Book Review: Tight by Torrey Maldonado

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This review by Lila Quintero Weaver is based on an advance uncorrected galley.

PUBLISHER’S DESCRIPTION: Bryan has a good idea of what’s tight to him—reading comics, drawing superheroes, and hanging out with no drama. But “no drama” doesn’t come with the territory of where he’s from, so he’s feeling wound up tight. While his mom encourages his calm, thoughtful nature, his quick-tempered dad says he needs to be tough because it’s better for a guy to be feared than liked.

And now Bryan’s new friend Mike is putting the pressure on—all of a sudden, his ideas of fun are crazy risky. When Bryan’s dad ends up back in jail, something in Bryan snaps and he allows Mike to take the lead. At first it’s a rush as Bryan starts cutting school and subway surfing. But Bryan never feels quite right when he’s acting wrong, and Mike ends up pushing him too far.

Fortunately, if there’s anything Bryan has learned from his favorite superheroes, it’s that he has the power to stand up for what he believes.

MY TWO CENTS: Starring an Afro-Puerto Rican character from Brooklyn, NY, this entertaining middle-grade novel is a brilliant read layered with emotional richness and nuance. Along with its primary selling point as a solid and strongly voiced story, Tight delivers an important but subtly threaded message on self-respect and moral courage. Bryan’s internal wrestling match, one brought on by a questionable friendship, lies at the crux of the story. In the hands of a lesser writer, this story line could have easily devolved into a morality play. But Maldonado avoids such cardboard cutouts in favor of a skillfully crafted portrait of a relatable middle-grader facing down his vulnerabilities and learning how to choose the higher road.

Sharply drawn from head to toe, Bryan is a sympathetic character with a mounting dilemma that begins as soon as a boy named Mike makes his appearance. Initially, Bryan feels suspicious of the new boy, but lets go of those reservations when Mike reveals a kindred love of superhero comic books. Still, subtle things about Mike continue to nag at Bryan, setting up an undercurrent of mistrust. As Mike works his charisma on Bryan, gradually opening doors to dangerous and alluring pastimes, Bryan begins to rationalize his original misgivings. To complicate matters, things on the home front are going south, too. Bryan’s father, who’s recently gotten out of jail, seems to be courting trouble again, putting the whole family in a state of tension.

Although at times Bryan succumbs to risky behavior, he seems most like himself when the drama is dialed way down. He actually relishes the peace and quiet of his “office,” an unused desk at his mother’s workplace, where he spreads out his homework. In this vein, we also witness him happily chatting on a park bench with his mom, who he endearingly refers to as “my heart.”

You cannot help but love Bryan. He reads as a real boy, with a real life, and a rings-true voice that expresses rich interiority. But as if to test his tender side, Bryan’s world is complicated by the code of machismo. At his school and in his neighborhood, the message telegraphed at boys is don’t be soft. This refrain of warped masculinity features in many a Latinx treatment. Fortunately, Maldonado lifts the story above such tropes by enlivening Bryan with contradictory currents and introducing fresh possibilities that will keep readers on their toes.

Other elements of Latinx life include food (chicharrones, alcapurrias) and observations on ethnic identity. In an early scene, Bryan reveals that he purchased the new Miles Morales Spider-Man comic because “he’s my age and looks like me. He’s half black and half Puerto Rican. I’m full Rican but heads rarely guess right.”

It’s obvious that Bryan has a lot on his plate. Here he is at the corner bodega presenting a note from his mom, in which she appeals for store credit.

When I finally have everything, I go to the counter. Hector checks if the list matches what I got. I can’t have nothing extra.

I stare back at the chocolate powder we can’t afford to buy. Chocolate milk tastes so good.

Right then, this girl Melanie from my school comes in and watches as Hector bags my stuff and hands me a Post-it. “This is how much your father owes.”

Dang! Why’d he have to mention us owing money? I nervous-smile at Melanie, and just like I thought, she eyes me all in my sauce and trying to know the flavor.

What’s for her to figure out? I’m a broke joke.

Does it need pointing out that Maldonado nails the art of voice?

In addition, he commands a spare approach to description, choosing a handful of small details for the sizzle they bring. One of my favorite examples of colorful scene-setting occurs when Bryan and Mike pass through a crowded train station. “Mike ducks under a turnstile and races up the steps. ‘PAY YOUR FARE!’ the teller’s voice yells through the microphone in the MetroCard booth. It sounds extra scary because it’s all metallic, like Darth Vader’s voice.”

This is a novel that kid readers across the board will go for, and that readers hungry for Afro-Latinx representation will cheer on. In Bryan, Maldonado has created a vivid, relatable character with a lot going on between his ears. He has also built a fascinating and realistic world for this character to occupy, and spun a story that packs punch, enclosing within it hidden, but never preachy, lessons about life and love and healthy self-respect.

IMG_5888ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  What do you get from teaching nearly 20 years in a middle school in the Brooklyn community that you’re from & you’re an author? Gripping relatable novels and real-life inspiration. Voted a “Top 10 Latino Author” & best Middle Grade & Young Adult novelist for African Americans, Torrey Maldonado was spotlighted as a top teacher by NYC’s former Chancellor. Maldonado is the author of the ALA “Quick Pick”, Secret Saturdays, that is praised for its current-feel & timeless themes. His newest MG novel, Tight, is a coming of age tale about choosing your own path. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com

Click here to see our recent Q&A with Torrey Maldonado.

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Lila Quintero Weaver is the author of a graphic memoir, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White, and a novel for kids, My Year in the Middle. Connect with her on Twitter, where her handle is @LilaQWeaver.

 

 

 

 

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: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

 

Review by Mark Oshiro

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about.

With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out. But she still can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.

MY TWO CENTS: I had a difficult childhood. I was queer and Latinx and stuck in a home with parents who did not understand either identity and certainly not the intersection of them. (I was adopted.) It meant that I felt that I existed in constant friction with them. That friction manifested in a deep, existential desire in me: I wanted acceptance. I wanted to live.

I found that same desire within the pages of The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo’s masterful and gut-wrenching debut. Told in verse, I devoured this book in one sitting, only taking a break to wipe at the tears that welled in my eyes. Acevedo has crafted a living, breathing world in Xiomara, and you can tell that from the very first page. Her unique voice, coupled with an engaging story about acceptance, rebellion, and identity in this Dominican-American teen, makes The Poet X a powerful read.

There’s nothing here I could nitpick, even if I tried. The pacing is brilliant, and my heart was racing as I approached the climax. Acevedo’s prose, which is informed by her years of work in slam poetry, is vivid, lyrical, captivating. There were countless sentences or lines that knocked me flat on my ass, and you’re certain to find one of your own. But it’s the characterization that gripped me the most. I related so intensely to Xiomara’s desire to live beyond the prescriptions of her mother’s religion that at times, I felt that Acevedo had reached deep down into a well within me, extracting the pain, terror, and—ultimately—vindication I experienced when I clashed with my own parents about my sexuality, my body, and my need to be my own person. The supporting cast is well-rounded and memorable (particularly Xiomara’s twin brother, Xavier, since I am also a twin), and they each affect the story in meaningful ways.

This is an astounding accomplishment, and I’m so thrilled that Dominican-Americans (and those who identify as Afro-Latinx) have a book that so brilliantly represents them. For fans of Jason Reynolds, Sandra Cisneros (particularly The House on Mango Street), and Liara Tamani’s Calling My Name.

TEACHING TIPS: Another reason I admired The Poet X is because Acevedo so seamlessly addresses weighty topics with ease and care, and the book never feels like it’s teaching you a lesson. The novel addresses issues such as sizeism, street harassment, homophobia, misogyny, sexual shame, and abuse, particularly when that abuse is paired with religion. Because the book is composed in verse that work like vignettes, it will be easy to assign essays or discussions based on specific poems. Acevedo’s language is modern and youthful, so I expect teens will connect with it quicker than most other works.

WHERE TO GET IT: The Poet X released on Tuesday. To find it, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

                        Photo: Bethany Thomas

Photo: Bethany Thomas

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Elizabeth Acevedo was born and raised in New York City and her poetry is infused with Dominican bolero and her beloved city’s tough grit.

She holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. With over twelve years of performance experience, Acevedo has been a featured performer on BET and Mun2, as well as delivered several TED Talks. She has graced stages nationally and internationally including renowned venues such as The Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts, and South Africa’s State Theatre, The Bozar in Brussels, and the National Library of Kosovo; she is also well known for  poetry videos, which have gone viral and been picked up by PBS, Latina Magazine, Cosmopolitan, and Upworthy.

Acevedo is a National Slam Champion, Beltway Grand Slam Champion, and the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam representative for Washington, D.C, where she lives and works.

Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in Puerto Del Sol, Callaloo, Poet Lore, The Notre Dame Review, and others. Acevedo is a Cave Canem Fellow, Cantomundo Fellow, and participant of the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. She is the author of the chapbook, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016)  and the forthcoming novel, The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018).

 

 

Oshiro_Mark.jpgABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and television series unspoiled. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015. He is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors and is usually busy trying to fulfill his lifelong goal to pet every dog in the world. His YA Contemporary debut, Anger is a Gift, is out May 22, 2018 with Tor Teen.

 

Book Review: Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older

Reviewed by Ashley Hope Pérez

This review of Shadowhouse Fall, book #2 in the Shadowshaper Cypher series, is based on an advance reader’s edition.

DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: The extraordinary sequel to the New York Times bestseller Shadowshaper is daring, dazzling, defiant.

Sierra and her friends love their new lives as shadowshapers, making art and creating change with the spirits of Brooklyn. Then Sierra receives a strange card depicting a beast called the Hound of Light — an image from the enigmatic, influential Deck of Worlds. The shadowshapers know their next battle has arrived.

Thrust into an ancient struggle with enemies old and new, Sierra and Shadowhouse are determined to win. Revolution is brewing in the real world as well, as the shadowshapers lead the fight against systems that oppress their community. To protect her family and friends in every sphere, Sierra must take down the Hound and master the Deck of Worlds… or risk losing them all.

MY TWO CENTSShadowhouse Fall adds depth to the fantasy world first introduced in Older’s acclaimed first YA novel, Shadowshaper. Perhaps more remarkable is how the second book in the series plugs into urgent conversations about racialized violence, white supremacy, and youth activism. Picking up a few months after the events at the end of Shadowshaper, Shadowhouse Fall probes the challenges of leading a secret society once the novelty and adrenaline have worn off—and after the school year begins again. Sierra Santiago’s role as Lucera, leader of the shadowshapers, already requires more energy than she feels she has, and that’s before factoring in complications on the romantic front, a death in the family, and the fatigue that comes from confronting daily racial microaggressions, such as being sent to the principal for diagnosing an instance of white privilege, the dehumanizing experience of passing through metal detectors to enter school, and regular police harassment in public spaces. These challenges intensify further when the appearance of the Deck of Worlds throws the spiritual realm into upheaval and when inappropriate police detention of shadowshapers leads to widespread youth protest.

Although readers are unlikely to share Sierra’s exact configuration of demands, they will relate to the complex dance between the demands of school, family, activism, and spirituality or self-discovery. Sierra’s fatigue and loneliness—even in the midst of her friends—are beautifully rendered, as are the irritability and impulsiveness that sometimes results. (Rendering a character’s struggle honestly without abrading her likability is no small feat.) Older shows that some real allies may be found in conventional figures like the school principal, but he also shows the difficulty of navigating complex, culturally sensitive problems that cannot be shared in school spaces without drawing judgment. There’s a real tenderness and humanity to how Older depicts Sierra as she navigates the difficult emotional territory that comes with the winding down of one romantic interest and the kindling of a new one.

The world of spirits in Shadowhouse Fall gains further particularity and interest from the growing detail about the rise (and fall) of different houses to how Older reveals how the Shadowshapers’ rival spirit house, the House of Light, depends on mythologies of whiteness to bolster its power. Readers drawn to complex, powerful heroines who actually reflect on the consequences of their actions will find much to like in Sierra’s fierce leadership and in her desire to make responsible use of her gifts. I was moved by Older’s tender portrayal of varied connections between spirits and the living.

Here, as in Shadowshaper, the cast of characters is varied and vibrant. The intergenerational, multi-ethnic coalitions that support action in the spirit world and on the streets of Bed-Stuy offer a welcome reprieve from the all-teen world manufactured in many YA novels. Sure, the villains can sometimes seem one-dimensional in their power-hungry myopia, but the density of nuance in characterization more than makes up for this. Older has a knack for evoking cultural particularity and evading stereotype, a talent evident in characterization and in dialogue. Readers encounter a range of English vernaculars, Haitian Creole, Jamaican Patois, and Spanish, and Older strategically breaks down presumed configurations of class and culture. For example, we see a Jamaican attorney deftly navigate multiple registers, making strategic use of his “lawyerly courtroom voice” when needed but electing to speak in Patois in most situations. The intergenerational friendships in the novel highlight the resourcefulness of multi-ethnic communities and the transmission of tactical knowledge.

Just as adults in the novel display their linguistic dexterity in a range of settings, so do Sierra and her friends. Sierra’s voice emerges equally authentically when she is bantering and strategizing with her fellow shadowshapers, sweet-talking a romantic interest, or, speaking truth to power in her AP History class. This latter moment merits a closer look.

Since you asked: I think you’re being defensive. No one wants to represent a whole bunch of other people, but the truth is, we have to do that all the time, and as much as you want to be treated as an individual, we still see all the other teachers who have shut us down and don’t want to talk about things that matter to us. So when you try to tell us to be reasonable, we’re looking at the fact that it’s slavery we’re talking about, possibly the least reasonable thing to happen in this country, and so all these people whose great-grandparents directly benefited from it telling us to be reasonable doesn’t sit well, and we’re tired of being told how to respond.

I plan to hold this mini monologue up in response to anyone who suggests that the novel’s frank engagement with structural inequality and the frequent injustice of the criminal justice system “lacks balance.” It would take a shipping crate full of interventions of the caliber of Shadowhouse Fall to even begin to balance the pervasive practice of centering white experiences, white priorities, and white perspectives that circulate in YA. And anyway, the novel offers powerful examples of what it means to own one’s privilege and act as an ally, from a teacher’s turnaround to the white students who answer to Sierra’s charge to action. (This is a great scene: one character tells another, “You gotta tell the whole world that white kids ain’t cool with this shit either,” and a few chapters later, we see a group of white students show up with a sign that reads, “White Kids Ain’t Cool With This Shit Either.” It’s a moment of humor amidst heightening tensions—“Yo, y’all real literal,” responds one of the shadowshapers–but it also shows the ongoing apprenticeship of allies who wish to act for social justice.)

Shadowhouse Fall centers on the shadowshapers’ growing self-awareness and efforts to develop their gifts to enable effective action in the world of spirits and of streets. Theirs is an example we would all do well to follow.

WHERE TO GET IT: To find Shadowhouse Fall, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORDaniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of the Young Adult series the Shadowshaper Cypher (Scholastic), the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series (Penguin), and the upcoming Middle Grade sci-fi adventure Flood City (Scholastic). He won the International Latino Book Award and has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize, the Mythopoeic Award, the Locus Award, the Andre Norton Award, and yes, the World Fantasy Award. Shadowshaper was named one of Esquire’s 80 Books Every Person Should Read. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at http://danieljoseolder.net/, on youtube and @djolder on twitter.

 

2012AuthorPhoto500pixelsABOUT THE REVIEWER:  Ashley Hope Pérez is a writer and teacher passionate about literature for readers of all ages—especially stories that speak to diverse Latinx 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), which won a Printz Honor as well as the Tomás Rivera Book Award and the Américas Book Award. She is working on a fourth novel, Walk It Down, which is forthcoming from Dutton Books. A native of Texas, Ashley has since followed wherever writing and teaching lead her and currently is an assistant professor at The Ohio State University, where she teaches world literatures. Find her on Twitter and Facebook.

#LargeFears Chat: Where are the Afro-Latinxs in American History?

 

On Tuesday, Edith Campbell, Sujei Lugo, and Guinevere and Libertad Thomas, the sisters behind the Twinja Book Reviews, hosted the most recent #LargeFears Twitter chat. This month’s theme was: “Where are the Afro-Latinxs in American History?” Special guests included Torrey Maldonado, author of Secret Saturdays, Sofia Quintero, author of Show and Prove and Efrain’s Secret, and Robert Liu-Trujillo, a visual artist. The #LargeFears chats started as a continuation of support of diverse books after the publication of Large Fears, a self-published title by Myles E. Johnson and Kendrick Daye, funded through Kickstarter, about a queer black boy facing his greatest fears.

Below is the link to the Storify for the chat and covers of books by/about Afro-Latinxs in honor of Black History Month. Although, these titles should be supported every month of the year, and we vow to do our part by reading and reviewing more of them here.

https://storify.com/Dos_Twinjas/where-are-the-afro-latinx-in-american-history

 

         AfroLatinx1 AfroLatinx4 AfroLatinx8 AfroLatinx11 AfroLatinx23AfroLatinx13 AfroLatinx14 AfroLatinx15 AfroLatinx16 AfroLatinx17 AfroLatinx18 AfroLatinx19 AfroLatinx20 AfroLatinx21 AfroLatinx22