Book Review: Sci-Fu: Kick It Off by Yehudi Mercado

 

Review by Marcela Peres

Sci-Fu Vol 1 Kick It Off GNDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Thirteen-year-old Wax’s life may not be perfect. But that doesn’t stop him from spinning some of the sickest beats on their Brooklyn block… but he’s a better DJ than he thinks.

One night, while making a mixtape for his crush, Wax scratches the perfect beat and responds to an interstellar challenge that transports him and the entire block to the robot-filled planet of Discopia. Mistaken by the locals for a master of the futuristic, sound-bending martial art known as SCI-FU, Wax finds himself on the wrong side of a showdown against the Five Deadly Dangers and their leader, Choo Choo.

With help from the sci-fu master Kabuki Snowman and Wax’s crew—including his best friend Cooky P, his sister The D, and even his crush, Pirate Polly—Wax has to become a sci-fu master or risk losing Earth forever!

MY TWO CENTS: Sci-Fu is a love letter mixtape to all things 80s hip hop that can be appreciated by middle grade readers and adults alike. It’s a book that demonstrates the power of graphic novels to speak to the senses: the colors and lettering, heavily influenced by graffiti art and 8-bit video game graphics, are so vibrant and kinetic that you can almost hear the music popping off the page. At the end, writer-illustrator Yehudi Mercado includes a link to a Spotify playlist of iconic old school hip hop that will make you want to re-read the book while listening—and actually, I’d recommend it.

Main character Wax moves through his hero’s journey against a psychedelic sci-fi background, first in a diverse, multilingual 1980s Brooklyn alive with cool characters, fashion, and of course, sick beats, and then on to Discopia, the alien robot planet Wax has to save. He dreams of becoming the best DJ in the universe, but also struggles with normal kid problems, like fending off bullies and finding the courage to talk to his crush. Under the tutelage of his alien Sci-Fu sensei, Kabuki Snowman, and support from his friends and family, Wax faces off against a team of fantastical villains that, in classic hip hop fashion, are clearly sampled from some of the best of 80s pop culture. He’ll learn the skills he needs to save the universe and come into his own as a DJ and a person in the process, learning valuable lessons about hard work, friendship, and standing up for oneself.

There is a lot to love about Sci-Fu, especially its cast of interesting supporting characters. Pirate Polly escapes the typical love interest trope with an exciting side plot and destiny, and smart, take-charge little sister The D deserves a spin-off series of her own. Sidekick Cooky P is a loyal friend who pushes Wax to keep improving, and ice cream-truck driving guardian Uncle Rasheed provides some comic relief in the form of dessert-flavored expletives. The villains rap, in a fun twist on typical superhero-fight banter, and bring their own surprise swerves to the storyline and its eventual resolution.

Many elements, from the plot to the characters to the visual style, are clear homages to music, films, and even other comics. Perhaps strongest here is the “boys adventure” plot type, like the classic Stand by Me or modern throwback show Stranger Things. However, refreshingly, here we get a kids adventure with a mix of genders and backgrounds, and a plot firmly rooted in African-American and Afro-Latinx culture. This is not the 1980s of frizzy perms and synthesizer pop. This is tracksuits and sweatbands, Pan-African pendants, chunky hoop earrings and roller skates, and De La Soul. And the best part is, it’s only Book One.

TEACHING TIPS:

  • Writing: Students could be encouraged to write raps (and rhymes) about their own lives in alternating pairs, just like many of the tracks we hear from Wax and Cooky P.
  • Using onomatopoeia to tell stories: Many of the sound effects in Sci-Fu are examples of onomatopoeia (click, BOOM, whing) or in the Sci-Fu martial art, slang words (wiggedy wack) can be used as attacks. Ask students to illustrate scenes using onomatopoeia sound effects to bring their stories to life.
  • Kung-Fu: One aspect of Sci-Fu that could be better explored is the major influence of kung-fu and martial arts. Research the history of kung-fu and martial arts in American culture, especially in film and its impact on Black culture (for example, on breakdancing).
  • History of hip-hop: Learn about the history of hip hop, especially around when Sci-Fu takes place. Visit online collections such as The Cornell Hip Hop Collection and the Hiphop Archive & Research Institute to see examples of early intersections between hip hop and visual culture (graffiti, DJ flyers, zines). Create zines or flyers inspired by these works.

 

YehudiABOUT THE AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR: Yehudi Mercado is a self-proclaimed Pizza Laureate, cartoonist, writer and animator living in Los Angeles by way of Austin, Texas. Yehudi spent many an afternoon in detention during his formative years and credits that “thinking about what you’ve done time” for his unstoppable imagination. As a latchkey kid, Yehudi would choreograph elaborate kung-fu fight scenes set to his Run-D.M.C. and Beastie Boys records, thus providing the foundation for Sci-Fu. His projects as writer-illustrator include Rocket Salvage, Hero Hotel and Pantalones, TX.

 

 

 

MarcelaABOUT THE REVIEWER: Marcela was born in Brazil and moved to the U.S. at the age of three, growing up in South Florida. She is now the Library Director at Lewiston Public Library in Maine. Marcela holds a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she concentrated on community informatics and library services to teens. She is a copy editor for NoFlyingNoTights.com, has served on the Will Eisner Graphic Novel Grants for Libraries jury, and speaks about comics in libraries at library conferences and comic conventions. She can be found on Twitter @marcelaphane and Goodreads.

 

Book Review: Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez

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DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: “This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?”

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Smith and Wash Fullerton know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But there are some forces even the most determined color lines cannot resist. And sometimes all it takes is an explosion.

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

OUR TWO CENTS: 

Cindy L. Rodriguez: As soon as I finished Ashley’s novel, I wanted to reread it as a writer. I want to pull it apart and study it because it’s that good. One of the things I appreciate most was the slow burn of the narrative. The novel opens with the explosion, and then flashes back to show how the characters’ live intersect before the event. The fuse lit in that opening scene coils through the narrative, gaining in intensity as the story leads back to the explosion and then its aftermath. The tension in Naomi’s home, school, and community is palpable throughout the story and increases slowly as we’re led into the heartbreaking climax.

Ashley masterfully balances the big picture and the smallest details. Her writing made me think of a photographer who could both go wide and capture a panoramic view and then zoom in for a close up and not lose anything in this process. She also beautifully balances the swoony magic of falling deeply in love for the first time and the absolutely brutal realities faced by African-Americans and Mexicans at this time in history. BRAVA!!

Lila Quintero Weaver: Ashley’s command of narrative is impressive! In Out of Darkness, she tells a story set in the American past and makes it feel of the moment. It holds all the markers of a historical novel, starting with the cataclysmic explosion of 1937 that looms with ominous eventuality over the characters we come to care about. Threaded with lively detail, the historical richness comes through in social customs, daily activities, and the speech patterns and cultural attitudes typical of 1930s east Texas. No easy feat. I detect a massive amount of research behind it all.

This devotion to authenticity translates into contemporary meaning through the story’s characters and the complicated problems they face. Naomi’s most serious problem is a predatory stepfather whose capacity for evil keeps her in a constant state of vigilance. There is no escape. She has no money or resources and she feels deep loyalty toward her two tender stepsiblings. Because Naomi is Mexican-American and lives in a part of Texas where Mexicans aren’t numerous, she has no community to fall back on and is looked upon by some white classmates as dirty and worthless. When she falls hard for Wash, a young black man who offers her a chance at true happiness, Naomi steps into the arena of forbidden love—one she must keep hidden from society and the stepfather who follows her every move with lecherous eyes. What a story!

Others agree with us, too! Out of Darkness received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews. Here are some quotes and links with more information about and praise for the novel:

“The beauty of Perez’s prose and her surefooted navigation through the dangerous landscape of the East Texas oil field in the late 1930s redeem the fact that anyone who dares read this agonizing star-crossed love story will end up in about six billion numb and tiny pieces. Absolutely stunning.” —Elizabeth Wein, author of Code Name Verity and Michael L. Printz Award Honoree

Teen Library Toolbox (an SLJ blog): http://www.teenlibrariantoolbox.com/2015/09/book-review-out-of-darkness-by-ashley-hope-perez/

Detailed review from The Midnight Garden (YA for adults): http://www.themidnightgarden.net/2015/08/outofdarkness.html

Q&A on NBChttp://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/out-darkness-latina-author-n419026

Diversity in YA post: http://www.diversityinya.com/2015/08/words-that-wake-us/

Q&A on our site earlier this weekhttps://latinosinkidlit.com/2015/09/09/qa-with-ashley-hope-perez-about-out-of-darkness/

And this post by Forever Young Adult nails the “casting call” for novel if it were made into a movie. Their picks of Christian Serratos as Naomi and Titus Makin Jr. as Wash were spot on! Nicely done, Forever Young Adult!

   

TEACHING TIPS: Although the New London, Texas, school explosion was the worst school disaster in our nation’s history, it’s one many (most) students have probably never learned about but should, as it has interesting implications concerning race and class worth exploring. Out of Darkness asks readers to think beyond the black and white dynamics of U.S. race issues by adding Latin@ children to the segregated schools system and portraying the daily concerns and realities of Mexicans who could or could not “pass” as white. Also, the violent consequences of marginalized romantic relationships isn’t often explored in curricula, but might be/should be considering the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. A book like Out of Darkness could help teen readers appreciate the long history of struggle and violence experienced by people who have wanted to live and love freely.

2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsABOUT THE AUTHORAshley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences. She is the author of three novels, What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and Out of Darkness (2015). A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature from Indiana University and enjoys teaching everything from Spanish language and Latin American literature to the occasional course on vampires in literature. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Out of Darkness, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez about OUT OF DARKNESS

A Star is Born

We’re so thrilled to begin our third year online with a celebration of Out of Darkness by our amiga and co-blogger, Ashley Hope Pérez! Her third novel, which released September 1, is historical fiction, with a deadly school explosion in East Texas in 1937 as its central event. Using multiple points of view, Ashley develops a cast of complex characters who confront brutal racism and violence in addition to the beauty of first love. Amanda MacGregor of Teen Librarian Toolbox said, “Pérez’s story is nothing short of brilliant”, and we wholeheartedly agree! In fact, we think it’s one of the best 2015 releases! If it’s not on your to be read list, it should be. Click here to read Ashley’s post about her work on this novel, and for more insight, see our Q&A with her below.

Ashley, in the last two years, you finished your doctoral dissertation, changed jobs and geographical locations, and gave birth to a second child. How did you manage to write such an ambitious novel with so much else going on in your life?

When you put it like that, it does sound pretty outrageous! The short answer is that, when our first son was one, we moved to Paris for a year. I taught a ton of university English classes, ate yards and yards of bread, and worked on the first draft of the novel. I gave myself that year off from academic research. When we got back, I used the novel as a daily carrot to motivate my academic writing: if I got my words on the dissertation done, I got to take some time for the fiction.

You don’t shy away from controversial territory! This story contains sexual abuse, incest, brutal racism and frank sexuality. Talk about shaping these elements within the boundaries of young-adult fiction.

Wait–there are boundaries to young adult fiction? No one told me!! Really, though, I shouldn’t be glib. It’s just that Andrew Karre (my editor for Out of Darkness as well as for The Knife and the Butterfly and What Can’t Wait) has always seemed more interested in pushing or crossing boundaries than in upholding them. He’s probably one of very few YA editors who sends emails that say things like, “could the sexual details in this scene be a little more explicit, not so coy?” Speaking more broadly, I’ve found it useful to give myself permission to cross even my own boundaries if I felt like doing so would help me get a scene closer to where I wanted it to be. As Andrew puts it, it’s easier to go too far and then scale things back than to strike the right note by trying to tiptoe forward.

You can tell that the frank depictions of consensual sexual activity is where I feel myself most challenged, but the racism and abuse that are part of the story in Out of Darkness are probably what’s harder for readers to contend with. The reality of racism in the world of 1937 East Texas didn’t seem like something I could—or should—varnish in any way. And sexual predation, now as in the past, flourishes in response to the social and economic vulnerability of potential victims. My main character, Naomi, is extremely vulnerable in both of these areas because of her ethnicity and precarious situation in the household where she lives. Being beautiful only puts her at greater risk.

WHITESonlyWhat went into your decision to use multiple points of view?

I was thinking about angles on the story and contrasts from the time I began feeling my way into the historical material for Out of Darkness. Part of what attracted me to the story was my curiosity—almost entirely unsatisfied by historical sources—about how the African American community experienced the explosion of the (white) New London school. The tensions and interplay between characters’ visions of the world seemed integral to the telling of this particular story. This was especially true since I wanted to recenter the narrative on experiences and perspectives that have been, at best, marginal in mainstream history.

I think readers needed to see the world through a range of characters’ eyes in Out of Darkness to grasp how dramatically different our experiences can be even when we are living in the same community. This understanding is not just a source of interest vis-à-vis the past; it can help contemporary readers reckon with the reality of inequity now. For example, it makes possible reflection on dramatic contrasts in schooling experiences or interactions with police for people of different backgrounds.

The racial complexity in this story is fascinating. As a brown-skinned person, Naomi falls between racial identities and finds doors closing in both the white and black communities. Was New London a mostly white settlement in that era? Did your research turn up instances of Mexicans caught between, as Naomi was?

 Prior to the East Texas oil boom, New London was a small agrarian community with  deeply segregated black and white communities. The discovery of oil meant the influx of many outsiders, both those who were working in oil and those who were simply attracted to the possibilities of a more prosperous community. Even though African Americans were mostly excluded from oilfield work (digging ditches was an exception), newcomers also arrived in search of jobs as chauffeurs, maids, busboys, line cooks, and craftsmen. I could not confirm the presence of a Mexican American like Naomi. Although I strongly suspect that a little girl named Juanita Herron was Hispanic, it’s impossible to know for sure. Still, I was satisfied that it was at least plausible for light-skinned children like the twins to slip into the school in much the way that families in Texas with American Indian backgrounds did. For example, the Drinkwater family in New London probably had Cherokee heritage, and their children attended the white school.

newlondonexplosionNIGHT

What was it about this particular event in history that made you want to dive in and create this narrative?

The New London explosion happened close to home (about 20 minutes from where I grew up), but I knew almost nothing about it and only rarely heard it mentioned. When I started, I didn’t know where the explosion would be in the timeline of the novel, but I knew that I wanted to incorporate it. The more I explored, the clearer it seemed to me that my way “into” the story would be different from the approach taken by historians, although historical detail is of course very important to the world of Out of Darkness. I wanted to think about what the explosion meant for the victims and their families, but I was even more interested in following its repercussions outward.

What becomes possible in a community that has been shattered in this way? What forms of brokenness in the community beforehand might have been overshadowed by the deaths of almost 300 children? For example, I wanted to explore the quieter, but no less terrible, effects of segregation. After all, black children were spared from the explosion precisely because they had been excluded from the opportunities at the white New London school, which was billed in newspapers as “the richest rural school in the country.”

And, as is usually the case, I began imagining particular characters. In the case of Out of Darkness, Wash and Naomi came first, then the twins, then their stepfather Henry. Once I had Wash and Naomi, I had to find a space for them to be together (a special tree in the woods), and that’s how the Sabine River and the East Texas landscape became important to the story. I loved writing about the natural spaces of my childhood. Sometimes describing that physical beauty was a bit of a reprieve from the harshness of my characters’ circumstances. And I think I even managed to fall a bit in love with Wash myself.

 

2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsAshley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latino experiences. She is the author of three novels, What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012), and Out of Darkness (2015). A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her. She completed a PhD in comparative literature from Indiana University and enjoys teaching everything from Spanish language and Latin American literature to the occasional course on vampires in literature. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.