Compulsion Review

October 30, 2011

By Heidi Ayarbe

Compulsion. Ten letters. Ten plus zero equals 10. Damn! Not good.

If you’re wondering what I’m raving about, wait until you dive into Compulsion and into the very chaotic head of seventeen-year-old Jake Martin, star soccer player and OCD sufferer.

Jake’s held prisoner by his compulsions – needing the time, or people’s words, or french fries or his steps and just about anything else countable to end up in a prime number. Having to do everything exactly the same every single day to keep the spiders from gnawing at his brain.

I’m a happy ending type of gal, but only when it warrants it. This didn’t warrant it. Mental illness is a complex problem that can’t be happy ended easily. Yet, I wanted Jake to have a happy ending so badly that I think I held my breath the last 20 pages of the book, hoping against hope he would.

I know, I know this is total opposite of how I felt with Leverage. And God only knows the characters in Leverage went through enough to deserve their pat ending. Still, Jake’s story is heart-wrenching. I needed him to catch a break.

This story could have easily been from the perspective of a kid who chooses to lurk in the shadows because of their disorder. You’d almost expect that since the compulsions are so intense, the assumption would be everyone would notice just how odd this kid is.

But Jake is the star soccer player on whose shoulders winning the team’s third championship in a row rests. He’s popular by sheer force of his athletic prowess. So hiding his OCD is an exhausting routine. I was tired right along with him by book’s end.

Although Compulsion attempts to tag a trigger to Jake’s disorder, the reality is it’s clearly genetic. Jake’s mom exhibits severe symptoms of mental illness and his sister slightly so. All the more reason Jake is a very sympathetic character.

He started out in a deficit thanks to his mother, making the odds of him catching that break I mentioned slim.

It’s complex stuff. But Ayarbe pulls the reader into Jake’s head. She doesn’t get into any clinical detail about mental illness or OCD. Instead, she forces the reader to experience the all-out hell it is when you can’t control your impulses and the effects on your mind and body both when you give in to them and when you can’t. It’s a hellish version of a Catch-22.

Readers who don’t mind dipping into the depths of the brain’s darkside will enjoy Compulsion. As an aside, although I don’t believe Jake was, many of the book’s other central characters were of Latino-descent. It threw me, at first, because there wasn’t any particular reason there should have been so many Latino characters – other than Ayarbe lives in Colombia and is clearly influenced by the culture. Still, I welcomed the diversity.

Brown Book Review: Bestest.Ramadan.Ever

October 26, 2011

In case you were wondering, the Cybils judging is going just fine. Thanks. Every waking second that I’m not working, writing or mommying/wifeing I’m reading. In reality, that’s not really a lot of seconds but for the first time in history my fast reading skills have come in handy. For once, consuming a book in an hour or less is a good thing! So stuff it to all those people, over the years, mad about my skills. The ones who claimed I was skimming or wasn’t getting as much out of the book simply because I happen to read at a pace faster than most. Look at me now!

Now then, on to the business at hand. Cybils judging has become about my ability to get my hands on books. As many of the books are new, my library system is either in process of ordering or simply don’t have. So my ability to get my hands on some of the brown book noms has been somewhat limited. So far there’s been The Queen of Water and now, Bestest.Ramadan.Ever. by Medeia Sharif.

Fifteen-year-old Almira Abdul has a lot going on. As her family observes Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, she’s dealing with competition from her best friend on her crush and a new Muslim girl at school who has opinions about everything including Almira’s chance at nabbing the guy of her dreams. It’s classic YA with a Muslim twist.

Anyone who has viewed even one of my posts here at BBS knows I have an extreme soft spot for brown books that portray brown characters as “everyday” kids who just happen to be brown. Every book has its place, but for too long brown books were boxed in to the point where even now, I think some parents would rather their child read only books with an African American protag that deals with our historical struggle or our modern-day struggle to rise up from poverty. Those parents don’t get it. But those of us who do will continue to write stories that feature people of color where race has nothing to do with it.

Bestest.Ramadan.Ever. is Sharif’s debut into YA. So it’s understandable that her first novel would center around Almira’s religion and her struggle to be an average American who just happens to be Muslim. There’s talk of a sequel and I imagine the next book we’ll see those aspects playing less of a part. But it’s part of the game to introduce brown characters and all their “differences” so we can get to the fact that even those differences make us all generally alike. In that respect, BRE delivers as an intro to what some Muslim teens experience in the mostly Christian public school arena.

Although Almira is fifteen, she comes off a little younger in voice. Not a bad thing, as I think BRE will appeal primarily to younger YA readers.

Sharif’s description of Almira’s battle to not cheat during Ramadan (this is the first year she’s attempting with conviction to successfully complete the fasting month) will give non-Muslim readers insight into something they likely know little to nothing about. And the battle between Almira and her grandad, who insists on teaching her Arabic, can translate across a variety of generational issues.

It’s good to see a contemporary pop fiction book featuring a Muslim protag and a diverse cast of other characters (Almira’s best friend is Latino). That alone makes it worth putting into the hands of young Muslim readers who want to see themselves portrayed outside the normal range of topics. I can almost feel Sharif’s need to pioneer this debut just to prove there’s an audience. Yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if her other goal is to prove the story itself will appeal beyond Muslim readers. But that’s where BRE’s weakness lies…appealing to other readers.

It can. But I think some readers may find the overarching Ramadan storyline repetitive. I almost found myself feeling like – let’s move on and stay focused on the meat of Almira’s issues with Lisa and the new, bold Muslim girl, Shakira. The book eventually does just that. But took a little longer to get there than some readers may have patience for.

I think Muslim readers will want more of Almira. I hope publishing, by now, respects how important it is for the vast array of brown teens to see themselves reflected in popular culture. But if Sharif wants to reach a wider circle of readers, there may have to be a smoother blend of Almira’s differences with her average teen struggles.

Cleopatra’s Moon Review

October 24, 2011

By Vicky Alvear Shecter

I like historical fiction – more than I realized until I became a total Ken Follett nut.

I like reading about ancient cultures. The past is fascinating to me because it’s already happened and can be analyzed and picked apart to death. I’m an overanalyzing kind of gal (the first step to curing a problem is owning up to it).

So, Cleopatra’s Moon came into my reading circle with two things squarely in its corner. Seriously, I was predisposed to like the book, right away. I don’t need to provide gory detail for you to know it didn’t bowl me over the way I expected. But rather than nitpick it apart (why exacerbate my overanalyzing problem, right?) I’ll say this…

Personally, whether or not a book was good is tied directly to whether it made me want to do one of two things: 1) did it make me want to clutch the book to my chest, carrying it everywhere I went reading every spare second only to fall into an exhausted heap when it’s over upset that the ride is over? and/or 2) did it give me that writing itch? When I read a book I love, I want to hop up from the sofa and race to the PC and get right back into my latest WIP because I’m so inspired.

This book didn’t invoke either of those.

Cleopatra’s Moon is well-written and from a historical perspective it provides a great deal of insight into what happened to the orphaned daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony. But the latter is also why I didn’t enjoy it. I want a lot of fiction in my historical fiction and Cleopatra’s Moon was too heavy on the historical tidbits revolved around young Cleo’s life leading up to her parents death.

As intriguing as the backstory of young Cleo’s life was, this was YA.
Had the story been mainly revolved around Cleopatra’s love triangle and how that played a part in her choosing her own destiny, that would have suited me just fine. Lots of young readers will experience those sort of decisions and a good novel can entertain while giving insight.

History buffs may feel differently. The novel’s slow pace is suited best for those who want to absorb the nuances of the fact behind the fiction. But YA purists may find the book lacking in action relevant to a teen audience.

Why We Write Kid Lit

October 20, 2011

As promised, in honor of National Day On Writing, the BBS family shares why we write for the kiddies and teens.

by Tameka Fryer Brown
Author of Around Our Way (PB)

I write to express my thoughts, my feelings, my beliefs—
Poignant or not,
Sleeve-worn or not,
Endorsed by the general masses
Or not.

I write because I have something to say
And a right to say it.

I write because my muse has infused my literary tongue
With brilliance unparalleled;
And because she’s abandoned me so
I’m trying desperately to coax her back.

I write because I can.

I write to avoid mopping, dusting, vacuuming,
Tubs, toilets, tile,
Dirty windows, dirty laundry, and dirty dishes…
Because a writer has a good excuse to avoid these things,
But a stay-at-home mom
With kids in school all day
Does not.

I write toward self-actualization.

I write to keep my wits sharp.

I write to show insecure Girl-Me that I can,
To show other self-doubters that they can, too.

I write because words are beautiful things
That I cherish…
And I pray, someday,
Some child will cherish mine.
It’s Bigger Than Me
By Paula Chase-Hyman,
Author of The Del Rio Bay Series (YA)

I write, because I’ve always expressed myself best that way. There’s nothing like taking emotion and putting it into words that make sense to someone besides yourself. Writing is how I make myself understood.

I write for teens because I relate well to them. I think a higher being ordained some of us to be children’s authors because of that. I just “get” teens.

I get that they’re neither as fragile as some adults make them out to be or as tough as they want to come off. I get that being caught between two bickering friends IS as big a deal as mom and dad having a bad day at the office. I get that the world is confusing because so many messages are coming from so many sources, yet they also happen to have an opinion within all those voices.

I write for them, because:
* A lot of times it’s not about the message, but how it’s told. No offense to authors who say they want to teach a lesson, but when I was a teen I didn’t read to learn lessons, even when I walked away from the story with one.

* Some spiritual muse tapped me on the head when I was younger and said – everybody wants to feel like somebody gets them, tell stories and make it so.

* My writing is about more than me. It’s something bigger than me, but a piece of me I don’t mind sharing with the world.

Gwendolyn Hooks
Author of The Pet Club Stories (Easy Readers)
Why I Write . . .
Because I’m a reader, I write. Reading about relationships between family members, best friends, a child and a pet, or the tug of enemies pulls me to my laptop. I want to create stories about how people connect with each other. I want them to say, “I know what she’s feeling, because I felt that way when . . .”


Kelly Starling-Lyons
Author of One Million Men and Me (PB)

I still remember the book that inspired me to write for children, Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. It was the first time I saw an African-American girl featured on the cover of a picture book. As I read the story, I was touched in a special way.

Growing up, I rarely saw kids who looked like me as the main characters of children’s books. I loved books and treasured every story I read. But after reading Something Beautiful, I knew I had missed something important. Right then, I decided to add my voice.

My mission as a children’s book author is to transform moments, memories and history into stories of discovery. I write stories that are often rooted in African-American history and culture, but also show the ways we are more alike than different. At their core, my stories are about relationships between family members, siblings and friends.

I know how it feels to long for stories that reflect your life and history and come up empty. I write to help make sure kids today have a different reality.
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Author of, Eighth-Grade Superzero (MG)

I write to move from, as bell hooks says, from “silence into speech”. I write to make meaning and listen between the lines. Stories give us room to ask the questions that have more than one answer, or no answers at all. I write because I have faith, and because I have doubts. I write because life is itchy and often excruciating but writing keeps me listening for the joy beyond happiness and the justice beyond what’s fair. I write to really listen to your story, and mine.The poet Wendell Berry wrote “In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter, war spreading, families dying, the world in danger, I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.” In writing, I try to sow clover, to be one of the helpers, to collaborate with readers on our collective story because I believe that we each and we all have a story that’s beautiful and precious and full of possibilities.
Don Tate
Author of It Jes Happened (PB) and Illustrator of over 40 books for children.

I write because I like to talk. I like to connect with others. I like being the life of the party. People who know me will read this and giggle to themselves, Don Tate, talk? Life of the party? Really?

Yes, really, I do.

Problem is, I’ve always been an introvert to the Nth degree. Shy, big-time. Given an opportunity to talk, I would clam up and not say a word. Talking made me apprehensive. But writing allowed me to verbalize myself freely.

When I wrote, I could be brave. I could make you laugh. I could make you mad. For better or worse, I’ve made a few of you cry. Writing is powerful.

I started writing about 6 or 7 years ago, a late bloomer. Writing opened me up, it got me out of my shell. I became more confident. Eventually, I could deliver a speech, or make a presentation in front of hundreds of people and feel comfortable in my skin.

So to this day, I talk. I connect. And I’m the life of the party . . . when I write.

TRW: The Queen Of Water Review

October 18, 2011

Queen of water by Laura Resau

Every book has its place and its audience. Although The Queen of Water is fiction, it’s based on a true story and it read like a biography. I think readers who enjoy biographies and those who have an interest in learning about different cultures will be most drawn to it. You’ll see many of my book commentary’s (I shy away from calling them reviews) revolve around the expectation I had going in and whether the book delivered. I came at the story focused more on its fictional aspects, but walked away feeling like I’d just read a biography. That led to a slight disconnect.

The Queen of Water is well-written and young readers will definitely be exposed to a very different world than they live in. Books are great for that, in general, and Queen doesn’t disappoint. The story of Virginia Farinango is an interesting one. An indigenous Indian given away by her parents to an upper class family, the reader witnesses the cruelties of classism and the conflict it causes in young people. However, as YA fiction it didn’t meet its mark of appealing to my inner teen. Primarily because a large majority of the book took place between when Virginia was age 7 and about eleven or twelve.

I can see The Queen of Water as a great companion piece during a social studies/history lesson on indigenous cultures for middle schoolers. I’ve often felt fiction could be a good tool to help round out the real lessons of history, if used correctly. Queen would work best if framed in that realm as opposed to being book talked as straight YA fiction.

Teen Read Week: Clean Review

October 17, 2011

In honor of Teen Read Week, I’ll try and post a review of some of the Cybils noms I’m reading.

Cybils YA noms have topped out at a little over 180 submissions. *swoons*

Two weeks into it and being a first round judge is all that it’s cracked up to be. All YA, all the time.

Today’s review is on Clean by Amy Reed
I’m a “mental” reader, meaning I like being prepared for what I’m about to experience. So I love when a book’s premise is in my face obvious or when the story within matches the jacket flap.

Clean’s title and book cover featuring a weary, tousled hair teen told me what I needed to know – it’s about addiction. No surprises. The only way the book could disappoint would be for Reed to take the easy way out and make it a predictable tale of triumph over addiction – making every character squeaky clean (pardon the pun) at the end. It didn’t do that.

The story moves at a fast, but not hurried clip. Periodic drug and alcohol history questionnaires, peeks into their group sessions, and personal essays reveal what led each character to addiction, but Kelly and Christopher stand out as the main protags. It’s through their observations that we watch each character evolve from their addiction, cleansed of at least the primary scum of their demons.

Reed successfully avoids an apple pie ending, choosing instead to arm the characters with both hard truths – they will always be addicts- and hope – recognizing that fact may help them make better decisions in the future.

There’s a constant debate when it comes to YA fiction about the absence of parents and how unrealistic it is when parents are in absentia. I think the reality is, parents are often somewhat absent during a child’s teen years, not physically but maybe psychologically. A parent can see their kid every day and still not necessarily know what he or she is going through because teens begin processing for themselves and sharing what they want as much as they hide what they want. This is represented well in Clean. If the questions of- how did these kids get so far gone and where were their parent(s), arises, each character’s situation felt like a realistic answer to them: exaggerated parental expectations, an obese bible-thumping mama out of touch with her son’s needs, a child who feels forgotten because of her parent’s burdens and the loss of a parent. Not one of the situations was unlikely. The fact that the kids chose to deal with it by turning to drugs or alcohol (or both) was the point.

Most refreshing about Clean was that rather than showing these kids as angry addicts who got high to get back at their parent – the classic slacker syndrome, nearly all of them were ashamed of their vice. They still wanted to please their parents even though they all knew, on some level, their parental situation had enabled and in some cases caused the addiction. It’s a side of teen addiction I hadn’t seen showcased before. It made the journey enjoyable, if one can say that about such a damaging and tense topic.

If you’re looking for gory detail on withdrawal or a tutorial on how to get high, Clean’s not your book. If you want stark reality from the character’s introspection and a little (just a bit) of counseling to avoid addiction’s pitfalls, then have at it.

National Day On Writing 2011

October 12, 2011

There’s a day for everything. Literally. Some days it’s exhausting. I mean I can barely keep up with whether it’s Monday versus Wednesday…well actually that’s not true. Mondays vibe is way different. Still, from National Ice Cream day to Kiss a Pig in Purple, there seems to be a day to honor every possible human thing (and some not).

But National Day on Writing, October 20, is certainly a day I not only can get down with, but also a day I’d really like to be an active participant of.

So, here’s the deal…

I’m going to ask my BBS compadres to email me with why they write for children. I’ll post those responses on October 20th and on that day I’d love for our visitors to chat it up in the comments about why they write for children or if you’re a librarian, teacher, blogger or parent who actively encourages reading in your household – how and why you support children’s literature.

I think October 20th is the perfect day to remind ourselves and others why we’re so dedicated to an art form and literary field that will likely never make us rich (financially) or famous.

On October 20, come back and play along.

Leverage(ing) Teen Boy Readers

October 11, 2011

When I sold So Not The Drama in 2006, among YA’s hot topics were not enough books featuring African American teens outside of the historical fiction or inner city blues realm and never enough “boy” books. I’m glad to say that based on this year’s Cybil nominations things are (have?) taking a turn.

Leverage, by Joshua C. Cohen is a “sport” book. I never know if I’m marginalizing the book by calling it that or if because it centers around athletic main characters deeply involved in their sport that it is in fact that. I hope it’s the latter. Leverage is swelling with testosterone. Yet rather than being portrayed as the typical male gymnast or football player, the two main characters are three-dimensional individuals who also happen to be athletes.

Be warned, some of the journey is gritty and downright hard to swallow. What I loved most was this is the sort of YA novel that will appeal to the older teen reader. No hand holding, here. You get the full monty whether you want to see it or not.

The story is told from alternating POV: Danny, the talented sophomore gymnast and Kurt, the new-kid and hulking fullback of the school’s football team.

Worried you might get bored with the sports talk? Don’t. The escalating friction between the gymansts and the football players is the real action. The gymnasts want respect, the football team dominance. And if it weren’t for the football team’s steady consumption of steroids, Leverage might be the typical story of high school food chain and the domination of one clique over another. It’s not.

The tension reaches frightening heights then goes beyond. With bullying an ever present problem in our nation’s schools, Leverage is as much a must-read for adults so they understand just how horribly wrong it can go, as it is for teens. Surely no reader can absorb this story and not realize how essential it is to stop or report bullying, immediately.

Leverage delivers a timely and much-needed story. Unfortunately, the ending is wrapped up too neatly. The entire book had a dark, foreboding vibe to it. For me, arriving at the end was akin to being on an isolated pitch black winding road overgrown with overhanging dead tree limbs threatening to invade my car only to turn a corner and end up safely, smack dab in the middle of the well-lit and very busy city. The abrupt progression from dark and foreboding to whew, thank goodness didn’t just disappoint me, it was jarring. Even if things had ended up badly for both characters at least it would have felt genuine to the trajectory of the rest of the story.

Hollywood ending aside, Leverage will grip you and remind you that for some kids, being popular isn’t even on the top 100 list of their concerns as they navigate high school.

Cybils YA Brown Books

October 6, 2011

I may have to hurt my library system because they don’t seem to have (m)any of the Cybils books by brown authors.

I will not rant about it. I will not rant about it. I will not…

Some of these books are new and I understand that procuring them isn’t as easy as me walking into B&N. But gimme gimme gimme. I want to get my hands on these books.

*sigh* Looks like I’ll be copping a squat at my local bookstore to read them.

I haven’t done that since I was a little girl. Might be nice.

So far, the brown books, below, have been nominated for the Cybils YA category. I’ll go back and fill in with reviews once I actually get my paws on them.

Bronxwood by Coe Booth

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall

What Can’t Wait by Ashley Hope Perez
I always know when a book is good – I start getting emotional on behalf of the character. In the case of seventeen-year-old Marisa, I was pretty much pissed at her family throughout the entire book. What Can’t Wait is a tale of struggle against familial culture. The more Marisa strives to make a life of her own, the more her family sucks her into their vortex of neediness laying the guilt on thick if she ever dares to take a moment to do anything but work and earn money.

For every teen who wished they had parents who didn’t care about them earning good grades, there’s a Marisa. All she wants is to get into college and pursue engineering. Shouldn’t be a problem for a near-straight A student. Only problem is Marisa’s parents see her pursuit of college as a potential hole in the household income. They not only don’t support her dream, her father outright attempts to squash it. Most stories focus on the success of second generation immigrants because they benefit from their parents pursuit of the “American dream.” What Can’t Wait is about the flip side – when a kid of two immigrant parents is expected to help maintain the dream by equally contributing to the household.

Marisa is genuinely dedicated to her submissive mother, flighty sister, strict father and slacker brother. Readers will root for her to find her way. I even found myself wanting her to risk turning her back on them for it. But at the heart of it, you want her to work it out with the family intact.

Dreaming of Significant Girls by Cristina Garcia

Island’s End by Padma Venkatraman (this one they had)
I’m always fascinated by cultures untouched by modern man. There’s something incredibly awe-inspiring about people who live the way man lived millions of years ago…by choice!

Yes, there are many modern-day conveniences I often feel I couldn’t live without (take away my iPod at your own risk). But at the heart of it, I periodically yearn for a much simpler existence. Island’s End is about the En-ge, a culture of people living on the remote Andaman Islands. Fifteen-year-old Uido, is selected to be her tribe’s next holy woman. A weighty job for a child, but it’s very believable that Uido could not only succeed in the job but is also destined for it.

Venkatraman weaves a delicate story about the En-ge’s traditions, Uido’s fight to preserve those traditions while allowing for the reality that the outside world cannot be kept at bay forever, and the impact Uido’s new role in the tribe has on her relationships.

My only gripe (and I term that lightly) was the final outcome of the sibling rivalry between Uido and her older brother, Ashu. I won’t get spoilerish, so I’ll leave it at that.

I enjoy YA where the protags come off as a realistic teen. Uido has a special calling and she’s as excited as she is anxious about that. Venkatraman strikes the right balance throughout the entire book of a character that is simultaneously blessed and burdened.

Thanks to Edi for shouting out the other brown books. I promise to get to ‘em all.

Pull by B.A. Binns
Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle
Illegal by Bettina Restrepo
Karma by Kathy Ostlere
Now is the time for running by Michael Williams
My own worst frenemy by Kimberly Reid
Orchards by Holly Thomspon
Putting make up on the fat boy by Bil Wright
Queen of water by Laura Resau
The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson
This Thing Called the Future J.L. Powers
Trouble with Half A Moon by Danette Vigilante
When the Stars go Blue by Caridad Ferrar

Madame Judge, If you Please…

October 5, 2011

Okay, by show of hands, how many bought my YA Bootcamp challenge post yesterday?

Up until now, I couldn’t reveal that in fact I’ll be judging the YA category for the Cybil’s this year. I’m really excited about this. Not only is YA a competitive category, but I’ve always felt strongly that you have to be a part of a process to know its strengths, weaknesses etc…

Every year (well except maybe last year because I had a new job and was swamped) I’ve gotten out my megaphone and encouraged folks to nominate brown books for the Cybils. And here’s why:

How do brown books rate?
Being a brown author is no different than real life as a person of color. You’re perpetually stuck between wanting to be accepted just for who you are and being identified by your race, no matter how subtly. The fact is, getting our books in front of a variety of readers (like the Cybils panels) helps, in a sense, to make sure our books can compete.

The Boost
Judging literature is a sticky wicket no matter what. It’s subjective, I know. But there’s a basic measuring tool that emerges, within these sort of panels, and if our books aren’t meeting the standard among bloggers and librarians who push kiddie lit, we’re not being talked about. And God knows we need the boost.

Next best thing
Cybil judges are the next best thing to reaching our readers direct. They are active bloggers (many of them librarians, booksellers, authors, teachers) who are passionate about books and want to uplift good stories. Why wouldn’t we want our books being discussed in these circles?

The sister/brotherhood
Reading In Color, Crazy Quilts, Cybils, Readergirlz and Brown Bookshelf are all very different but they all share the same goal – we want to guide readers to good reads. It’s a sisterhood. We validate one another. And the more voices that support children’s lit overall, the harder it is to drown us out.

Although the boot camp post was a thinly veiled way to start blogging about some of the YA noms I’m reading, I will in fact be blogging about these books here at BBS throughout this first round of judging. And it is like a bootcamp. I read three books last night! My husband’s already feeling neglected and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel because it’s expected we’ll receive about 200 nominations.

So, light a candle for me (and him) and I’ll see you on the other side.


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