ALAN Picks for January 2015
Blind by Rachel DeWoskin
Viking Children’s Books, 2014, 416 pp., $17.99
Blindness/Coping with tragedy/Suicide/Survival
Experiments/Single parent families/Fathers/Science Fiction
After losing her eyesight in a freak accident, fourteen-year-old Emma Sasha Silver must relearn how to “see.” Through the support of family and friends, Emma struggles to understand her new reality, returns to her close-knit high school, and finds that even though things remain the same, everything is actually different. When tragedy strikes her town again when a classmate is found dead from a possible suicide, Emma seeks answers to her classmate’s death in an attempt to make sense of her own ability to survive.
Told through Emma’s eyes, DeWoskin brilliantly uses vivid description through touch and sound to allow the reader to “see” the world the way Emma sees it. The reader is put into Emma’s shoes, and experiences coping with blindness not as a victim, but as a real person learning to accept and overcome inevitable life challenges. Emma’s story is heart wrenching and poignant, full of despair, humor, and ultimately hope. This novel has made DeWoskin a debut author to watch.
Reviewed by Melanie Koss, Chicago, Illinois
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulson Books (Penguin), 2014, 320 pp., $16.99
Verse/Memoir/Kunstlerroman/Race in America/Family
The title of Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award winning verse memoir puts the spotlight on the writer-to-be; the epigraph from Langston Hughes’ “Dreams” evokes the challenges that require this brown girl to “hold fast” to her aspirations in the “USA—/a country caught/between Black and White” (1). Born in 1963, at a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, into a family with deep roots in the north and the south, Woodson provides rich historical and familial context for each stage of her journey from birth in Columbus, Ohio, through a childhood spent with family and close-knit communities in segregated South Carolina and Brooklyn’s Bushwick.
In five titled sections, free verse poems—“each story like a photograph we can look right in to” (88)—and a chain of haikus focus on what young Woodson saw and felt, and what she has since learned from family members: “Somewhere in my brain/each laugh, tear and lullaby/becomes memory” (“how to listen #1”). Poems also offer young readers comforting truths about the writing process (“Trying again and again/until there is nothing but pink/bits of eraser and a hole now/where a story should be”) and self-selected reading (“If someone had taken/ that book [Stevie] out of my hand/said, You’re too old for this/maybe/I’d never have believed/that someone who looked like me/could be in the pages of a book/that someone who looked like me/had a story.” Family tree and photos are included.
Note: Remarks made by Daniel Handler, MC at the National Book Award ceremony, sparked controversy and a conversation that included a response by Woodson in the New York Times (November 29, 2014) titled “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke”
Reviewed by Fern Kory, Charleston, Illinois
Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire
Candlewick Press, 2014, 475 pp., $17.99
Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Russian folklore
In the rural wilds of tsarist Russia, the paths a princess and a pauper cross when a train carrying the aristocratic debutante Ekaterina to St. Petersburg passes through the village of the peasant girl Elena. A twist of fate causes the two girls to switch places, and each is launched on a rollicking adventure involving a misplaced Fabergé egg, royal intrigue, the Russian Firebird, charmed matryoshka dolls, the ice dragon Zmey-Azdaja, and the grande dame of Russian folklore herself, Baba Yaga. Nothing less than the fate of Russia hangs in the balance as enchantment returns to a gritty, broken world on the verge of collapse.
In a storytelling inversion from his classic Wicked, in which the magical Land of Oz was re-envisioned with historical and sociopolitical heft, Maguire infuses the bleak, historical setting of late tsarist Russia with fantasy in Egg & Spoon. The result is a fresh and thoroughly delightful introduction to a new Old World of Eastern folktales and marvelous creatures. The whimsical narration lends itself to an entertaining read-aloud, and Maguire’s Baba Yaga is a breathtakingly contemporary twist on a classic character with whom a new generation of readers deserves to become familiar.
Reviewed by Sean Kottke, Lansing, Michigan
Like No Other by Una LaMarche
Razor Bill (an imprint of Penguin Group), 2014, 347 pp., $17.99
Teen Romance/Religious Diversity/Family/Realistic Fiction
Stuck in an elevator together during a hurricane in Brooklyn, New York, high school students Devorah and Jaxon find themselves enfolded in the electric space of young love. But Devorah is from a Hasidic Jewish family where the women are matched with the men they will marry, and dating outside of the religion is strictly forbidden. Jaxon’s neighborhood borders Devorah’s, but his ethnicity is not tolerated well in her community. While his family members count on him as the man of the family and he finds himself obligated in that role, Jaxon cannot deny his feelings for Devorah and refuses to accept that he cannot be with her. They meet secretly and risk everything to be together; at some points in the story, the unthinkable happens.
The chapters rotate from Devorah’s perspective to Jaxon’s as they navigate their own places and families. LaMarche reminds us that first love is powerfully potent; readers will feel those butterflies in the stomach as they follow the forbidden relationship of Devorah and Jaxon. Even deeper, though, is the big question: Where can young love lead, and how can young people navigate relationships in the contemporary age of diverse neighborhoods, complex family lives and friendships?