Out of Darkness: A Tale of Hope and Tenderness Born Amid the Violence of Racism and Fear

Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Perez’s disturbing, heartbreaking tale set in East Texas in the 1930s, tells the story of Mexican-American Naomi Vargas, her twin half-siblings, Cari and Beto, and Wash Fuller, the  young black boy they all fall in love with.

out-of-darkness  Naomi and the twins, whose mother died in childbirth, move from the home of their maternal grandparents to live with the twins’ father in New London, Texas. He abandoned the children when they were small to chase jobs in the oil fields. With the encouragement of the pastor in his newly joined parish, he believes only taking responsibility will redeem his soul. Unfortunately, his past sexual abuse of Naomi when she was a young girl prevent her from overcoming her hatred and fear of him. His selfishness and hardness keep him from winning any true affection from the twins, as well.

In her new life, Naomi faces bigotry — she is accepted neither by the white community nor the African American one– but also friendship with church women and neighbors. When she meets and falls in love with Wash, the young black carpenter and handyman whose own story exposes the devastating truth of racism and abuse in Texas history, the story sings with pleasure and the exhilarating hope of young love.

According to the author the story is based on newspaper accounts of life in the area during this painful era and revolves around a true life-event of the worst school disaster in American History. The narrative, though could be the retelling of any one of hundreds of crimes against people of Mexican descent or African Americans. Perez’s novel is a tough read because she never softens the brutality of the racism, revealing it to be so entrenched in the culture as to be “normal” and expected, seemingly by everyone. In addition, the raw violence and unwanted sexual attention of her stepfather toward Naomi is difficult to read. The contrast, however, between his violation and abuse of her and the tenderness and joy she shares with her siblings and Wash prevent the story from sinking into hopelessness. Watching Naomi discover the redeeming expansiveness of young love as she falls in love with Wash makes this novel unforgettable despite its tragic and violent conclusion.]

SSS –Graphic and violent descriptions of abuse and rape.

VVV — Graphic violence and disturbing language used throughout in service to historical accuracy.

A 2016 Miachel L. Prince Honor Book

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History Forgotten Is History Relived, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

sepetys-coverIn this heartbreaking story, based on real life events and characters, debut novelist Ruta Sepetys recounts the horror of life in Stalin’s prisons during World War II and after. With searing detail this gifted writer drags the reader into the horrors of life under the Soviet Union for any who came into conflict with the system. Sepetys never lets the reader look away from the brutality. She piles on the suffering and the struggle, from hunger, disease, humiliation, and deprivation, but she also relates the beauty and persistence of love even under extreme duress.  

In the early morning of June 1941, NKVD forces of the Lithuanian Army arrest 15 year old Lina, her younger brother Jonas, and their mother. Loaded onto a cattle car, along with other “traitors” to the Communist Rule in Lithuania, they are shipped to forced labor farms. From there they end up in Siberia. In both prisons they suffer brutal conditions, starvation rations and violence. Sepetys’s story, however, never descends into utter hopelessness. In the face of unspeakable treatment, Lina’s mother demonstrates for her children, and all those around them, both prisoners and guards alike, how to hold onto one’s humanity and see the world through another’s eyes, even when all seems lost.

Sepetys explains in an Author’s Note that twenty million people suffered and died in Stalin’s camps, and that this forgotten history must be remembered, because history forgotten is history relived. As she herself writes, these victims “chose love over hate and that even through the darkest night, there is light.”

In reality, though, her story reminds us of an even deeper truth: that evil and hate can only be conquered by kindness and love, even in the face of death.

Violence – V -Violence is realistically portrayed but not gratuitous or gruesomely described

Sex – S —  Sexual violence not openly portrayed but hinted at.

 

Winger by Andrew Smith – A boarding school Story that just might turn your ears purple.

Winger Reading this book made me feel as if I’d walked straight into a locker-room filled with sweaty, grass-stained, blood-smeared, testicle-talking, gay-bashing athletes standing around in their towels, trashing each other and every female on the planet. But don’t get me wrong. I mean that in a totally good way. This glimpse into Boy World, actually explains a lot. Sports, violence, homophobia, friendship, body image, and an obsession with sex are the building blocks of a story that, among other things, deals with the difficulties of being male in our sex-infused, misogynistic, money and image-conscious white heterosexual male-dominant world.

At the heart of the story is Ryan Dean West, a fourteen-year-old junior at an elite boarding school in the Pacific Northwest. He plays rugby and lusts after anything female, except of course for the ancient, witch-like floor mother of the girl’s dorm floor. Nicknamed Winger for his position on the rugby team, Ryan Dean feels like an outcast, even though he openly boasts that he is the fastest guy at the school and also one of the smartest. No matter who and what you are, it seems, being in high school really just sucks.

As Ryan Dean navigates the world of calculus, literature assignments, team practices, and friendship he also struggles to figure out how he can get Annie Altman, who is two years older than him and his best friend, to fall in love with him. Meanwhile he is not-so secretly making out (24 times to be exact- he’s kept track) with his roommate’s hot girlfriend. Ryan Dean is also one of an openly gay rugby player’s only friends, stuck in the dorm reserved for rule-breakers and troublemakers, and convinced the girls’ dorm mother has laid any number of curses on him. In the first months of his junior year, though, his foibles and infractions of the rules give him new insight into the role that intellect, honesty, and honor play in sports, friendship and life.

As usual Andrew Smith doesn’t pull any punches as he portrays Ryan Dean’s experience, in all its raw detail – the violence and thrill of the testosterone-driven world of American high school sports, both the physicality and the camaraderie. This is a book that will definitely appeal to boys for its humor and easy sex-obsessed banter, but it also reveals the inner soul of all those kids who are just trying to survive while aiming at maybe being a good person, too. The book’s heartbreaking finale, although carefully set up and deftly foreshadowed, and certainly as realistic as contemporary headlines unfortunately attest, contrasts with the humorous tone and lightheartedness rendered in the ink drawings sprinkled throughout the book and will leave a tragic aftertaste that might disappoint some readers. But anyone who knows Smith’s work, won’t blink an eye. They will, however, thoroughly enjoy this funny, poignant look at the travails, tragedy, and challenges of being an adolescent male in America today.  

For grades 9 and up

Violence –VV (genuinely portrayed and essential to the story)

Sex– SS (mostly trash talk about male and female body parts, but no explicit sex scenes)

Language — Lots of foul language but nothing this age group hasn’t heard before.

Questionable Behavior — ??? (That pretty much is what this books is about)

Mosquitoland, by David Arnold, a journey from despair to hope.

Mosquitoland

(Be warned –spoilers ahead)

In his debut novel, Mosquitoland, author David Arnold showcases a finely tuned talent for writing with the voice of a modern young person. He deftly drops the names of popular and imagined cultural references to his mixture to keep his story real. He sprinkles his character’s language with the requisite swear words, from the mundane to the explicit. He even produces a pervert –a child molester who preys on young people in fast food restrooms — to keep readers on our toes as we follow the story of Mary Iris Malone (Mim for short) as she journeys toward Cleveland from Mississippi. She’s on a desperate trek to reach her mother after she suddenly goes silent.

Arnold’s story has all the ingredients of a success, including a love story and a Native American character of ambiguous ethnicity (Go Viking Books for Young Readers #WeNeedDiverseBooks). Mim’s voice comes through loud and clear, as do the voices of every character in the novel. For me, however, what was less clear was Mim’s emotional center. Her problem and its resolution felt pat.

Mim’s father, newly married after a quick divorce, has moved his new family from Ohio to Mississippi, the Mosquitoland of the title. As the story unfolds through both live narration and journal entries –letters to a mysterious “Isabelle”–the reader slowly begins to uncover the depth of Mim’s pain. We learn she has been prescribed an antipsychotic drug to prevent symptoms of a mental illness. We hear about her less-than-magazine-perfect life with her parents before the divorce. We learn about her soft spot for people in need. (Mim draws people to her like honey on waffles.) In that way, Mim’s heart and Arnold’s writing shine.

Mim’s odyssey is laced with strangers and diversions, including a gay gas station owner, a cookie-scented elderly woman (grandmother of said gas station owner), a knife-wielding schizophrenic, a “devastatingly handsome” college dropout, and a homeless boy with Downs Syndrome. This lovingly drawn supporting cast charges the narrative with humor, compassion and genuine emotion. But the abrupt and seemingly complete transformation of Mim’s attitude toward her stepmother, perpetrator of all evil done to her family in the previous six months, mars the narrative.

This is a fun, emotion-packed read, and readers will thoroughly enjoy the antics and adventures of Mim and her sidekicks. It will definitely entertain young adult readers. But its emotional truth, especially for those who know what it’s like to have a family riven by betrayal or illness, misses the mark. Otherwise, the humor, romance, and characters will keep readers turning pages to the final revelation.

Violence- minimal but present

Sexual tension –innocent and believable

Questionable behavior  –minimal – other than disappearing without a trace, which of course is necessary for the story to get moving.

For Grades 7th and up.

QuickLit Review: Friends, Fear, and Family come sharply into focus in Kakla Magoon’s 37 Things I Love in No Particular Order

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Kekla Magoon tells a deeply moving tale of a high school girl struggling with issues that most teenagers will connect with: friendships, body image, sexuality, and parents. Although many of the questions  Ellis struggles with as her school year comes to a close revolve around the decision concerning her father who has been in a coma for a couple years, most teens will focus on the other more teen-oriented problems. While Magoon’s sensitively draws a portrait of a young woman who needs and wants connections with those around her, it is Ellis’s poignant attachment to her silent father that fuels the emotional power of this novel. Well worth reading for the 13 through 15 crowd.

S = SS (Exploration and discussion of sex by gay, straight, and questioning characters.)

V= 0

Questionable Activity = ?? (Underage drinking and lying.)

A poignant look into the heart of a soldier

SUnriseoverfallujahIn Sunrise Over Fallujah, Walter Dean Myers’s provides a thought-provoking fictionalized account of a young American soldier involved in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Throughout the novel, Myers offers readers a window into the realities of what it takes to fight a war, and also the complexities of how to win peace in the modern world.

Myers’s protagonist Robin Perry, called Birdy by the members of the Civilian Affairs unit he fights along side, comments on everything he witnesses, from military food, the oppressive Iraqi heat, how the American Press reports the war, to the contribution women soldiers make to the effort. Through it all he speaks with acuity and honesty. Even as he repeats the US Military’s “official” line by putting the polemics and policies in the mouths of officers and politicians, the reader never feels burdened with Myers’s editorial. While the messages Birdy receives from Higher-Ups are often contradictory and confusing, Myers’s sticks to Birdy’s point of view, and thereby keeps the story emotionally and politically truthful, as well as relevant to young people struggling to understand war in general and the Iraqi war in particular.

Throughout it all, Birdy’s voice sounds genuinely like a young American from the inner city struggling to understand a complex reality.

Birdy, and the other soldiers Myers depicts are at once proud, confused, and scared, while also looking for ways to connect with the Iraqis and the women and children who suffer alongside them, and his dying and wounded comrades. That Myers manages to portray this complex situation without drowning the reader in grief or commentary, is commendable.

Grade 8 and up

Violence — VV – The discussions of wounds and the battle scenes are truthfully drawn but never gory or excessive.

Sex – S –there is some overt sexual discussion, and an attempted rape, but nothing is depicted in detail.

Questionable practices — ? Some discussion of drug and alcohol use.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

In this quiet, award winning novel, Benjamin Alire Sáenz explores the poignant depths of friendship and self discovery. In a story that roams among issues of  family trauma, sexual exploration, and love (of every variety) Alire Sáennz’s unceasingly commits to telling the truth. Never does he  sway from drawing his two main characters as anything other than fully conceived and genuine young men struggling with core issues at the center of who they are and who they want to be.

Aristotle (Ari for short) chronicles the events of two pivotal years in his  friendship with Dante. Both are Latino boys in El Paso, Texas in 1987, but their lives are far from alike. Ari’s family is formal and quiet. Dante’s is open and boisterous. Although their relationship begins with the ease and honesty one rarely finds in real life, there is nothing unnatural about the progress it makes in the lazy summer afternoons. When one boy saves the other from being struck by a speeding car, getting his own legs crushed in the process, their relationship strains to the point of breaking, the “hero” doesn’t like being the center of attention; nor  does he want to think about what his willingness to sacrifice himself for his friend means about his feelings for him. He turns inward, away from the world, even as the other one reaches out.

Alire Sáenz takes his time, allowing the story to unfold in the natural rhythms of summer. When Dante moves away for a school year, so his father can teach at a prestigious university in Chicago, Ari isn’t quite sure what to think of the honesty, awkwardness, and underlying questions of Dante’s letters. While Dante “experiments” with masturbation, kissing girls, and drugs, Ari struggles to maintain the friendship long-distance (this is an internet and texting-free era, remember). Although few of today’s teens will understand the lack of interest in “broadcasting” one’s life, Ari’s discomfort at communicating with anyone genuinely arises from his own struggles at home and with his peers.

A side story involving Ari’s missing, imprisoned brother, Bernardo, provides an undercurrent of shame, that, at first, seems to bear little relevance to the story. Deep into the novel, however, the price of the family’s silence and  secrecy goes a long way to explaining Ari’s anger, frustration, and fear at what Dante is trying to reveal to him without actually coming out and telling him.

While the language can be strong at times, and the issues are deeply personal, Alire Sáenz handles the emotions and struggle of two boys coming to understand their feelings for one another with honesty and truth, never drawing either character as one-dimensional or stereotypical. This is not a story only for those struggling with their own sexuality. Dante and Ari’s story will feel familiar no matter what a reader’s sexual preference. It’s insights into the friendship and love ring true about all relationships and is well worth reading.

Sex- S

Violence – V

Troubling Behavior – ?