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In “THERE, THERE,” by TOMMY ORANGE, 12 strangers make plans to attend the Big Oakland Powwow in Oakland, California.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, who has raised her sister’s three grandchildren, hopes to catch a glimpse of her oldest nephew in full regalia dancing for the first time. Her sister, Jacquie Red Feather, is newly sober and driving from New Mexico with the man who first got her pregnant as a teenager on Alcatraz Island. Tony, a young man with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which he calls “the Drome,” gets mixed in with Calvin, Charles, Carlos and Octavio, a group of men planning to rob the powwow to make up a drug deal debt. One character, Dene Oxendene, plans to attend the powwow as a voyeur, hoping to document people’s stories and how their stories fit into the story of the urban Native American. These are just a small handful of the characters in Orange’s debut novel.

The degrees of separation could be difficult to follow if crafted by a less-skilled writer, but Orange deftly threads the stories together with the skill of a spider weaving a web. The reader may find him or herself flipping back and forth among stories and marveling at the seemingly inconsequential role one person plays in several other stories before making an appearance in their own, often heartbreaking, accounts.

What does it mean to be an urban Native American? What does it mean to be half-Native but raised by your white mom? This fleeting identity is at the center of Orange’s novel; it begins with a searing look at the United States’ treatment of Native Americans that serves as an entry point to these answers, as told through each character’s story.

In the prologue, Orange writes, “We (Urban Indians) know the sound of the freeway better than we do the rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls” and that “being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.” Few of the characters know who they are as individuals, much less who they are in the context of the history of their culture. But maybe that is what Orange is positing with “There There;” there is not one way to be a good or authentic Native American. Maybe Native heritage is more dependent on this country’s treatment of Native tribes and nations, and the bearing of centuries of abuse and torture on the psyche. Orange’s use of epigraphs is extraordinary, but the following by James Baldwin feels especially representative of the entire novel: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

Overall, “There There” is an exceptional and well-developed novel. My chief complaint is that I wanted more of each character. The conclusion, however is spectacular. To avoid spoilers, I will only note that the conclusion is electrifying, spectacular and worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.

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piecing me together

Writing about social justice issues can be difficult when the audience is composed of middle school students because of the complexity inherent in such discussions. RENEE WATSON’s “PIECING ME TOGETHER” addresses issues of race and social justice deftly and accurately while maintaining authenticity of character.

The main character, Jade, is a poor, black teenager who attends a predominately white private school. She is smart and driven, so she is given many opportunities. But she begins to realize that most of these opportunities are given out of pity rather than as rewards for her real scholastic successes. She knows she is supposed to feel grateful, and she does. However, she also feels frustrated that her teachers and mentors view her neighborhood, family, friends and status as hurdles to overcome rather than as integral to her being.

Jade initially transferred to the school because she was excited by the possibility of visiting a Spanish-speaking country on the study abroad trip her school sponsors every year. She’s certain she will be chosen to go; she is a star Spanish student who assists classmates with their assignments, and she has a nearly perfect GPA.

Instead, her counselors select her for Woman to Woman, a mentor program that pairs underprivileged students with successful women of color to attend culturally enriching workshops and events. The program sounds great, and it culminates in a college scholarship, but Jade wants to be chosen for programs because of who she is and not in spite of it. At the same time, she must navigate new and old friendships and family relationships as well as her passions. In addition to being an excellent student, Jade is a talented and passionate collage artist who is inspired by the recent officer-involved shooting of a black teenager in neighboring Vancouver, as well as by York, the slave who traveled with Lewis and Clark.

“Piecing Me Together” offers a nuanced discussion of the way black kids can be treated, both in school and society, even when intentions are good. Jade’s relationships with her friends, her family and her mentor provide excellent opportunities for discussions of race and social justice issues. For example, when Jade confronts her Spanish teacher regarding his decision not to select her for the study abroad program and he explains that it is because she is already given so many opportunities, readers can better appreciate what true support of underprivileged and minority youth can look like. When Jade’s new friend Sam argues that her experience with a racist store clerk was not, in fact, racist, readers learn what being an ally should look like. When Jade comes to Maxine with her concerns about the mentor program, readers can better appreciate the importance and value of speaking up. The novel, while targeted toward middle school readers, is an excellent choice for any reader interested in realistic fiction and/or social justice fiction.

betty

Before Betty Shabazz became an activist, educator, mother and wife to Malcolm X, she was Betty Dean, a young and ambitious girl growing up in Detroit.

For the first seven years of her life, Betty lived in Georgia, where she was raised by her aunt, Fannie Mae. “BETTY BEFORE X” follows a young Betty as she moves to Detroit to live with her mom and her mom’s new family. Although the novel is a fictionalized account of her childhood, LLYASAH SHABAZZ, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, and award-winning author RENEE WATSON based the story on real people, events and facts.

Betty loves her family and is an attentive older sister to her three half-sisters, but she struggles with feeling like an outsider in her own home. While her sisters play, her mother often expects her to clean and keep house.

Her activism begins because of her associations with certain friends and neighbors, particularly Helen Malloy, who steps in as a mother figure when Betty’s actual mother fully rejects her. However, events such as the lynching of a black couple in the South, the shooting of a black teen in Detroit and discriminatory hiring practices in her community fuel her work as a young activist.

Betty Before X highlights the different forms activism can take, as well as the polarizing effects it can have within an oppressed community. While the Housewives’ League encourages its members to only shop at stores that employ black workers, characters such as the mother of Betty’s friend Phyllis are angry about boycotts that exclude low-income families not able to shop at more expensive stores.

Like the story itself, Betty’s character is nuanced and realistic; she experiences anger, acceptance and happiness in equal measure when faced with friendship troubles, family problems or racism. Betty joins the Housewives’ League as a volunteer, handing out flyers and welcoming guests at luncheons; as she becomes more knowledgeable in the work, she takes on more responsibility, though she remains nervous when approaching strangers, particularly adult ones who view Betty and her organization as troublemakers.

She is also a pre-teen girl, with all of the joys and sorrows that come with that stage in life. She loves listening to records by popular acts such as Sarah Vaughn and Billy Eckstine, spending her allowance at the candy counter and talking about beauty products and boys with her best friends.

Overall, Shabazz and Watson’s story is both authentic and inspirational, and the story is compelling enough to classify as a page-turner. Don’t pass on the end papers. The author’s note, timeline and afterword provide important and interesting information that links the young Betty in the story with the important woman she became.

turtles-all-the-way-down

Aza Holmes is a little bit insufferable, but don’t we all have quirks that are frustrating to the people we love most?

JOHN GREEN’S newest protagonist, a 17-year-old self-proclaimed obsessive depressive, is just as complex as you or I. In his latest best-selling young adult novel, “TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN,” Green introduces the reader to Aza as she embarks upon her senior year.

She and her best friend, Daisy, discover a missing person ad for her childhood friend’s very wealthy father. In an attempt to raise funds for college and financial stability thanks to a $100,000 reward, Daisy — with the help of a reluctant Aza — launches a search.

As part of their search efforts, Aza stumbles into a new but familiar friendship with her childhood friend and missing father’s son, Davis. After years of suffering with spiraling and debilitating thoughts related to her OCD, depression and anxiety, Aza finally finds some comfort in the equally intrusive and depressive Davis. But will their relationship be loud enough to quiet the obsessive thoughts roaring in her brain?

Aza’s story is multilayered, and the novel cannot be written off as either a teenage romance novel or an unrealistic detective novel in the vein of “Paper Towns,” another John Green best-seller. The missing persons case threads the various pieces of the novel together, but this is a character-driven novel through and through.

Additionally, Green has been wrongly criticized as a creator of the manic-pixie-dream girl trope, but Aza is not that at all. Green’s story is one of a young woman learning to navigate relationships (both romantic and platonic), expectations and reality with a deafening mental illness roaring between her ears. Like any human being, particularly a malleable teenager, Aza often fails spectacularly. She pushes away people she loves and misses important pieces of other people’s stories.

Green excels in his craft here. The compelling and page-turning novel is based on Green’s own experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is likely why Aza feels so authentic. However, not everyone suffering from a mental illness is skilled enough to describe their thoughts and feelings with such precision and originality. When Aza falls into a self-described “thought spiral,” it feels as emotionally intense as the real thing.

Rest assured, this novel is not all doom and gloom; rather, Green’s latest might be described as realistically hopeful. Overall, I contend that “Turtles All the Way Down” is Green’s most perfect novel yet.

BMH-Funny-Girl-feat

I have read a lot of serious books lately. With the summer reading program coming to an end and my last semester of graduate school starting, I thought I would take it easy.

“Funny Girl,” librarian BETSY BIRD’s new middle-grade fiction anthology, was the perfect choice. “FUNNY GIRL: FUNNIEST. STORIES. EVER.” promises big things with its subtitle, and it does not disappoint.

The anthology offers something for every type of reader, including comics, epistolary short stories, personal essays and how-tos. The anthology includes stories from an all-female cast of beloved and award-winning authors and illustrators such as Cece Bell (author/illustrator of “El Deafo”), Libba Bray, Kelly DiPucchio, Shannon Hale, Rita Williams-Garcia and the one and only Raina Telgemeier of “Drama” and “Smile” fame. The more well-known authors will be enough to draw readers in, but each story is fun and interesting in its own right.

Some of the highlights include: Alison DeCamp’s “Dear Grandpa: Give Me Money,” in which a young girl named Trixie corresponds with her (very humorous) grandfather in an attempt to get money to compete with a rich neighbor; Cece Bell’s interrupting chicken-style comic starring a familiar Founding Father; and Kelly DiPucchio’s cringe-worthy poems, among others. Many of the stories emphasize, either implicitly or explicitly, the importance of goofy, self-assured humor, as well as the importance of such humor in the face of bullies, friend trouble and the impending doom that is adulthood.

Although I picked up Bird’s book as stress relief, the book does offer some important messages: First, you can find humor in almost anything, including a germ-obsessed mom who burns bathtubs and a rain-ruined perm on your grandma. Second, girls are allowed to be funny.

These are important messages in a world that often tells girls and boys that they have to be one specific thing to be accepted.

This anthology excels on multiple levels. On an individual level, the stories are well-written, laugh-out-loud funny and authentic. As a whole, Bird’s collection is inclusive, well-rounded and well-structured. Adults and young readers alike will find plenty to enjoy and laugh about in “Funny Girl.”

inquisitor

ADAM GIDWITZ’s middle-grade novel, “THE INQUISITOR’S TALE,” is as the subtitle indicates, a story of “three magical children and their holy dog.”

The subtitle hardly tells the whole story. The year is 1242, and a magical Italian greyhound named Guinevere has caused a whole lot of trouble for three very different children whose paths would not likely have crossed without her.

Travelers at an inn in the French countryside take turns sharing the stories of the three children, all of whom have reached mythological status and remain on the loose and wanted as fugitives. Jeanne was forced out of town by angry villagers after she shared her visions of the future. Jacob is an enigmatic Jewish boy in a largely Christian country who also can heal any wound. William is a teenage monk of African descent who also has superhuman strength.

The three unlikely companions travel throughout France, meeting dragons, travelers, knights and a queen, and must rely on their combined powers, wits and the help of friends and strangers to make it back where they belong or, at the very least, make a new home for themselves.

“The Inquisitor’s Tale” has, justifiably, earned numerous accolades, including a spot on The New York Times’ best-seller list. Gidwitz’s novel teaches a moral without being pedantic and entertains without relying on tired tropes. Although somewhat grisly at times, the children’s journey is unpredictable, exciting and full of emotion.

Although this book takes place in the 11th century, the lessons learned — namely, the power of friendship, the harm in discrimination and prejudice and the importance of books and learning — are timeless.

The author’s note is illuminating in its own right and worth reading. Gidwitz bases most of the novel on realistic events and characters, including infamous historical figures such as Joan of Arc, as well as stories out of the Bible and the Middle Ages.

The children’s journey will hook you from the very first paragraph, and Hatem Aly’s illustrations will entertain you along the way.

Aly borrows from the Middle Age tradition of manuscript illuminations, which is to say that his illustrations serve to expand upon and tell the story in their own way.