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.

history · nonfiction

Book Review: Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor

I want to say that I learned about Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor (Harry N. Abrams, 2020) from one of the emails Book Riot sends out, maybe the one about nonfiction books? I might be wrong about that, though. But I do know that reading the description of the book had me flying to put it on my TBR. I’d never heard of the Green Book before, and that seemed like a pretty big gap in my historical knowledge. I will admit to being a little intimidated when I picked this up in the library; it’s a thick, heavy book (lots of pictures, though!), and I worried about my ability to absorb so much information right now (pandemic brain is real, y’all), but I figured I could try it, and I’m *so* glad I did!

The Green Book, originally known as The Negro Motorist Green Book, was a travel guide for Black Americans, alerting them to businesses where it was safe to stop for gas, food, lodgings, and sightseeing and entertainment opportunities. Due to America’s fierce racism during the Jim Crow era and post-Jim Crow era (and now…) and the existence of sundown towns, Black travelers weren’t assured of receiving anything they might need on the road (not even roadside assistance), and thus the Green Book came into existence in order to help them travel across the country and eventually across the world.

It’s both wonderful that the Green Book existed and a tragedy that it had to. Ms. Taylor has traveled to and photographed many of the former Green Book sights. Many of them have been abandoned or are run down, but some are still up and running; all make for wonderful photographs. Interspersed throughout the text and photos are scans of actual pages from the various editions of the Green Book so that readers can see what the writing and advertisements looked like.

This is history. It’s inspiring, it’s shameful, it’s painful, it’s difficult but necessary read. There was a lot of new information for me in this book. I knew about sundown towns; I didn’t know how many of them existed in my own state, or that a guy I dated in high school lived in one. I knew that many businesses required Black customers to use a separate entrance; I hadn’t known that some business even required their Black customers to use a SEPARATE EMERGENCY EXIT ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME. Before learning about the existence of the Green Books, I hadn’t considered the discrimination faced by Black people as they traveled (it made sense as soon as I read the description of the book; it was just another aspect of racism creeping into all parts of life that, because of my privilege, I had never needed to consider). Like the book states, I’ll never look at travel the same way again.

There’s a section on Route 66 that discusses why Black travelers had such a difficult time on this road and why they don’t find it iconic as so many white Americans do. It’s eye-opening for the white reader, and saddening as well. We very obviously have multiple versions of the United States, and which version you have access to depends heavily on, and has always depended heavily on, your skin color. I hadn’t known much about this history of the road (I don’t know all that much about it anyway, although it ran through that high school boyfriend’s sundown town…), so this was pretty interesting to me. It’ll definitely change the way I look at those Route 66 signs people have…

This is an amazing book, and I can’t sing its praises highly enough. Ms. Taylor’s voice is educational and informative, but it’s never dry. It’s engaging in a way that will have you wishing you could sit in her classroom, sign up for her master class, and hang on her every word. I’m so very glad I read this book, because it clued me into a whole different experience of travel that I never knew about.

Visit Candacy A. Taylor’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.