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books and reading

Between the World and Me

Title: Between the World and Me

Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Genre: Black and African-American biographies

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: a book on a Black Lives Matter reading list

Of course, I know who Mr. Coates is. I’ve read several of his essays, I’ve heard him speak on videos, and I’ve followed his career via the news. However, I’ve yet to read one of his books. He’s an author that I always meant to get to but just never did. But when I saw the BLM prompt, I knew just what to read. I already owned this book, and without even knowing what it was about, I dove in.

From Goodreads: In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
 
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward. 

This book is only 150 or so pages, which makes it really easy to digest. The message is clear: Black people do not own their own bodies. They are constantly fighting for their bodies and their places in the world. Coates discusses his own youth, illuminating his path of realization and discovery. The book is a letter to his son, which makes it even more powerful. He isn’t just speaking to the masses, but to one person he loves. This book really should be required reading. Having young Black people see themselves, their history, their struggles in print is critical. Enough with the dead white people books. Give kids the chance to read about themselves and their peers. The more educating we do, the more this generation will empathize.

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Clap When You Land

Title: Clap When You Land

Author: Elizabeth Acevedo

Genre: YA fiction

When I read With the Fire on High last month, I knew Elizabeth Acevedo was an author who deserved further investigation. I thought that book was fantastic. And I’ve heard so many great things about this one, so I put it on hold at my library in eager anticipation. Little did I know, this was a novel in verse. I was a bit nervous because I didn’t know if it was a style I would enjoy, but I ended up really hooked. What a wonderful story.

From Goodreads: Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people…

In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.

Separated by distance—and Papi’s secrets—the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered. And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other.

The horror each girl faces losing their father is pretty terrible. But on top of that, they learn of each other. How their father had two separate families, two separate lives. The knowledge is undoing. How can either reconcile the knowledge of the other, while trying to survive their loss? The style of verse is just gorgeous. It is minimal and choppy when it needs to be to parallel the loss and sorry. It’s drawn out and longer to parallel the love and joy. This book should absolutely be taught in classrooms, not just for the own voices aspect, but the writing style. I flew through this book and absolutely loved it.

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books and reading

Punch Me Up to the Gods

Title: Punch Me Up to the Gods

Author: Brian Broome

Genre: memoir

Thank you NetGalley for this book. And really, I am so thankful. What a fantastic book.

I’m a white, cis, straight, woman. Because of these privileges, my life is not hard. Sure, being a woman can be difficult at times, but it doesn’t compare in any way to being a Black person in society these days. Or being a gay person. But being both Black and gay is an unbelievable challenge, to put it mildly. Brian is around my age, grew up in a small town, just like I did, but his life was vastly different all because of his Blackness and his queerness. This theme is the topic of the book, and although the book was difficult to read because of all the struggles he dealt with, I couldn’t put this one down. Reading books written by people who are different from you is critical to being a member of the world. I’m so glad NetGalley sent this one to me.

From Goodreads: Punch Me Up to the Gods introduces a powerful new talent in Brian Broome, whose early years growing up in Ohio as a dark-skinned Black boy harboring crushes on other boys propel forward this gorgeous, aching, and unforgettable debut. Brian’s recounting of his experiences—in all their cringe-worthy, hilarious, and heartbreaking glory—reveal a perpetual outsider awkwardly squirming to find his way in. Indiscriminate sex and escalating drug use help to soothe his hurt, young psyche, usually to uproarious and devastating effect. A no-nonsense mother and broken father play crucial roles in our misfit’s origin story. But it is Brian’s voice in the retelling that shows the true depth of vulnerability for young Black boys that is often quietly near to bursting at the seams.
 
Cleverly framed around Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool,” the iconic and loving ode to Black boyhood, Punch Me Up to the Gods is at once playful, poignant, and wholly original. Broome’s writing brims with swagger and sensitivity, bringing an exquisite and fresh voice to ongoing cultural conversations about Blackness in America.

Back when I was teaching AP English, I was constantly on the hunt for passages to use in class. One section near the end of this book about Brian wanting a pink shirt is simply one of the best written passages I’ve read in ages. So many people write memoirs their story is interesting, but the writing leaves you cringing because of how cheesy or bad it is. This book is beautifully written from beginning to end. I hope this one gets the reviews it deserves. Own voices books are critical these days, and this is one I will be recommending to everyone.

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books and reading

Dear Justyce

Title: Dear Justyce

Author: Nic Stone

Genre: African-American YA lit

I’ve decided that the YA queens of Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, and Tiffany D. Jackson can do no wrong. Every book I’ve read from these ladies is just phenomenal. I’m adding them to my “must-read every book of theirs that comes out” list. I’ve read Dear Martin and Clean Getaway from Stone and will checking her bibliography to see if I can find more of her work. Dear Martin was the first I read of hers, and I live tweeted while I was reading. Stone was kind enough to reply to a lot of my tweets. It was a great experience. And the book just blew me away. It was the first of its type (real-world, black kids, trying to survive their worlds) that I read. Please click on the link and see my review for it.

From Goodreads: Shortly after teenager Quan enters a not guilty plea for the shooting death of a police officer, he is placed in a holding cell to await trial. Through a series of flashbacks and letters to Justyce, the protagonist of Dear Martin, Quan’s story unravels.

From a troubled childhood and bad timing to a coerced confession and prejudiced police work, Nic Stone’s newest novel takes an unflinching look at the flawed practices and ideologies that discriminate against African American boys and minorities in the American justice system.

In the preface, Stone says she had no intention of writing a “sequel” to Dear Martin, but several kids mentioned that they needed to read about a kid who struggled. Justyce certainly did, but he was smart, was getting a great education, and made it “out” of his difficult like. But that’s not the reality for a lot of kids. Enter Quan. He’s in Dear Martin, but I didn’t remember him, but that’s okay. the book is plenty easy to dig into. Quan’s home life is difficult, to put it mildly. He finds a family that supports him, but of course, there are rules. Quan finds himself in jail facing a murder charge.

If you haven’t read any books in this genre, you absolutely must. They are so important. Kids need to see themselves in literature. They need to feel like their voices are important. They need to be seen, to be heard, to be understood. I’m so thankful for authors like Stone, Thomas, and Jackson who are giving these books that resonate.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing

Title: Sing, Unburied, Sing

Author: Jesmyn Ward

Genre: own voices, family struggles

My goal every year is to read as many own voices books as possible. The ones that stand out this year include Hurricane Summer, The Broken Earth series, Song of Solomon, Little Fires Everywhere, Miracle Creek, Leaving Atlanta, The Nickel Boys (book of the year for me), Monday’s Not Coming, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. And I will definitely be adding Sing, Unburied, Sing to the list.

From Goodreads: In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

The plot of this book is simple- drive to get this man from prison. But the plot, while meaningful, is the last thing that matters in this book. The language is just perfect. I just couldn’t believe how gorgeous some of the phrases were. The characters are rich and dynamic. Jojo is the best kid you could ask for. He’s kind and full of love for his sister and grandparents. But he also needs his mother’s love, which he will never earn…she’s not a good mother. The bond between Jojo and his sister, Kayla, is critical for her happiness. He’s the person she reaches for first every morning. And as a 13-year-old, he’s so thoughtful and gentle with her.

This book is the first I’ve read of Ward’s, but I will be reading Salvage the Bones for sure. I’m always so skeptical when EVERYONE loves a book, but this one absolutely lived up to the reviews. I cannot recommend this strongly enough.

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Miracle Creek

I do not want to read a medical thriller. When I saw that prompt on the PopSugar Reading Challenge, I was sunk. I knew I was going to have to fudge this one. I have anxiety and can’t watch medical shows on tv. I have no desire to read anything medical related. A lot of people read The Silent Patient for this prompt, but I read that last year, so I was struggling to find something. Finally, some people in the reading challenge FB group mentioned this one, and I was sold. It’s mostly a legal thriller, light on the thrills, but it involves a medical situation. I had also been hearing what a good book it was, so off to my library I went.

Not only does this book have a legal focus, it also it an own voices book. The family involved is Korean, as the author, so she’s able to provide an authentic story of the family. The story follows the trial of a woman who is accused of murdering her autistic son. She has been trying an experimental treatment for him which puts him in an oxygen chamber twice a day to help his neurological processing. He’s in the chamber with several people who are also undergoing the treatment for various reasons. An explosion occurs, and the woman is accused of setting the fire.

The story unfolds with one secret revealed after another. As the trial progresses and new information is brought to light. you begin to see how twisted together all the participants are. The Korean family who owns the chamber as well as their clients are wrapped together in more ways than you expect. By the end, you really don’t know who set the fire because it could have been anyone, since they all seemed to have some hand in the crime, whether directly or indirectly.

This book was great. It was tightly written, kept me guessing, and was captivating from the first chapter. Whether you enjoy legal stories, own voices books, or a good mystery, this book will be perfect for you.

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The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

I really enjoy learning about other cultures. I’m a big fan of “own voices” books and try to add them to my reading list when possible. I am a part of the Great American Read group on Facebook and have gotten some amazing recommendations of culturally significant books. I’ve read and loved The Hate U Give, The Sun is Also a Star, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Dear Martin, The Kite Runner, Everything I Never Told You, Release, The Namesake, and Turtles All the Way Down. If you are looking for a good list of “own voices” novels try here: own voices.

TSGtD follows Amina living a mostly good life in Seattle with her cousin. Amina was once a photojournalist, but a difficult photo she took caused her too much stress, and she is now a wedding photographer. She gets a call from home that disrupts her life, pulling her back to her home of New Mexico. The story is told partly in flashbacks from when Amina was a child and a teenager and partly in the present day. Through the flashbacks, you learn about Amina’s parents coming to America to make a life for themselves, about Amina’s brother, Ahkil, and his struggles, but mostly about Amina trying to find herself and her place in the world.

As much as I love a good plot heavy book, there are times when a good story about an interesting character fits the bill. This is exactly that book. Amina is a wholly fleshed-out character, and you get to dig deep into her life. I read The Namesake about an Indian-American man trying to find his place in both worlds, and I feel like this one is very similar in nature. I loved both books for filling my world with captivating characters and culturally authentic situations.