FIC CAR (Reviewing “The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora”)

A brief warning – this is a reread for me. It’s part of the 2020-2021 Wisconsin Battle of the Books list for the middle school level and I am on the BOB committee. Typically, I am a speed reader; I sometimes miss the finer details in a story because I glaze over them as I’m speeding through the plot on my merry way. But when you have to stop every few paragraphs or pages to write a question, you catch things you missed on your first speed through. I always find a second read of books enjoyable slightly because of my tendency to speed through the text.

“The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora” written by Pablo Cartaya, is a 2018 Pura Belpre Honor Book. In the story, Arturo is part of a large extended family, all of whom work in or support the work of his Abuela’s restaurant. When the lot next to the restaurant becomes available for development, Arturo’s family jumps at the chance to submit their plan for the lot to the city; they want to build a room for parties, weddings, and other events. But they soon discover that they’re not the only applicant for the lot. A developer by the name of Wilfrido Pipo has also applied for the chance to build on the lot, and when Arturo and Carmen (the girl Arturo has a major crush on) start to dig deeper into the glorious “community center” of a high rise that Pipo has promised, they realize that the building isn’t going to just be built on the empty lot, but also on the land where the family restaurant stands. Arturo, with the help of his friends and family, tries to save the family restaurant and the neighborhood.

Themes include: family, community, gentrification, and social justice

3 Defects

  1. This book uses quite a bit of Spanish, which makes TOTAL sense for the character and his family, but it doesn’t provide much direction translation and depends on the reader to use the context clues to figure out what was said. For an adept reader, this won’t be an issue at all and adds to the depth of the character, but it may make for difficult reading for readers who struggle to use context clues to decipher text.
  2. Arturo has a couple of friends who feature briefly in the book, but interaction between the friends is fairly minimal. I would have liked to see the characters a little more? Super nit-picky, though.
  3. The villain is pretty ‘one note’ and stereotypical (but so too, are some business people I can think of…). We also have some plot holes that would be lovely additions to the novel if they were filled.

3 Delights

  1. Arturo is such a lovely, gentle character who embraces family, embraces his identity, and discovers that he holds power, even when it feels like he has none. Family is a CENTRAL theme in this book and Arturo feels confident in his place/roll in the family and it shows through his gentle introspection.
  2. This book is appropriate for a WIDE range of students. From 4th grade (as long as you don’t mind a little “crush” and a kiss for this age group) all the way through 8th, I think students will connect with the novel on a variety of facets. The reading level sits solidly at a W, but if you have a young reader who needs an “appropriate” W text, this is a great one.
  3. All of Cartaya’s characters (minus our villain) feel authentic, even those we see for very brief moments throughout the novel. You really get a feel for the Canal Grove neighborhood where Arturo’s family lives. Without the supporting cast of characters, the story wouldn’t mean as much; Arturo wouldn’t be a great without the family and friends who support and bolster him.

305.8009 KEN (Reviewing “How to Be an Antiracist”)

I started reading Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” just after the death of George Floyd. I read Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning” a couple of years ago and had just added his and Reynold’s “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” to my library’s purchase list, and as protests started in Minneapolis, I knew it was time to read “How to Be an Antiracist”.

Image of book cover of How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

In this book, Kendi proposes that there is no such thing as “not racist”. Like Beverly Daniel Tatum’s moving walkway analogy, he believes that the only opposite to racism is antiracism – he states that “there is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist’. The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism” (p. 9). Kendi’s work presents racism through two main lenses: racist policies and racist ideas, which then create racial inequities. The writing is pleasantly conversational and Kendi presents facts and figures interspersed with personal stories from his own upbringing that demonstrate how racism impacted him. He talks about both the internalized racism he developed as a child, as well as the policies and ideas in American history and current American law, schools, and society that allow racism to continue to grown and prevail. He compares American racism to cancer and ends the book with hope and a forward direction: “When it comes to healing America of racism, we want to heal american without pain, but without pain, there is no progress… WE CAN SURVIVE metastatic racism” (pg. 236-237).

I’m not going to give this title a Defects and Delights list. I think works like this, works that are meant to challenge the reader, that ask the reader to grow, are a highly personal experience that takes time to process. I think that reading titles that challenge a reader’s personal biases (some deeply ingrained from birth) is good. Add to it that Kendi’s conversational tone makes the book easily digestible while the ask of the book – to make yourself an anti-racist and help purge racism from our society – will require some to chew the content longer and harder than others. I highly recommend Kendi’s book to anyone who wants to dive into anti-racism work and look at themselves. We (white people) have a LOT of work to do.

FIC LAI (Reviewing “Pie in the Sky”)

“Pie in the Sky” by Remy Lai is what I like to call an “illustrated novel”. Living somewhere between a graphic novel and a typical novel, the book bounces back and forth between illustrations and comic-like storytelling and traditional novel text. Much like its other ‘illustrated novel’ counterparts like Libenson’s “Invisible Emmie” and Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, Lai’s “Pie in the Sky” is easily accessible to a middle grade reader, particularly the 5th or 6th grade reader, who I think the novel is perfect for.

11-year-old Jingwen feels like he’s landed on another planet after his family moves to Australia shortly after the death of his father. Feeling a bit like an alien, he struggles with learning English, making friends, and finding his own way through the grief he’s still living after his father’s death. Trying to fill the loneliness and sadness, Jingwen decides that he is going to bake all of the cakes his father was planning to have on the menu at the bakery he was planning on opening in Australia when they arrived. The only problem with the plan is that his mother, who works a late shift at a bakery, has forbidden Jingwen and his younger brother, Yanghao, from using the oven while she’s at work.

Jingwen decides that baking is more important than telling his mother lies and he and his brother hatch a plan to secretly bake the entire “Pie in the Sky” menu while their mother is at work. But as any lie does, things start to quickly get out of hand for Jingwen as he struggles to keep the cakes a secret from his mother.

3 Defects

  1. For a reader unaccustomed to jumping back and forth between traditional text and comic/graphic novel illustration, this may be difficult to read in some parts, as the illustrations are as important as the text is. While the layout is solid for MOST of the novel, there are a couple of passages where it is more difficult to make the transition back and forth and a reader may lose understanding.
  2. SMALL defect here, but our main character and almost all of the supporting characters of the same age in the story are male. I don’t think that this detracts at all from the story, but I could see how this might be a turn off for readers who are looking for a female protagonist or side-kick.
  3. I’m a little sad that we never really know where Jingwen’s home before Australia actually is. We, as readers, can make some guesses based on names and descriptions, but a part of me would have liked it explicitly stated.

3 Delights

  1. This book has a perfect balance of deep, heartfelt emotion and humor. Readers will resonate with Jingwen’s guilt, loneliness, confusion, frustration, and grief while at the same time have the opportunity to laugh at the bickering and humorous relationship between Jingwen and his younger brother, Yanghao. Lai juxtaposes the two sides to the story beautifully in the novel.
  2. The illustrations are beautifully simple. I especially enjoy when the illustrations are used for flashbacks to a time before Jingwen’s father’s death and their interaction together baking cakes. Characters are emotive in the illustrations, making it easy to decipher the deeper meaning within each picture.
  3. The story falls beautifully into the #OwnVoices category, as Lai emigrated to Australia from Singapore, where she grew up. The story doesn’t shy away from what it feels like to be “other” in a new country and it honestly and deeply discusses the immigrant experience.

Overall, this novel gets a 4.5 out of 5 stars of approval from me and is something that I would easily recommend to readers in grades 4 and up.

FIC SHA (Reviewing “The Light at the Bottom of the World”)

Though it took me longer to read than a book typically would thanks to the constant interruption of a 4-year-old, I thoroughly enjoyed London Shah’s “The Light at the Bottom of the World”.

Cover image of the book "The Light at the Bottom of the World"

Leyla McQueen is a sixteen-year-old submersible racer living in the ruins of London, which was “lost” beneath the sea after climate change and an apocalyptic level asteroid strike destroyed the world above the sea, causing massive tidal waves and global flooding and forcing humans beneath the waves to survive. Living independently after the death of her mother and the wrongful arrest of her father, Leyla is offered the opportunity to race in the city’s annual submersible marathon. If she wins, Leyla would be able to ask for “the Ultimate Prize”, which for her would be the release of her father from whatever prison he’s being held in.

When the race takes a surprising turn, Leyla finds herself in deeper water than she could have fathomed: facing a corrupt government, finding the truth about what has happened to her father, and having her previously black and white world turned upside down.

Shah’s writing is engaging and deep. She doesn’t pull punches and lets her characters face dark truths in a young YA appropriate way. The character of Leyla feels appropriately “teen” and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, which is hopefully in the works. *crosses fingers*

3 Defects

  1. There are a LOT of side stories in the novel, to the point where following/tracking all of them becomes a little tricky. I realize that Shah is world building in this premier novel, which lends itself to some amount of exposition throughout the book, but I think some of the side stories could have been eliminated.
  2. Teenage girls and emotions, man. I get it – possible love interest, angst, the whole deal – is usually a turn on for YA readers. As an adult reading YA, sometimes I’d love to do without it. The way Shah’s Leyla suddenly develops feelings for a boy isn’t my cup of tea, but I get why she wrote it the way she did.
  3. There’s a prologue that’s important but nearly forgotten because it takes awhile for us to understand why it’s important in the course of the story. Prologue is page one, revelation of why it’s important isn’t until after page 200. I wish the revelation would have come sooner so I didn’t almost forget the prologue AND my #2 defect about how quickly feelings for a boy develop would have had more time to be explored in the book.

3 Delights

  1. Shah’s universe is delightfully diverse. Her main character is a practicing Muslim of Middle Eastern descent (though born in the underwater world). Shah doesn’t shy away from Leyla reading the Koran, using Arabic phrases, and having her pray. I can appreciate that in a world where religion could so easily be done away with due to the post-apocalyptic nature of the story, Shah allows it to thrive and be somewhat integral to the main character (and even be a discussion point later in the story).
  2. The story is FAST PACED. There isn’t a lot of “down time” for the reader and exposition is handled throughout the novel instead of concentrated too heavily at the beginning. This book will instantly engage readers and I wouldn’t have to tell someone to “give it at least 50 pages”. By page 50, we’ve already lived an epic battle of a prologue, a fast paced, “illegal” race through the city of London, and nearing the start of the marathon.
  3. The underwater twist to a post-apocalyptic world isn’t something I’ve read recently and Shah does it very well. I appreciate the diversity of ocean life and the real “fear of the abyss” that works itself into the novel. It has a similar eeriness to deep space novels that I’ve read and the crushing depth of the water really plays with the main character’s head and heart.

Overall, this novel gets 4 out of 5 stars of approval from me and is something I’d easily recommend to my students grades 7 and up.

Returning to Blogging

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I started blogging about the books that I was reading. It was a past time that I enjoyed and it helped me keep track of the numerous titles I read during my tenure as a grad student working towards a Masters degree in Library and Information Science. But within a year of finishing my degree, I bought a house, started a new job, and had a kid, and somehow, blogging fell to the wayside as I navigated a new normal.

And now, as I look at rekindling a blog, I’m back to navigating a new normal; my job has moved to a “teach from home” model as a nasty pandemic sweeps the world and I’m adding a new kiddo to the family in approximately 3 weeks. Seems like the time to start blogging again, right? *shrug* I’m letting the itch to write take me in new directions and I’m unapologetic about it.

My goal is to post once every two or three weeks. We’ll see how long I can keep that up as a new mother of two once child numero dos arrives. Wish me the best of luck as I return to the basics of just blogging about books. Nothing more. Nothing less. Just a record of what I’ve read and how each new story makes me feel.