Review: That Asian Kid by Savita Kalhan

I (Leah) was delighted when Savita Kalhan asked if I’d liked to review That Asian Kid. I pretty much immediately said, of course, even before she had a chance to tell me anything about it! Last summer, I absolutely adored (even as it was an incredibly difficult read) Savita’s The Girl in the Broken Mirror, so I had high hopes for Jeevan’s story.

I wasn’t disappointed.

That-Asian-Kid-FINAL

It would be easy to identify That Asian Kid as a YA novel about racism. However, it is so much more. It’s the story of a British teenager, Jeevan, as he’s getting ready to sit his GCSEs (there isn’t really a US equivalent to this one!), hanging out with friends, meeting girls, navigating parents (and one brilliant grandmother), and social media. 

Indeed, social media – particularly the ethics of posting something that is technically yours, because you filmed it, but that is also to some degree not yours because it of other people, without their knowledge or consent – is central to That Asian Kid

Synopsis (from Amazon): Despite his hard work and brains, Jeevan, is doing badly in his GCSE English literature class. His teacher, Mrs Greaves, dislikes him intensely and Jeevan is convinced that he is the victim of racial prejudice. Can he stand up for what’s right? When he comes upon her in the woods outside school in a compromising situation with another teacher, Jeevan can’t help but film the scene on his phone. With this secret new ammunition at his fingertips – dare he upload it to social media?

If you’re looking to purchase the book,
I’d highly recommend your
local independent bookshop.
Even better, why not see if your local,
public library has purchased it
(if they haven’t, ask them to!)

Never would I give the plot away (go read it), but I will say: the ‘other teacher’ is Mr Green, Jeevan’s favourite, which certainly adds to Jeevan’s anxiety around posting, or not, the video, a question that becomes increasingly fraught as Mrs Greaves actions become increasingly racist.   

Interestingly, while I found Mrs Greaves utterly deplorable (there is a scene in the novel I’m sure I read just as wide-eyed and agog as Kalhan narrates Jeevan), I disliked Mr Green – yup, Jeevan’s favourite teacher – and Mr Rawson, the school’s head, more. These two ostensibly good men continually stand up for Greaves even in the face of mounting ‘evidence’ that her behaviour is racially driven and that she is explicitly targeting Jeevan. In Mr Green’s case, there is also a failure to immediately and publicly denounce her actions once racial prejudice becomes, even, utterly undeniable. 

Their support of Greaves, even as Green calls our her out in private, is tantamount to supporting her racism – in Green’s case, it felt even worse: he ‘gets it’ and yet doesn’t speak out and up. So, while Greaves is the ‘baddie’, Green and Rawson demonstrate just how embedded White privilege is. 

But, I mentioned above, the novel isn’t just about the racism Jeevan experiences; it’s also about being a teenager. And, the thing I loved most about That Asian Kid: Jeevan’s fabulous group of friends. Dread, Sandi, and Jeevan are such a great trio, despite and because of their differences. I loved reading their interactions with one another and the continued support and camaraderie throughout everything – even girlfriends!   

Definitely not one to miss – trust me, you need to know if he posts the video or not – and it’s now! Check your favourite local bookshop and tell your library to order it (if they haven’t already). 

You can also follow along with the rest of the blog tour…

Blog Tour Klaxon! We’re reviewing Savita Kalhan’s That Asian Kid

One to watch for, Leah Phillips will be reviewing Savita Kalhan’s latest book That Asian Kid on 2 September!

While you wait, check out my review for Savita’s The Girl in the Broken Mirror.

THIS book is out in August and follows Jeevan as he faces decides what to do with some dirt he has on a teacher who seems to have it out for him…

(What would you do?!)

TAK blog tour banner

CONFERENCE REVIEW: ‘Highlights of 2019’s Academic YA Headliner – Being Human In YA’ by Seán Kavanagh.

Following the UK’s YA academic event of the year, Being Human in YA, our latest YALMC contributor Seán Kavanagh, shares his experiences and highlights of this stellar event.

On the 17th of May 2019, the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (University of Roehampton) hosted Being Human In YA, a symposium aimed at addressing this key topic in YA fiction at a moment where the term identity and what it defines are being explored.Being Human in YA Emily

Being Human in YA is the 3rd (only!) UK event focusing solely on YA literature, following 2017’s Identities in YA at the University of Northampton and 2018’s Reading YA at the University of Birmingham. The Being Human in YA symposium was organised by Emily Corbett, a doctoral student at the NCRCL whose research interests include YA literature, in particular LGBTQIA+ YA with an emphasis on the T. Emily is also Administration Coordinator for the Trans Studies Network UK and co-organiser of the upcoming Thinking Beyond: Transversal Transfeminisms symposium, which will be held at the University of Roehampton in July 2019.

The symposium was opened by keynote speaker Dr Alison Waller, who spoke on the theme of the ordinary in YA. Unfortunately, due to traveling from a parallel dimension (AKA northwest London) I only arrived for the closing comments, but having studied under Alison, I’m sure it was an engaging discussion, seemingly centring around the reclaiming of the ordinary and the everyday, using examples from among others two novels by Patrick Ness, The Rest Of Us Just Live Here (2016) and Release (2018). As a huge fan of Ness and these two novels I was disappointed to miss the talk, but I’m know it covered points that I found fascinating in these works, the importance of everyday moments, the significance and impact that something seemingly inconsequential can have on a developing identity. Release, set over a single day (I caught the phrase ‘circadian novel’ in Alison’s closing remarks) deals with all the moments that make up a day in the life of Adam Thorn, supercharging them into moments of decision that shift the course of Adam’s future. The Rest Of Us Just Live Here tells the story of the non-heroes, those just trying to get by while the ‘indie-kid’ heroes battle vampiric demons from outer space. Not everyone can be the Chosen One – and that’s ok.

Being Human in YA Programme Cover

The symposium then split into parallel sessions, and I stepped upstairs for a session on the human versus the non-human by Deborah Williams and the impact on readers of extreme representations of refugee experiences by Julia Hope.

Deborah Williams: Witches, Monsters and Questions of Nation: Humans and Non-Humans in Akata Witch and Trail of Lightning

Deborah Williams’s talk focused on two novels: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (2010) and Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (2018). In both novels, the protagonists sit uncomfortably in the human world, coming into their own when they pass through, what Williams referred to, as the porous barrier between the human and non-human worlds. The novels also orient the reader away from the human world and the ‘American century’, characterised by hierarchies of dominance – of identity based around nation states and borders, towards a world that is ancient and animate, a world that is less concerned with human concerns, where survival depends more on cooperation and community than concepts like national identity and the borders between nation states. Needless to say, this is a world where the characters challenge the status quo of representation, and is also ripe for critiquing capitalism and positing a pro-environmental position as a resistance to the mainstream, particularly where the mainstream is not beneficial for the majority of society. This might lead to the creation of certain identity profiles, such as whiteness, in opposition to the non-human, but Williams argues, and as Okarafor has pointed out several times on her Twitter feed, whiteness is not the default or the reference point in these works – in fact, whiteness is irrelevant. Focusing on whiteness would lead to a place where the non-human, the world around us, is ignored to the detriment and potential destruction of the human.

Julia Hope: Humane and empathetic? How far should YA novels go in exposing the worst horrors of the refugee experience?

Julia Hope gave an interesting paper focusing on Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow (2016), a novel that details the experiences of Subhi in an Australian internment camp for Rohingya refugees. Hope’s work led her to notice an increase in the number of publications detailing refugee experiences, and she wondered if this increase would lead to greater empathy from the reader, or have the opposite effect. While it’s recognized that reading can lead to greater empathic skills in children, Hope quoted the renowned scholar Maria Nikolajeva, who said that empathy is not a natural capacity. Empathy is therefore something to be taught or encouraged and a key way to do that is through reading. However, Hope’s concern is that increasingly violent representations will turn children away from publications that detail such experiences or even experience a numbing reaction instead of the intended caring response, particularly for younger children who may not be emotionally prepared for the violence in the text.

Amnesty International recommends The Bone Sparrow for children of around ten years old and up yet Hope pointed out a number of potential issues with Fraillon’s book for children of this age, including the extreme violence that is shown: lips sewn shut by refugees in protest as well as rioting and a violent beating that results in the death of one of the main characters. Metatexts that accompany Fraillon’s book include a postscript aimed at older or adult readers, sending mixed messages about the intended audience, and Amnesty International worksheets that require the reader to match quotes from The Bone Sparrow with images of real internment camps, bringing the fiction of the book even closer to the lived reality of refugees. Will the vicariousness of the experience bring the reader closer to or distance them from the subject? Quotes included some from children demonstrating a lack of engagement with the text and a potentially adverse reaction to the scenes of extreme violence.

Further questions were raised on Fraillon’s experiences of refugee camps – Hope could find no evidence that Fraillon had been to any as part of her research process – and the issue of the white savior, both in the novel’s conclusion and in the figure of Fraillon herself as a white author writing her version of a refugee experience.

Dr Leah Phillips: Reframing Girlhood in Mythopoeic YA 

Being Human in YA Leah

The first plenary session was led by Dr Leah Phillips and focused on the topic of her forthcoming book, mythopoeic YA, and tackled the subject of how this genre can be used to reframe the concept of girlhood. Traditionally, mythopoeic YA – a genre that features the creation of mythologies in its texts, features the white male body as ‘essentially adolescent’: it is what teenagers are. Philips outlined how deconstructing this hero’s position of power can be a useful tool in reframing girlhood, which is typically positioned in opposition to the male hero i.e. what he is not. With the male body as default, it is actually ‘missing’ from mythopoeic YA – not described precisely because it is considered the default, its existence and features assumed. Yet the body is arguably even more important for female characters given the cultural emphasis on changes in female bodies during adolescence. Indeed, the body of a teenage girl can be considered othered by this emphasis, the mystery around physical changes in adolescent female bodies situating them as different from the male.

This emphasis on difference has led to the exceptional female hero. Phillips used Katniss Everdeen from the film versions of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, focusing on Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of the heroine, her physical presence, athletic able body that functions as a tool analoguous to the male body, and her exceptional archery skills. Phillips contrasted this with works by Leigh Bardugo and Marissa Meyer, which feature female misfits as heroines rather than idealised female figures.

Anthony Stepniak: When Selfhood dominates the (Sub)Text: Sexuality, Selfhood and the notion of Becoming in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Anthony Stepniak tackled the issue of selfhood in one of my favourite YA novels, Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012). Stepniak highlighted the fact that this is not a novel marketed explicitly as a ‘gay’ novel. The book doesn’t deal so much with Ari’s development into a HomosexualTM as it deals with the development of one person’s feeling for another. While works that deal openly with teens embracing a gay identity are important, Sáenz’s focus on emotional development can be a refreshing alternative to the commodification of homosexuality within a capitalist heterosexual framework. In a way this makes the novel more accessible, since a rainbow-bedecked volume may appear less approachable to a closeted teen or indeed one who is simply searching.

Stepniak focused on Ari’s psychosexual development and the curious fact that the development of Ari’s feelings for his friend Dante are never directly addressed by Ari himself, in a brilliant execution by Sáenz. Rather, Ari develops into a ‘whole person’ as the novel progresses and the reader witnesses the growth of his sexual identity through subtextual elements. Ari’s subconscious desires are reflected in the lack of marketing of the book as explicitly gay, mentioned earlier, and the lack of labeling throughout the text. Indeed, Stepniak argued that at the beginning of the novel, Ari is little more than a shadow, almost non-existent – he is the little brother who could not be (since his elder brother, in jail for murder, has been effaced entirely from Ari’s household), and he is a shadow, almost Gothic, of Dante, who is very extroverted and who in contrast to Ari seems to already know who he is. Stepniak mentioned Julia Kristeva’s interpretation of the abject, where there is a breakdown between the self and the Other. Ari inhabits this space, in opposition to a normative lifestyle, but throughout the text he develops into or (becomes) himself. Ari’s becoming can be traced through Dante’s portraits of Ari: first unseen sketches, then a covered painting, and finally a fully realized portrait. Through his art, Dante figuratively draws Ari into being at the same time as Ari embraces his entry into the Symbolic and embraces his feelings for Dante.

Dr Lucy Andrew: ‘I haven’t got any options!’: Draco Malfoy, school-shooter fiction and adolescent identity crisis

This paper focused on one of the more adult elements of the Harry Potter series as it transitioned from a clue-puzzle school-based form to a more adult open crime narrative. Andrew positioned book 6 in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, as a threshold text, and it is in this book where Draco Malfoy develops beyond a two-dimensional ‘baddie’, always in opposition to the hero, Harry, into a complex character in his own right.

In the first five books of the series, Malfoy is a stable and static character, achieving the zenith of his power in book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, as a member of Dolores Umbridge’s Inquisitorial Squad. but Lucius Malfoy’s fall from grace after the debacle at the Ministry of Magic at the end of book 5, puts Draco in an impossible situation. Used as a pawn by Lord Voldemort as vengeance on Lucius, Draco is obliged to kill Albus Dumbledore, an almost impossible task and one which leads Draco to more and more desperate measures as he is forced to make a choice about who he wants to be. Draco feels powerless, and becomes a lonely and bullied victim in a role reversal with his nemesis, Harry, who develops into an ever stronger figure throughout the series. Indeed, Draco has been a victim of violence throughout, whether he is being punched by Hermione or transfigured into a ferret. Andrew explained how the violence experienced by Malfoy turns from the comic to dramatic as its impact on him endangers not only Draco himself, but others through the actions Draco feels driven to, eventually leading to Dumbledore’s death and challenging the myth of the school as a safe space. Crucially, however, Draco chooses not to kill Dumbledore. Instead he uses a disarming spell, Expelliarmus – otherwise known as Harry’s trademark and mocked by Voldemort, though it leads to his downfall while technically being a defensive rather than offensive spell. Draco’s decision not to kill Dumbledore contains echoes of Dumbledore’s own words in Philosopher’s Stone : “it takes a great deal of courage to stand up to one’s enemies, and even more to stand up to one’s friends”. As ever, Harry Potter shows us the nuances of grey that make up the world and comparing Draco to a school shooter highlights the complex nature behind such acts of atrocity.

Amy Waite: Teeming Stomachs and Infinite Spirals: Posthuman Anxiety in John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down and Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here

Amy Waite took us into the world of microbiology with John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down and Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here in response to narratives of empowerment that tend to dominate post-human discourse. Waites focuses on protagonists Aza and Mike as they deal with the intricacies of ordinary life, a topic which resonates with Alison Waller’s opening speech. Aza and Mike both suffer from OCD, Aza’s manifesting in a fixation with the human microbiome and Mike’s in excessive handwashing. Both characters are fixated on their selves and identities and the question of where the self ends and the other begins. For Aza, the idea of being populated or colonized by bacteria, the fact that she is in a symbiotic relationship with millions of organisms that are not her, is hard to swallow – even more so when she ponders that, post-kiss, her love interest’s bacteria are now integrated into her biome for evermore. Mike, meanwhile, finds himself trapped in loops where he washes his hands until they bleed, the encroaching compulsion driven by anxiety about his place in the world. Neither character can fully trust their own bodies.

In a direct contrast to supposedly empowering fantasy narratives where dystopian tyrannies are toppled by teen heroes and the ‘Quest’ is clear from the start, presenting a straightforward challenge for an able-bodied and -minded protagonist, it’s instead the ontological question of where the self fits into the world that drives these novels by Green and Ness and Waite focuses on a topic that will resonate with many readers. It certainly did with me.

Emily Corbett: “I’m a girl. A real girl. At last.”: Transgender Bodies in Young Adult Superhero Fiction

In the final paper of the day, Emily Corbett, the symposium organiser, introduced what sounds like a fascinating series to me: the Nemesis series by April Daniels, featuring trans superhero Dreadnought. Danielle Tozer, a trans teen, inherits the dying Dreadnought’s abilities, causing her body to change from biologically male to female. Danielle is pleased that, as the title to the paper suggest, she is finally a ‘real’ girl. But what does that mean, and where is Danielle’s newly re-gendered body situated by this transition? Corbett referenced  Sandy Stone’s “binary phallocentric myth’ and examined the positioning by Daniels of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ bodies in a narrative that simultaneously deconstructs the gender binary but also  foregrounds an ideology motivated by the idea that only a particular body is the right body for a particular gender – in this case, the normative female body. Danielle is pleased to have the body she has long desired but is upset and questions her femininity when it transpires after a medical examination that she is infertile. Is she female enough? Is she ‘finished’, her transformation complete? Or does she still have the wrong body, despite her outward appearance? Again, this paper touched on the notion of the self in relation to the human body, and that body’s position in the world and viewed by others, including not only Danielle’s family but also her superhero peers. A fitting end to a day of excellent papers.

YA Group Pic BHIYA

 

As someone who focuses on YA both academically and creatively, this symposium was informative, giving me ideas both for directions to consider for my upcoming dissertation and my creative work. A huge thank you to Emily Corbett and everyone else involved in organising what proved to be a fantastic day.

Sean Headshot

 

 

 

 

Seán Kavanagh is an MA student at the University of Roehampton with the NCRCL. Seán’s current research focuses are folk and fairy tales with a special interest in YA fairy tale retellings and queer YA. You can connect with Seán on Twitter @seangkavanagh and via his blog

Flash Review: What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera – Jennie Gouck

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From the blurb:

Arthur is only in New York for the summer, but if Broadway has taught him anything, it’s that the universe can deliver a showstopping romance when you least expect it. Ben thinks the universe needs to mind its business. If the universe had his back, he wouldn’t be carrying a box of his ex-boyfriend’s things.

But when the boys have a chance meeting at the post office, they leave wondering what exactly the universe does have in store for them.

What if – in a city of eight million people – they can’t find each other again?

What if they do … and then can’t nail a first date even after three do-overs?

What if Arthur tries too hard to make it work and Ben doesn’t try hard enough?

What if life really isn’t like a Broadway play?

But what if it is?

What if it’s us?

 

Review by Jennie Gouck:

If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts…well, this novel would have a very merry Christmas.

Set in New York City, this collaborative title from (LGBTQ+) YA powerhouses Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera capture the essence of young love in one of the most vibrant places on earth.

Arthur Seuss, a dreamer and musical-lover from Georgia, is in the Big Apple for the Summer, having taken up an internship at his mother’s lawyer’s firm. He sees New York as a city of opportunity, the kind of place you can only look at with awe as your eyes drink in the bright lights of Times Square and dizzying heights of the skyscrapers on every corner. He dreams of seeing Hamilton on Broadway, of one day going to Yale, and of falling in love.

Meanwhile, Ben Alejo, a New York native from Alphabet City is more pragmatic. He’s been burned by The Universe one too many times and carries a hurt from his recent break-up with his boyfriend, Hudson. While he’s creative, privately writing his fantasy novel The Wicked Wizard War, school hasn’t gone so well for him, either, and he finds himself spending his holidays in Summer school in a desperate attempt to pass Junior Year and become a Senior with the rest of his friends. Ben’s Puerto Rican, working-class heritage is a sore-spot for him. Yale (or any college, really) is a pipe dream. Plus, he looks ‘too white’ and doesn’t speak enough Spanish to hang out with the other Puerto Rican kids, yet doesn’t feel at home with his peers who aren’t of colour. Ben, it seems, is an occupant of The Inbetween.

What If It’s Us follows Arthur and Ben as they attempt to navigate the beginnings of their relationship in the city that never sleeps, all the while tumbling toward Summer’s end. ‘Do-overs’ are a theme throughout the book; first dates and second-first-dates, writing and re-writing their story to find a scenario that matches who – and what – they want to be. The chapters alternate between Arthur and Ben’s point of view, sweeping us up in their whirlwind romance. The narrative is unstable. It’s rocky. It climbs to the top of the rollercoaster before throwing us through the loop-de-loop with reckless abandon. It reminds us that, even in New York, relationships aren’t what they seem in the movies. They aren’t Broadway musicals with a strongly defined beginning, middle, and end (although the tri-partite structure of What If It’s Us tries to trick us into thinking otherwise).

Most importantly, though, What If It’s Us is another book for the LGBTQ community – one which shows that not all queer narratives are ones laced with unimaginable sadness and hardship. The hardships here, from first date and first kiss nerves to meeting the parents, are like those faced in any other teenage romance. And that’s perfectly okay.

‘What If It’s Us’ (9781471176395) is due for release in the UK on 18thOctober 2018

Black Snow Falling (MacWhirter) – Flash Review and Author Q&A

BSF Front[1]

I was sent a copy of Black Snow Falling by Scotland Street Press in exchange for an honest review — I’m thrilled they reached out; I loved it.

Synopsis:

In 1592, a girl with spirit is a threat.

Ruth has secrets. An old book of heresy belonging to her long-absent father. A dream that haunts her. And love that she and Silas hide from the world.

When she is robbed of all she holds true, her friends from Crowbury slide into terrible danger. Hope is as faint as a moonbow. Dare Ruth trust the shadowy one who could destroy them all?

This is a story about hope overcoming evil, written with satisfying moral complexity. Ruth’s devastation breaks apart time. She sees that her hopes and dreams are a visceral halo of rainbow colours spinning to white… and that evil dream thieves are severing these halos from sleeping victims, many of whom she knows. Those disturbing dreams of black snow lead Ruth to a perilous discovery: one dream thief is connected to her past.

For young adults and up.

Before I even opened the book, I was hooked: secrets, heresy, black snow, a girl with spirit, dream thieves, hope. The premise felt simultaneously new and fresh as well as deeply rooted in the past — no small feat!

A time slip novel, the story opens with Jude’s dream being stolen, with dire consequences for his life, before transporting us to Ruth, some fifty years in the ‘future’ (it’s difficult to call 1592 the future). Ruth lives with her stepmother, stepsisters and an array of servants. Her father is off on an exploration. Yes, there’s a nod to Cinderella motifs, but it’s a nod more about the saturation of such material within our collective consciousness — a passage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a quote from Queen Elizabeth I paratextually frame the story — than it is about telling *another* Cinderella tale. The way in which MacWhirter handles the many, many threads of story is the treat of this novel.

So, in lieu of my ramblings, let’s have Liz tell you a bit more about Black Snow Falling (as well as a few cheekily requested recs!)
For those who haven’t yet read Black Snow Falling (BSF), could you tell us a little bit about it — without giving anything too important away?

In this Elizabethan fantasy, 15 year-old Ruth is betrayed and trapped by monstrous sexism. Her devastation splits apart time itself, where she encounters dream thieves coming to steal her hopes and dreams.

Dreams, dream thieves, black snow – what inspired BSF?

The idea came to me a long time ago in 2002. I was volunteering for a charity in Glen Etive in the north of Scotland with young adults who had all suffered a very hard start in life. One was telling me how much he wanted to become a gardener. I was struck by his strength. He’d faced more trauma than most of us will ever have to cope with, and yet he still had hope. I found myself wishing that nothing would ever happen that could snatch this away… a chilling What If? struck me.

What if our hopes and dreams were actual physical entities that could be stolen from us? A physical dream, I thought, would surely be close to our minds, where we imagine and think. They could look like the halos in old paintings, which symbolised purity… a white dream halo.

William Wordsworth called Glen Etive ‘the land of rainbows’, because of the many waterfalls and incredible light in this dramatic valley. Rainbows are an ancient symbol of hope. I imagined a rainbow arcing in the sky then plunging down into dark, hard places and out the other side, a circle. White light refracts into the colours of the rainbow. So a dream halo would start as a tiny circular rainbow and spin to white as it started imparting its goodness to the sleeper.

I loved the idea. I knew I had to write about this. Ruth and her haunting dream of black snow came to me later.

Given the timeslip elements – but also not through them alone! – there’s a deep sense of history, an embeddedness in place, and almost mythological feel to the novel. How difficult was it to weave the strands of story together? (or, did they perhaps weave you?).

Good question, thanks Leah. The idea felt so simple but the weaving together was a challenge. I think the creative process is often like this. It can start with a simple idea, then you have to write through the complexity until the story starts to feel simple again, as though it has always existed.

I felt the idea would best work as magical realism, placing my characters in a real setting where they could lose all hope. This would have happened more easily in the past when there was no safety net in society. So I chose the time of the Tudors for all its fascinating dynamics – it’s early modern Britain grating against tradition, which traps my characters, Ruth and Jude. I loved the research, finding documents such as the medical records and personal letters of Elizabeth I in a very old book in a second-hand bookshop.

What’s the publication story? I feel like I read (maybe on your blog?) that the novel was a project of love.

It took 16 years from first idea to publication! For most of those years, I was a lone parent working as an advertising copywriter. So I wrote in the margins of the day and couldn’t have persisted unless I completely loved the story. The novel inched forwards.

Around 2007, I had lunch with a lovely editor with a major publisher, who suggested making the time slips closer. Ultimately the rewritten MS didn’t receive an offer. The rejection, while ‘positive’, I found discouraging and had to set the story down. I started another novel set in WW2 Paris, spent over a year researching it and writing three chapters, then had to set it aside while writing a 30,000-word website for a client. When I returned to the WW2 novel, the urge to write it had vanished, although I may return to it one day. I re-read the manuscript for Black Snow Falling, completely loved it and saw exactly how I wanted to restructure it.

Another major publisher then considered it. Their feedback was that my writing was ‘very strong’ and the concept was ‘fantastic’ but sometimes overshadowed the main character, Ruth. I rewrote it, adding in another point of view: Ruth’s secret love, Silas. At the end of the process, for the first time I felt that the novel had reached that ‘simple’ place, where it just felt real. Sadly, it didn’t make acquisitions. The editor commented that I had cracked it, but that it was ‘too serious’ for their list at that point. The publisher who made a firm offer, Jean Findlay at Scotland Street Press, said that it’s that very seriousness that she loves.

After so many rewrites, it was ready. My agent was willing to take it to Bologna, but I felt that Jean ‘got’ the novel and I decided to go with this small traditional press. They may be tiny but they have seriously invested in its production. It’s a beautiful hardback with debossed silver foil. It looks gorgeous! I am so proud of it.

BSF is effectively a book about hope, as well as its absence, across centuries. Do you feel that’s a particularly important narrative for contemporary culture?

Yes, I feel hope is such an important narrative. There are so many things that can take hope away – the modern monsters of today – especially for young people. Some monsters are faceless, such as the climate crisis, the tyranny of the beauty myth for women or masculine stereotypes that won’t allow men to be vulnerable or fail, or bullying amplified by social media. Other monsters have faces, a politician, teacher or relative.

Perhaps by reading shadowy stories about myth and monsters, we can connect with our fear, and somehow, following the narrative, move through it. Once we do that, we can do something about it, like Ruth in Black Snow Falling. Whatever is frightening us, by facing it, we ask ourselves if it’s okay? If it’s not, we can make the first small step and do something about it. Even a small step makes a difference. Taking action creates hope – hope that things could be better in the future. Going on a climate protest march, or voting with our feet and leaving an abusive relationship, or telling someone about a bully. Otherwise, we can get stuck, and hope shrivels away.

BSF has been published as YA. Did you set out to write it as YA? Did it just happen? Did someone suggest it?

I’ve worked as a copywriter in advertising for years, so I have a fairly good nose for ideas and audiences / ages. When the idea came to me, it ‘felt’ like YA… a spirited girl coming of age, where hope is the driver for the story. I love writing YA.

When the manuscript was under submission, we had lots of feedback saying that they felt it was genuine crossover with adult fiction. Perhaps this is why it took a while to find the right publisher.

Could we have a few recommendations? Books, Netflix…

Stranger Thingson Netflix, for the upside down world. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel for making Cromwell and the time of Henry VIII feel so real. More than This by Patrick Ness for compelling science fiction.

Finally, anything else we *need* to know? About Black Snow Falling? About any works in progress?

Black Snow Falling is nominated for The First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. If you love it, please vote for it! My first ever book event was there on Saturday, Feisty Fantasy with Alice Broadway.

There’s a follow up bubbling away, but I’m currently writing a love story set 100 years earlier. There’s also a contemporary thriller set in a mining town in the North of England.

Thanks for interviewing me, Leah. I loved answering your questions.

 

L.J. MacWhirter[2]

L.J. MacWhirter was born just outside London, grew up in the North of England and today lives in Edinburgh with her husband and family. After studying English Literature she went on to become an award-winning creative copywriter. Black Snow Falling is her debut novel for young adults and up. @LizMacwhirter

 

Last but NOT least, Scotland Street Press is up to some pretty cool things, and they’re on twitter! @ScotlandStreetPress

Inclusive, Entertaining and Important: A brief account of ‘Queer Visibility in Young Adult Fiction’ by Emily Corbett (@emilycorbett11) and Anthony Stepniak (@ATStepniak)

As part of UCL’s Festival of Culture 2018, scholars, publishers, readers and lovers of all things YA gathered at London’s iconic Gay’s the Word bookstore for a panel discussion on ‘Queer Visibility in Young Adult Fiction’ (hosted by Dr Erica Gillingham (@ericagillingham) and UCL’s Catherine Thomson (@bluestripe77)). Erica chaired an engaging and provocative discussion between UCL’s Dr Alexandra Parsons (@alexandrparsons), Simon James Green (@simonjamesgreen) and Charlie Morris (@charlieinabook).

Queer YA 1

Queer YA 4Gay’s the Word, located in 66 Marchmont St, Kings Cross, London, was founded in 1979 and has rich cultural and historical importance within the contemporary LGBTQIA+ community. More recently the bookstore has found fame thanks to the 2014 UK film Pride (Dir Matthew Warchus). The film centres on the true story of the alliance formed between the Welsh miners and LGBTQIA+ activists – the latter helping the former during the 1984 miners’ strike in the UK – resulting in what is now officially called the ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners Campaign’ (LGSM). The portrayal of Gay’s the Word in Pride as the meeting hub of the campaigners has resulted in the bookstore reaching a new level of relevance in contemporary British Queer culture and beyond. All this is cemented by the blue plaque in the shop front in honour of Mark Ashton, co-founder of the LGSM.

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As two scholars, an author and a publicist took their seats in this iconic location, the panel shared their diverse experiences concerning all things queer YA. The panel began with a conversation about professional and personal overlap. Each panellist spoke of how their work had been inspired by their own queer YA experiences. For Simon, watching the 1996 film ‘Beautiful Thing’ was a ground-breaking moment – the first time he realised he was attracted to boys. Years later, Simon described, he writes with a knowledge of how life changing his books might be for someone.  Charlie remembered reading Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet (1998) and realising that queer women existed. She described that her career in marketing and publishing has been inspired by the desire to find and promote these queer voices. Alexandra similarly talked about wanting to read about her own experiences when she was a young adult, explaining that she’s driven by what she can do to make sure these books are published for, and read by, the people who need them. For each of them, queer visibility in YA literature, media and culture was paramount.

Erica then invited the panellists to explain what ‘queer visibility’ means in practice. Simon spoke of the importance of more and more queer characters. Alexandra advocated the need for queer characters to have agency visible to the reader and to the other characters in the books. She also emphasised the need for these books to sell and to be read. Charlie expressed a similar perspective. She stressed the importance of queer books being visible in the world – in book shops, libraries and in non-queer-specific spaces. The conversation shifted to considering how present the actual queer young adult is in the literary thought process. For Simon, they are very present. He described thinking about how his younger self would have felt, and how going into schools and meeting his young readers emphasises his responsibility as author. Charlie offered similar thoughts from a publishing perspective. She discussed the responsibility to see what young adults want in literature, including the opportunity to read about themselves and their friends. Simon also gave an example of how his literature had been shaped by these considerations. For his protagonist, Noah (Noah Can’t Even and Noah Could Never), a happy ending was essential. Simon felt that LGBTQIA+ YA literature often foregrounds darker issues to the detriment of representing positive experiences, something he wanted to rectify in his fiction.

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A particularly noteworthy topic of discussion was the effect the repeal of Section 28* has had on YA literature. As Simon said, Section 28 meant that LGTBQIA+ literature was not in his school library, and it would prevent him (as author) from visiting schools were it still in effect. But despite the positive changes its repeal has facilitated, the panellists shared concerns for its continuing impact. Simon described the legacy of the legislation still echoing in schools through the absence of queer sex education. He also talked about the effects this had on today’s writers who grew up during that time. This was reiterated by Charlie who suggested that our contemporary authors are policed by a pervasive ‘self-censorship effect’ – they are still nervous about including the ‘taboo’ subjects in their writing particularly when it comes to possible pushback from gatekeepers.

Erica then asked the panellists to draw from their own reading and viewing experiences to suggest what they’d like to see more or less often in YA media. Charlie was exhausted with bullying being an ever-central theme. Queer people have whole lives, she argued, and reading about violent bullying can be triggering. Alexandra called for more characters whose (unapologetically apparent) queerness is not the focal point, but occurs incidentally in rich and exciting stories. There was also a collective demand for more diversity. Alexandra noted the persistent prominence of white males, and Erica condemned the absence of queer characters of colour, and lack of class diversity. Simon then expressed his wish for authors to be less nervous about queer sexual content. For him, there is no better place than literature to explore these themes due to the rigour of authorial, editorial and publishing processes. And, (thankfully) the panel were optimistic for the future YA literature!

To finish the formal panel, Erica asked each panellist to recommend their must-read queer YA:

Erica:               Emily M. Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012)

Molly Beth Griffin’s Silhouette of a Sparrow (2012)

Simon:             Julian Winters’ Running with Lions (2018)

Charlie:           Keris Stainton’s Starring Kitty (2014)

Alexandra:       Simon James Green’s Noah Can’t Even (2017) and Noah Could Never (2018)

Overall, this was a deeply fascinating, engaging, moving, provocative and special discussion, and we are very privileged to have been able to attend. The panel marked a much-needed landmark on YA media’s continuing journey to become a more diverse and inclusive field. Events such as this massively help increase the progress already starting to be made in making YA more inclusive. The lack of diversity in both queer YA and YA literature in general highlighted during the panel is something which is already starting to change. Slowly, YA media which focuses on characters with diverse identities are emerging. Literature which is inclusive of a spectrum of sexual orientations, gender identities, racial, ethnic and religious identities, physical and mental (or ‘invisible’) disabilities are coming to the fore (hoorah)!

Aside from the progress being made on the publishing front, there are also efforts in academia too. Recent conferences in the UK such as ‘Investigating Identities in YA Narratives’ (@Identities_YA) at the University of Northampton (2017), ‘Reading YA’ at the University of Birmingham (2018) and the launch of the Young Adult Literature, Media and Culture Research Network (@YALMC_ResNet) in 2018 have all helped to expose, promote and generate research and analysis into inclusivity in YA media. The ongoing work of the recently launched UCL Grand Challenges funded project ‘Adolescent Identities’ (@YAIdentities), for example, focuses on researching the representations and diversity of identity in YA.

 

Finally, we’d just like to thank Gay’s the Word who were wonderful hosts and, having spent an hour browsing their shelves before the event began, we can attest that they are also a wonderful bookstore.

 

*For those unfamiliar with Section 28, the act (1988) stated that the local authority was not to intentionally promote homosexuality. It was eventually repealed in the UK in 2003 (Scotland in 2000).

 

Review: The Girl in the Broken Mirror by Savita Kalhan

 

I was sent a copy of The Girl in the Broken Mirror by Savita Kalhan and Troika Books in exchange for an honest review – and I’m SO GLAD they did.

 

The Girl in the Broken Mirror tells the story of Jay, a British-Asian girl living with her mother in London. They’re struggling to make ends meet — Neela (Jay’s mum) is training to be a teacher while working and Jay has a Saturday job — but they have each other and it’s working, or so Jay thinks. When Neela decides to move them in with distant relatives, to save money for a better life in the future, Jay doesn’t understand. Her world utterly changes, and not in a good way. Uncle Bal and Aunty Vimala, especially AuntyV, have super strict rules for girls (and a totally different set for boys). Jay describes those rules as “trapped in a time warp of India circa 1950” (33).

As I was reading…

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(*Apparently, my southern roots still show on occasion)

Despite the difficult themes, there is also light and love, making The Girl in the Broken Mirror an absolute must-read. Indeed, it not only sits comfortably alongside Laurie Halse Anderson’s classic Speak and Louise O’Neill’s Asking for It, but it also surpasses those novels and not just because it features a British-Asian teen attempting to navigate life and life after being raped. Jay’s story — and the good people in it — will stay with you for quite some time.

Culture clashes are one key theme throughout the novel and one that strongly resonated with me, a Tennessee native who’s lived in the UK for the last more-than-decade(!!). Kalhan writes the clashes Jay faces so that they supersede the specifics of the British-Asian dilemma. Anyone who’s ever faced a clash of cultures or views — be it between generations, differing family values, or the views of an adopted culture — will find a kinship in Jay’s story. Working on Adolescent Identities where we’re investigating how YA serves the very different identities of young people in the UK and as an immigrant myself, YA that reflects both the world around us, in all its messy, wonderful diversity and that shows how similar we all our is vital. After all, hasn’t everyone had *that* argument with aunty this or uncle that about anything you’re doing differently from the way you were raised (or the way your grandparents were raised!).

Finally, my favourite chapter of the year thus far is in The Girl in the Broken Mirror. It’s an unusual chapter for a YA novel, perhaps one of the reasons I love it… your job: go read the novel to figure out which one it is! 😉

 

 

And this is just a preview!! On Friday, we’ll be posting a Q&A with the woman herself! I put a few of my burning questions to Savita and she answers them brilliantly. You’re in for a real treat!!

Here’s the rest of the blog tour lineup!

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Love, Simon Review: ‘An Important Step Forward … but a Commercially Compromised One’

Our European Officer Anthony Stepniak, takes a break from his PhD on all things Wicked Queen related to share his view on Love, Simon. 

When I first learnt of the film adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s 2015 YA novel Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda I was sceptical to say the least. Book to film adaptations can be erratic in terms of both accuracy and effectiveness, so I always try to engage with both as separate entities rather than subject one to a comparison of the other. Taking this intention forward, I did find myself joining in the growing excitement online as the film neared release as 20th Century Fox slowly drip-fed us details on the film.

Love Simon

One of the first things I found slightly concerning was the name change from Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ to simply Love, Simon. Although the shift in title was quickly explained by the production company and cast as part of the mantra of the film which makes clear that love is universal – I was still not convinced there wasn’t an ulterior motive. The aforementioned mantra was often projected through the films tag line ‘everybody deserves a great love story’ – a supporting statement which I couldn’t agree more with. Despite this, cynical as it may seem, I couldn’t help but feel this great story of a closeted gay teen in an all American high school, was being compromised for a more ‘generalised audience’. On one hand this is a great idea – I never think that any films should intentionally attempt to exclude, or for that matter, include, any group of persons. This being said, I couldn’t help but be concerned that the title shift was to try and commercialise the film to everyone. My problem with this is I don’t think it was necessary. If everyone wanted to see the film, then they could have without the original title being an issue.

I do think that, while the films mantra is love is universal, this film is about gay love, and a gay character and his coming out – and this should not be overlooked in any marketing – which I’m afraid the film is guilty of. It is not a question of attempting inclusivity for larger audiences and thus monetary gain – it’s one of honesty in relation to one of the story’s most important elements. After all I’ve never seen a rom-com down-playing its romantic elements in its marketing strategy in an attempt to discourage those who are not rom-com fans from going – so why should this be deployed in Love, Simon?

When I went to watch the film it was a memorable occasion, teenagers taking pictures with the film posters in the cinema foyer, and the general buzz around the cinema before the film started was heart-warming to see. I did enjoy the film for a number of reasons. Firstly, just like the book, the film deals with the impact digital technology has had on the gay and general queer community. Simon’s online relationship with Blue exposes the anonymity which social networking can allow – and how this is often a safe haven for both closeted queer people as well as openly queer people to network and communicate with others. Furthermore the film articulates the devastating fall-out that can follow when such anonymity is removed.

Another element of the film that I found very relatable and rather touching was something which many people can relate to – feeling different, and particularly feeling different when nobody thinks you are. The film dealt with this experience very well – how Simon’s closest friends don’t really know who he is … at least not all of who he is. The unsettling process of sustaining friendships and relationships with people and yet keeping a part of yourself from them can be torture – and we see Simon going through this. The scene between Leah and Simon towards the end of the film, where they discuss his sexuality, shows also how friends and loved ones also need to re-adjust. The dynamic between Leah and Simon is handled particularly well as Leah’s attraction to Simon is heightened through his attention and affection for her which she misreads as romantic. The healing process the two characters go through as Leah manages to reposition herself from potential love interest to best friend is a wonderful ‘happily-ever’ after moment. The connection between the two was a well thought out and emotive representation of the non-sexual intimacy which can be reached between heterosexual women and gay men – a trope in both contemporary TV and film.

The most emotive scene, even more than the tear-inducing post-coming out heart to heart between Simon and his mum, is Simon’s reaction to Martin’s apology in the school car park after he outed him online. The scene, which is rich is memorable acting from Nick Robinson, poignantly translates the right of somebody to come-out when they are ready, and the subsequent feeling of violation when this does not happen – especially when the coming-out is manufactured by somebody who cannot relate to having the same experience.

For me, Martin represents an interesting character. Martin’s heteronormative desire is shown to be the reason for Simon’s blackmail over his sexuality and online communications with Blue. It is this same desire which makes Simon manipulate and lie to his friends as he tries to forge an attraction from Abby towards Martin. Finally, it is this same desire which results in a backlash from Simon’s friends when he needs them most. While this does set up a rather negative representation of heteronormative male desire in the film – it also, as mentioned, demonstrates a valuable lesson; that nobody has the right to ‘out’ or expose an element of someone if they are not ready to be open about it themselves. Despite being repentant in the car park apology scene, Simon’s harsh words are both completely founded and important as the ignorance Martin demonstrated resulted in Simon losing the control over something only he has the right to decide upon.

I’m not a fan of the argument that all films should be progressive and carry a social message – they should also have idealistic elements to- as films are entertainment and escapism – and Love, Simon is rich in idealism. Understanding and accepting parents and the promise of a seemingly successful love story with Bram (who is revealed to have been Blue all along). However, there is one element of idealism which was a slight cause for concern when I reflected after watching the film. Simon, like many gay people, is not suspected as being gay due to the fact his gender identity does not differ from what society tells us is ‘the norm’ – e.g. he is not ‘camp’ as  gay men are often portrayed as being in popular media. While I am not suggesting that Simon’s story and that of gay men who can relate to him is not worth being told – I did think of gay men who don’t conform to this identity type. I thought of ones who are more feminine and thus are often denied the ability come to terms with their sexuality, and furthermore come-out before assumptions are being made about them and told, usually in an unpleasant way, what their sexual orientation is. A filmic example of this being from the 2014 film G.B.F where flamboyant gay teen Paul is outed by his more masculine gay friend Tanner following his coming out. Particularly relevant is how Paul, presumed gay by all his friends and mother, is horrified when Tanner outs Paul to his mother (played by Will and Grace’s Megan Mullally), explaining that, regardless of her assumption, he wanted the right to tell her himself – it is his right.

Building on this, I hope that Love, Simon opens the door for a plethora of queer identities to be given the same platform of exposure which Love Simon has been. Hopefully more gay, non-binary, transgender, lesbian, pansexual, asexual, bisexual and intersex identities from across all ethnicities should be represented in YA film and films more generally. Films like Moonlight (2016) Just Charlie (2017) and Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) come to mind as examples of films we need to see more of – and further more need to be given the same format of widespread release as Love Simon. While its place in film queer history is validated, for me, I enjoyed Love Simon more than I expected and now just how that opens the door for more mainstream released queer film YA for otherwise.

Anthony Stepniak

Young Adult Literature, Media and Culture Research Network European Officer

@ATStepniak

Anthony.stepniak2@northampton.ac.uk

Contributor Review: Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks by Jennifer Gouck

Today’s review comes from soon-to-be PhD candidate, Jennifer Gouck. Jennifer’s doctoral research will consider the“Manic Pixie Dream Girl in YA Literature, Media, and Culture,” particularly with regard to gender, masculinity, and femininity.

 

Publication Details:

The Surface Breaks: A Reimagining of The Little Mermaid (9781407185538)

Scholastic, £12.99 (Hardback)

3rd May 2018

Synopsis

In a merkingdom deep beneath the cold Irish sea, young mermaid Gaia (also known as Muirgen) dreams of freedom, of breaking the surface and leaving her controlling father behind. On her fifteenth birthday, she realises her dream and swims to the human world for the first time – but she sees a terrible shipwreck on her visit. Drawn to a boy, Oliver, whom she saves from drowning, Gaia longs to return to land to join him forever; how much will she have to sacrifice to be with her the human she loves?

Review

Having read Louise O’Neill’s previous two YA novels (Only Ever Yours [2014] and Asking for It [2015]) as well as her first non-YA novel, Almost Love, published in March of this year, I was more than a little bit excited when I received an ARC of The Surface Breaks through my work as a Senior Bookseller in Waterstones. Hailed as a searing feminist re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid with dark, twisted undercurrents, I was interested to see how O’Neill’s latest YA offering would bring Andersen’s tale into the twenty-first century. But: did it live up to the hype?

The answer is yes and no. O’Neill paints a stunningly detailed picture of the Merkingdom in which Gaia (re-named Muirgen by her father in the wake of her mother’s untimely death) lives. The Kingdom is courtly, reminiscent of the sort of society we would associate with eighteenth century England; Gaia sits on a throne of coral in her bedroom, and the ball thrown in honour of her fifteenth birthday is extravagant, with “gem stones embedded in the coral walls. Blood-red streamers hanging from the ceiling, woven from every sea-flower within the vicinity of the palace.” (19). Gaia’s obsession with humanity is established by the second page, her room an underwater museum of human artefacts pulled from shipwrecks and sailors from the world above. O’Neill’s attention to world-building runs deeper still; the name ‘Gaia’, invokes the Greek goddess who presided over the earth, while ‘Muirgen’, the name Gaia’s father gives to her after her mother’s death, means ‘born of the sea’ in Gaelic. Grandmother Thalassa’s name is also water-based, meaning ‘of the sea’ in Greek, while Gaia’s mother Muireann’s name means ‘sea white’ or ‘sea fair’, sharing its origins with Muirgen in Irish legend.

This level of nuance, however, crumbles elsewhere in the novel, and I found myself rolling my eyes at the heavy-handed nature of the characters’ symbolism. Take, for example, The Sea King. Gaia’s father rules the Merkingdom with a strict hand. Each of his daughters is (or will be) ‘bonded’ to a merman of his choosing, based on what is best for the Kingdom. The Sea King also prioritises the ‘purity’ of his people above all else; to enforce this, many years ago he banished the Rusalkas, a ‘sub-class’ of mer-folk, to the land beyond the Kingdom. With his all-male army at his right hand side, The Sea King expects the mermaids in his life to be beautiful, highly decorated, meek beings who should not speak unless spoken to. Indeed, at Gaia’s birthday ball, he arranges his six daughters, each with pearls sewn into their tails, in a line behind him from most to least beautiful. At one point, The Sea King makes a Trumpian comment that, were she not his daughter, he would choose Gaia for himself.

Did you get it? The Sea King is The Patriarchy! Subtle, right? Let’s try another…

Ceto, the Sea Witch, and her Rusalkas occupy the gloomy, decaying space beyond the Kingdom known as The Darklands. When Gaia goes to visit Ceto, she is shocked by what she sees: “A tail so black that it dissolves into the gloomy sea … Skin pale, and so much of it – rolling into ruffs of flesh around her neck, spooling around her waist … I did not know such a body was allowed to exist” (112). Ceto is overtly comfortable with her body, oozing sexual energy. To top it all off, she even wears – gasp! – red lipstick! Meanwhile the Rusalkas, green in colour, are the women the world rejected. They are orphaned, had their babies taken from them, or were abused while they walked the earth; the sea gave them new life.

Did you get that one? Yes, that’s right: Ceto is a third wave feminist, a ‘new woman’, and the Rusalkas are those (Irish) society left behind. #RepealThe8th, anyone?

It was in moments like these I found myself frustrated with O’Neill, a writer I know and love for her subtlety and nuance. In a nod to Andersen’s original, The Surface Breaks is fairy-tale-esque in its style and tone, almost poetic in its language. But, in blurring this with her feminist re-telling, O’Neill’s trademark multi-faceted writing became hidden under a clumsy first layer. Unlike her previous work, the ‘message’ here is used to violently smack you in the face over and over again. Perhaps this is homage to the original fairy-tale form which, of course, was known for its didacticism. Or, perhaps, it is to indicate that, on the issue of our patriarchal society, where Gaias everywhere are attempting to find their voice, the time for subtlety has passed. Either way, this approach sadly left me underwhelmed on the first reading, and it was only as I spent more time with the novel that I began to appreciate the quiet details that had been overwhelmed by O’Neill’s thunderous writing elsewhere.

To sum up, The Surface Breaks wasn’t quite the tour-de-force I was hoping for. That said, it is a solid feminist re-telling of the original fairy-tale. It is as visceral and unsettling as O’Neill’s other work, with Gaia falling into the ‘frustratingly unlikeable yet often relatable’ category of women O’Neill is famous for crafting. Overall, though, the novel fell short for me. I felt that it fell into that old trap of telling me about the mer-folks’ patriarchal society, about how Gaia’s painful walk on land was just as suppressing as her swim beneath the sea, about the weight of societal expectation which women with tails and with legs both have to bear. The Surface Breaks didn’t just lead me to the water, it forced me to drink from the very spot in the well of its choosing. An invocation of folk- and fairy-tales gone by? Perhaps. But O’Neill’s audience is not Andersen’s, and her intelligent readership, young and old alike, may find this technique tiring – an approach from which the novel should, like Gaia, have broken free.

3 out of 5 stars.

 

 

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Djinn by Sang Kromah

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I’m rather tempted to spend this book review singing the praises of Sang Kromah herself but — aside from giving HUGE praise to Project: Girlspire — I’ll resist. Djinn is worth a read and a review. Besides, Kromah tells you a bit about it in the Q&A following my review!

 


Synopsis:

When sixteen-year-old Bijou Fitzroy and her grandmother, Gigi, move to Sykesville, Bijou finally gets the chance to lead a normal life: attend high school, make friends, and enemies. Only, it doesn’t stay normal for long. Set apart, not just because of her changing colour and an uncanny ability to feel what other people are feeling, Bijou is different, and she’s quickly sucked into a world intrigue and mystery as mythical creatures become real. With the help of Sebastian and Amina, Bijou begins to navigate a world she didn’t know existed, finding powers within herself she never knew she had.


 

Admittedly, I wasn’t sure how hard I’d fall before starting it – I’m not usually a fan of fantasy set within our world – but from the beginning, I was hooked. Bijou’s story drew me in – I had to know how her mad desire to attend high school would play out (I HATED high school). In the end, I also adored the contemporary US setting. It’s where Djinn needs to be:

“Western civilization … has romanticized the djinn by turning it into a friendly blue creature that resides in a magic lamp, granting wishes… They have turned what most Africans and scholars refer to as Mami Wata into a singing girl with a tail and call it a mermaid, but if you were to encounter the real deal, it would be nothing to sing about” (Loc 941).

How do we see things? What stories are we told? are both at the heart of Djinn.  Western culture is a sponge, absorbing and sterilizing (academic me would say homogenizing) characters, and stories from across the world. For the people and groups whose stories are taken, this absorbing isn’t a particularly nice process, which is why stories like Djinn are so important. They help those of us enmeshed in Western culture see beyond the trappings and packagings we’re fed by mainstream media. Kromah’s interweaving African, especially Liberian, folklore into contemporary Western culture — fans of Buffy are certainly in for a treat — unwraps the packaging allowing readers to see, to know, more about the world.

“Seeing more” is reflected in Bijou’s empathetic abilities.

“With the Typicals, their emotions rub off on me when they’re in close proximity. It’s even worse if they happen to make eye contact; I see things — sometimes truly horrible things” (Loc 60).

Dividing the world into Typicals (humans) and Others (something else), Bijou can see more than a person’s external packaging, and I think this is where the true beauty of Kromah’s book resides… For the rest, you’ll really just have to read! (I’m more than happy to talk about the 9-million other things I loved once you have!!). — Leah


I recently had the change to ask Sang a few questions about YA, Djinn, her favourite stories from childhood, and the power of words – plus a sneaky little slipping in of GirlSpire. I’m thrilled to share her responses!

1) What drew you to YA? It’s a field I adore — must do, I did a whole PhD on it (#DorkLove) — so I’m always curious to know why others want to write it, write about it.

First let me just say, I think it is so cool that you have a PhD in YA. If I had known that was a possibility, I would have definitely done that as well.

I write YA because childhood is a time of simultaneous uncertainty and fearlessness. That’s what YA represents. I think there are so many older readers of YA because it’s unapologetic. The characters are finding their place in this world, and whether we’d like to admit it or not, most adults don’t have it all together and can still relate to this uncertainty. But the thing about YA is that it has the power to humble readers because many times these characters are going through so much and they find a way to deal with it, while being so honest about it. I think that’s beautiful. I went through a lot as a young adult. My parents were always opening our home to others and often my younger brother and I felt like we got lost in the cracks. My adoptive sister was terminally ill and sadly passed away, and so much more. I constantly remember wishing I was an adult and wishing that part of my life was over. But having to go through that made me impeccably strong. I often find myself reminiscing about those days because, in all honesty, they were the best days of my life. Writing YA reminds me of that strength because I often need a reminder of how strong I can be and what I’m capable of.

2) I desperately want to read more (more about) West African folklore. Any favourite stories? I adore trickster figures…

You would love my parents. As a kid, my parents wouldn’t read stories like Cinderella to me, because I could read those on my own time. They’d tell us stories from Liberia. Many about the djinn, which are calla jena in Liberia, stories about Mami Wata (mermaids), or Spider (Anansi). Spider is the most infamous of all the tricksters. One story comes to mind where greedy Spider gets invited to two parties, but rather than accepting one invite and declining the other, which was in a neighboring town, he accepts both, not wanting to miss out on any food. The plan was to tie a rope around his waist, and when the food was ready at one party someone was supposed to pull at the rope, so he could go to that party. The problem arose when both parties decided to serve their food at the same time, resulting in the rope being pulled at both ends, all at once. Spider screamed and screamed, but he was being pulled from both directions. When the pulling ceased, Spider’s waist was so small that his entire shape had changed. And this is how Spider got a small waist.

Another story that may be semi-familiar to those who read Djinn is the story of Femeni and a notorious jena/djinn named Zoom. Femeni was known for being disobedient. She never respected her elders and no amount of discipline changed her behavior. There was a lagoon that the town’s children used to swim at, but everyone knew that it was forbidden to swim there during a certain time on Fridays. One Friday, Femeni daringly went to the lagoon and spent the afternoon swimming, declaring that nothing would happen to her. That evening as she began her walk home, the moon was full and soon, the ground began to shake. Femeni heard a voice begin to sing in Mandingo, “Where is Femeni? Femeni was here. I’m looking for Femeni.” As Zoom sang his song, Femeni ran as fast as she could back to town, knocking on doors, but as she approached, singing in Mandingo, “Help! Help! It’s Femeni. Open the door. Zoom is After me,” door after door shut before her. As Zoom got closer, Femeni was certain, this was the end for her, but as she ran she realized she was drawing closer to a familiar house. Her grandmother’s. When she knocked on the door to announce herself, her grandmother asked, “If I open the door, will you behave yourself from this day forward?”

Femeni answered, “Yes Maman!”

Her grandmother then asked, “Will you respect your elders from this day forth?”

Once again, Femeni answered, “Yes Maman!”

The door flew open, and Femeni to her grandmother, who shut the door before Zoom, saving Femeni from what could have been death or being taken to the Otherworld.

As you can probably tell, Femeni’s story was my favorite and over the years I’ve written countless stories about Femeni. ‘Djinn’ is the story of Femeni’s daughter.
There are so many stories, but the problem we face is that most of our stories are told orally and as our worlds become bigger and we leave our places of origin, many of these stories die with our old people. This is why it’s important that we write our own stories before they’re all lost.

3) I feel like within Djinn there’s a real sense of “the power of words,” the power to speak things into existence… I’d love to know more about your sense of the power of words, stories, representation.

Think about how in many of the stories we read and here, simple words are what changes the state of a character’s world. It could be a spell or a threat. Words, if not chosen carefully can save or cost a life. Think about Rumplestiltskin and the power vocalizing his name held over him. Or even historical figures; it’s their words that live long after they’ve perished. Once they are uttered, they can’t be withdrawn. Growing up, my grandmother always puts an emphasis on being conscious of the words we speak. She used to say, “Our mouths are like prayer books, speaking things into existence.” She used to tell me to be careful of what I say because you never know what/who is listening. Those words have always had a great impact on how I speak and what I say. With all the stories of djinn I’ve heard and some of the things I’ve seen, I don’t doubt at all, that there’s some truth in the cautionary tales we’re told.

In ‘Djinn’, diversity is at the forefront. Most of the character’s names aren’t common and everyone looks like they’re from a different part of the world. This was very important to me, because growing up, characters that looked like me and the people in my world weren’t represented in the books I read. We come in so many hues with such rich histories, and I wanted my book to show that. Growing up, I would read beautiful books, and always find myself wondering, why can’t fantastical things happen to people like me? That type of diversity is necessary, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t necessarily fit into the defined boxes society has created for us. For example, even though I was born in America, both of my parents were born in Liberia, from very diverse backgrounds. I was very proud of my heritage and my very ethnic name, but going to school was difficult. Although I’m black, I didn’t necessarily look like the other kids at school and my full name is very African, so I was called an “African booty scratcher.” And then, I moved to the suburbs, and I spent many years as the only person of color in most of my classes until high school. In these situations, bullying arises or silly questions are asked due to the lack of positive examples of people that are different. This is why it was so important for me to create characters that don’t quite fit into those designated boxes I mentioned earlier.

In the second book of the series, it delves deeper into the past, allowing Bijou get a better understanding of where she comes from with the introduction of Rugiatu, who you met in “The Curse of the African Bootyscratcher,” the short story I recently published on Project GirlSpire.

4) I *know* we’re meant to be talking about Djinn, but Project READ and Project GirlSpire? Tell us more, please!

Project READ (Restoration Education Arts Development) is a female-led library initiative I started. The plan is to open a public library in Liberia that is run and managed by an all-female staff with programs specifically tailored for girls. It will be a safe place for girls…something that is drastically needed in Liberia.

Project GirlSpire is a digital media platform I started for women and girls, where we create the narrative. I am passionate about this because the biggest flaw in the current media landscape is that our stories get lost in translation because someone else is speaking for us. With Project GirlSpire, I have created an interview series which sheds a light on who successful women were at 15, who they are now, and asks what message they have for their 15-year old self. It’s a fun way of revisiting their younger selves, facing their pasts, and relishing in the women they’ve become. Most importantly, this is a great way of letting today’s girls know, it does get better. Many of our writers are in high school and college with notable guest writers like Newberry Medal-Winning author, Erin Entrada Kelly.


 

Kromah’s Djinn is a captivating #ownvoices YA fantasy novel and a part of an exciting new chapter in YA fantasy (I’m currently revising a whole book chapter on this topic!). It’s out on the 20th of March, so not long to wait!

 

 

 

 

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