fiction · YA

Book Review: Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

I don’t remember how Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson (Bloomsbury, 2017) ended up on my TBR. Likely, it was from another book blogger (thanks, whoever you are!), because I had three of her books on there- one down, two to go! The other two are available at my library; I’m pretty sure at least one of them is available only in ebook form- which is totally fine, but I just don’t get to the ebooks as quickly as I do the paper copies. Which is odd; I love ebooks and reading on my kindle, but I guess I enjoy the trip to the library and being able to see that new stack of books even more. 😉

Jade is a Black student at a nearly-all-white private school, a situation that has provided her with a great education, but which has made for some uncomfortable situations, and about which she often feels guilty when she’s hanging out with her neighborhood friends. So often, the opportunities she’s offered at this school feel…demeaning. Like they’re not seeing Jade for who she is, but just someone to help so that someone else can feel good about themselves. It’s not great.

The new program Jade’s been invited to be part of, Woman to Woman, fits into this category. Her new mentor, Maxine, is Black, but she’s privileged in ways that Jade has never been, and that makes it hard to relate to her. The program, if completed, comes with a promise of a college scholarship, but at times, Jade’s not sure it’s worth suffering the microaggressions, the assertions that girls like her need to be different, that who they are isn’t enough already. But Jade comes to understand that there are lessons to be learned in every situation, that her voice is powerful and ready to be used, and that by using it, she can make changes for herself and for other girls that stretch far into the future.

I really enjoyed this. Jade knows herself well, which is always great in a YA character (I sure didn’t have that kind of confidence when I was young, but I was also wracked with anxiety and depression, sooooooo). She just needs a gentle nudge here and there and to be pointed in the right direction. A little encouragement goes a long, long way, and this story is a good reminder not only of that, but of what teenagers are capable of. I really wish our society weren’t so willing to write them off as ridiculous and unformed, because honestly, teenagers are pretty darn awesome.

Something I really enjoyed about this book was Jade as an artist. Her medium is collage, something I’ve come to enjoy after noticing how often it pops up in the children’s books I’ve read with my daughter (Victoria Kann of the Pinkalicious books and Eric Carle, may his memory be a blessing, are some popular ones, but I even noticed it in a nonfiction book we read yesterday). Jade used items like newspapers, with their painful headlines, and turned ugly things into beauty. This kept my brain working, trying to figure out what her pieces might look like. I draw from time to time, but collage is beyond my ability, but I really like the idea of a teenager viewing the world like this and expressing herself through this medium. I’m going to have to keep an eye on the local high school’s art shows when those start happening again, because I’d really enjoy seeing more of how kids like Jade see the world.

This is a quick read, but it leaves the reader with a lot to consider: how are you treating the disadvantaged kids in your life? As full people who have their own ideas and connections to the world, or as empty vessels to pour your own points of view into? What kind of microaggressions have you been responsible for, and how will you work to remedy that? I’m looking forward to reading the other books from Ms. Watson on my list, because, as always, I know I have a lot to learn, and she’s an excellent teacher.

Visit Renée Watson’s website here.

Follow her 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: Like No Other by Una LaMarche

A book list alerted me to the existence of Like No Other by Una LaMarche (Razorbill, 2014). Seriously, book lists: I love them so much, and they’re so hard on my TBR! But as I read the synopsis, I knew I had to read this one. It’s always such a joy discovering a book that’s right up your literary alley!

Devorah is a Hasidic Jewish teen from the Chabad-Lubavitch sect. Jaxon is a Black teen who lives just down the block, but their paths have never crossed- not until today, when Devorah’s sister is giving birth (prematurely!) in the hospital in the middle of a Category 3 hurricane. Her parents are upstate and unable to be there; her sister’s husband is unable to be with her due to religious rules, so Devorah’s the support person. When she goes to look for her brother-in-law but instead gets trapped in the powerless elevator, she meets Jaxon. Despite Devorah’s religious community’s strict rules on never being alone with someone of the opposite sex, Jaxon immediately puts her at ease, and after they’re freed, she can’t stop thinking about him, and he can’t stop thinking about her.

They’re not allowed to be together- Devorah’s not even supposed to be speaking to him, and dating is strictly forbidden- but Devorah and Jaxon forge an attempt at a relationship, while Devorah begins questioning why everything is so forbidden to her, why college isn’t allowed, why her parents are planning to arrange her marriage to a complete stranger in two years.  Two kids, both pillars of their community, suddenly realize the need for more, and they’re out to find it despite what the very different worlds around them are saying.

Like No Other has as much tension bursting off of every page as any thriller out there. Devorah and Jaxon have to sneak to be together, and the fear of being caught is real. Devorah could be ostracized from her entire community; even beyond that, her siblings might be denied marriages because of the stain Devorah’s behavior leaves on the whole family if she’s caught. The stakes for Jaxon aren’t quite as high, but he’s still risking all the hard work he’s put into school the past few years; if his grades tank enough, he might be saying farewell to the chance at a scholarship. Ms. LaMarche’s portrayal of two kids willing to risk it all to be together is full of tension and the flutters of first-time love.

At times, I did feel as though Devorah acted out of character; her reversal from being a goody two-shoes into someone willing to risk her family’s standing in the community felt just a tiny bit far-fetched. I would’ve liked to have seen her question a little bit more before suddenly turning into someone ready to throw everything away and assuming her parents would be willing to have a rational discussion when she returned home. But other than that, this felt real and true-to-character. Jaxon’s rash decisions felt a little more understandable, as he’d been living in that world his whole life, whereas Devorah’s life had been smaller, more constrained, and she had never once stepped off the path before. They’re both good kids in every sense of the word, but I would have liked to see Jaxon learn a little more about Devorah’s community on his own, instead of just assuming her parents would eventually come around, something that only Devorah knew was impossible.

Content warning for physical assault and the racism that is unfortunately pervasive in parts of the Hasidic community. There’s some history here that the book glosses over: the Crown Heights riots took place in the early 90’s, though I’m not sure how many teens who live outside of this area are aware of what happened.

Like No Other is a tension-filled story of the highs and lows of first love, with the added fear of losing everything if that love is discovered. It’s a wonderful, edge-of-your-seat story, and I enjoyed every page.

Follow Una LaMarche on Twitter here.