★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal
Sometimes I just want to read something different. I was in that kind of mood when coming acrossNina LaCour’s YA, Watch Over Me. The striking cover caught my attention: a photo of a girl with downcast eyes and floating hair. When I opened the book, the image had altered slightly, showing her eyes and evoking an unsettling feeling. I couldn’t wait to get reading!
The story begins with Mila leaving her kind (but, having-their-own-baby-now) foster home. She’s found a job on an unconventional farm in Northern California. The couple running it has, over the years, adopted dozens of kids and taken in teens, like Mila, who aged-out of the system, assigning them as teachers for the little ones. Mila’s first student, Lee, is also a troubled outcast. Mila wants to reach him, but struggles to understand her new environment which is both welcoming and excluding.
Along with this self-chosen family comes a land filled with ghosts who dance and play in the distance when Mila returns to her cabin at night. The foggy, rocky coast’s strong atmospheric presence wraps around Mila’s pain. Flashback chapters give glimpses of her life before foster care as the loneliness, trauma, and guilt of Mila’s past escalate into inevitable confrontation.
LaCour’s spare, beautifully written, first-person chapters infuse flashbacks, allowing the reader’s immersion to slowly build in this moving, cerebral story. The dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, revealed in fragments, is emotionally jarring. Yet, Mila’s resilience provides promise for redemption. Conventional lines of reality bend, perfectly suiting the blurred mindset of the plot.
Author-illustrator Hanna Cha’s debut picture book, Tiny Feet Between the Mountains, tells the tale of Soe-In, the smallest child in a Korean village. But, being little doesn’t slow her down. Soe-In manages burdensome chores using wit and perseverance. When the sun disappears and the chieftain needs a volunteer, only Soe-in steps forward.
In the forest, she finds the spirit tiger is real, and in really big trouble—he’s swallowed the sun! Like the villagers, the spirit tiger first discounts Soe-In’s ability to help. However, brave, imaginative Soe-In saves the day.
Cha’s art shows the movement and mood of this powerful story. I enjoyed the images of the tiger because feline fluidity is difficult to capture. Her Author’s Note explains tigers are revered by Koreans; their country is shaped like one. The tiger as their spirit animal appears in countless Korean stories as a symbol of respect, strength, and dignity, both as a deity and a threat.
A Kirkus Reviews Best Picture Book of 2019 ★Starred Review – Kirkus An Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Honor Book 2019
Bilal Cooks Daalby Aisha Saeed is an upbeat picture book about friendship and cooking. When Bilal’s friends wonder why it takes his Pakistani family all day to make daal, he introduces them to the process, letting them choose the color of lentils for the stew they will enjoy together at dinnertime. As the day goes by, Bilal worries a bit that his friends won’t like the taste, but the delicious dish pleases everyone, demonstrating how food brings people together.
Anoosha Syed’s art focuses on the kids enjoying their day of play, a variety of emotions clearly captured. The daal’s vivid descriptions (“small like pebbles, but shaped like pancakes”) come to life through the illustrations. Close your eyes and let the simmering daal awaken your senses.
The Author’s Note explains daal is a staple food in South Asia, but lentils are enjoyed in many other places. Saeed’s recipe for Chana Daal is similar to what I grew up with in my household, bringing back warm memories. In these months of the pandemic where many of us are cooking wholesome meals, this hearty and healthy dish will please while filling the house with amazing aromas all day long.
A Junior Library Guild Selection A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year ★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal
Summer Bird Blueby Akemi Dawn Bowman opens with a car crash. Seventeen-year-old Rumi Seto loses her only sister Lea, who’s also her best friend. Their mother, unable to deal, puts Rumi on a plane to Hawaii for an indefinite stay with Aunty Ani, their Japanese-Hawaiian side of the family.
Lea, two years younger, was the outgoing, happy-go-lucky sister. Rumi, the opposite personality type fits her “ruminating” name; often, she’s stuck in her head, turning things over, unable to step forward into everyday life. Though quite different, the sisters, shared a love of music, playing instruments together. They would randomly come up with three words, then write a song about it. (Summer Bird Blue, refers to the unwritten song that haunts Rumi after Lea dies.)
Rumi suffers in the angry and depressive stages of grief, vacillating between lashing out and crawling into bed for days on end. Her new surroundings include neighbors Mr. Watanabe (a grumpy octogenarian who becomes an unlikely companion) and Kai (the too-handsome, too-cheerful boy next door). As Rumi becomes closer to Kai, they go on a date, but kissing surfaces her confusion over her possible asexuality. Believing other teens have easy crushes and romance, Rumi’s self-doubt compounds after losing Lea.
The story’s lovely scenes centering around Rumi’s deep bond with music resonated with me. The moving descriptions include Rumi’s regard for Lea’s guitar, and Mr. Watanabe’s piano and ukulele. When transported into this world, Rumi’s passion ignites. However, anything musical involves Lea, and Rumi cannot process what to do without her sister, which furthers the painful introspection and turmoil.
I appreciate Bowman’s choice to spotlight a troubled, roughhewn protagonist struggling with a complexity of issues. Writing about grief, sexuality, and trying to understand life itself are ambitious undertakings, yet Bowman succeeds in weaving a truthful, heartfelt story that includes both honestly bitter moments and lyrically beautiful ones.
Find out more about Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month hereand here.
What an honor to once again be participating in the Sydney Taylor Blog Tour. This year it’s been a delight to interview authorHannah Moskowitz after reading her compelling YA novel (that I could not put down) Sick Kids in Love, an honor award winner in the teen readers category. Find out more about this week of enlightening interviews at theAssociation of Jewish Libraries website and at the official Sydney Taylor site. The full blog tour schedule is posted on the AJL blog and below if you scroll down following the interview.
He’s got a chronic illness Isabel’s never heard of, something she can’t even pronounce. He understands what it means to be sick. He understands her more than her healthy friends. He understands her more than her own father who’s a doctor.
He’s gorgeous, fun, and foul-mouthed. And totally into her.
Isabel has one rule: no dating.
It’s never felt better—
—to consider breaking that rule for him.
AN INTERVIEW WITH HANNAH MOSKOWITZ
Good Reads With Ronna:How does SICK KIDS IN LOVE differ from your previous novels and did anything in particular happen to plant the seed to write this one?
Hannah Moskowitz: SICK KIDS IN LOVE is my first book to feature characters with chronic illnesses, or even really to include characters with chronic illnesses at all, which is ridiculous since it’s such a defining feature of my own life. I really wanted to write something that I felt like was true to the chronic illness experience and that was keeping up with the conversations happening right now in the disability community that I hadn’t really seen reflected in fiction yet. So I wanted to create a positive, realistic, disability-positive love story. It’s a pretty straightforward romance, which was also a first for me. The way I explained it when I started was that I wasn’t reinventing the wheel; I was just giving the wheel to people who hadn’t had it before.
GRWR:February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. Can you please speak to the relevance of this initiative in terms of your YA novel’s main characters, Isabel (Ibby) Garfinkel who has rheumatoid arthritis and her boyfriend, Sasha (Aleksandr) Sverdlov-Deckler, who has a non-fatal type of Gaucher Disease, and where abled society falls short here and with understanding invisible illness?
HM: Invisible illnesses are so common and so poorly respected in our society, and there are several that are more common in the Ashkenazi Jewish community than in the general population, like Sasha’s Gaucher Disease. So having a month specifically for Jewish disability awareness, acceptance and inclusion is definitely a big deal. Invisible illnesses are misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed all the time, and it’s unfortunately really hard to be taken seriously without having a diagnosis with a name that people recognize as serious. If you have something people don’t know about, like Sasha, people think you’re making it up. If you have something that sounds kind of common and benign, like Isabel, people think you’re making a big deal out of nothing. It’s really rough out there.
GRWR:Could you have written this novel without a Jewish protagonist, and if not, why?
HM: I think I could have. Writing Jewish protagonists is just easier for me, so letting myself stay in that space is one less thing I have to deal with when I’m planning out my characters. So writing a non-Jewish protagonist would have been possible, but a lot more work. And for what!
GRWR:Why did you decide to have Ibby’s family and friends deal with her illness so differently than how Sasha’s family deals with his?
HM: Ibby’s family’s discomfort with chronic illness is what’s familiar to me in my own life, and Sasha’s is kind of the fantasy of what I wish people were like. So I wanted to show both the uncomfortable reality and that we should still have this aspirational ideal even if we’ve been left down. It’s okay to expect that much.
GRWR:Why does Isabel have such a difficult time self-advocating? Is this something you wanted to raise readers’ awareness about?
HM: Because I do! And because honestly, it’s hard to stand up for yourself and tell people you’re valid when they’re constantly telling you you’re not. Being told you don’t deserve things that you thought you need sticks with you, and having to fight through that internalized ableism is a huge part of living with chronic illness.
GRWR:As an #OwnVoices author, how much of yourself have you put into the story in regard to both your Jewish faith and your chronic illness?
HM: I put a ton of myself into this particular book, which I think was what made it such a joy to write. The whole process was easy; I wrote this book over the course of a month for NaNoWriMo 2017, and the version you can read now is very, very close to that first draft. Isabel is a Reform Ashkenazi Jew with autoimmune arthritis. Guess what I am! She even lives on the block in Sunnyside that I used to live on. Nothing that happens to Isabel in the course of the story is autobiographical, but her character certainly is. Though personality-wise I would say I’m more like Sasha.
GRWR: I enjoyed Isabel’s personal arc as she fights the pull to get involved with Sasha because of her dysfunctional family history among other things. When she ultimately succumbs to love—being loved and loving back—it’s powerful, positive and oh so beautiful. Do you think her struggle is one many teens can relate to?
HM: Thank you! I think Isabel’s big struggle is her fear of committing herself fully to something uncertain, and I think that’s a worry that a lot of people, teenagers or adults, can relate to.
GRWR:What gave you the idea to make Ibby the“SICK GIRL” weekly advice columnist at her high school newspaper and then share her questions throughout the novel?
HM: I’ve been asked this before and honestly I wish I could remember, but I … don’t. It was part of the book from the first draft, I know that. A long time ago I was trying to write a book where one of the main characters went around asking people what they would do if it was their last night in New York, so I think it might have stemmed from that. But my memory is too terrible.
GRWR:As your sub-heading says, no one dies in your novel yet I cried in several places because I cared about Ibby and Sasha, their relationship, and felt so much was at stake for this young couple. Did any part make you cry as you wrote it?
HM: I’m not much of a crier, and I don’t think I’ve ever cried while writing something! But I do make playlists for the characters, and sometimes I cry a little bit listening to those and thinking about all their feelings.
GRWR:The voice in your novel was great, as was the dialogue and humor. What part of the novel did you enjoy writing the most? What were some of the most difficult parts?
HM: I always prefer writing dialogue to anything else. My favorite things to write are arguments, and Sasha and Isabel have at least one great one. I hate writing descriptions and world building, but at least this time I got to just talk about a place I knew well.
GRWR:SICK KIDS IN LOVE should be required reading in high school curricula. You’ve succeeded in opening readers’ eyes to the disabled community, how they’re perceived and treated and how they’d like to be treated. Do you think you’ve written all you’d like to say on this topic?
HM: Thanks! I think I did put all I have to say at this time about disability and chronic illness into this book. But who knows if I’ll think of more in the future!
GRWR:What can we expect in your next novel?
HM: Right now I don’t know which of several books my next novel will be, but it’s likely either a very untraditional lesbian romance, a story about a teen mom figuring out her sexuality, or a f/f retelling of “Dirty Dancing.” So … expect lesbians.
BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is showcasing its 2020 gold and silver medalists with a Blog Tour, February 9-13, 2020! Interviews with winning authors and illustrators will appear on a variety of Jewish and kidlit blogs. Interviews will appear on the dates below, and will remain available to read at your own convenience.
Below is the schedule for the 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. Please follow the links to visit the hosting blogs on or after their tour dates, and be sure to leave them plenty of comments!
THE SIMILARS Written by Rebecca Hanover (Sourcebooks Fire; $17.99, Ages 14+)
In Rebecca Hanover’s suspenseful young adult novel, The Similars, readers go inside Darkwood Academy, a forward-thinking, elite boarding school. It’s there that Headmaster Ransom gives six clones (teens called the Similars) a chance to attend alongside the student body. This is the first time the Similars will leave their amazing, isolated man-made island where they grew up strictly controlled by their guardian. The Similars are clones of current Darkwood students who had their DNA stolen and only recently met their doppelgängers. The controversial decision to allow the Similars to transfer in ignites the campus as a new school year begins. Only Emmaline “Emma” Chance, a junior, isn’t very interested; she’s still suffering from her best friend Oliver’s recent death. When the Similars are introduced, Emma’s shocked to learn Oliver has a clone named Levi.
The clones are the focus of DAAM (the Darkwood Academy Anti-Cloning Movement) headed by campus celebrity, Madison Huxley. Much to Madison and her family’s dismay, Madison’s been cloned and has to live with that fact daily at school. Though Emma continues to support clone rights, relating with Levi is difficult and confusing as she tries to figure out how he compares with Oliver. When Emma’s roommate and close friend, Pru, is attacked on campus, Emma breaks rules to get behind what’s really going on.
Set in the near-future, The Similarshas cool tech toys, such as the plum devices that kids wear on their wrists; Emma’s is named Dash and interacts with her on a human level. The fast-moving story line leaves you guessing. It also connects on an emotional level, inviting thought about clone rights, and sharing the turmoil of dealing with the death of someone close.