I decided to try turning the TV off in order to read more books this summer. I canceled cable a few months back, and I really only watch whatever’s on PBS, but still. I look at other bloggers and they post reviews every single day! I’m not big on reviewing, but these books recently made an impression on me.
After reading Persepolis, and not necessarily falling in love with the graphic novel format, Shadra recommended that I read SKIM. I met the illustrator (Jillian Tamaki), I believe, at our launch party for BIRD (she’s Canadian!). I definitely identified with some of this protagonist’s life issues, and my high school years were so bleak I go out of my way to avoid thinking about them. One thing I liked was the illustrator’s decision to make the girls at Skim’s school look rather gruesome; they’re snarky, cynical, diffident, and flat out mean sometimes, so I’m glad they were portrayed as unattractive (and not glossy and perky). There were some scenes that perfectly reflected my memory of growing up in Toronto; the city often feels kind of dumpy and run down, and Kim’s loneliness as she aimlessly rides a bus across the city resonated with me. Her parents are divorced, and her mother has given up on love; whenever this working mother is pictured in a frame, her eyes are anywhere BUT on Skim–I can relate. What struck me most, however, was the whiteout effect…the book isn’t explicitly *about* race, I don’t think, but that’s how I read it: this mixed-race Asian girl is surrounded by whiteness. There are virtually NO people of color in her world, apparently, and she’s trying to find belonging as a Goth and/or a Wicca. She falls in love with, is kissed, and then abandoned by a white woman teacher at school; her peers are all white, except for one Vietnamese adoptee who shares Skim’s fate of being cruelly ejected from a 7th-grade costume party by the bitchy (white) ballerinas. The other Asian girl moves to Sudbury the next year (out of the frying pan…) and Skim wonders if the girl, a recent transracial/transnational adoptee, simply concluded that that was how Canadian birthday parties ended: “Asians first.” This was an interesting narrative, and I can see its appeal for teen readers, but I can’t say I enjoyed the reading experience itself. I feel unable to focus on the story, it’s harder to invest in the characters and the narrative because I feel like I’m distracted by all the illustrations. Again, this could be about my diminished attention span (too much TV), or it could be my impatience with “generalized teenage anxiety disorder.” Wait–it’s not impatience, it’s something else. I was seriously depressed during high school, and saw signs of that in this protagonist: her mom’s not emotionally present, she binges on cookies then feels bad about her weight, her white father is dating someone new (also white) and says “I’m here for you” but isn’t. And at that age, I wasn’t aware of how race was impacting my experience of high school; I felt like an outsider, but blamed that on class differences…I know I shouldn’t expect this fictional teenage girl to address whiteness, but I wanted *something* to be said in this book.
Which brings me to my second novel, Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis. I *really* enjoyed reading this book, and highly recommend it. This reading experience actually prompted me to think more about my identity as a writer, and the contested category of “young adult fiction.” I know there’s an ongoing debate out there about what constitutes YA lit, and I have to say that I don’t identify as a YA author. I’m a writer, and I’ve written a YA novel, but I don’t think of myself as particularly bound to (or invested in) one group of readers over another. A lot of adults have appreciated my children’s picture book, and I think adults can appreciate my YA novel. I haven’t really gotten any feedback from teen readers yet, but I hope they’ll appreciate A Wish After Midnight. Mare’s War is interesting because the narrative is split; mostly we follow the early life of Marey Lee Boylen, an African American teen from Alabama who’s struggling to keep her family afloat. She must work two jobs, help out around the farm, stifle complaints against Jim Crow racism in the South, and look out for her younger sister, Feen, who’s apparently unable to look out for herself. Mare’s mother has a drinking problem, and the “uncles” she brings home sometimes show more than “fatherly” attention to the young sisters. In fact, we begin to understand Mare when she hides a hatchet under her bed to protect herself and her sister from the “uncle” of the day. When he enters their room one night, Mare swings the hatchet, is overpowered by the would-be rapist, and the entire scene ends when Mare’s mother wakes from her stupor, grabs her shotgun, and lets off a warning shot. This part of the novel is *absolutely fascinating*—so much so, that I was actually irritated when the perspective shifted back to the present day. Mare’s story is supposed to unfold as a long tale told by the elderly woman as she drives with her two teenage granddaughters from California back to Alabama for a family reunion. But we don’t ever see Mare telling her life story; we have scenes of squabbling in the car, which reveal tension between the two sisters, and then we cut back to the 1940s and Mare’s progress as a new recruit in the Women’s Army Corps. Now, if I had a choice, I’d have cut the two teenagers out of the novel; or I would have created a different scenario for them to participate in/witness Mare’s lifestory, b/c the roadtrip didn’t provide enough opporutnities for me to know or like those teenage girls. I didn’t care enough about the youngest one’s effort to overcome her fear and learn to drive, or the older one’s crush on a boy at school. They write whiney postcards to their friends, and these are interspersed throughout the novel, and THAT in a way marks the book as YA. If it were just Mare’s story, I wouldn’t put it in the YA category (or it could function as adult lit). But the story of black women’s participation in WWII is just incredible–so thoroughly researched and thoughtfully written that you feel almost like part of the platoon! Davis deals with some serious issues aside from the horror of war: racism and sexism in the military, interracial relationships abroad (black men dating white women), homophobia among the women soliders, which is significant since the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy continues to plague those who wish to serve today. In a way, the seriousness of Mare’s era makes it hard to tolerate or even sympathize with her granddaughters—and maybe that was the point. But the two girls hardly seem chastened at the end, though they do appreciate that there’s a WHOLE lot of history that isn’t included in their school textbooks. Mare’s War goes a LONG way to filling in some of those blanks–so get your copy and read it TODAY!