen’s superb essay “The Cochlear Implant at the End of the World“). I only wish deafness really could save the day, whatever that may look like. I’m eager to see what Part II does with Regan’s character, and until then, I’ll just be over here re-watching in between my online chemistry assignments.

Hey! This post is part of “Hi-Deaf,” a series where I write about deafness and disability. Click here to see other Hi-Deaf posts!

Coronavirus Reading List

So! Did I miss anything in the last couple of weeks? Any major global events happening? No? Good.

Just kidding. If you’re stuck inside like I am (school is cancelled for at least a couple of weeks for me) and bored as heck, I got you covered. Here’s a reading list: five genres with two books per genre (one for younger readers and one for older readers). Fear no more, because these books will help you hunker down while there’s a pandemic going on! (Wild times, no?)

Historical Fiction

If you would really like to not be living in the present right now, I feel you. Here are some books for that purpose exactly! I was extra careful not to put any plague books on this list, BTW.

The War That Saved My Life

Image result for the war that saved my life

One of my all-time favorite books, The War That Saved My Life follows Ada and her younger brother Jamie as they are evacuated out of London in the midst of World War II.  Sent to live with a curmudgeonly middle-aged woman named Susan, Ada, who was treated poorly by her mother because of her clubfoot, has a difficult time adjusting. It’s a slow, quiet book that tackles difficult themes with grace and care. It’s perfect for middle school kids, but older readers will love it just as much for its empathetic treatment of its complicated adult characters.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Image result for the miseducation of cameron post book

Is this historical fiction? I think it counts–set in the early ’90s Montana countryside, The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows the struggles of teenaged Cameron Post, who’s just starting to come to terms with her sexuality. It’s vivid, heartbreaking, and healing all at the same time–and yes, you should read it before you see the movie.

Other good historical fiction books:

  • Chains or The Fifth of March for some American Revolution action
  • Alias Grace for murder and gender politics in 1800s Canada
  • Code Name Verity if you wanna see two kick-butt young ladies fighting Nazis for these trying times

Magical Realism

One of my favorite genres! Pretty much any Neil Gaiman story could go here, but because I’m nursing a vendetta against him (it’s a long story), let’s choose some non-Neil Gaiman books.

Wildwood

Image result for wildwood book

All three books in this series–Wildwood, Under Wildwood, and Wildwood Imperium–are fantastic and definitely worth reading. But Wildwood just introduces a setting so…well, wild, that the sheer joy at discovering the world Colin Meloy created is never quite replicated again. When Prue’s baby brother is kidnapped by crows, she journeys into the Impassable Wilderness at the edge of Portland, Oregon. Her classmate Curtis soon follows, and the two seventh-graders find themselves drawn into the mystery and politics of the various principalities and kingdoms, all while a dark force rises….Perfect for elementary and middle school readers, but, again, great for anyone else, too.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here

Image result for the rest of us just live here

Mysterious blue lights. Soul-eating ghosts. Love triangles. Those are the problems facing the hero kids in Mikey’s town, with whom Mikey wants nothing to do. In a delightful subversion of “chosen one” fiction, The Rest of Us Just Live Here follows Mikey as he tries to keep afloat in the midst of family drama, crushes, and high school, because sometimes there are bigger problems than the end of the world.

Other good magical realism books:

  • Summer and Bird for something in the vein of Wildwood
  • The Apothecary, for readers who have asked, “What would the Cold War have been like if two teens had stumbled across a secret brotherhood of magical apothecaries?”
  • Savvy for road trips, found families, and unusual superpowers

Ensemble rough-and-tumble teenagers do dangerous stuff

Is this a genre? Let’s call it a genre.

The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon

Image result for the expeditioners and the treasure of drowned man's canyon

For any kids who went through a serious steampunk phase like I did in fifth grade, The Expeditioners is for you. Kit, M.K., and Zander, the children of a famous explorer, team up with their new friend Sukey to figure out where a mysterious map is leading to. On the run from government agents in a post-computer world, this fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled book–with some seriously unique and lovable characters–will grip you tight and won’t let go until the very end.

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom

Image result for six of crows and crooked kingdom

This series has everything–magic, traumatized teenagers, snark, crow-themed imagery, the works! Part heist novel, part urban fantasy, the Six of Crows duology follows Kaz, Inej, Nina, Matthias, Jesper, and Wylan–characters with wildly different backstories who have all found themselves, with no shortage of bad luck, in Ketterdam. When they’re contacted by a shady rich guy for a seemingly impossible break-in, they take the job–but they may not make it out alive. No mourners, no funerals!

Other good ensemble books:

  • I guess, like, any Rick Riordan book (The Kane Chronicles and The Trials of Apollo series are underrated as heck)
  • Spellbook of the Lost and Found, if you’re into Ireland, intersecting timelines, and magic mixed with commentary on gender
  • The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair–not as good as the first book, but worth a read if you liked the world-building in Drowned Man’s Canyon.

Graphic Novels

This is just gonna be Tillie Walden books, Sarah, you’re probably thinking. Uh, ow! There’s, like, two whole non-Tillie-Walden books on here, so!

Rapunzel’s Revenge

Image result for rapunzel's revenge

This book was the only thing anyone wanted to read in third grade, and they had to order extra copies because people kept pestering the librarian about it. Set in the Wild West (kind of), this retelling follows Rapunzel and Jack (yes, Jack-and-the-Beanstalk Jack) as she journeys through the land to find her real mother and get her revenge on Gothel. There’s awesome art, humor, and an edge-of-your-seat storyline that I still remember all these years later as a sophomore in high school.

On a Sunbeam

Image result for on a sunbeam

Look, can you blame me? She’s just really good at what she does, okay?? I don’t want to spoil anything at all, so I will instead here quote, at length, the glowing review from The New Yorker: “Comics critics and would-be comics sophisticates—especially the kind who spurn superheroes—may think we have to choose between realistic characters who experience permanent loss and change, on the one hand, and escape, sublimity, and sheer wonder, on the other. Those sophisticates are wrong. ‘On a Sunbeam’ is not the first American science-fiction comic to say so…but it may be the most consistently beautiful, the most self-assured, the one with the best love story, and the one most vaultingly effective in its transitions between small-scale and large, between the deadly caverns under an exoplanet’s mountain and the look on a hopeful girl’s face.”

Other good graphic novels:

  • Spinning for ice skating, coming of age, and beautiful, spare art
  • Nimona for shape-shifting, villain sidekicks, and characters you wish were real so that you could give them a hug, bless their hearts
  • Bone, perfect for younger readers, which quickly goes from a simple comic to a long-form, sprawling epic over nine volumes

Mythological Realism

Again, is this a genre? Maybe it’s a sub-genre of magical realism. Think classical gods and monsters in the real world.

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos

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This book–the first of an elementary-middle grade series–has action, suspense, and an utterly delightful narrator at its core. Theodosia Throckmorton practically lives at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London, where her parents work. Unbeknownst to her family, though, Theo has the ability to see the black magic that lingers on the artifacts at the museum and has made it her job to de-curse them and keep visitors safe. But when her mother brings back the Heart of Egypt from a dig, she discovers that it carries the most dangerous curse she’s encountered yet–and that even with canny street urchin Will and the mysterious Brotherhood of Chosen Keepers by her side, she may not be able to get herself (and British Empire) out of this one. 10/10, definitely made me want to live in a museum at the turn of the century.

The Sword of Summer

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Okay, this is still pretty middle-grade, but it’s a little more grown-up than the Percy Jackson series. Magnus Chase, after dying in, like, the first chapter, is sent to the Norse afterworld of Valhalla. But he quickly discovers that it’s up to him–and his friends Samirah, Mallory, Hearthstone, and a few others–to stop the impending end of the world.  You know, typical Rick Riordan fare. But the elevated humor, unique characters, and original plot (as well as some wink-wink references to previous series) drew me in even as a high-schooler.

Other good mythological realism books:

  • The Silence of the Girls, for readers who thought The Iliad was, uh, kinda disturbing gender-wise and wonder why they didn’t talk about that in class
  • Pegasus, for anyone who’s ever wondered what the Percy Jackson books would be like if they had the plot of E.T.
  • American Gods, for people who like violence, road trips, and Neil Gaiman

I think that’s probably more than enough to keep you occupied. Wishing everyone a safe next few weeks (months?). Keep reading, and stay inside, y’all!

–Sarah

Review: StarKid’s Black Friday

Hi, readers! I’m going to review something a little different today. I was finally able to watch StarKid’s Black Friday, which has been available on YouTube for a couple of weeks now. As a lover of musicals in general but especially StarKid musicals, I’m really excited to get some thoughts down about their latest!

Some quick background so we’re all on the same page: StarKid is a theater group that became famous for A Very Potter Musical, which went very viral in 2009. (Unlike other stage productions, they film and release their shows online, giving them an enthusiastic international fan base.) They went on to make other musicals modeled off the AVPM formula, with a goofy script, a shoe-string budget, and unforgettable characters. Then came The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals. The tone was darker, the show was better funded, and the songs were more professional. TGWDLM was the first of a series to take place in middle-America Hatchetfield, where a strange extraterrestrial threat forced the average, non-heroic townsfolk to battle forces that put humanity in grave danger.

A quick note: This review will make more sense if you’ve at least watched TGWDLM, which, like all other StarKid shows, is available for free (!!!) and captioned (!!!) and in high-def (!!!) on their YouTube. (Be warned that the shows aren’t exactly kid-friendly, with a lot of language and overall indecorousness.) Also, major spoilers ahead!

Okay. So.

It’s Black Friday in Hatchetfield. A new toy, the Tickle-Me Wiggly, has sent parents rushing to stand in hours-long lines at the mall. But little do our main characters know that Hatchetfield is the target of an inter-dimensional being’s mission to remake humanity to his liking. As our unlikely heroes–a shop teacher, a Toy Zone employee, a nurse, plus a few other familiar faces–battle their way through the mall, secrets are revealed, portals are opened, and nothing will ever be the same again.

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The aforementioned inter-dimensional being in his stuffed animal form.

But hold on a minute, you’re probably thinking: Hatchetfield? The town that got hit by a meteor in TGWDLM? Where every main character was killed?

Yup, that one. In fact, the show’s first lines are delivered by Paul and Emma, characters who became mindless pawns of the aliens at the end of StarKid’s last installment. You can bet that, like the audience, I audibly gasped when they showed up. Could it be that somehow they and the rest of Hatchetfield had escaped the grasp of the aliens?

The answer is sort-of-but-not-really. As described in Black Friday’s standout number “Take Me Back”:

If the universe is infinite
Then it’s definite
There’s an alternate reality

It looks like this Hatchetfield isn’t quite the same as the one we got to know in TGWDLM, but there are several sly references to it–especially toward the end, when it seems as though the barriers between the worlds are rubbing thin and we see the likes of our beloved Bill, Charlotte, and Ted in the background during the finale. And if all of this is confusing, don’t worry–Black Friday appears to be the second of a planned Hatchetfield series, so hopefully we’ll get some answers soon.

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There are our TGWDLM faves on the right there!! Eep!

Okay, so speaking of alternate universes and stuff, we do get some answers about what’s up with the supernatural incursion courtesy of General John McNamara (of TGWDLM “Wear a watch!” fame). He explains that “behind the veil of the universe you perceive are entities both ageless and foul, and these eldritch forces are rising.” And although the branch of the military he runs, P.E.I.P (Paranormal, Extraterrestrial, Inter-Dimensional Phenomena) usually has a handle on things, they’re a little out of their depth here. Why? The creature threatening to take over is from a place outside all dimensions–a place called the Black and White.

That’s really about as much an explanation as we get, and I’m okay with that. I just hope the Lang brothers have an idea of where they’re going with this, because I can see a lot of potential developments and plotlines.

Mostly, the focus is less on the plot and more on the characters, somewhat a departure from other StarKid shows. TGWDLM crammed all their character backstory into one or two scenes. But Black Friday really, really does their characters right, despite there being an ensemble cast rather than the one or two main characters that we’re used to.

Tom Houston (played by Dylan Saunders, who, as I have been saying since he was in Twisted, should be on Broadway right now) gets the most emotional depth of the characters. He’s a widowed dad taking care of his grieving son, even as he blames himself for the accident that caused his wife’s death. The cast’s other standout is Angela Giarratana as Lex Foster, an over-burdened Toy Zone employee caring for her sister, Hannah. Lex and Hannah plot to escape their deadbeat mom by running away to California, a plan detailed in the imperfect-but-enjoyable “CaliforM.I.A.” The StarKid newcomer strikes just the right tone, turning from the comedic relief at the beginning to the angsty teen in the middle to a character I was genuinely rooting for and who accessed some deep pathos by the end.

So, who gets the short end of the character-development stick?

For starters, Kim Whalen in a part as Tom’s high school sweetheart, Becky Barnes. After high school, Becky marries an abusive husband whom she, uh…murders? That whole situation gets weirdly explained almost in passing in a long cringe-y monologue that was obviously written by dudes. Like, nothing was outright disrespectful of her experiences, or particularly objectionable, but just heavy handed and clunky. Whalen does as much as she can with a storyline that could have been written with more grace and care.

The script also doesn’t do any favors for fourteen-year-old Kendall Nicole Yakshe in the role of Hannah, Lex’s kid sister. Hannah is supposed to read as autistic–she avoids eye contact, has rudimentary social skills, and speaks in cryptic half-sentences like, “Bad blood, cross, black and white.” Not to get up on my “research-your-disabled-characters-better” soapbox, but, uh…research your disabled characters better. Her persona felt like a caricature, and it definitely rubbed me the wrong way. Also, Kendall’s voice is criminally underused–she has one of the strongest solos in a show full of strong solos, but it only comes at the very end.

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Hannah’s solo in “Tomorrow Will Come,” the show’s eerie final number.

Other little annoyances: Probably one of the weaker points of the show is its critique of (*checks notes*) American capitalism. The rise of Wiggly could have happened only in America, one of the more mysterious villains informs us, and then proceeds to sing a whole song about it, which…uh, okay, I guess?? It’s a legit critique, but they made the subtext text when I think it was stronger as a more subtle theme.

Also, I feel like this show needed a Professor Higgins character like in TGWDLM. (A reference to him toward the end causes the theater to break out into applause.) We all thought TGWDLM was more serious in content than all previous StarKid shows, and Black Friday gets even darker (to quote one of the show’s funnier-in-context lines, it’s “so far into the black that you ain’t never coming back”). But (and I’m usually not inclined to say this) I think it needed some more comic relief, or at least some more likable background characters. One of the strengths of TGWDLM was its humorous side characters–Professor Higgins, Hot Chocolate Boy, and Ted all leavened the darker moments in a way that felt natural. I feel like the president’s cabinet or some of the P.E.I.P members in Black Friday had that potential, but it wasn’t harnessed. (The show is, at the very least, blessed with the character of the villainous Linda Monroe, played with verve and aplomb by a delightful Lauren Lopez.)

But let’s talk about the soundtrack! Music by Jeff Blim (who also plays General McNamara, if you’re keeping track) gets better with every StarKid show. TGWDLM‘s score was so good that I was really wondering how they were going to top it–“Not Your Seed,” “Let It Out,” and (duh) “Show Stoppin’ Number” have all become some of my favorite StarKid songs, right next to “Wagon on Fire” from The Trail to Oregon. But Black Friday‘s music was so good! So good!! 

I think it’s partially because they have some really strong vocals going on here–as much as I love Joey Richter and Jon Matteson, they don’t have the best stage voices, and I’m glad their singing time was cut down. Dylan Saunders and Kim Whalen have the most robust vocals and some awesome harmonies; “Take Me Back” knocked my socks off and is probably my favorite song of the show.

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For real, I will never be over this song.

Another song I loved was Lex’s “Black Friday,” which struck a perfect balance between teen angst and genuine fear and regret.

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Also, General McNamara’s song “Monsters and Men” was ridiculously good and serves several purposes–a little bit of an exposition, a little bit of an inspirational speech, and a lot of showing off Jeff Blim’s awesome singing voice, which I am here for.

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Some of my other favorites: “CaliforM.I.A.,” which despite sounding a little less polished than some of the other songs, is just so fun that I can’t bring myself to care; “Feast or Famine,” a strong ensemble number that had me nodding to the beat; and “If I Fail You,” a moving solo sung by Tom as he faces a major turning point.

If I have any critiques of the music, it’s that the villains’ songs all sounded the same. “Our Doors Are Open,” “Adore Me,” and “Wiggle” are very similar, both in their lyrical content and their musical style.

Overall, though, I enjoyed Black Friday enormously. Although it lacks some of the goofiness and sheer heart that’s at the center of other StarKid shows, the darker tone and content matter suits the story. The set design is simple but works well, and the sound design is clever, too. The script is probably the strongest of all previous shows, and the crisp writing moves the action along at a brisk pace. (One riotously tart line, delivered casually by Linda Monroe: “I’ve met God. He has nothing nice to say about you.”) The show benefits from some fresh faces, more professional choreography, and strong vocals. Black Friday is definitely a score for me, and I’m eager to hear what other long-time StarKid fans think!

You can watch The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals here and Black Friday here. Warning, of course, for strong language and general inappropriateness.

Happy watching!

–Sarah

A Brief, Unorganized, Overexcited Review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Major spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker ahead! Tread carefully!

Well, folks, it’s that time of the year again. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker came out recently, and I have some feelings. And you know what I do when I have feelings–I write convoluted, messy reviews! No outlining, we die like men!

Onwards!!

Leia

Did I cry whenever Carrie Fisher showed up? You betcha. Was I sobbing extra hard when  Rey used! her! lightsaber!!!? You know it. I was a mess the whole time. That hug? Ugh!! That hug!!!! You GUYS!!!!!

The Rey/Ben kiss

Big yikes. To begin with, they do not have chemistry, guys. At all. It felt shoe-horned in, like the writers were like, “It’s the end of the movie and none of our main characters have partnered up, we gotta do something!!” Then again, he dies right after that, so I guess I’m not overly bitter about it. It just seemed unnecessary.

I will say, they did a better job with the Ben Solo redemption arc than I thought was possible. I am definitely not a Reylo shipper, so the kiss annoyed me, but not as much as I think it would have in less skilled hands. So that’s something, I guess.

Finn and Poe

In lieu of a 20-page essay about how Star Wars continually fails its queer fans, please accept this tweet:

Seriously, I’m not gonna waste time writing about this when there’s so many other articles and videos about this out there, but can we just acknowledge how this ship isn’t just sweet and groundbreaking representation but also makes for a good story? Can we talk about that, please?? Anyone???

That lesbian kiss

I have neither the energy nor the patience to write about this, so here you go: Are We Really Going to Pretend the Gay Kiss in The Rise of Skywalker Matters?

Look, I’m glad it was in there. But guys. We need more than breadcrumbs.

Star Wars’ disfigurement problem

Can we please stop using disfigurement and disability as a shorthand for evil in this here year of our lord 2019? I mean, Ben and Snoke and Palpatine? Seems like an overkill, no? Actually, while I’m on this tangent, we saw the trailer for the next James Bond movie before TROS started, and the two villains in it both have facial disfigurements. All I’m saying is…get with it, filmmakers. You can do better.

The whole “Rey-is-a-Palpatine” thing

I was not a huge fan of this. It doesn’t bug me too much, but it’s a little frustrating. Look, it was pretty obvious that TROS was fervently trying to undo what happened in The Last Jedi–they sidelined my girl Rose, they walked back on that hint that the Force was democratized, and they ignored that little thing where it’s confirmed that Rey’s parents were nobodies. Whoops, sorry, turns out she’s the frickin’ granddaughter of Palpatine??

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Right. Okay. Look. I get it. They gotta make it interesting. They gotta spice it up. But really, was this the best way to go about it? Rather than keep all nine movies essentially within the same families, isn’t it more interesting if some fresh blood is brought in? Is it just me? Maybe it’s just me. Sigh.

Pacing and plotting

The pace was good, I thought. It moves swiftly, and it’s an action-packed two-and-a-half hours. (I’m pretty sure I cut off the blood supply to my dad’s hand a few times because I was squeezing it so tightly.)

The plot is fine as long as you don’t look too closely at it. I mean, a dyad in the Force? And that giant fleet of Star Destroyers?? And the fact that only two Wayfinders were ever made??? Really???? Ok boomer.

That ending on Tatooine

Tears. TEARS!!

Look, I’m a sucker for full circles. Show me anything with an ending that even remotely relates to its beginning and I get emotional. I’ve been watching and re-watching Star Wars since I was but a child, so this really got me. I mean, when Rey buries Luke and Leia’s lightsabers and takes out her own (which is made from her staff from The Force Awakens)? A punch in the emotional gut, people. When she says she’s a Skywalker? I was sniffling obnoxiously loudly. AND WHEN SHE LOOKS AT TATOOINE’S TWIN SUNS LIKE LUKE DID IN A NEW HOPE??? I was done! Done, I tell you!!

It was the perfect ending. On the one-to-ten scale of how much I wish I had come up with it, it was a twenty.

So, in conclusion…

It was a really great finale to the trilogy and to the Star Wars movies as a whole. The character arcs of the core three (Rey, Poe, and Finn) were well-done, and the incorporation of the core three of the previous trilogy (Luke, Leia, and Han) were touching and, at least in my case, VERY tear-inducing. (I was so scared that they’d actually killed Chewie. I don’t think I would’ve been able to handle it.) There’s a lot I wish was better, but for a blockbuster series that already has nine (!!) movies (eleven if you count the in-betweens like Rogue One), it surpassed my expectations.

Honestly, I’m going to miss these movies. Guess I’ll have to pirate The Mandalorian off YouTube for now.

May the Force be with you,

Sarah

The Decade in Review: Books That Shaped Me

I SURVIVED MY FINALS, EVERYONE!! AND I WOULD JUST LIKE THE WHOLE WORLD TO KNOW THAT I GOT A 91 ON MY RIDICULOUSLY HARD CHEM TEST!

Okay. Cool.

Happy holidays, readers! It’s almost the new year, which is hard to believe, so I thought I’d do an end-of-decade wrap-up post of some of the books that have shaped me these past ten years. This is going to be all over the place because I literally looked like this ten years ago:

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I’m playing Super Mario Galaxy in this picture. Super Mario Galaxy, y’all. I feel really old.

So there’s going to be some classic YA, some elementary school favorites, and some newer books! (The list is organized by publication year, not the year I read them, BTW.) Let’s start with some kids’ books that I read in early elementary school:

2010

Dying to Meet You (43 Old Cemetery Road Series #1)

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Ignatius B. Grumply moves into a Victorian mansion, hoping to overcome a case of writer’s block, but finds that the house is already occupied by a boy named Seymour, his cat, and a cantankerous ghost named Olive. It’s told in letters, drawings, and newspaper articles, and it is still maybe the funniest and smartest kids’ series I’ve ever read. The best part was that there was always an abundance of these at Goodwill so I always had a fresh supply. (The author-illustrator duo’s other series, Regarding The… is almost as good, and I’m a particularly big fan of Regarding The Sink). 

When You Reach Me

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Ugh, I cried over this one. I don’t want to give too much away because HOT DANG THAT ENDING, but here’s the basics: In 1970s New York, sixth grader Miranda Sinclair starts receiving mysterious letters from someone who seems to have an uncanny ability to predict the future. It takes a serious turn when the notes tell her that someone is going to die soon, and she may not be able to stop it. (Okay, that makes it seem really dark, but it’s not!) Also, does anyone else remember Liar & Spy? I feel like it did not get the recognition it deserved. #RebeccaSteadAppreciation2k20, people.

2011

Wonderstruck

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More ’70s-era New York! This book has everything: Dual storylines, beautiful illustrations, mystery, and kids breaking into museums. As a fan of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Wonderstruck spoke to me. Plus there’s two deaf characters! Also, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only third-grader who attempted to build Rose’s model of New York, right? Right??

A Tale Dark and Grimm

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These books were the best. THE BEST!! I still remember fighting with my best friend in the library over who would get to read the next in the series first because there was only one copy of it. It starts with a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, then quickly spirals into an epic, gory quest that in retrospect was probably not appropriate for second-graders. (I mean, the part where the townspeople boil that man alive?? Yikes.) I’m still reeling over the part in The Grimm Conclusion when Jorinda and Joringel become the tyrants, if I’m being honest. It’s funny, it’s gross, and it’s surprisingly genre-subversive for an elementary school series.

2012

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

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I read this one in seventh grade, and it’s stayed with me for a long time (although I can’t find my copy of it now, which is driving me crazy!). It’s about high schooler Cameron Post, who lives with her aunt after her parents die in a car crash. It’s a coming-of-age story that incorporates the experience of being young and gay, and it has a vivid sense of time and place (1980s small-town America). It’s moving and heartfelt, and you should definitely read it before you see the movie.

The Fault in our Stars

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Classic YA, y’all, classic YA. I was for sure too young to read it when I was in fourth grade, and my teacher was really concerned when I started crying over it during D.E.A.R time, but it was worth it. I’m not a particularly huge fan of it now (this article by a pediatric cancer survivor gives a good primer about how it reinforces pernicious stereotypes about sick kids and popularized “sick lit”), but it definitely got me good when I was younger, and I probably wouldn’t have picked up another John Green book if I hadn’t read this one. (Turtles All the Way Down isn’t on this list, but it’s remarkable and touching and well-done.)

2013

Yellowfang’s Secret

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Okay, look, the whole Warriors series should be on here, because I was obsessed with them for all of elementary school. Did anyone else do those role-playing games on the playground? (I was always the medicine cat, and I can still tell you that burdock root is good for infection.) There was a time in fourth grade where the entire grade was split into the four clans and it got so intense that we were backstabbing each other all over the place and our teachers made us shut it down. All this to say, how could Yellowfang’s Secret not be on here? Everyone’s favorite former-ShadowClan medicine cat with an intriguing backstory gets her own stand-alone book, and it’s fantastic. May StarClan light your path!

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

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Anything Kate DiCamillo writes is great, but Flora & Ulysses is one of my favorites. It follows Flora, a girl struggling with the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, and the squirrel she saves after he’s run over by a vacuum cleaner. A lot happens, but basically, the squirrel can write poetry, might have superpowers, and is in imminent danger from Flora’s mother. It’s short and sweet, and the protagonists are unique and likable.

2014

El Deafo

El Deafo

One of the first books I ever read with a deaf character, El Deafo is an autobiographical graphic novel of Cece Bell’s childhood after she becomes deaf as a result of meningitis. It’s funny, touching, and hopeful, and it got me writing about my own experiences. (Plus it made me grateful that my hearing aids were BTE and not in the shape of a giant box with earbuds!)

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

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This book was, for some reason, in my bathroom for a year, and it freaked me out. It’s another autobiographical illustrated book, it’s about Roz Chast taking care of her aging parents, and it made me cry even though most of it went over my head. I made my mom give it away, but I still think about it all the time.

2015

I Am Princess X

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I was in love with this book, partly because of the illustrations but mostly because it was just so good. It follows May and Libby, who have been best friends since fifth grade. Together, they write and draw a comic strip about a princess who lives in a haunted castle and goes on adventures. Years later, though, May has put Libby in the past after she died when her mom drove off a bridge–or so she thinks. She soon discovers that Princess X is now a thriving webcomic, and Libby is very much alive and in need of her help to defeat her kidnapper, the Needle Man. Set in Seattle, this urban mystery novel really checked all of my boxes, and the heart-pounding, fast-paced plot kept me up late reading it.

Mosquitoland

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I’ve come to dislike this book for reasons that are explained in a long draft of a post I have saved on my desktop, but my copy of Mosquitoland is so dog-eared that I can barely read some of the pages anymore. I loved it, and I modeled my writing style off of it for quite a long time. David Arnold tells the story of Mim, a girl on a road trip to visit her mother, who her dad and step-mom have cut her off from. Along the way, she meets the dashing Beck Van Buren and a cast of eccentric characters who aid her on her long and emotional journey. (Not a big fan of Beck, a college junior, being in a relationship with a sixteen-year-old and having it written off as romantic, or of sexual assault being used as a plot device, or of disabled characters being infantilized, but that’s a post for another day.)

2016

Exit, Pursued By A Bear

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I’ve kept re-reading this one, and still come back to it sometimes for certain passages. It’s a poignant and superbly-written testament to the power of friendship in the face of trauma. It follows Hermione Winters, a high school senior who is raped at a cheerleading camp. Where many books show teen female friendships to be shallow and catty, E.K. Johnston excels at creating a believable and touching bond between Hermione and her best friend Polly. Surprisingly readable for a book about such a heavy topic, but at the same time resonant and haunting, Exit, Pursued By A Bear has stuck with me.

Paper Girls (Volume 1)

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This comic about a group of newspaper delivery girls in the ’80s who get caught up in a war between time travelers is gritty, suspenseful, and, at times, heart-breaking (MacKenzie!! WHY???). It’s won a slew of awards and is being made into a TV show, so, you know…read it. I couldn’t sleep for a while, but it was completely worth it.

2017

Spinning

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I guess I really have a thing for autobiographical graphic novels. Spinning follows Tillie Walden (who is, by the way, only 23 years old!), and is about her experiences as a figure skater in early-2000s Austin, Texas. At the same time, it’s also about coming of age, growing up queer, and healing from trauma. I’ll have to write a full post about it someday, because it’s probably one of the–if not the–best books I’ve ever read. It’s sparsely but beautifully illustrated, and the color palette is a lovely mix of purples and warm yellows. (Honorable mention that didn’t make it on here: On a Sunbeam, the remarkable 538-page sci-fi masterpiece that made her famous.)

They Both Die At The End

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2017 was really a banner year for YA, and a lot of my favorites were published around this time (Turtles All the Way Down, The Hate U Give), but They Both Die At The End really stood out to me. I know I talk about it all the time on here, but it really is that good! It follows two boys in an alternate universe where people are told they’re going to die on the day of so that they have time to say good-bye to their loved ones. Mateo and Rufus’ paths intersect for a day of sorrow and hopefulness, and the book serves as a powerful reminder to live every day like it’s your last.

2018

Children of Blood and Bone

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This intricate fantasy novel (the first in a planned trilogy) is rich and suspenseful. Zélie Adebola, her brother Tzain, and fugitive princess Amari are on the run from the powerful rulers of Orïsha as they try to restore magic to the kingdom. It’s great at balancing three alternating viewpoints, and I’m really excited to read Children of Virtue and Vengeance, which came out earlier this month.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

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I was so planning to write a review of this when it came out, but there was so much I wanted to say about it that I couldn’t get it all down! AART is about a woman named April May, who discovers what she thinks is a strange robot statue in Manhattan. When she films and posts a video online, she instantly goes viral, and her life is changed. The statues (affectionately termed “Carls”) appear all over the world at the exact same time, and people think it’s just a piece of really cool, out-of-this-world art–until they discover that it may literally be out of this world. It’s really not a sci-fi novel that I’ve seen before, and it’s gotten high praise: “It’s not the nature of a sci-fi comedy blockbuster to shift boulders in your soul. But with his debut novel…Hank Green pulls it off,” writes one reviewer at Paste Magazine. That cliff-hanger ending will be resolved in A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, to be released this summer. (And yes, Hank Green is John Green’s brother, so I guess it runs in the family.)

2019

I’ve literally had time to read, like, one current book this year, so here you go:

Are You Listening?

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I’ve already raved-reviewed about this one here, and talked about Tillie Walden too much just in this post, but Are You Listening? was wonderful. Another entry in the quiet, beautiful canon of Walden’s work, it uses magical realism as a conduit to explore issues like death and sexual assault, all rendered movingly in the friendship between two young women. Plus, there’s a road trip and cats!

Honorable Mentions (AKA my favorite books that I read this decade but were released pre-2010)

  • Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo: Good lord this one made third-grade-me cry. It’s sweet and moving and has a wonderful cast of characters, like the adorable Sweetie Pie Thomas and eccentric pet store owner Otis.
  • Holes by Louis Sachar: It’s a book that should be way more of a classic than it is, am I right or am I right? The lives of several boys at the juvenile corrections facility of Camp Green Lake intersect in a funny and touching way, all while a larger mystery unfolds.
  • The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan: It’s every young Greek mythology geek’s origin story. Percy Jackson discovers that he’s the son of Poseidon and goes on an epic cross-country road trip to find Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt. I started reading these books in second grade and I haven’t put them down since.
  • Savvy by Ingrid Law: I was obsessed with this book as a fourth grader, which follows 12-year-old Mississippi “Mibs” Beaumont, born into a family where every teenager acquires a power, called a “savvy.” When her father falls into a coma after a car accident and the family is separated, she goes on a road trip with the local pastor’s family and her brothers to find him again. It’s a wonderfully original coming-of-age story with a magical twist.

That’s all I’ve got, readers! What were some of your favorite books of the decade, and what books shaped you growing up?

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Happy New Year, everybody!

Here’s to a bookish 2020!

–Sarah (The Inside Cover)

Let’s Talk About The Silence Between Us by Alison Gervais

Happy fall break, readers, AKA the only time I’ll be able to update the blog until late December because finals season is hell!

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Can high school be over yet??

The good news is that I found time to write a blog post today! I wrote a first draft of this thing way back in August when The Silence Between Us first came out, and it was long and rambling and man am I glad I didn’t publish it. But now that I’ve a had a few more months to mull it over, let’s discuss!

First, a plot summary:

The last thing seventeen-year-old Maya wants to do is leave her friends at the Pratt School for the Deaf behind, move halfway across the country, and start at a mainstream hearing school.

But no dramatic tension, no book! So, of course, that’s exactly what ends up happening. She feels like she’s working ten times as hard as her hearing classmates, and it doesn’t help that most of her peers are completely oblivious about the Deaf community. At least she’s got a good interpreter, Kathleen, and a maybe-friend, Nina. Plus, she’s still dead-set on becoming a respiratory therapist in order to help kids with cystic fibrosis like her little brother, so she’s preoccupied with getting the grades to match her ambitions.

Enter Beau Watson, the school’s resident overachiever. When he starts learning ASL and chatting with her, she’s suspicious he’s just doing it for the brownie points, but she has to admit that it’s nice not needing to use her voice all the time. When their friendship starts to turn into something more, the disconnect between their hearing and Deaf worlds becomes starker, and Maya must ask herself: Is this a divide she can bridge without sacrificing her identity?

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Let’s get this out of the way to begin with: In terms of, like, actual writing…well, it’s not the most masterful work of fiction ever. The dialogue is often clunky and clichéd, the plot is slow-moving, and Nina and Beau are painfully static for characters that play such a large role in the story. It’s far from the worst book I’ve ever read, but it could use some work.

Despite all that, I was thrilled to find this book. Like Maya, I’m deaf, go to a mainstream high school, and struggle with hearing peers and teachers. I’d never really seen these experiences rendered in fiction, and I was excited to see how Gervais would go about it.

In terms of school issues, every experience Maya has rings true. From “group time” (every d/Deaf/HoH student’s worst nightmare) to teachers over-compensating (e.g., talking super loudly, over-enunciating, generally treating deaf students as dimmer-than-average), you can tell that Gervais–who herself is hard-of-hearing–has had personal experience with the infuriating day-to-day reality of being disabled in a mainstream school. I was especially blown away by a scary experience Maya has during her chemistry final that mirrored, almost exactly, a lab that went wrong my freshman year in biology class.

I was a little disappointed that teachers under-compensating wasn’t really addressed–things like uncaptioned videos, note-taking, and seating accommodations were never talked about. In fact, aside from Maya having an interpreter, accommodations were barely discussed at all.

But 504s and IEPs and the legal nuances of disability accommodation in public schools isn’t good content for a YA romance novel!, I hear you cry. Which…okay, fair enough. The complexities of navigating that system doesn’t make for the most exciting book (although watching my dad scare the bejesus out of my science teacher in my 504 meeting last year was pretty entertaining). This book–one of the very few YA novels that follows a mainstreamed Deaf student–doesn’t have to address everything, and that’s something I’m trying to keep in mind as I write this review. I got a bit frustrated with the lack of nuance at some points, and I’ll talk about that when we get there, but it’s worth remembering that The Silence Between Us is one of the first of its kind.

Along those lines, let’s talk about the circumstances of Maya’s deafness. After contracting meningitis, she becomes medically deaf at age 13. She and her mom work hard to learn ASL, and she ends up attending a school for the deaf before they move. By the time we meet her, she proudly identifies as big D Deaf, AKA culturally deaf. All this happens in the span of four years.

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First, I feel like you’d have to be pretty darn good at ASL before being able to attend a school for the deaf and excel there (as Maya did), and I’m not entirely convinced that she lost her hearing and was able to take high school level classes in sign language immediately after that. (I’m being nit-picky here, but it feels like a bit of a glaring plot hole for Gervais to overlook, and anyway I would be interested to find out what Maya’s learning process and transition into the Deaf community was like.)

Also, I wish I had seen what the conversation between Maya and her mom was about deciding to learn ASL rather than go for cochlear implants. Maya’s decision not to get CIs, while I respect it, seems counter-intuitive–not in a “cochlear implants are a miracle and she should’ve gotten them to lead a ‘normal life!!'” kind of way, but in a “she became deaf at age 13, all she’s ever known is the hearing world, so what exactly was her thought process here?” way. As far as I can tell, she’d never had exposure to the Deaf community before she became deaf herself, so…what happened there? It feels like an important conversation that the reader needed to be in on.

So let’s talk about the whole cochlear implant thing, shall we? (In the first draft of this post, this took up a good 900 words, so I cut it waaaaaay down. You’re welcome.)

Maya has a firm stance on cochlear implants–nope–but she understands that they’re a good choice for some people, just not for her.

Full disclosure–I’m coming at this from the perspective of a deaf gal who has both a cochlear implant and a hearing aid and who is learning ASL (cue the Hannah Montana “Best of Both Worlds” theme song), and I was a little miffed at the way she portrayed non-signing CI users, AKA me, so I’m not totally unbiased about this whole thing.

Throughout the book, I felt like the way Gervais chose to portray CIs was essentially to give hearing people a crash course on the cochlear implant debate. (Google it. I have way too much WHAP homework to explain it here.) So while it might have changed some hearing readers’ previously held notions about how ~cochlear implants are a miracle~ (spoiler: they are not), it doesn’t really do justice to the complexity of the whole thing. It’s very, very black-and-white: Either you have CIs and hate ASL and all that it stands for, or vice-versa.

All this is best shown in my least favorite scene in the whole book, the deaf kid meet-up. Around the middle of the book, Maya attends a meet-up of other deaf high schoolers in the area, hoping to find some other signing teens, but soon realizes that they’re all oral and all have CIs (never mind that having CIs doesn’t automatically mean you’re oral, people!!). It goes about as well as you’d expect–the kids and their moms are the AG Bell website personified (shudder), Maya can’t follow along, and some rude, off-hand comments are made by the moms. All the CI’d kids come away looking kind of like jerks, which sucks, because everyone I’ve ever met with a cochlear implant is super nice! (Except for Rush Limbaugh. We don’t stan.)

The whole scene, while maybe introducing some new concepts to someone who’s never heard of the whole debate before, is in reality pretty simplistic. I would go as far to say that it maybe even introduces some harmful concepts to a hearing reader–namely that being culturally, big-D Deaf and having cochlear implants are two mutually exclusive things when they very much are not. Gervais’ portrayal of the Deaf community is, disappointingly, very narrow.

Look, I can appreciate the need to ignore some of the nuances of such a big, heterogeneous population like the d/Deaf/HoH community, and like I said before, this book doesn’t need to–and can’t–address everything. But it does feel like more care was needed here.

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Let’s talk about Connor, Maya’s little brother with cystic fibrosis. You know, it’s a real skill to write a book about teaching able-bodied folks that disabled people are not a monolith, that we have lives outside of our disability, and that we need to be the tellers of our own stories, and then to do precisely the opposite with the only other prominent disabled character in the book.

Alison Gervais! What are you doing, girl?? I am genuinely dismayed! She straight-up did the disabled sibling thing, you guys!! She did the thing! She did the Rules by Cynthia Lord thing! She did the Olivia’s-chapters-of-Wonder thing! She did the Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin thing!

I feel really strongly about the able-bodied-sibling-of-a-disabled-kid trope, guys, because generally it is not done very well. The disabled kid is used as a means through which the able-bodied sibling grows and matures, while the disabled kid remains totally static and voiceless. It’s different in The Silence Between Us because they’re both disabled, which somehow makes it worse because one of those disabled characters is portrayed with a lot of agency and makes the point that we need to be listened to, and then somehow Gervais couldn’t put it all together and allow the same for Connor!

To be fair, it’s slightly less egregious in terms of sheer inspiration porn than, say, Wonder.  And at least Maya and Connor’s relationship isn’t the sole focus of her character arc, and she grows and changes in many other ways. But it is absolutely baffling to me that in a book that is so clearly about giving disabled people agency and control over their own stories that the same respect for Connor’s disability and character isn’t afforded.

I’ll move on from this point because I feel like I’ve really ragged on the whole book, and I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about it. I actually enjoyed it, and it was really cathartic to see a character dealing with the same day-to-day struggles that I do.

So let’s do an end-of-post positivity dump!

Maya’s experience with lipreading is portrayed in a cool, innovative way: Almost every spoken sentence is dashed through with ellipses, indicating words that she couldn’t decipher. “Wonderful…excited to…always wanted…sign language…” is all one sentence, spoken too quickly for Maya to understand. There’s almost no sentence that goes by without these ellipses, giving hearing readers some idea of how difficult and tiring lipreading is.

Dialogue in sign language is written in its glossed form. I can’t speak to the accuracy of it as a beginner signer, but I can say it’s super awesome to see ASL in its untranslated form. For example, when Maya and her mom are in the hospital because Connor has an emergency relating to his cystic fibrosis (disabled sibling used as a way to move the plot along? Check), their conversation goes like this:

YOU OK? was the first thing she signed to me.

FINE, I signed, even though I didn’t mean it one bit. I was stiff all over and my head was throbbing painfully. YOU SHOW UP, WHEN?

EARLY MORNING, Mom answered. TIME 5:30.

Since ASL doesn’t have a written form, it’s cool to see it about as close to real signing as possible, rather than how I’ve usually seen it–in perfect English, such as in Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase series. Gervais’ style drives home the point that ASL has its own grammar structure, syntax, and slang–it’s not English with hand movements.

Other good things: Maya’s vivid description of what’s been termed “dinner table syndrome” gives hearing readers a good idea of what isolation in non-accessible settings feels like. An exploration of job discrimination illustrates some of the structural barriers Deaf people face when it comes to trying to make a living. A healthy hearing-Deaf relationship is portrayed, where the hearing partner educates himself and grows.

So in conclusion…it’s complicated, peeps. I haven’t come across another review of this book by someone who’s d/Deaf/HoH, so it’s a little hard to gauge what others are thinking. I’m so, so happy that we finally get an #OwnVoices Deaf character, and Maya’s experiences are recognizable and relatable to disabled readers. But depth and nuance were lacking in places, and the actual plot structure and characters leave much to be desired.

Clearly, there’s room to grow. But I’m glad someone’s out here paving the way, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the next book about d/Deaf/HoH characters can only build off the good work Gervais has done.

That’s all for now, readers. Wish me luck on finals (if you don’t hear from me in a month, that means my chem test has murdered me), and I hope to update sooner rather than later!

Signing (pun intended) off,

The Inside Cover

Hey! This post is part of “Hi-Deaf,” a series where I write about deafness and disability. Click here to see other Hi-Deaf posts!