Posts tagged ‘Social Issues’

Sunny Side Up

Sunny Side Up.jpgTitle: Sunny Side Up
Author/Illustrator: Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Colorist: Lark Pien
ISBN: 9780545741651
Pages: 217 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2015.

”Are we going shopping for new swimsuits for the beach today?”
“Sunny, I have some bad news. We won’t be going to the beach house after all. Your dad thinks it’s best that we cancel the trip.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie.”
“But what about Deb? What about all our BIG PLANS?”
“We thought of something even more fun for you to do instead! We’re going to have you visit Grampa in Florida. You’ll get to fly down all by yourself! A ‘big girl’ trip. Doesn’t that sound fun?” (191-192)

Ten-year-old Sunny Lewin will not be visiting the beach house with her family and best friend as planned, but instead has been sent to Florida by herself to spend the remaining weeks of her summer vacation with her grandfather in a 55+ community. The only other person even close to her age is a boy named Buzz, the son of the care-taker. He introduces Sunny to catching lost cats and fishing golf balls out of the ponds to earn spending money for comics. As Sunny learns about the secrets these superheroes keep, her thoughts keep returning to the secrets in her own family that have forced her into this position. Should she have said something sooner? Should she say something now?

I spoke with a colleague about the problem with problem novels recently. Problem novels need to have it as an aspect of the novel, and not have the problem monopolize the plot. An African American character does not always have to overcome racism, a transgender person does not always have to come out of the closet, and a disabled person does not have to always triumph over adversity. As I mentioned in my review of the Great Good Summer, it’s important to see kids dealing with all sorts of problems.

But there is very little action in the sleepy senior citizens community in Florida. The big mystery of the book is why Sunny was sent to Florida, and readers don’t even realize there was a specific reason for this until half way through the book. While revealing her concerns eases her internalized tensions, it doesn’t really solve the problems that caused them, and her struggles aren’t well represented in the visual format of a graphic novel. Multiple flashbacks allude to something sinister, but it is vague and takes too long to develop. The bright colors conflict with the subject matter, which I hesitate to call more mature but is definitely different than the lighter fare of Roller Girls or Smile, which I think is the audience that would be appealed by the cover. I wonder if Sunny’s talk with her grandfather could really make a lasting impact in her life. Even in the author’s note, Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm state that they wrote the book “so younger readers who are facing these same problems today don’t feel ashamed like we did” and encourage readers to “reach out to family members and teachers and school counselors,” but doing that will not solve the initial problems that caused these feelings. This is a very different book then Babymouse or Squish, and I think readers will be surprised.

Finding Someplace

Finding Someplace.jpgTitle: Finding Someplace
Author: Denise Lewis Patrick
ISBN: 9780805047165
Pages: 214 pages
Publisher/Date: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, c2015.

”We’re trapped up here!” she shouted. […]
Reesie held her breath as first his feet disappeared, then his knees. Just as his face vanished, they heard loud splashing. His head popped up again. When he crawled off the ladder, he was wet from the waist down. Reesie saw his eyes and knew how scared he was. Her heart thumped.
“We gotta get on the roof,” he said, reaching for the crowbar. “Miss M, I’m sorry but we have to bust it up.”
”What?” both girls yelled at once.
“Calm it down, a’ight? Yeah, the roof. How else are we gonna get out of here?” (88-89)

Reesie (short for Theresa) Boone is looking forward to her thirteenth birthday party. Everyone else is looking at the upcoming storm, which the news forecasts is going to be the big one. Some neighbors and extended family members are evacuating, but Reesie’s father is on the police force and intent on staying at his post. When her mother gets stuck working at the hospital when the storm hits, Reesie must fend for herself during the storm. But after the storm hits and the water recedes, life does not return to normal, and Reesie wonders if it ever will.

Ressie is a realistic character who grows and changes as a result of the events and decisions she is forced to face. In the beginning she focuses on her birthday and party, and by the end she is thinking more about her family and world as a whole. She is bright, intelligent, and has a good head on her shoulders even while her actions are in line with what a teenager would do in those situations. Her family is equally realistically portrayed, with a variety of opinions expressed regarding responsibility to their community and their family, and what action should be taken. It was such a juxtaposition when her brother, who is away at college, calls before the storm to encourage her to evacuate, and then mentions in passing he has a date that evening. It reinforces the idea that life continues elsewhere in the world when a disaster hits, even as people impacted by the storm are hard-pressed to think of anything else and have priorities that are incomparable to anyone who didn’t experience them first hand.

It’s refreshing to see not just the time before and during the storm, but the story follows the family for months as they deal with the fallout and aftermath. Arguments arise, relationships change, and Ressie is faced with an unclear future, tensions at home and school, and nightmares. Readers are privy to all the uncertainties, rather than the glamorized survival instincts that a few other books focus on during their narrative. As we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the storm just months ago, it’s important to remember that even though the storm has passed, the work is just beginning and even 10 years later continues.

Space Dumplins

This week, in honor of World Space Week, we’ve got reviews featuring space, in all it’s many forms. Today, I’m presenting an action packed space adventure by an award-winning graphic novelist.

GRX050 Silver Six COV TEMPLATETitle: Space Dumplins
Author/Illustrator: Craig Thompson
ISBN: 9780545565431
Pages: 316 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc., c2015.

Violet Marlocke’s father is a lumberjack in a futuristic space-age time and her mother works as a fashion designer for a pretentious boss who only cares about next season’s trends. Lumberjacks in this alternate reality don’t cut down trees, but harvest and transports whale poop produced by giant flying space whales, which is then processed into energy. One whale has recently eaten Violet’s school, and areas in the path of destruction are being evacuated. When Violet’s father goes missing after a whale diarrhea environmental disaster, she heads off in a slightly restored space junker, along with a young chicken and a lumpkin, who’s contrariness is seen not just in his attitude but his uncharacteristically short and round body, resembling a walking talking kidney bean. Enlisting the helps of her father’s lumberjack buddies, Violet quickly realizes that there is more happening than she realized, her father’s life is on the line, and her actions might affect more than one family.

Rather than stick to a monochromatic scheme like some graphic novelists, Craig Thompson’s latest creation is literally BURSTING with color, starting with the raised lettering on the cover for the title. The roids, or asteroid belt, where Violet and her family work is the darker shades, lending to its recognizable position as lower class. By comparison, the space station reminds me of the Capital from The Hunger Games series, with overly prejudiced and super stylized citizens in neon and bright shades. Whale poop is portrayed as clingy green goo, reminiscent of the slime made in science class or seen on Nickelodeon, and the whales are bold purple. Even the aliens and fashions and ships are unique, with some of the aliens having claws, suction-shaped fingers, or appendages protruding from their heads. The details are also incredible, down to the tattoos on Violet’s father, which are distinct, identifiable, and most certainly contain significance, even if we don’t figure it out.

The plot is smart and sophisticated as well. Elliot the chicken has a dream journal and cites Biblical references. There’s commentary about socioeconomic classes, prejudices, environmental disasters, unions, and government conspiracies. At one point when talking with Elliot, Violet comments “You must go crazy cooped up here all the time.” and Elliot responds “COOP? Please no speciesist slurs.” Two panels later (on the same page), Violet deadpans “So, you’re no FREE-RANGE CHICKEN, huh?” (41) and we’re not quite sure if she meant it as a “slur” or seriously. The ending reminds me of Men in Black, and I even liked the epilogue, even if it does get slightly hokey/preachy towards the end. With plenty of action and subplots, this is meant for invested and engaged readers. For fans of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or any slapstick, unimaginable science fiction space odyssey that somehow meshes into a coherent, believable, and satisfying read, this one will surely entertain both kids and adults. This is poop humor done right.

Princeless 1

PrincelessTitle: Princeless (first four issues)
Author: Jeremy Whitley
Illustrators: M. Goodwin (art and colors) and Jung Ha Kim (letters)
ISBN: 9781939352545
Pages: Unpaged (128 pages)
Publisher/Date: Action Lab Entertainment, c2015

That very day, the prince and princess were married. They lived happily ever after and had lots of beautiful children. The End.
“That story is complete hogwash. [..] First of all, it’s full of plot holes. I mean, really, what kind of dragon dies with one blow? Not to mention, how did he get her down from that tower?”
“I suppose he climbed.”
“Climbed? Climbed Mom? He climbed ‘the tallest of tall towers’. Then managed to get the helpless princess of his down without any kind of magic? Did you see that girl’s arms? They’re PIPE CLEANERS! She’s not climbing down anything! […] And how did she get up there in the first place? Who has the kind of grudge against this beautiful princess that they would lock her in a tower? […] Plus where do you even buy a dragon? Dragons are wild animals! You’re going to put that thing in charge of your daughter? What if it wanders off? What if it eats her? […] All I know is, when I turn sixteen, you and dad had better not lock me in some tower.”

Oh, but that’s exactly what happens to Adrienne, is she gets locked in a tower guarded by a dragon waiting to be rescued. After several princes get eaten and one runs away screaming, she takes matters into her own hands. Breaking both herself and her dragon Sparky free, they begin a quest to rescue the rest of her sisters from their respective towers. Returning to her home leads to a case of mistaken identity, and now she’s running from her own guards. Will a plucky blacksmith’s daughter with her own ideas of women warriors be an asset to her quest?

Remember all those good things I said about Nimona, and how it subtly alluded to cultural tropes regarding superheroes, feminism, and tradition? Place all those things in glaring, blinding, glowing neon skyscraper height letters, and you get Princeless. Plastered on the front cover is a quote from Comics Alliance hailing it as “the story Disney should have been telling for the past twenty years,” but I feel that’s true only if Disney was being run by overly politically correct government officials. In less than two hundred pages we cover:

  • anti-feminist messages of old-fashioned fairy tales (quoted above)
  • blatant recognition of sexism in the costumes of female heroes (“What I’m saying is why should a woman’s armor have to show cleavage or stomach? […] Why not make real armor, which would actually be effective in a fight for a woman warrior?”)
  • the mistaken emphasis of women’s worth as a commodity instead of a companion that persists in some cultures even today (“And the worst part is, all he wanted was money for her”)
  • patriarchal views of the role of women in society (“It is not a woman’s place to rule, but to be ruled.”) and
  • the stereotyping against “feminine” qualities in men and “masculine” qualities in women.

Why don’t we just use Bedelia’s giant hammer to pound feminist philosophies into everyone’s head, as that would be about as subtle as this book. I guess for some people it’s necessary to be this obvious, but it seriously impacted my enjoyment of the story, not because I disagree with the messages. I agree whole heartedly that young girls need realistic role models of all types in literature, and have long wished that more superheroes took the functional female route instead of the spandex bikini-clad boobs and butts. However, let the story prove the point, and don’t make medieval characters spout modern-day political talking points ever dozen or so pages.

Now don’t misunderstand, I did enjoy the premise of the story. The details were really key, with Princess Adrienne actually falling off her dragon the first time she hops on due to the lack of a proper saddle. I like her ingenuity when it comes to getting herself out of trouble. Her ethnicity, minus one early mention about how she will never be a “fair maiden”, amazingly goes largely unremarked upon but is unquestionable in the illustrations. Princess Adrienne has an admirable attitude, not similar to Junie B. Jones but more to that point that she knows what makes sense and she’s not afraid say what she’s thinking. I’m hopeful the series will become less about what other comics and fairy tales are lacking and more about the good qualities that this storyline offers. There are certain scenes that really steal the show, especially the last one with Adrienne’s sister, and those are the types of scenes that I want to see more. A good, promising start if you’re willing to dodge the propaganda when necessary.

Swing Sisters

Swing SistersTitle: Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm
Author: Karen Deans
Illustrator: Joe Cepeda
Pages: unpaged
ISBN: 9780823419708
Publisher/Date: Holiday House, c2015.

Dr. Jones loved music and wanted the children to love it too. In 1939 he started a school band that was just for girls, and he called it the Sweethearts.

Started as an fundraiser for a African American orphanage founded in 1909, the Sweethearts soon became something more. They played in the beginning for schools and church groups. When the musicians aged out of the orphanage, they stayed together, playing all over the country, including at the Howard Theater in Washington to an audience of 35,000 people and overseas in Europe for the troops during World War II. For years they quietly broke Jim Crow laws, allowing any women who could jump, jive, and swing on an instrument to join their band. This caused problems with some folks, forcing some of their members to sneak out of their bus and head to the train station via taxi rather than getting caught by the police in the company of African Americans. Eventually, the group disbanded as the women pursued other goals and interests, like other jobs or families.

It’s interesting to learn about an African American orphanage during the 1900s that taught literacy skills to children many saw as underprivileged, when so many African American children weren’t taught how to read or write. With sparse writing that conveys just enough information for younger readers which the book is geared toward, it’s a welcome addition that websites, books, and documentaries are available for those who would like to learn more, including a NPR broadcast and a Smithsonian feature from a few years ago. While just a blip in music, women’s, and African American histories, these trail blazers have not been forgotten, even if — as one interview remarks — few recordings of their work are still around.

The illustrations are multicolored and textured, and the oil and acrylic paintings lend a texture, similar to cracked paint, that encourage a lingering look and give it an old time feel. The crowd scenes are equally impressive as many of the people have distinguishing characteristics and skin tones, and the period clothing is quite colorful. The closing scenes of a silhouetted band playing in front of a sunset orange and yellow hued background, paired with an older women passing along a trumpet to a younger girl, reflect the closing sentiments of the book. “Those Sweethearts didn’t know it at the time, but they helped open doors for women of all backgrounds.” (unpaged)

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Last Stop on Market Street

Each month for my job, I write a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ll be expanding that idea to the blog in a new feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Last Stop on Market StreetTitle: Last Stop on Market Street
Author: Matt De La Pena
Illustrator: Christian Robinson
ISBN: 9780399257742
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, published by the Penguin Group, c2015.
Published: January 8, 2015

CJ and his grandmother ride the bus across town to Market Street after church. Along the way, CJ questions why they have to wait in the rain and ride the bus when other folks get to drive in cars. Nana emphasizes the positives, like listening to music and meeting new people, which helps CJ realize all the good things that surround him. Sappy, yes. Didactic, no. Nana has a no-nonsense persona, and the smiles on everyone’s faces places CJ questions at inquisitive instead of impertinent. Chain link fences and litter in the street allude to where they are, but the soup kitchen destination is mentioned only once, and the ending is a small twist showing that no matter how little you think you have, you can always give something. A nice introduction to the concept of giving back and volunteering.

The Last Great Walk

Last Great WalkTitle: The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk From New York to San Francisco, and Why It Matters Today
Author: Wayne Curtis
ISBN: 9781609613723
Pages: 236 pages
Publisher/Date: Rodale Inc., c2014.

I first came across a mention of Edward Payson Weston about twenty years ago. […] I happened upon a brief wire service story about a man’s cross-country journey on foot in 1909. I skimmed enough to get the gist — a seventy-year-old man was walking about forty miles a day for a hundred days en route from New York to San Francisco. Good for him, I thought, and then I scrolled ahead in search of the page I needed.
A few minutes later, I had another thought: Wait . . . what? Forty miles a day? A hundred days in a row? At seventy years old? (Introduction, xii)

Wayne Curtis probably describes his book best when he writes his introduction:

Part of my goal in this book is to explore, revive, and expand on the message that Weston was intent on publicizing — advocacy for the long walk, once common and now rare. As such, this book is only in part about a single man and his obsession, and just as much about mobility, about how we choose to get around and how that impacts the health of our bodies and our minds. Above all, it’s about what we lost when humans, starting roughly a century ago, opted to stop using their legs to get from here to there and instead chose to regularly climb into a metal box harnessed to a series of small explosions. Some of what happened in the intervening century you might easily guess, but much of it you might not. Walking is more complexly knitted into our bodies and minds than you might think. How we move can determine our relationship to the land and people around us and even, to some degree, how we understand ourselves.
Not walking, I believe, is one of the most radical things we’ve ever decided to do. Here’s why. (Introduction, xviii)

To say that Curtis has an agenda is an understatement. We seem glimpses of Weston’s walk framed by free-ranging commentary involving the evolution of humans (both physical and mental), urban planning, technology, pedestrian patterns, and societal statistics such as number of hours spent watching television and walkability ratings for neighborhoods. But people who pick up this book are more than likely looking for just this sort of justification for walking and slowing down, assuming an almost existentialist philosophy towards the task. Just as people who dislike witchcraft aren’t going to read Harry Potter, people who dislike walking aren’t going to read this book.

However, it’s also the sort of book that may provoke thoughtful discourse between like-minded individuals, compiling fodder for future conversations. For instance, I’ve had a long personal belief about how long I’m willing to drive to get to a destination. Turns out this may be influenced by prehistoric habits. Curtis presents research by Cesare Marchetti that proposes humans have been willing to spend about an hour in unsheltered transit before retreating from the threat of being exposed to possible threats like enemies and the elements, and that constant has maintained itself, simply expanding as we are able to travel faster and farther in the same amount of time. The 2009 US Census Bureau data supports this philosophy, reporting the mean one-way commute is about 25 minutes (so an hour both ways). A Gallup poll confirms this by reporting the average American spends 190 hours a year (about 30 minutes a day) commuting. Although, Curtis also quotes an unnamed study that hours in delayed in traffic has increased from seven hours annually in 1982 to twenty-six hours in 2001. (131-133, 53)

The book is filled with those type of statistics that you’ll kick yourself for never fully remembering, but always remember the impact that they allude to. A few more to whet your curiosity:

  • Melvin Webber “noted that one’s perception of what constitutes a mile varies depending on the speed of travel. So it turns out it’s not just the actual exertion of walking a mile that dissuades many from taking to foot, but that they have also developed the belief that a given trip is far longer than it actually is.” (drivers thought distances were twice as much as what they actually were, whereas walkers and bikers were much more accurate) (109)
  • “In 1969, about half of all schoolkids still walked to school; 41 percent of all students lived within a mile of their school, and 89 percent of these students walked. […] Today, only 13 percent of America’s children walk to school.” (54)
  • “According to a 2009 Nielsen survey, the average American watches about 151 hours of television a month, or about 5 hours every day.” (52) “after the age of twenty-five, every hour of watching television reduced life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.” (54-55)
  • “While different studies arrive at moderately different conclusions via various routes, the recent research of dozens of scientists more often than not converges at a single intersection. And that consistently suggests that if you exercise, your brain will be fitter than if you don’t.” (97)
  • The same can also be said towards physical health, as skimming over study results yields benefits by reducing the risk of coronary disease, stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, gallstones prevention, immune dysfunction, adult-onset asthma, arthritis, and osteoporosis, and cancer. (68-69)

For a book covering an actual walk, I was more intrigued by the above mentioned statistics and studies and the historical, psychological, and physical evolution brought about by walking than I was about Weston’s vague (and more than likely biases) reports regarding weather, landscape, reception, and conditions in general. I was somewhat surprised that there were no images. No maps of Weston’s route, which is described with varying degrees of precision and details, no pictures of Weston, and no charts to support the multitude of statistics presented in the pages. For all of that (minus the charts), you’ll have to visit the website. Upon arrival, you receive an interactive Google Map with individual points plotted based on newspaper articles. Sources are broken down by chapter on the website. While I understand he was making the book more approachable for the general public, I wish footnotes and a full source notes had been included in the printed copy, so as to better guide further research into various quoted statistics. There seems to be an influx in interest in walking and voluntary isolation (Wild, Into the Wild, Castaway, to name a few) and this book supplements all those introspective self-reflections with science. It’s a worthwhile, thought-provoking read for meandering minds and bodies.


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