fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein

How often do you learn about new books on Twitter? I have a hard time keeping up with alllllllll of the book news that comes across my feed, but I learned of a new one last week. To make a long story short, someone I follow was asking her followers to introduce themselves, and in the comments, M. Evan Wolkenstein responded with a few sentences that included info about his book, Turtle Boy (Delacorte Press, 2020). I looked it up and the premise sounded amazing, so I happily added it to my TBR. And, as it turns out, I needed a debut book by a new author for my parenting group’s reading challenge, and this fit the bill perfectly! I was seriously so excited to start this, and boy, does this middle grade gem of a book deliver.

Seventh grader Will Levine is having a hard time. A facial deformity, set to be corrected by a scary surgery later in the year, has earned him the nickname Turtle Boy by school bullies. In an ironic twist, turtles (and all reptiles, really, but especially turtles) really are his thing; the turtles he’s captured from the wetland behind the school (yes, he knows it’s wrong and illegal) are a welcome refuge from friend drama, the mean kids at school, and his own anxieties. In preparation for his bar mitzvah later in the year, Will’s rabbi suggests that he get some of his volunteer hours by visiting RJ, a teenager hospitalized due to end-stage mitochondrial disease. Will’s terrified; his dad died when he was young and hospitals scare him, but he begrudgingly complies.

RJ is a bit of a tough nut to crack at first, but it doesn’t take too long before he and Will begin making a deep connection and Will starts helping him complete his bucket list. Soon, Will is sneaking turtles into the hospital, performing live on stage, riding scary roller coasters, and navigating his friendships with greater maturity, all thanks to RJ’s influence and encouragement. The grief, when it happens, hits hard and strong, but the growth Will has made during his brief friendship with RJ, along with his deeper connections with everyone around him and his newfound confidence and faith in himself, will guide him through.

This book, this book, you guys! Five gorgeous bright shining stars. It’s raw, it’s pure emotion, it’s gorgeous and will take you right back to the insecurities and possibilities of being thirteen and in middle school. Will is anxious, fearful, lacking confidence, unsure of himself, and ready to run at the first sign of adversity, something I would have been able to relate to in my early (and late) adolescence (and, uh, adulthood too, let’s be real). His character arc throughout this book is strong and inspiring without ever dipping into unrealistic territory- his grief is real, but his newfound ability to later on draw strength from his memories and from those around him and himself seems right on par for what one could expect from a young teenager who’s put in the work- often reluctantly! – to improve his life. I so appreciate middle grade and YA that is on this level of realistic. Every character in this book seems like they’re real people, like I could hop in my car and drive up to Wisconsin to visit them. It’s utter perfection.

His close friends, Shirah and Max, are perfectly written- their flaws, the disagreements they all have, their arguments, are so spot-on for seventh grade. Mr. Wolkenstein obviously remembers the strife of middle school well and has been able to infuse this novel with the memories of his experience (does anyone out there remember middle school fondly? It’s such a rotten time in life, isn’t it?). Add in Will’s fears over his upcoming surgery, his dealing with his feelings about his father, his turtles, the work he’s putting into his bar mitzvah, and RJ’s friendship, and this is a novel that has a lot going on but that manages to balance it all perfectly. RJ’s illness and Will’s fears about hospitals and his dad’s sudden death when he was young are all related; the turtles fit in here, too, as do Will’s sense of shame over how he looks and his lack of confidence and the drama with his friends. There are no straggler plot points that don’t seem to flow well with the rest of the story; everything is interrelated and ties together nicely, something that I thought was lacking in My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. Will is a deeply sympathetic character, and I think every reader will find something to relate to in him. (Plus there’s great Jewish representation in this book, which I always appreciate!)

This would make a great parent/kid read-aloud or parent-kid book club selection. It’s a great choice for anyone who has ever felt left out or alone (so, like, everyone!), anyone struggling with confidence or grief. I would love to see this on middle school reading lists, because there are so many issues in here that the middle school crowd can relate to and that would make for excellent in-class discussion. I have nothing but the highest of praises for this masterful middle grade novel that brought me to tears several times. Beautifully written, and I look forward to seeing what else Mr. Wolkenstein has up his sleeve in the future, because Turtle Boy just won the Sydney Taylor Book Award for Middle Grade! An auspicious beginning for a debut author. Well done, Mr. Wolkenstein!

Visit M. Evan Wolkenstein’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

I first learned of Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett (Celadon Books, 2020) from my friend Sibyl, who came to my parenting group’s book forum to tell us all about a new memoir written about a man’s aftermath of being raised in a cult. I was intrigued, but kind of forgot about it for a bit (I think there was a lot going on at the time) until I started seeing it pop up on Twitter, and that’s when I added it to my TBR. And since one of the challenges from my parenting group’s reading challenge this year is to read a book recommended by another member, I turned to Hollywood Park. Whew, this is a sad one.

Mikel Jollett and his brother Tony were born into the Synanon cult, which started as a drug rehab and was good until it wasn’t, as everyone in the book said. (Big shout-out here to the podcast Cults, on Parcast; this is where I had learned about Synanon a few years back. I hadn’t heard of it before. If you’re not familiar with Synanon and you want to read this book, I highly suggest you listen to their episodes on this cult before diving in.) His parents, who were no longer together, escaped when Mikkel was five and Tony was about six. You may wonder why the cult affected them so deeply the rest of their lives, since they were so young, and this is because by the time Mikel and Tony were infants, Synanon had a policy of separating children and parents, because in the cult’s way of thinking, children shouldn’t have parents, they should be ‘children of the Universe.’ Thus, Mikel and Tony grew up, like other kids in Synanon, being raised in what seemed like those awful Romanian orphanages of the 1990’s under Nicolae Ceaușescu, unable to form attachments to other people. It gets worse from there.

Their mother has either borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder and spends their childhood gaslighting them, denying their feelings and experiences, and making everything about herself. Poverty abounds in their household, and their mother brings a parade of men through the house, trying to form the family of her dreams. Both boys turn to substance abuse to cope with the dysfunction; Mikel manages to escape this early on, but Tony falls into full-blown addiction. With a massive amount of hard work and therapy, Mikel and Tony manage to forge healthy lives, but the drama along the way is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

My goodness. This isn’t *quite* at the levels of dysfunction seen in The Glass Castle or Educated, but it’s just as raw and painful. Mikel’s father, though rough around the edges, had his heart in the right place and was an effective parent, and his stepmother Bonnie is an absolute gem, so it’s not all tension and pain, but the chapters with his mother are…they’re rough reads. She’s dismissive of everything Mikel and Tony feel, everything they experience, and won’t anyone think of how hard this (this being anything from leaving Synanon to the death of someone Mikel loves) is on HER??? She’s the kind of person you just want to grab by the shoulders and shake in order to force some sense into her and get her out of her own head. I have a feeling she’s going around these days, talking about how hard the publication of this book has been on her, and I can’t say I have any sympathy.

This is also a story of addiction and the toll it takes, and how it’s passed down the line, how we continue to act out our family traumas so that the next generation repeats them. Both Mikel and his brother have taken the steps to break this chain, but not without some damage already caused. It’s a painful read and may be even more painful if you’re struggling with addiction or you love someone who is or has struggled. It might also be a tough read for anyone who has lived with a narcissistic parent. But it might also be enlightening, seeing what Mikel and Tony go through, and how hard they work to rebuild healthy lives for themselves. Take into account what you’re ready for before you read, and be kind to yourself. Recovery of any sorts is a long, difficult process.

Hollywood Park is a painful story of growing up amongst massive dysfunction coming at the author from nearly every direction, but it’s also one of growth and triumph for those who are willing to put in the work, arduous and challenging and daunting though it may be. I flew through this one, but I’ve heard from others that they didn’t care for Mikel Jollett’s style. It’s not an easy read, emotionally-speaking, but it’s worth it. His life is a fascinating story, and I flew through this book. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Follow Mikel Jollett on Twitter.

nonfiction

Book Review: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

What do you know about Chicago? The Sears Tower (it’ll never be the Willis Tower, dammit!), the Magnificent Mile, Lake Shore Drive, our sports teams, corrupt politicians…and violence. Maybe Chicago’s violence was the first thing to come to your mind. But whatever you think you know, the story most likely goes deeper, and one of the very best people out there telling the story of the devastation suffered by Chicago’s Black and brown communities is journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz. He’s probably best know for There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (if you haven’t read that, I highly recommend it). I’ve admired him for years, and I was excited to read his latest, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Nan A. Talese, 2019). There aren’t a whole lot of people out there writing books about Chicago, but Alex Kotlowitz’s masterful writing and storytelling is the equivalent of a thousand lesser authors.

An American Summer begins with Pharoah (not a misspelling), one of the boys profiled in There Are No Children Here, giving an update on his tumultuous life. Mr. Kotlowitz then delves deeply into Chicago’s most violent communities, expanding upon the stories that make headlines, the ones people blow off because they read ‘gang member’ and immediately dismiss the victim/s as unworthy of sympathy. The story, as always, goes far deeper than that. These are real people, loved by their family, friends, and community; they’re parents, friends, employees, students. They’re people who have spent the vast majority of their lives being traumatized over and over again by the violent deaths of their loved ones and community members, and being dismissed by the world around them as not worth caring about. The phrase ‘hurt people hurt people’ comes to mind often when reading their stories, and while it’s difficult to grasp this level of violence, this book illuminates what daily life looks like for the people who live it.

Alex Kotlowitz paints pictures of bleak, isolated neighborhoods full of run-down homes, often abandoned, full of bullet holes and grieving families. These communities aren’t without hope, though it’s occasionally difficult to find. There are high schoolers who have witnessed multiple deaths by gunshot- of friends, of family members, of strangers, often right in front of them. These are entire neighborhoods of people with the worst forms of PTSD and no hope for treatment, because unemployment- and thus lack of health insurance and an income high enough to pay for regular therapy and medicine- is so high that comprehensive treatment is often out of reach.

An American Summer is nonfiction that reads like a heartbreaking novel, but this is all tragically real. I could get into my car and be in some of these neighborhoods in less than half an hour. The massive difference between their lives, their neighborhoods, and mine is unfathomable, and it should never, ever have become like this. These people deserve so much better than what racist America has afforded them. They need jobs, fully funded education, healthcare (including comprehensive medical care)- the same thing the rest of America needs, but the situation is desperate here, and no one makes this clearer than Alex Kotlowitz.

If you think you know Chicago, read Alex Kotlowitz’s work. He’ll show you another side, the people behind the headlines, the trauma lived there every day. It’ll break your heart in a thousand different ways.

Visit Alex Kotlowitz’s website here.

anthology · fiction · nonfiction

Book Review: How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited by Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert

So, I was a weird kid. (I’m sure you’re shocked.) I became fascinated with foreign languages on a Brownies field trip to the library at age seven (somewhere I was already intimately familiar with!). The librarian took us on a tour of the children’s section, pointing out where the fiction section was, and then letting us know what the nonfiction section held. She pointed out the foreign language section and I was immediately intrigued. ‘There are other languages???’ I remember thinking. A copy of a learn-to-speak-French book came home with me that day (the very first French sentence I ever learned to say: Où sont les toilettes? Super useful!), and I’ve been fascinated ever since, digging briefly into Japanese as a tween before studying Spanish, French, and German in high school, studying French in college (and marrying a native speaker!), dabbling in sign language here and there throughout my life, and picking up Norwegian as an adult. All this to say that a copy of Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish came home with me from the library when I was around eleven or twelve, which may have seemed weird if I had opened with that, but now that you know my history, eh, maybe not so much. I’ve always thought Yiddish was a cool language, and so I was glad my library had a copy of How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish, edited Ilan Stavans and Josh Lambert (Restless Books, 2020).

This 500+ page anthology is a quilt, a little bit of everything for the Yiddish-curious reader. Essays, interviews, poetry, short stories, excerpts from novels. There are discussions of modern-day Yiddish, trips back to the shtetls that haven’t existed for decades, glimpses of a way of life long gone, and both optimism and pain. There are stories of shame and devastation, but also of triumph, of Aaron Lansky’s rescuing of millions of Yiddish books, of poetry so beautiful that I only wish it were better known (Emily Dickinson, eat your heart out!). If one format doesn’t interest you, the next piece will likely be entirely different, which makes for a really interesting read.

I was expecting something different, however; I had thought this was more a book about Yiddish and not just occasionally about Yiddish and then a lot of Yiddish-writing-translated-to-English. That’s not a bad thing, just different than what I was expecting. I was also expecting it to be entirely nonfiction, instead of including a lot of fiction and poetry. Again, not bad, just different.

It was also fun to see familiar faces in the book. I’ve known about Aaron Lansky for ages; his book is on my TBR and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve read Ilan Stavans before; Resurrecting Hebrew is a fascinating look on how the Hebrew language was brought back from being almost solely a textual language to the fully functional national language of Israel. And while reading the introduction, which spoke of how translated pieces were included in this anthology, I thought, “Hmmm, I wonder…” and I flipped through the index in the back. And sure enough, the wife of one of the rabbis who taught my Intro to Judaism class has a translated piece in the book! She’s a Yiddish professor. Small world, eh? 😊

Even if you’re not super interested in languages or Yiddish as a language, this book almost has the feel of reading a magazine, with all of its different pieces and formats. Reading it kept me engaged throughout its 512 pages, which is no easy feat!

Follow Ilan Stavans on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth

Ever since reading Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan in my early 20’s, I’ve been fascinated by prison and have read about it often. And with prisons being the largest supplier of mental health care in the United States, I knew I needed to read Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth (Basic Books, 2018) when I learned about it- partly because of this fascination, and partly for semi-personal reasons.

In Insane, Ms. Roth details the challenges the prison system faces being the provider of mental healthcare for its millions of prisoners. Funding is short, so providers- whom it’s difficult to hire for various reasons, including safety and lower-than-civilian-jobs salaries- are constantly lacking. Therapy is challenging when it can only be given out in the open, with no privacy. Fewer providers mean services don’t get rendered in time; meds don’t get handed out in time; diagnoses don’t get made for months, sometimes years. Officers get little-to-no training in how to deal with severely mentally ill prisoners. Overcrowding exacerbates symptoms and strains already strained resources. If you’re unaware of just how overburdened the prison system is in regards to mental healthcare, you’ll have a pretty good idea after reading this book.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t places trying, and Ms. Roth points that out throughout the book. It’s just that this is a monumental task, and the country does almost next to nothing in order to keep these mentally ill patients treated so that they don’t end up in prison in the first place. (Our garbage healthcare system, tied to employment, shares a lot of this blame, as does the lack of therapists and psychiatrists- and I’d say the problem of affordable higher education is also an issue there.)

This is a deeply distressing, heavy book, full of information that I wish everyone knew and cared about. We’re all just one slightly different brain chemical away from ending up as a patient on the wrong side of the law- and that’s if we’re lucky, because far too often in the US, mentally ill people end up being shot by the police. A dear friend of mine had a son who suffered from schizophrenia and one of her greatest fears was always that he would end up being shot by the police during an episode. I learn so much about mental illness from her, and I think of her son and her continued fight to improve mental health care in this country every time I read a book like this. The two of them are a continued reason why I pick up these kinds of books; what Ms. Roth is doing, shining a light on the conditions faced by inmates who are often incarcerated due to the affects of their illnesses, is so necessary, and it’s such a service to the mental health community.

Insane isn’t an easy read. It’s a tough subject matter, and a lot of what she talks about will probably scare you or make you uncomfortable. It should. But you should use this information to become better informed and a better advocate for the mentally ill. Because stigma is bullshit and mental illness is illness- like cancer, or heart disease, diabetes, or epilepsy. It deserves research, resources, treatment options- treatment BEFORE tragedy, as my friend Laura says. And mentally ill people deserve dignity and respect, which Ms. Roth definitely affords them all throughout this remarkable book.

Visit Alisa Roth’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay

I think I discovered What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) from a book list last year. A letter she had written (and published) to her transgender son on his fifth birthday had gone viral, and this is the book that sprang out of that experience. I don’t remember seeing her letter when everyone was talking about it, but I knew that I had to read her and her family’s story once I read the premise of this book.

What We Will Become skips back and forth in time, detailing the struggles of parenting Em, Ms. Lemay’s middle child, and detailing her own life journey, growing up in a strict Orthodox home with an emotionally distant mother. Em is difficult to parent almost from the beginning, moody and temperamental, unhappy in her own skin. She’s two when she begins to insist she’s a boy; Mimi and husband Joe aren’t sure what to make of it, but they do their best to work with and around the challenges Em presents. Mimi’s childhood provides a similar story of struggle, of desperately trying to fit into a world who only had one role for her, of never feeling enough for her school or her mother.

As Em’s difficulties compound, Mimi realizes the meaning of everything she’s gone through in the past, of all the problems she’s dealt with and faced down, and how they’ve all lead her here, to be this child’s mother, to be the mother this child needs. And thus a boy named Jacob is born, confident where he never used to be, happy and giggly and authentically himself. It’s a story of transformation born from struggle, but one where everyone ends up exactly where they’re meant to.

This is a truly beautiful and extremely honest story of listening to your heart to know where you belong, and using the skills learned from there to listen to others’ hearts as well. It’s bravery, a story of having the courage to know when to walk away and when to stand and fight. Ms. Lemay took what she learned from her childhood- about the kind of person she wanted to be and the kind of parent she needed but didn’t have, and turned that into the kind of parent her son needed her to be. That’s extraordinary.

Her story of growing up fascinated me. Her mother was extremely emotionally distant and very religious; Mimi did her best to fit in and succeeded for a while as a teenager but then realized there wasn’t a place for her in that world. She left, wounded by her relationship with her mother, but with enough tools to carve herself a place in the outside world, one where she’s built a beautiful life for herself and her children. This is a story of transformation, of parents and children, and what not to do, but how to learn and grow from that until you figure out what TO do. I admire Ms. Lemay so much for that.

Such a beautiful book and a testament to how children can grow and thrive, as Jacob has done, when allowed to be who they are. May we continue to bend and shape the world into one that will always love him as fully as his parents do.

Follow Mimi Lemay on Facebook here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

fiction

Book Review: Such a Perfect Wife by Kate White

I think I’ve said here about a million times that I’m not much of a thriller reader. I don’t care for that edge-of-your-seat tension, I’m not into reading about murder all that much, just…eh. But I’ll pick one up occasionally, and I grabbed Such a Perfect Wife by Kate White (Harper Paperbacks, 2019) from a used book sale two summers ago (which means the person who donated it must have bought it, read it, and passed it on fairly quickly!). I think it’s important to keep trying things I don’t necessarily love; it’s how I learned to finally enjoy olives in my 30’s!

Bailey Weggins has been assigned to write about the disappearance of Shannon Blaine, a mother of two from upstate New York who vanished while jogging. Hoping to impress her boss at the online crime magazine she’s writing for, Bailey throws herself headfirst into the case, interviewing everyone she can elbow her way in front of, but there are a lot of suspicious characters right off the bat: the slick husband (because it’s always the husband, right?), the jealous, less-pretty sister, the deacon who brushes her off constantly, the secretive best friend, a fellow reporter, the retired police chief. Bailey’s got her work cut out for her.

But not long after she begins digging, Bailey receives a phone call from someone who provides a tip that changes everything and turns the investigation from a search-and-rescue into the hunt for a serial killer. Everything is suspicious and the pieces don’t click together until it might be too late. Will Bailey make it out alive in order to report the truth?

Despite being about, you know, murder and death and other awful stuff, this was kind of a fun read. I’m TERRIBLE at figuring out who-dun-it (I’m also terrible at logic puzzles, thankyouverymuch; I would make an awful detective), so I had fun poring over the clues that Bailey dug up and trying to figure out what, if anything, they meant, and what was real and what was a red herring. I suspect everyone- I think I’ve only ever figured out the culprit in maybe two murder books!- so the constant guessing kept me on my toes through the whole book.

The setting here, Lake George in upstate New York, is pretty great. The isolated town where the story is set in the off-season gives the book a creepy feel, and I appreciated the several references to The Last of the Mohicans, which was also set in the area. The lake, while not featuring heavily in the plot, is described enough to nearly become a character of its own, which was kind of neat. The abandoned Catholic retreat center was suuuuuper creepy, straight out of every horror movie that has ever existed (and of course I was screaming, “DON’T GO DOWN THERE!!!!” as I read the parts where it appeared in the book, but after living through a pandemic and seeing all the stupid things that people do that make no sense, I wasn’t surprised that she went down there, because of course she did).

So. Fun book. It’s part of a series, though it’s fine as a standalone; I only occasionally got the feeling that I had missed out on some prior information, but none of it made a difference to the rest of the story as a whole. I don’t know that it turned me into a thriller reader, but I’ll keep picking them up now and then.

Visit Kate White’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

Slightly different kind of book review today. Not as much of a review as a recommendation, and a plea.

I’ve had Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Bold Type Books, 2016) on my kindle for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Which made it a perfect choice for my parenting group’s reading challenge pick for a book that’s been sitting around on our shelves (or digital shelves) for a while. I’m glad my copy was digital; had I been able to flip through a paper copy, I would have been intimated both by the size (592 pages!) and the academic writing style. Instead, I clicked on the icon on my kindle and dove in.

This is a history of racism and racist ideas in the United States from the beginning of the country up until the present (or at least until the book was published in 2016). Whatever you think you know about racism in this country, it’s worse, and this book pulls no punches. That historical figure you always admired? Racist, and disgustingly so. That president you considered a decent guy? Yeah, he said some horrible things and signed off on policies that mirrored those things. History looks a little different than the stars-and-stripes-waving rhetoric that American grade school textbooks push, and if you haven’t really looked into history beyond that, you need to. This book is a good place to start.

This book is extremely comparable in tone and depth to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so don’t go in expecting an easy, relaxing read; this is a book you work for. There were sentences and paragraphs I needed to reread to make sure I was understanding them fully. There were times when I paused and looked things up online to get some extra information. And on nearly every page, there’s a story that made me want to hurl the book across the room in a total rage. How are people like this? Why? How are they still like this? This book doesn’t answer those questions, but it does provide a fuller picture of the suffering that people who look like me have caused to Black people, and it provides impetus for doing better NOW.

I know over the summer this was free as an audiobook on Spotify; I don’t know about now, but most libraries should have it available. I don’t normally make the suggestion of audiobooks, since I myself don’t listen to them (not enough quiet time here, plus at least for fiction, my brain tends to wander), but if those are your jam, I highly, highly recommend this on audiobook as an easier way of making it through the book, because this is an information-packed, intense read, and I so want everyone to read this book. It’s 2020, people. We should have been beyond racism a loooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnng time ago, and instead, we’re still…here. We have to do better. And we can.

Start here. Start with this book. And then go out and do better and be better.

Visit Ibram X. Kendi’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · middle grade

Book Review: My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman

I’ve seen My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman (Harry N. Abrams, 2013) around on various book lists, and so it’s been sitting on my TBR for a bit. Not too long, but long enough that I was getting antsy. I’m always on the lookout for Jewish-themed books geared toward any age, and it’s an extra bonus when the main character is Jewish and; in this case, Jewish and Indian. And that cover- the designs, the colors, the super-adorable model! My library didn’t have a physical copy, but they did have an ebook- all the better for me right now, since the library is only open for pickups of previously ordered material. I’m planning on doing a lot of tackling of the ebooks on my TBR (which is exactly why I’ve been saving those, and why I read so many physical copies while the library was open!).

Tara Feinstein is the daughter of a Jewish-by-birth dad and an Indian-by-birth-and-Jewish-by-choice mother. She’s coming up on her bat mitzvah and has made the decision to go through with the ceremony, only to find out that it wasn’t actually all that much of a choice to begin with. Hmph. Things are a little complicated for Tara right now. She’s questioning a lot of things- her beliefs and what they mean, what being of mixed heritage means, her friendships with Rebecca and Ben-o (who may want to be more than friends, but Tara’s not sure), her enemies…middle school is full of changes.

As her ceremony draws nearer, Tara learns to navigate her family and friend relationships with maturity and grace, occasionally making foibles, but coming out stronger in the end. It’s all about balance, and there’s room for all of her heritage on the bimah.

There’s a lot to like in this book. Tara is sweet, and both sides of her lively family made for an interesting read. I loved the multicultural aspects and the blending of the two families and cultures (and man, I wish there were recipes!). I love that there’s another option on the shelves for young Jews of color to see themselves represented (more of this, please!). And there were a few issues briefly touched on that introduced some serious subjects to a younger crowd in a way that wasn’t too intense (no spoilers here, sorry!).

However, I did feel like the story lacked a bit of direction and occasionally went all over the place. There are a lot of plot lines about friendships and friend drama and family drama with various family members and school drama and enemy drama and boy drama and clothing drama, and after a while it got a little exhausting. I feel like the story would’ve been stronger if there had been less drama and more focus on the bat mitzvah and Tara incorporating both sides of her heritage into this tradition. With so many issues, the story felt scattered and not as tight as it could be. Sarah Darer Littman’s Confessions of a Closet Catholic is a good example of a middle-grade novel that addresses faith but maintains focus better and doesn’t get bogged down by trying to be too much at once.

I did enjoy this, but I had hoped to love it, and only ended up liking it. I did, however, walk away with a craving for all of the food mentioned in the book, especially the souped-up matzoh ball soup mentioned late in the book!

Visit Paula J. Freedman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017) has been on my radar for years, but I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. And it made its way into my home and onto my bookshelf last summer (thank you again, awesome used book sale), but I still hadn’t gotten to it- see the importance of reading the books you own? Those books don’t do us any good if they just sit there serving as décor. I picked it up as my third book of the year and finished it on the third day of the year. It’s a fast read that packs a major emotional wallop.

Justyce is one of the few Black kids at his private prep school. He’s been watching as more and more Black men and teenagers are shot by police officers around the country, and things are tense at his own school, where his white classmates insist that racism died out long ago. Justyce, who knows that’s not true after his own brush with police, begins writing a series of letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., trying to work out his feelings and figure out how to be like him.

But things escalate faster than Justyce could have ever imagined, and suddenly his best friend is dead in an incident that mirrors those he’s seen splashed across the headlines. The spotlights are on him, blaming him, digging up everything in his past that could possibly be construed as thug-like, and Justyce needs to figure out who he is, what he believes in, and who he wants to be, in a world that seems determined to decide all of that for him.

What a devastating book. There’s a lot in here that should enrage you- racism, both casual and blatant; massive miscarriages of justice, murder- and the rest will leave you feeling…sad. Depressed. Hopeful that change is still possible, but incredulous that there are still so many people out there who don’t get it, don’t want to get it, and who are actively opposed to anyone else getting it. I see this every day in the comments sections of social media pages in my very white hometown, populated by people who have never lived anywhere other than blindingly white areas and who haven’t bothered to expand their worldview beyond that one tiny midwestern town. These people scare the crap out of me and I know it’s on me to reach them, but I don’t know how to reach people so determined to hate. I’ll keep trying.

Ms. Stone raises a lot of excellent questions in this book, questions to live by that came up in Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: if nothing were to change, what kind of person would you want to be? We don’t have to be in perfect circumstances to still live in a way that brings honor to ourselves and the world around us- even to a world that doesn’t deserve it, because we still do. Heavy questions here with answers that will be different for everyone and that will probably change throughout our lives.

I feel like this is a book I’ll be processing for a long time, that I’ll return to in my mind when yet another Black person’s life becomes a hashtag and a headline. When the pandemic is over, there’s a local group I’m planning on getting involved with that is working to address these issues, and this novel has only furthered my commitment to that. Would that one day, these books that tell the stories of tragedies that didn’t have to be will no longer be necessary.

If you’ve been on the fence about reading Dear Martin, this is your sign to pick the book up. It’s painful and deeply upsetting, but that’s the reality of where we are as a society in the US, and it’s not something any of us should look away from. Read it, feel every last bit of it, and then do what you can to be part of the solution every day of your life.

Visit Nic Stone’s website here.

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