Between the fact that it is #PrideMonth and the fact that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is shining a light on the racial disparities of the US criminal justice system, I almost felt like it was kismet that I listened to this audiobook this week. I had added this book to my TBR list so long ago that I honestly forgot what it was about and simply knew it was something about two teenagers who crossed paths on a bus one day. Yeah… It was way bigger than that!
Sasha (they/them/their) was a white teen who attended a small private school where their “genderqueer” identity was simply accepted and taken in stride. The fact that they preferred to wear skirts was not really a big deal to anyone in their family or their circle of friends. Richard (he/him/his) was a black teen who attended a large public school and, though he wanted to turn around his life and graduate from high school, still hung out with people who made poor choices (like stealing and fighting). On the day that Sasha and Richard crossed paths, while riding the 57 bus home from their respective schools, Richard made a stupid and impulsive decision. Egged on by friends, and not knowing how incredibly flammable Sasha’s skirt would actually be, Richard flicked a lighter and held it to Sasha’s skirt. He thought it would be funny to see the shock and confusion of that “guy in a skirt” waking up to see their skirt had caught fire. He assumed Sasha would wake up moments after he flicked the lighter, pat out the fire, and that would be that. In reality, though, Sasha’s skirt enveloped them in flames and caused severe burns to their legs, and Richard was left facing the possibility of life in prison if he was tried as an adult for this “hate crime.”
The story alternates between Sasha’s and Richard’s sides of the story and presents both factual information about the case and the emotional rollercoaster that they and their families experienced. Not only did this story provide information about this specific case, but it also provided a great deal of background information about the GLBTQ community and the US criminal justice system. The author presented a primer on GLBTQ terminology people may not necessarily know (along with a disclaimer that terminology often changes and that people should respect the terminology used by individuals when they describe themselves) and included an abbreviated timeline of issues affecting GLBTQ people, particularly those who are transgender or agender. I really appreciated how the author focused on the vast disparities between the sentences and future outcomes of white juvenile offenders and black juvenile offenders in America from the 1980s through today. Unless we recognize the inequality within our criminal justice system, we cannot work to change it.
Long story short, this book gives me hope. Hope that we can move forward to be more accepting of people whose identities do not match our own and that our criminal justic system *can* be fixed if people continue to insist on reform. The most remarkable thing about this story, in my opinion, is how Sasha and their parents not only forgave Richard for his incredibly stupid mistake but also fought for him to be tried as a juvenile. That right there says it all. By responding with forgiveness instead of hate, and working to understand one another better, we can make this world a better place.
I often enjoy reading memoirs because they show some of the most amazing transformations. It’s incredible to read about children who faced terrible odds and still managed to become well-adjusted, functioning, and even happy adults. Not only do these stories help to inspire me to seek out and appreciate the blessings in my own life, but they help me to better empathize with people whose stories were so very different from my own. Meredith May, for instance, was a small child when she moved across the country as a result of her parents’ divorce. While her mother battled mental illness and could barely function, Meredith and her younger brother were cared for by their grandparents. But it wasn’t even her grandparents who made the biggest impact on her life; it was the honey bees that her grandfather kept who taught Meredith the most.
I have always has a thing for bees, personally, and that is a large part of why this book cover caught my attention. My mom thinks it might be because of the bee toy that adorned my crib, though I guess we will never know for sure. What I do know for certain, though, is that bees spark joy for me. While some people see a bee and instantly jump to the fear of being stung, I tend to simply associate bees with honey and flowers. I know bees would rather not sting me, since that is a last-resort form of protection, and I am perfectly content to sit and watch a bee fly from flower to flower. On our yearly pilgrimage to our local apple orchard, I enjoy spending some time watching the bees through the glass enclosure in the little country store. Perhaps it is the OCD part of my brain that takes such comfort in the uniformity of the hexagonal cells within which they work. Perhaps it is because I find it so amazing how they instinctively know all of the smaller jobs that need to be done in order to keep the hive thriving and to actually make their honey. Either way, I completely understand how it is that Meredith can find such comfort in knowing that every bee in the hive has a place and a job and that such order can surely be transferred to the larger world around us. After all, if even one tiny bee can make a difference, there’s surely something I can do to impact the world around me.
One of the first books I read in my YA Literature class was Speak. It is, perhaps, the best known of Laurie Halse Anderson’s books. Sadly, that is likely because it has touched the hearts and lives of so many rape victims, many of whom have reached out to let her know that they found solace in reading her book and knowing they were not alone. Though *I’ve* never been raped, I know girls and women who lived this horrible nightmare. And one of the worst parts of their experience, in my opinion, was that most of them were afraid or ashamed to speak up and speak out about what happened to them. Because, far too often, rape victims are blamed and shamed for what was done to them — saying they had not dressed “modestly” enough, or that it was their fault for getting drunk, etc, etc, etc. After all… It’s much easier to blame the victims than to admit that this could happen to any of us at any given time, right?!?
Well, this book is an answer to the victim-blaming and the other aspects of rape culture that perpetuate the problem. It is a reminder that we have to teach our children about consent — spoken, enthusiastic consent — and how necessary it is to seek and continue to reaffirm consent before any and all sexual activities. It is a reminder that staying silent helps no one but the rapists. And it is a call for all victims to not only speak but to SHOUT about what has happened to them.
I really appreciated how Laurie opened up about her own rape, why she stayed silent for so long, and how so much of her life (particularly her adolescence) was impacted by her rape. I think Shout will not only help a lot of victims to see how she found the strength to get past her trauma but also help *everyone* who reads the book to take a deeper look at what we can and must do, as a society, to end rape culture.
Jazz Jennings has been in the public spotlight since she was interviewed by Barbara Walters — when she was only 6 years old. At the time, her parents had asked that their real name not be used so that they could better protect their daughter from people who would be upset by the interview. Why? Because Jazz was transgender. Though she was born with the anatomy of a boy, Jazz always knew she was *really* a girl. When she was 5 years old, her parents helped her to transition to life as a girl. And a year later, the famous interview with Barbara Walters took place. In the 11 years since that interview, Jazz has continued her brave work as an activist for the LGBTQ community by accepting high-profile interviews and speaking engagements, maintaining a social media presence, and writing memoirs to help transgender youth feel less alone while educating people who don’t truly understand the struggles of transgender youth.
I thought this would be a particularly relevant book to review during #BannedBooksWeek because her children’s picture book, I Am Jazz, is listed as the 10th most challenged book of 2017. I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Jazz herself, and I really enjoyed hearing Jazz tell her own story. She spoke with such courage and fortitude about her battles with bullying and depression. Though the picture book goes into much less detail than this YA memoir, many people are uncomfortable discussing gender identity with children. Hopefully, the tenacity and bravery of transgender people like Jazz Jennings will help to open the dialogue necessary to create better understanding so that transgender youth will no longer feel so much sadness and confusion as they evaluate how they want to express their gender identity.
I don’t review non-fiction as often as fiction on my blog, but I had to be sure to include this book because it is both well-written and important on a number of levels. Not only does it promote body positivity and access to non-biased, factual information, but it does so while being inclusive of *all* people who self-identify as a girl. #WeNeedDiverseBooks in YA non-fiction too!
Rayne very openly and honestly discusses topics like gender identity, sexual orientation, dating and relationships, masturbation, and sex. I especially appreciated her non-judgmental tone and how she made it a point to include different points of view [via diary entries from multiple women] so that girls who read this book will be more likely to find someone to whom they could relate. Because this book covers such a wide range of topics, I think it’s awesome that Rayne provides resources for readers who are interested in delving more deeply. Aside from presenting factual information, though, I think it was helpful that Rayne provided questions for self-reflection. It’s important for girls to consider who they are and how they feel before they can move forward with their evolution into becoming the women they wish to be.
Although Jenny Lawson is technically writes for “adults,” I think there are probably a great many teens who would benefit from reading this memoir. Although some adults might cringe to think of teens reading or listening to Lawson’s cursing, I know that most teens probably wouldn’t be the least bit bothered. I mean — I know, from experience, that many teens’ speech is peppered with “f-bombs” to the extent that they don’t even realize they are swearing… But, I digress.
As someone who personally struggles with OCD and depression, I think this book is very important for at least three reasons:
- People who live with depression and anxiety might find some solace in knowing they are not alone (and will likely experience a feeling of hope that their own lives can improve if they are feeling low);
- People who do not know what it is like to live with depression and anxiety can get a no-holds-barred look at the realities of living with mental illness… you know, #EndTheStigma and all that; and
- Jenny Lawson is freaking hilarious and will help all readers recognize that even the most dire of situations can be improved with a little perspective and a lot of levity.
I often find myself wanting to share quotes and little snippets with my husband, but I find myself compelled to play so many parts of this audiobook aloud that he really just needs to listen to it himself. Aside from the fact that I am sure he will find it absolutely hilarious, I think he will find solace in knowing that the author’s husband, Victor, has been dealing with someone just as crazy as me and seems to be doing just fine. 😉
When I first heard about this book, I just couldn’t believe it. How was it possible that there was a plot to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body from his grave and yet I had never even heard about it? I admit that I was not the best history student; I much preferred math and science because I was terrible at memorizing all those names, dates, and places… but this is something I’m sure I would have remembered! It didn’t surprise me in the least to see the depth and breadth of historical information that was included, since I’ve read other Steve Sheinkin books and listened to him speak about his research methods. But I was definitely impressed by the fact that, once again, he crafted a non-fiction book that read much more like a thriller than a textbook. This is a great read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the early days of the Secret Service, money counterfeiting, and other [not always so] “organized crime” in the late 1800s.
Growing up in my family provided me with some very interesting insight into the Vietnam War. I was born in 1979 and completely missed “experiencing” the Vietnam War for myself, but my grandfather, Jim Cain, has been telling me stories about the Vietnam War for as long as I can remember. Although I didn’t realize it was a big deal until I reached my late-teens/early-twenties, I always knew Grampa had been a “Raven.” He would tell me stories about secret missions and being shot down in Vietnam, but I always kinda assumed he was playing it up and putting on a show for his grandkids. Yeah… I was wrong! As it turns out, the Ravens “were fighter pilots used for forward air control in a covert operation in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States in Laos during America’s Vietnam War [who] provided direction for most of the air strikes against communist Pathet Lao targets and People’s Army of Vietnam’s infiltrators in support of the Laotian Hmong guerrilla army.” (Check out http://ravenfac.com/ravens/Adventures/Episode0000.htm for more information about the Ravens – and a picture of my grampa!)
Despite the fact that her father was fighting in the Vietnam War, my mother was a tried and true “hippie” who protested the war. (Her parents actually found out, long after the fact, that she had attended an anti-war rally while they were stationed in England because of an old photo that was published in their local paper when Bill Clinton was running for president!) Some people would argue that she was less than patriotic for not supporting that war, but I don’t think opposing war makes anyone a bad American. Especially after listening to this story of how politicians sabotaged one another and actively prolonged this particular war to “save face” and further their own political agendas, I find it extremely difficult to even consider accepting war without considering all other possible avenues toward diplomacy. I am grateful to live in a country where citizens have the right to free speech and where freedom of the press works to keep citizens informed of what is going on behind the scenes. I never learned much about the “Pentagon Papers” in school, but this book had me riveted. I especially liked the fact that the afterword of this story referenced a more current “information leak” involving Edward Snowden and provided Daniel Ellsberg’s opinion on the matter. After what Ellsberg has been though, he is certainly someone whose opinion on the Snowden case is relevant.
I am always frustrated when people try to ban books that speak about the harsh realities of human history. I can sort of understand wanting to shield children from those atrocities, but to what end? Especially when those books are being challenged at the high school level, at a time in their academic careers when students are supposed to study the events of global history. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t remember much of what we learned about Iran from the lectures of my global history class, but I am fairly certain I won’t ever forget Satrapi’s story. Not only does this graphic novel provide an accurate timeline, but it also illustrates, with both words and images, how the Iranian people were affected by the Islamic Revolution. Sure, I found some of the stories/images to be upsetting — particularly the scenes in which men recalled the ways in which they were tortured — but no more so than stories and images from my studies of the Holocaust. The way I see it, we owe it to our children to be real with them so they can fully appreciate the current situation in Iran.
Experiencing this revolution through the eyes of a child helped me to understand, on a very basic level, both the scope of what happened and the complexities of Iranian history that are glossed over in a classroom. Things are not nearly as “black and white” as many people would like to believe. I won’t soon forget the mix of sadness and fascination Marjane experienced, for example, when she listened to her Uncle Anoosh’s stories about his life in exile and then when he was captured and put in prison; nor her anguish when he was sent back to prison and she could be his only visitor. History textbooks don’t usually appeal to me, but narratives like this are hard to put down! I was very impressed to see how seamlessly Satrapi included names and dates vital to learning about the revolution within the context of such a compelling story.
I think that a first person account, such as this, makes it much easier for readers to understand how some people could have been manipulated to accept the extreme changes that were made — like the re-writing of textbooks, moving away from bilingual and coed schools, and making women and girls wear veils in public. (FYI, in case you didn’t already know, fear is an amazingly effective motivational tool.) Yet, I found that my disgust at the tactics used against these people was outweighed by hope. It was inspirational to learn about people who found the strength to stand up for what they believed in and to revolt against what they knew to be wrong, despite all they stood to lose. I can only pray that this message of hope is what young people take away from this story and that future generations turn that hope into actions that will bring about peace.
Happy Banned Books Week!
If and when my library teens want to discuss what is going on in their lives, they know am available as a sounding board, a shoulder to cry on, or as a resource for finding agencies that can provide further help. I sometimes joke that I should have had a minor in social work because of all the problems that have been brought to me, but I am mostly just honored that I am a trusted adult to whom the teens will come when they are dealing with serious issues. Some of my teens have come to me while they were in the process of coming out and/or transitioning, and though I am a very curious person by nature, I have done my best to be supportive without prying. Out of respect for the difficulties faced by coming out and/or transitioning, I think it is only fair to let the person who is coming out/transitioning take the lead in the conversation. Thankfully, there are brave young people like Arin Andrews who are willing to share their own stories so that transgender and cisgender people can better understand both the obstacles transgender people face and the resources that are available to them as they decide how they would like to move forward with their lives.
I thought Arin did a great job of explaining the process of [female to male] transitioning both simply and thoroughly; the fact that he managed to do so without being didactic was very impressive! Though Arin’s transition involved both hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery, he was careful to explain that there are many people who opt to transition differently and that all choices are valid. I was especially grateful for Arin’s candor about dating and sex, since I am sure many people are curious about how that all “works,” when one or more of the people in the relationship is transgendered, but don’t know how to ask without prying/being rude. I think this book would be an excellent resource for someone who is preparing for or struggling with his/her own transition, but I also think it is an important book to share with cisgender teens. As a woman who feels perfectly at home in the body into which she was born, it has taken years of conversations with transgendered teens to even begin to fully appreciate their struggle. I can only hope that the open sharing of stories like Arin’s will help future generations to be more understanding and empathetic and that the struggle for trans rights will soon become a part of history.