Middle Grade Reading Challenge

It’s been a busy winter, but now I have time to blog about books again! I’ve joined MG Book Village’s middle grade book celebration this month. Every day in March, I’m going to post here and on twitter about a MG book that fits the day’s category. Please join in the fun!

ImageHere are my picks so far. As always, I’ll be focusing on books with a diversity angle.

Day 1 (March 1) Books that feature travel or a journey: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani, featuring a young refugee girl’s journey from Pakistan to India in 1947.

2. Deals with mental illness: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf. Set in Malaysia, featuring a teen protagonist  with OCD.

3. Want to read but still haven’t: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. What can I say?

4. Audiobook people should read: So…I’ve never ever heard an audiobook. But the obvious answer is a graphic novel, I’d think?

5. New release you are anticipating: Since I didn’t answer yesterday’s question, I’ll over-compensate now. I can’t wait for Three Keys, Kelly Yang’s sequel to the wonderful Front Desk. I’m also keen to read Quintessence by Jess Redman. And I’m totally waiting for Aru Shah and the Tree of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi. 

6. Book that had an unexpected twist: The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman. Everything about this book gave me the feels, but the twist at the end was simply outstanding.

7. LGBTQIAP representation: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. Such a clear-eyed, unflinching look at racism and homophobia and systemic inequality. TPI is about family, adventure, courage, and the hopefulness of being young. It’s also a great page-turner!

8. Non-fiction Book: The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba. Lovely story of a boy from Malawi who hacks a windmill to provide electricity to his village.

9. Shout out to your library: I love California’s public library system. My county lets us request books from all over the Bay Area, for free!

10. New Author for you: I discovered Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor last year, and have re-read it twice already. It’s become one of my go-to comfort reads.

11. Current Shelfie: It’s all ebooks right now. No library visits with our lockdown!

12. Book you wish existed: This one has me stumped. We live in a rich MGlit world right now!

13. Book that needs more love: The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami. An Indian American girl from Maryland moves to small-town India, where she meets her favorite Bollywood star. Such a gentle, funny, wise book!

14. Your most reread/loved book: An impossible challenge, to pick just one! But…I’m going with Calvin and Hobbes. Endless joy with every reread.

15. Satisfying series ending book: I love The Other Wind, the last book of The Earthsea series by the incomparable Ursula Le Guin.

16. Shoutout to your indie store: I love Pegasus Books and Moe’s Books, both in Berkeley.

17. Book published in your country: A very ambiguous tag for those of us who have multiple country affiliations. I’ll go with the place I grew up, and pick Malgudi Days by R.K.Narayan.

18. Book out of your comfort zone: I’m picking a novel that’s a prose poem: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Splendid, triumphant, edgy story of a young Vietnamese refugee girls’s struggle to adapt to Alabama.

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I’ll add to this post daily.  Please participate if you are on Twitter and help readers discover great new MG books! Don’t forget to post your recommendations with the tag ##MGBookMarch

Rebel Voices by Louise Kay Stewart

Vote. Vote. Vote.

Rebel Voices: The Global Fight for Women’s Equality and the Right to Vote is a slim picture book that depicts the story of women’s voting rights. It’s a narrative that will inspire and madden you by turns.  The author presents the history of suffrage movements in various countries in the chronological order that their women gained the vote. Yay, New Zealand–the first country to give women the right to vote, in 1893; Saudi Arabia joined the club in, um, 2015. And some surprises too–Switzerland gave women the vote in 1971!  And it’s sad (but perhaps not surprising) that many former colonies who’d gone through long painful struggles to cast off their oppressors didn’t give their women the vote after gaining freedom. Like Nigeria, which rid itself of British rule in 1960–and denied women their voting rights till 1976. Boo.

The book is for the 11-14 crowd, and is filled with tales of strength and (not-too-graphic) suffering, of women protesting in the cold and rain, losing their employment, being imprisoned, beaten, and force-fed with tubes shoved down their throats.  We learn about the cruelty of the men who were firmly convinced that law, logic, and the good lord were on their side, and that often, they cast their opposition as respect and care. One said that women’s hands were “not for holding ballot boxes, but for kisses.” I can hear a room of 12-yr-olds going YUCK.

Despite the protests by women (and the men who supported them), those in power were often obdurate; in several cases, it was large-scale societal changes caused by WWI or II that made it possible for women to get the vote.  I’m reminded of the Assata Shakur quote–“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” Furthermore,  the book omits to mention that plenty of women too opposed universal suffrage, believing that the women voters would be violating gender norms and god’s will, and  worked sincerely to support the patriarchy and deny themselves voting rights.

Rebel Voices presents a solid case for moving to New Zealand–there’s the LOTR landscapes, a cool prime minister, and a political system that granted equal voting rights to Maori women and white settler women right from the start. WOW. In most other countries, white women suffragists eagerly threw their sisters of color under the bus. Of course South Africa gave white women the vote in 1930 and black men and women the vote in 1994, but consider the US, where white women gained the right to vote in 1920 while black women in some states had to wait till 1965. Australia: 1902 and 1962 for white and Aboriginal women respectively. As for Canada, white women received the vote in 1918, but “Asian women and men were left out and were not included until after the Second World War. Indigenous women and men living on reserves — and most everywhere else as well — were viewed as wards of the Crown under the Indian Act, and were excluded from the vote across Canada, except in rare cases, until 1960.”  Rebel Voices doesn’t mention this facet of Canadian suffrage. Hmmm.

Despite its omissions, Rebel Voices would make a good gift if you are looking to nudge a  pre-teen towards political awareness–it’s short, fun, and features lovely illustrations to accompany preach-free text. And being cognizant of the history of suffrage has seldom felt more important. I was born in the 1970s, and the struggles for voting rights for women often seemed like ancient history. But over the past decades, I’ve grown to realize that the school of thought which manifested as opposition to women’s suffrage never went away; many who oppose(d) women’s rights are currently flourishing in positions of power.

Vote. And if you’re in America: vote today!

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Rebel Voices was published in November 2018 by Crocodile Books. Thanks to the publishers for the review copy!

Meet Yasmin by Saadia Faruqi

Books about inclusion and valuing difference have never been more important, but how do you get kids to absorb the good stuff when they’re unwilling to be overtly educated?(Okay, maybe it’s only my kid. Anyway.) Fortunately, many kidlit authors know how to inform and persuade without permitting a hint of didacticism to creep into their storytelling. Saadia Faruqi is an author, speaker, and interfaith activist based in Houston, and her book Meet Yasmin (Picture Window Books, August 2018) features an adorable Pakistani American second grader who makes the case for inclusion over the course of four stories, all presented as a slice of her life.

While each story tackles a problem, the conflicts don’t arise from Yasmin’s cultural identity–the plots are universally relatable. Yasmin faces challenges that every kid has gone through, such as getting momentarily lost in a crowded venue, worried that her entry in an art competition isn’t good enough, feeling bored and so on. And while Yasmin draws a map or builds with K’nex, we learn about her family and her background through narrative detail.

There’s some very clever writing going here, where the cultural information is prominent but never obtrusive, and Faruqi never resorts to platitudes or heavy-handed lessons. For instance, when Yasmin is heading to the Farmer’s Market with her mom, she can “hardly wait as Mama got her hijab and her purse.” Faruqi thus demystifies and contextualizes cultural markers without ever resorting to overt explanations. And kids unfamiliar with a hijab have a handy illustration to look at too!

Yasmin is a young seven–she holds her mom’s hand as she walks to the Farmer’s Market, and puts on a fashion show with her grandma. Each story is brimming with heart and charm. The illustrations by Hatem Aly nobly hold up their end — Yasmin’s large, twinkly eyes, and her tulip nose are the very definition of winsome.

And finally: Meet Yasmin is populated by the most diverse cast ever. Yasmin’s grandpa is disabled, her teacher is white, the famous television artist Yasmin looks at for inspiration is black, her friend Emma builds a church, Principal Nguyen judges the art contest, and so on. No overt references are made to identity — it’s all winningly presented as a part of the fabric of the world Yasmin inhabits.

 

In sum, Meet Yasmin, with its charming plot, subtle message of inclusion and diversity, and flat-out adorable protagonist would be a wonderful addition to any 5-8-year-old’s reading. May this book find a home in every second-grade classroom library in America!