Friday, February 24, 2017

Piecing Me Together Blog Tour with Giveaway

I'm rather choosy about participating in publicity for a book. When I received an email about possibly participating in this blog tour for Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson, my immediate answer was yes, yes, and yes. Not only do I love Watson's work in general, but I had already read my ARC of Piecing Me Together and knew exactly how special this book is. 

There is a link to a giveaway sponsored by Bloomsbury following Renée's lovely words on art and finding your people. 

On Finding My People
by Renée Watson 

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man.
The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.
It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
–Toni Morrison, Beloved

I am often asked, “What advice would you give aspiring writers?”

I usually start by saying what every English teacher I’ve ever had told me, something we writers all know and have heard time and time again: “Read. Good writers read.” This is the advice I give and then I go into my whole spiel about how I try to read every book twice—once just to take in the story and the second time to study what the writer did to make me love it (or not love it). Sometimes I go into the importance of taking your work seriously even before a book deal and I encourage writers to take classes or join a critique group. The last few times I’ve been asked this question, I am sure to add, “Find your people and hold on to them.” Of course, this isn’t only true for aspiring writers. Every person needs an inner circle of supporters, people who will not let you quit on yourself, on your dream.

In Piecing Me Together, Jade is nurtured and challenged by her mother, her mentor, Maxine, and her best friends Lee Lee and Sam. These women steady her when life feels overwhelming. They ask her questions that push her to rethink and reassess her decisions. They learn how to listen and become a safe space for Jade, where she doesn’t have to hide her fears or downplay her brilliance.

Writing Jade’s story, I was reminded of the women who mothered and mentored me, whose friendship was a buoy. These women weren’t necessarily writers and we didn’t all have the same goals but they were dreamers, too. They were makers, thinkers, doers. They set an example for me of how to go about achieving a goal, of how to bounce back after loss. Some of these friends were my work session buddies. We’d often meet up at coffee shops and have “create dates.” I’d be revising a manuscript, my friend would be knitting and working on product for her Etsy shop, another friend would be writing her thesis, while another would be grading the papers from her tenth grade English class. We’d work alongside one another, keeping each other company, holding each other accountable and then, we’d talk and share about our day, about what was coming up next. When we weren’t physically together, we were just a phone call away when life got hard and we needed to vent, or needed advice, or distraction. Surrounding myself with these women kept me focused and encouraged. These women were friends of my mind.

I wanted Jade to have that kind of community. I wanted to balance out the harshness she often encounters out in the world with moments of cooking with her mom, doing homework with friends, taking walks with her mentor. It is in these moments that she pieced back together, that she is restored and strengthened.

Jade finds her people not only in the living family and neighbors around her, but in historical figures, activists, and renowned artists who she models her own art after. Studying the work of Romare Bearden, Mickalene Thomas, and Kehinde Wiley teaches Jade about collage and painting, yes. But more than that, it validates Jade’s own creative expression. It gives Jade permission to see black as beautiful, to see value in what is often disregarded. It gives her a roadmap to follow.

Perhaps this is why teachers and writers say, “Good writers read.” Perhaps we are saying, good writers find their people. Good writers seek out stories that inspire them to tell their own. Maybe it is not only about reading to hone our own craft but about reading to find authors who we connect with, who are likeminded and telling stories in ways that move us, heal us, keep us in suspense, make us laugh out loud.  These books mentor and guide, letting us know that the stories we want to tell are worth telling, are possible.

Like Jade, I hold on to my artistic people—Lucille Clifton, Lorraine Hansberry, Sandra Cisneros. I read and reread Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jacqueline Woodson. Their work gathers me, puts me back “in all the right order.”


I loved so much that this is a book about female relationships and we build up and empower each other. (You can read my complete review here.)

If you would like to enter to win a copy of Piecing Me Together, use the Rafflecopter link below to enter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Shorter Musings (YA)

Here are some shorter musings on some recent YA reads.

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria
I have very mixed feelings about this one. The prose definitely drew me in as a reader and the concept was interesting and carried out well. I love books that feature strong female friendships and this one is a stellar example. But I thought it was a little too long and despite it being technically excellent, I found that it lacked a certain heart that kept me from falling in love with it. It was more of an intellectual appreciation of the writing skill and that always distracts me from fully loving a book. I don't want to be thinking about that WHILE I'm reading.

My Unscripted Life by Lauren Morrill
I haven't liked any of Morrill's books as much as I liked her debut, [book:Meant to Be|11721314],  but this one comes the closest to recapturing the feel of that book. It is fun, fluffy, and romantic. There is a good bit of a wish fulfillment fantasy type story. That is not a criticism of the book itself, but that is not my favorite type of romance. I'm sure it will have a lot of appeal for teens, so many of them have this exact fantasy. Not about the same sort of celebrity as every teen is different, but generally the meet your fav famous person and they fall in love you is a definite go to for teen dream making times.

Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King
This is well written. A.S. King has such a way with words and characters. Sarah's voice is exactly right for the person she is. She is having a crisis of confidence, faith, and a general ennui with life. There are underlying reasons for this that are major and impacted her strongly even though she couldn't quite acknowledge how much. This book is journey to that point. It is magical realism because 10 year old Sarah, 23 year old Sarah, and 40 year old Sarah are there to help her through. This was the part of the book I couldn't quite get into. I'm not a huge fan of magical realism in general so this was just not meant to be my thing. I did enjoy it for the most part though and I will completely understand if it wins the Printz.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded

Miss Ellicott's for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood is one of my most anticipated 2017 releases. Blackwood's previous trilogy beginning with Jinx is one of my favorites so I wanted to read this new book as soon as I could. I was immediately pulled into the story here and delighted to find a book about sticking it to the patriarchy with magic and a dragon while fighting for what is right.

Chantel is an orphan who attends Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded. Girls who show proficiency in magic and have no other place in the world go there to learn to use their magic. They also have lessons in deportment and are taught to be "shamefast and biddable". Chantel has more trouble with that part. She is prodigiously talented in the area of magic, but when it comes to holding her tongue and deporting, she has to work extra hard. When Miss Ellicott and all the other enchantresses who do the magic (the buttoning) that holds up the city's walls and keeps it safe go missing, Chantel and her two best friends must find a way to help save their city. But first they have to figure out exactly what it is that needs saving and what is the best way to do that.

Chantel is special. She summons her familiar, a tiny green snake, to her at an incredibly early age. Yet she is not your typical "special" heroine. She is a prodigy of magic, but she has been immersed in it almost her entire life and she works hard. She has a practical no-nonsense approach to life that leads her to impatience with people and can cause her to be snappy. When her snake familiar crawls inside her head, it becomes harder for her to control this. She is also told by Miss Ellicott that she is "the chosen one". I loved how Blackwood used this trope and flipped it on its head in ways that both amuse and make a point about free will and choice. Chantel is joined by her best friend Anna. Together they make a perfect team because they balance each other well. Anna is better at being outwardly shamefast and biddable, but, like Chantel, she knows her own mind and uses it to the optimal advantage. She is better at corralling the younger girls at the school and often talks Chantel into finding her patience when she needs it. The girls have always been friends with Bowser, who works in the kitchens and is the only boy resident of the school. He too helps balance Chantel and is a needed part of the team as the elder males who run the city don't want to deal with girls. This team is eventually joined by Franklin, a Marauder boy from outside the city who brings street smarts, knowledge of the outside world, and a mean ability with a crossbow to help out. The four work well together and tend to stick to what they do best. The story mostly belongs to Chantel though, who set off an important series of events by allowing her snake into her head.

The plot is full of mystery and adventure. The kids live in a walled city. The wall has been there for hundreds of years, but now it is in risk of collapse. Marauders (those who live on the outside) with to break the hold the city has on trade. The ruling parties of the city are engaged in an internal power struggle. In classic MG fashion, the kids are the ones who have to save the day. They see things in different ways and are better able to reassess long held prejudices and beliefs. I don't want to say too much because the book is so much fun to experience, but I was truly impressed with the blend of magic, adventure, politics, and ethics. The main theme of the book is "think bigger". Chantel is told this several times, and it is only through this that she is able to figure out a course to take that will help the most people. The existence of the walled city, which was walled to keep out threats but also kept its inhabitants enslaved to their rulers who controlled their food supply, is a timely thematic element all on its own. I really liked how this was threaded through the book, particularly the quote: "a wall becomes a wall in the mind".

Also there is an absentminded dragon with a massive library.

Fans of adventure, fantasy, and girls using all the tools at their disposal to kick butt and take names should read this book.

I read an ARC received at ALA Midwinter from the publisher, Katherine Tegen Books. Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded is on sale March 21st.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

WoW: Ghosts of Greenglass House

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill of Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Ghosts of Greenglass is the sequel to Milford's 2014 book Greenglass House, which was one of my favorite reads of that year. Kate Milford is an auto-buy author for me anyway, but I'm especially looking forward to reading more about Milo and the Greenglass House.

Ghosts of Greenglass House releases on October 3rd from Clarion books.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

TTT: Antagonism to Love Romances

This week's TTT topic: Favorite Romance Tropes (all media) I chose Antagonism to Love

I know this trope is usually called hate to love, but hate isn't the right word for how I like these relationships arcs to start out. It's more that the hero and heroine are in opposition for some reason. Sometimes it is initial dislike, but it can also be a circumstantial thing. Whichever, it usually results in excellent banter and fun all around.

Back in 2014 I wrote a post on the love stories I trained on and many of these were featured there. My affinity for this trope started young.

Here they are in order of obsession:

Han and Leia from Star Wars

"'Go back' Taran shouted at the top of his voice.'Have you lost your wits?'
Eilonwy, for it was she, half-halted. She had tucked her plaited hair under a leather helmet. The Princess of Llyr smiled cheerfully at him. 'I understand you're upset,' she shouted back, 'but that's no cause to be rude.' She galloped on.
For a time, Taran could not believe he had really seen her."

Taran and Eilonwy from the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

Anne and Gilbert from the Anne series by Lucy Maude Montgomery

Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

"Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I'm afraid even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up they were so used to quarreling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently."

Shasta (Cor) and Aravis from The Horse and his Boy by C.S. Lewis

Ron and Hermione from Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

"Discretion prevented me from saying that I thought she was a fiend from the underworld and that mountain lions couldn't force me to enter her service."

"Today, she had yielded the sovereignty of her country to Eugenides, who had given up everything he had ever hoped for, to be her King."

(I always feel kind of bad talking about this on these sorts of lists because it is technically  a pretty massive spoiler, but they are my otpest of otps and they BELONG HERE. So....sorry?)

Gen and Irene from The Queen's Thief Series by Megan Whalen Turner

"I've never thought of you like that,' said Christopher. 'How could I? If you were any other woman, I could tell you I loved you, easily enough, but not you-- because you've always seemed to me like a part of myself, and it would be like saying I loved my own eyes or my own mind. But have you ever thought of what it would be to have to live without your mind or your eyes, Kate? To be mad? Or blind?"

Kate and Christopher from The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Leslie and Ben from Parks and Recreation


Do you have a favorite couple who fits this trope?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Piecing Me Together

A couple years ago This Side of Home was one of my favorite reads so when I found out we were getting a new Renée Watson book this year it automatically became one of my most anticipated reads. Piecing Me Together lived up to all my expectations and then some.

Jade lives in north Portland but goes to the fancy private school St. Francis on a scholarship. She knows this is her greatest opportunity to go to school and get out of Oregon. It can make her feel like she is living a dual life though. Her first two years there were successful academically, but she didn't make many friends. As her junior year begins, Jade is asked to join a mentor/mentee program for "at risk" girls called Woman to Woman. She's not really sure she needs it. She doesn't feel at risk, and she definitely  doesn't feel like her mentor, Maxine, is going to be very helpful in teaching her about the real world. But as the year continues to go less the way Jade expected, the more she learns about the pieces of her life that make her everything she is.

Jade's voice is pitch perfect. As soon as I started reading, I was fully drawn into her world. Jade's favorite school subject is Spanish. She loves studying it and is looking forward to doing a stay abroad. Each chapter begins with a Spanish word and its translation. The chapters are short and each word and beat remains in form and step with Jade's character. Jade is also an artist who works in collage. She likes to make things people consider trash into things of beauty. Her most recent obsession is York, the slave of Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) who helped with the expedition. She is creating work that involves him and also black women who have suffered at the hands of official brutality. Her art and her love of Spanish are integral parts of who she is and both morph over the book as her character changes and grows. The mentorship program Jade is not super excited about is helpful to her, helping her find her voice and become more of an activist.

The novel is episodic, moving quickly through the school year. This works really well and lends itself  well to the authenticity of the novel and Jade's character. When you think about it, life is episodic. Most of our days are routine, and there are pivotal points that stick out from the regularity of life.

The strength of the novel is in Jade herself and her journey, but also in all the relationships. This is a female centered story and it features incredible female relationships of all types. Jade finally makes a real friend at St. Francis her junior year. Sam is a new white girl who rides Jade's bus. Their relationship begins out of proximity and convenience but grows into one of true sharing. They have a lot of roadblocks because of their different ways of seeing the world, but the way they interact and work these is wonderful. Jade's best friend from her neighborhood is also a fabulous example of female friendship. Jade and Lee Lee are close like sisters. Their relationship is old and often doesn't need words or explanations. Despite going to different schools and spending long times apart, they have remained close and work hard at keeping their friendship going. I loved the way the three girls interacted with each other when they were together too. Lee Lee and Sam both recognize their individual importance in Jade's life and get along well together. I love books that feature strong female friendships, and Piecing Me Together excels at this. Jade's relationship with her mother is another important one. Jade's mother was a teen mom and she works long hours to pay rent and buy food. She doesn't see Jade as often as she wants but makes the most of the time they do share and has big dreams for her daughter. Her relationship with her mom is part of why Jade doesn't feel at risk. She knows she is loved, she gets good advice, and is given a chance to live her dreams. Her mother has mixed feelings about the program too. She knows it will help Jade get a scholarship to college, but she feels judged and is a bit resentful of Maxine at first. The relationship between Jade and Maxine is integral to the book and I loved what Watson did with this. Maxine is a recent college graduate so is not much older than Jade. Jade wonders exactly what Maxine could teach her and if maybe Maxine herself needs a mentor because her life seems kind of out of control. As Maxine and Jade grow closer, they actually teach each other a lot. The best part of this to me is that Jade's mom pulls Maxine into their world too and sort of becomes her mentor and it is a beautiful thing. All of these women are independent women with different strengths and weaknesses that balance each other out and combined they make Jade's life richer and are the center of the story.

The prose is truly excellent. There are whole sections of the books I would love to quote, but won't because I read an ARC. And if I quoted everything I loved loved, half the book would be here.

Who should read this book? I think everyone should. It is my favorite YA read of the year so far, and I'm going to be talking about it a lot.

I read an ARC obtained from the publisher, Bloomsbury Children's, at ALA Midwinter. Piecing Me Together goes on sale February 14th.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Amina's Voice

I have been looking forward to Amina's Voice by Hena Khan since first hearing about it. It is the first novel from Salaam Reads, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster and I was eager to see what it would be like. It is excellent in every way possible and a much needed book for multiple reasons.

Amina is is a Pakistani American girl living in Wisconsin trying to survive middle school. She loves singing, but is afraid of the spotlight. Her best friend is acting different and seems interested in befriending one of the "cool girls" who used to actively make fun of them. Things at home can be stressful too as her brother, now in high school, is starting to have more conflicts with their parents. Then her family gets a visit from their father's older brother from Pakistan who is more conservative and strict in his religious views. Amina is more confused than ever. When their local mosque is vandalized, Amina needs to find her voice and her courage as she watches the people she loves most grieve and come together.

Amina is a wonderful main character and a her narration allows the reader to know her fully. She is a shy, introverted girl and very much a people pleaser. This causes her to internalize a lot of her struggles and jumble her thoughts. She is incredibly relatable even if this is not your personality type. She is a talented singer and wants to sing a solo for her school, but is too afraid. She is a little disgusted with herself because of that fear, but doesn't know how to overcome it. This is a story of Amina's journey to more self confidence and finding her voice when she needs it.

This is also a really good book about friendship. Amina's best friend, a Korean American girl, is becoming a citizen and thinking of changing her name to something more "American". At the same time she wants to spend more time with Emily, who used to be super popular and taunted the girls about their "strange" food and customs on multiple occasions. Amina is not quite ready to be so forgiving and there is some conflict between the three. I really enjoyed Khan's approach to this situation. Friendship troubles in a three friend group with one best friend pair having different notions of how to go on in middle school is a common theme in MG. I really like the way it worked out here. All three of the girls learn more about themselves and each other and their friendship grows and changes as a result. There is drama caused by typical middle school thinking and actions, but I feel the resolution is also genuine and shows how friendships are able to evolve and worth working for.

Amina's family life is an important part of her story as well. Her parents are immigrants and have very firm ideas about how they want their children to go through life in America. Amina's older brother is pushing the limits set on him and it is creating tension in the family. Again, I really like the way this was handled. Amina's parents are fabulous and it is clear in every scene they are in that they love both their children very much. They have talks with them. They have firm rules, but they also try to explain things. The family's Muslim faith plays a central part in everything they do and this was wonderful to see. Religion plays a huge part in the lives of so many MG readers and yet we don't really see it play as much of a part in the books they read. In this case, it showcases a religion (the author's own) that many people don't know a lot about and misunderstand so its inclusion here is perfect for both those reasons. In addition to the religious themes, the family's interactions also bring out aspects of what it is like to be an immigrant family and the conflicts that can arise from that.

In many contemporary MG fiction books, the main character deals with issues at school and at home, with friends and with family. Amina's Voice stands out in how well Khan weaves all these threads together. They are intricate parts of who Amina is. This is her story and all of these flow out of that.

The mosque being vandalized is an important part of the book and a catalyst for Amina in many ways, but it is not the main point. It is wonderful to see the community rally together in the wake of it though and to be there with Amina as she processes her fear and grief.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys realistic fiction. You can never get enough books that deal with friends, school and family for MG readers, and this is one of the more excellent ones I've read in some time. I'm looking forward to reading more of Khan's future novels. (I know from a panel at ALA she is working on a chapter book series about a Muslim boy who plays basketball.)

I read an ARC given to me by the publisher, Salaam Reads, at ALA Midwinter. Amina's Voice goes on sale March 14th.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Finding My Words

Things have been slow on the blog lately and that's because for a while there I lost all my words. I've been feeling a lot these past few weeks and all of it was overwhelming. There has been anxiety and fear, but also a fierce need to DO something. That overwhelmed me all the more, and I couldn't help but feel like this space was frivolous and maybe not the best use of my time in the face of everything else going on. But I kept reading because without books and words I don't know what I would be. As always, reading helped me find a path even if I still can't see the end of it and the shadows are looming dark.

There are many recent or upcoming releases I've read that speak to the heart of where we are as a nation, and I've realized that boosting those voices is important. My space here is small and my voice is not loud, but I'm going to use it to the best of my ability.

Because books speak to the heart. They build empathy. They force us to see people, not issues. They are important in engaging with and understanding humanity. When you are talking about books for children, that is all the more important. These books are excellent reads for anyone and everyone though, not just children.

I'm going to highlight some new and upcoming releases that I think are releasing at a propitious time. Remember that books take time: writing, acquiring, editing, scheduling, publishing. These have all been in the making for years. They aren't coming out now because of an "agenda". They are simply timely.

The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet by Carmen Agra Deedy (out now)
In this colorful, vibrant picture book Deedy tells the story of a village that is happy but noisy. They elect a new mayor Don Pepe, who promised peace and quiet. He delivers with laws that forbid even the smallest of noises. But there is a rooster who can not quiet his voice. When the mayor threatens to chop down the mango tree the rooster lives in to stop his singing, the rooster replies, "I may sing a less cheerful song. But I will sing." I attended a talk by Deedy at ALA Midwinter and she pointed out, "Democracy is noisy." When all voices but the ones who agree with you are silenced, you no longer have a democracy. May we all be this rooster who didn't look to be a hero, but could not remain silent.

Midnight Without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson (out now
This is a story of America's past that speaks to our present. As we have a President breathing threats of cracking down on voting rights and an Attorney General nominee who wants to roll back the progress gained through the Voting Rights Act, I think it is important to look at where we were just 60 years ago, and what prices were paid to move us forward.

 Amina's Voice by Hena Khan (releases March 17)
This is the first release from Salaam Reads, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster. It is the story of Pakistani American girl who lives in Wisconsin with her family. It is a story of school, friendship, family, and all the things that make a MG novel accessible to its tween audience. In this case the main character happens to be a Muslim immigrant. I read this last week the day after the Executive Order on immigration was signed, a few days prior to the attack on the Mosque in Quebec. Never have I felt like a book was more timely or important. This is a book full of hope and the power of community and is an excellent look into the lives of Muslim immigrants for the many I know out there who have never actually met one.

 Miss Ellicott's School for the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood (releases March 21)
Yes, this is a fantasy involving magic and a dragon. It completely belongs here. Because those adorable little children on the cover? They live in a walled city. A city that has been cut off from the rest of the world by choice for centuries. This was against the wishes of a former queen of the city who refused to have a wall built because, "She said a wall becomes a wall in the mind, and she wanted no walls for her people." She was not wrong because while the wall keeps the city "safe" (sort of but not really), it also keeps the people in and completely reliant on a government who can now control all their information (not to mention their food supply). Attesting to the talents of Blackwood's writing in addition to being insightful and timely, the book really is as fun and adventurous as the cover implies.

 American Street by Ibi Zoboi (releases February 14)
This is an excellent look at what life is like for one girl as she moves from Haiti to Detroit. It tells the hard stories of people living lives that are far from easy while trying to attain a dream of America that they feel they can't reach and wasn't really meant for them anyway. It is beautiful and heart breaking and should be required reading before anyone voices an opinion about crime and the inner city.

And here are some older books (released in last few years or more) that I feel speak to current events and issues:

Does anyone have any other books they feel need boosting right now?