Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman is an immersive, compelling account of the coming of age of seventeen old Kiko. Kiko’s Japanese father and white American mother are divorced and her mother is toxic to the point of being emotionally abusive.
Her creepy uncle also sexually assaulted her as a child, though her mother refuses to believe this. Kiko survives her household (her brothers don’t communicate much) with the help of her best friend and her art, despite her limiting social anxiety.
When her old childhood buddy, Jamie, visits town for graduation and they reconnect, he offers her an escape–a chance to visit him in California. Here Kiko is befriended by an older Japanese artist, Hiroshi, and his family and begins to realise how wonderful her life might be away from her awful mother.
So much to relate to here. This is a lovely book for those who have endured being ‘different’ from the standards of beauty around them, survived critical parenting, anxiety and self-doubt and made it out the other side.
More importantly, it’s an essential book for those teens who haven’t made it out–yet.
I loved the references to Japanese mythology, Kiko’s artworks and how things are left (realistically) somewhat unresolved at the end with regard to Kiko and her mother.
(The book also reminded me of how much I enjoyed Gadget Girl, by Suzanne Kamata, a story about Aiko, a teen girl with a Japanese father and artist mother who has cerebral palsy and draws manga featuring Gadget Girl, her superhero alter ego.)
I’m a huge fan of Rita Williams-Garcia’s amazing Gaither sisters trilogy (beginning with One Crazy Summer) but hadn’t explored her latest, a short, stand-alone novel aimed at 8-12 year olds.
CBGU was listed for a National Book Award and had multiple (5!!!) starred reviews but was inexplicably passed over in the recent Newbery/Coretta Scott King awards, albeit in a very strong field that was dominated by some hard-hitting and excellent YA novels.
But please do read CBGU because it’s an absolute gem. Short, lyrical and told over a tight span of time, this tale of music, grief and Clayton’s grandfather Cool Papa is an instantly engaging book for musical kids and a great read-aloud for class. In fact, I’m going to nominate it for our occasional family book club. Oh and the audio book is wonderful.
I Am Thunder is the tale of level-headed Muzna, trying to be what her parents want her to be: a good Pakistani Muslim girl, no make-up, no boyfriends and just the right amount of religion in her life. Oh and a doctor. Even though her dream is to write novels. (All too relatable). When Muzna moves to a new school and meets impossibly dreamy Arif it seems, unbelievably for Muzna, like he’s interested in her. Muzna begins to attend meetings with Arif and his fanatically religious brother Jameel. Muzna is a funny, self-deprecating and believable teen and her questioning her parents’ values versus others she meets is all too believable. But it turns out that Jameel is planning a terror attack and Muzna is the only one who can stop him–even it means putting herself and Arif at risk.
I loved Muzna’s character and her struggle to find her own path within Islam. Khadijah a hijab-wearing committed Muslim student provides a necessary voice and I would have liked to hear more of her. In fact I’d have been happy with a whole book just about this without the terror angle and Muzna saving the day, though when I asked my teen son he thought this part was ‘awesome, really exciting,’
A recommended read for 12+
Long Way Down is already a National Book Awards Finalist and a Newbery Honor Book. It’s been published in the UK in a special edition illustrated by Chris Priestley. I was unable to appreciate the illustrations fully reading on a Kindle though they looked intriguing. And I’m all for novels in verse (or any poetry really) being illustrated. But Reynolds storytelling and powerful verse stand up alone. The stanzas are short, with staccato bursts of language that really benefit from being read or spoken aloud.
Will’s brother Shawn is dead. He knows where Shawn keeps his gun and heads out to take revenge. But the ride down in the elevator is a long one, with some unexpected passengers. A completely engrossing fast-paced read for 12+
Me and Tony
waited like we always do
for the rumble to stop
before we picked our heads up
and poked our heads out
to count the bodies
there was only one Shawn
Duelling grandmas, bar mitzvahs, trivia quiz teams and um, nuclear fallout shelters combine to unlikely but hilarious effect in this novel for middle-grade readers.
1983 and David, Da-Wei Horowitz is worried about his approaching bar mitzvah. His Chinese grandma Wai Po and Jewish grandma Granny M don’t agree on anything, his nerdy friend Hector is being pushed out by his new and more savvy trivia-team buddy Scott and he can’t even speak in straight sentences to the girl he has a crush on. And having watched a TV movie about a nuclear attack on America called The Day After just about everyone is freaked out by the threat of nuclear attack.
This is a sweet, funny, relatable read for 10+ boys and girls. The two grandmas are hilarious and the Thanksgiving scene ! My kids who are of dual heritage (though not Chinese or Jewish) could totally relate.
Saints and Misfits is the tale of Janna, in her sophomore year at high school (roughly equivalent to Year 10 in the UK) and with a number of problems. One, her annoying big brother is on a year out of college, dating Miss Perfect from mosque and worst of all STEALING HER BEDROOM. Two, a creepy cousin of one of her best friends tried to assault her. Three, she has a desperate crush on a high school senior who is a perfectly unsuitable boy. On top of this, Janna is still adjusting to her parents’ divorce and her dad’s new, non-Muslim family. As Janna moves between her worlds, home, school, mosque and community she finds the strength to challenge the community’s perception of her assailant as a super-religious ‘saint’ and speak up about her assault. Janna’s gentle friendship with an elderly man (Mr Ram) living in her building who quotes Rumi to her adds charm. Janna is a great character, spiky, opinionated and ultimately brave enough to speak out. 14+
This is an utterly beautiful book, gentle and lyrical, that deals with events that are horrifically ugly.
13 year old Rose Lee Carter is a black girl growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s under Jim Crow and as such, she is well acquainted with life’s harshness.
Her mother has remarried and left her and her brother Fred Lee to be raised by their grandparents, strict Ma Pearl and kind Papa, along with her cousin, Queen, favoured because of her light skin. The family are poor, Rose must toil in the fields when not in school, her gentle Aunt Ruthie is the victim of domestic violence and when members of the NAACP try to encourage black people to register to vote, the white backlash is bad enough to lead to murder.
The murder of Emmett Till, visiting from the North and only fourteen years old, and the acquittal of his murderers spurred on the burgeoning civil rights movement and is now seen as a turning-point in American history. The murderers later admitted to beating Till to death, tying his body to a cotton-gin fan and throwing him in the Tallahatchie river. The murderer’s wife, who claimed Till whistled at her and made a pass, later admitted she lied.
Lynda Williams Jackson has managed to weave this historical injustice into and through this marvellous book, while it remains very much Rose Lee Carter’s story. 10+