Review of Somebody Give This Heart a Pen, by Sophia Thakur

Somebody Give This Heart a Pen

by Sophia Thakur

Candlewick Press, 2020. First published in the United Kingdom in 2019. 99 pages.
Review written October 24, 2020, from a library book

This is a book of poems, and Sophia Thakur is a performance poet. Learning that, I wasn’t surprised that several of the poems made me want to read them aloud.

The poems talk about writing out your feelings, and they do express feelings remarkably well. Many of the poems are about loving but breaking up, and some of those made me nod my head at the Truth.

Here’s the start of a poem called “Let Hurt”:

Sometimes
to heal once and one time only
first we must properly hurt.
To understand the sadness that stifles us
we must let it stifle us first
let it sink its teeth deep into our eyes
and let whatever leaks out purse
its lips against our cheeks
like a kiss asking us to be patient
to slow dance with the aching
to understand its twists and turns

Here’s the end of my favorite poem, called “Sprouting.” It’s about new life after healing from a break-up.

This growth is not for you or in spite of you.
In fact it stopped being about you once I let go of you.
But I’m healed enough to be honest.
It did take being emptied by you
to reseed
and to bloom.
So I guess this is me thanking you
for forcing me to move.

And here’s the beginning of the final poem, “When to Write”:

When your fists are ready to paint faces
When there is nowhere to confide
When your skin lingers high above your bones
and you’re so out of touch with self,
Write.
When the mouth fails
and shyness strangles
and your throat becomes tight,
Write.
When your eyes won’t dry,
Write.
Before you fight
Before you fall,
Write.
When they lie to you
When they hurt you
When they leave you,
Write.

I so glad somebody gave that heart a pen.

candlewick.com

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Review of Dancing at the Pity Party, by Tyler Feder

Dancing at the Pity Party

A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir

by Tyler Feder

Dial Books, 2020. 202 pages.
Review written July 27, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

I like the way Dancing at the Pity Party gives you full disclosure in the subtitle. Yes, this is a graphic memoir about the author’s experience with her mother’s death from uterine cancer that happened when Tyler was 19 years old and a sophomore in college.

The book is really well done. It’s a wonderful tribute to her mother and the relationship they had. It tells the story of how the cancer unfolded and the horrible and strange things that did to her emotions. And it explores the mess of grief and the strange things people say.

I probably should not have read this book only eight months after my own mother died. One of the things people do that’s insensitive is compare grief. I can’t fully understand what Tyler went through, because my mother was 78, not 47, and had Alzheimer’s, so by the time she died, it seemed horrible that she’d been alive so long. But I found myself saying, “Yeah, but my father died, too!” – because my father died unexpectedly two months before my mother finally passed. And that has nothing to do with Tyler’s experience – but for me it pointed out that all grief is sadly individual. You can find people who understand certain aspects of what you’re going through, but each one of us has our own journey.

And that’s what’s brilliant about this book. It portrays Tyler’s individual journey with grief. It makes a beautiful tribute to her mother, and it’s a wonderful story about human emotions.

I especially liked her fantasy Deadmom App. Among other things, it mutes all Mother’s Day social media and looks up any movie to find out if the mom dies in it. (I went to see the Mister Rogers movie with Tom Hanks when my Mom was dying in another state. I didn’t know the other main character would be dealing with the deaths of his parents.)

She thinks of so many aspects of the experience of losing someone so important, things that you don’t necessarily think of when you think about loss.

Reading this book will touch your heart whether you’ve ever experienced grief or not.

penguinrandomhouse.com

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Review of Welcome to St. Hell, by Lewis Hancox

Welcome to St. Hell

My Trans Teen Misadventure

by Lewis Hancox

Graphix (Scholastic), 2022. 298 pages.
Review written October 2, 2022, from a library book

Memoirs in graphic novel format are the perfect way to capture all the emotion and angst of the teenage years. In Welcome to St. Hell, Lewis Hancox tells about how difficult life was for him in high school when his name was Lois and everyone thought he was a girl.

Lewis grew up in a small town in England, officially named St Helens, but known to locals as St. Hell. It wasn’t a posh town, and the book is peppered with British slang I had to get used to, but it gives the feel of the place where he grew up.

I like the way older Lewis ushers the reader through the book, assuring everyone that it’s all going to turn out okay. But he tells how uncomfortable he was in his own skin when everyone – including himself – thought he was a girl.

And yes, when he started making out with his first girlfriend, his dysphoria made him extremely uncomfortable getting intimate — and there’s a diagram showing his naked body as it was then, with all the things he was uncomfortable about highlighted.

Yes, current book banners are citing that page. No, it’s not pornography. It’s a cartoon, and it’s not going to titillate anyone. It’s demonstrating his extreme gender dysphoria.

And he went through extremes to try to get a body that looked more like a man’s. Extreme dieting followed by obsessive working out. When he finally got to go to a gender identity clinic, it felt like life was opening up for him. And calm and happy adult Lewis, who has been leading us through the book, shows that he did find the solution to his troubles.

So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like for transgender teens, who may not know yet that they’re transgender, only that they’re different, I highly recommend this book. And it needs to be available to teens, so the transgender ones who might come across it will know they are not freaks and they are not alone.

If you think that teens are too young to know which gender they are, I offer this book as a counter example. Lewis may not have then known what his feelings meant, but he knew that something was wrong with the way people perceived him. Please have some respect for what people know about their own bodies. Please!

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Review of All Boys Aren’t Blue, by George M. Johnson

All Boys Aren’t Blue

A Memoir-Manifesto

by George M. Johnson
read by the author

Macmillan Audio, 2020. 5 hours, 12 minutes.
Review written November 9, 2020, from a library eaudiobook

In this book, George Johnson talks about what it was like for him growing up Black and queer, even in a loving and supportive family.

His storytelling style is interesting and engaging, though a little repetitive in spots. He had me on the edge of my seat when I listened to him tell about getting his teeth kicked out when he was five years old. His stories of his family, especially his grandma, are warm and loving.

When he talks about sexual coming-of-age, he gets way more detailed than what this middle-aged heterosexual white woman wanted to hear. But this book isn’t written for heterosexual middle-aged white women. It’s written especially to other Black and queer folks to find out they aren’t alone. He even talks about how little information he had about gay sex and how he hopes he can help others go beyond trial and error with a few less errors.

I’m glad this book is out there, and even for those not in its target audience, it’s a story of a boy growing up as an outsider and finding his way with the help of community.

iamgmjohnson.com
us.macmillan.com/audio

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Review of The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, by Candace Fleming

The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh

by Candace Fleming

Schwartz & Wade Books, 2020. 372 pages.
Review written May 8, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh is a biography of Charles Lindbergh written for teen readers. As such, there’s a priority on being interesting and readable, but still a level of detail that gives you a complete look at his life.

She groups the book into two parts – the Rise and the Fall. He was only twenty-five years old when he made the transatlantic flight that propelled him into celebrity. He found a wife after that, and their first child was kidnapped, which made him again the focus of the whole nation. We learn all about his background, his upbringing, his ambitions, and his philosophy of life.

By the end of the book, I didn’t like the guy much, because of all I learned in the second half of the book. It tells about how he was duped by Hitler, but also how his own philosophy of life and belief in eugenics set him up to have sympathy with the goals of Nazism. He’d decided that fascism was a better form of government than democracy, because he thought white people with good genes should determine the direction of the country.

Candace Fleming does an excellent job of explaining his beliefs while pointing out problems with them. She shows the seeds of his ideas and how they developed over the course of his life.

She glosses over his life after World War II somewhat – but does mention that he had three other families in Europe, which he kept secret as long as he lived.

The Prologue is a striking way to start the book – at an enormous America First rally, where Lindbergh revved up the crowd. The author doesn’t give the name of the speaker running the rally when this paragraph comes up:

A couple of Firsters stepped assertively toward a reporter. Would the press cover the rally fairly this time? they wanted to know. Or would the newspapers be biased and inaccurate as usual? Many rally-goers believed the media couldn’t be trusted. Their hero, the face of America First and the man they’d come to hear speak tonight, had told them so. “Contemptible,” he’d called the press. “Dishonest parasites.” In a recent speech he’d even told supporters that the press was controlled by “dangerous elements,” men who placed their own interests above America’s. That was why he had to keep holding rallies, he explained. Someone had to tell it like it was. Someone had to speak the impolite truth about the foreigners who threatened the nation. It was time to build walls – “ramparts,” he called them – to hold back the infiltration of “alien blood.” It was time for America to close its borders, isolate itself from the rest of the world, and focus solely on its own interests. It was the only way, he claimed “to preserve our American way of life.”

Candace Fleming did her homework. There is a 6-page bibliography and 30 pages of source notes at the back.

candacefleming.com
GetUnderlined.com

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Review of Revolution in Our Time, by Kekla Magoon

Revolution in Our Time

The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People

by Kekla Magoon

Candlewick Press, 2021. 390 pages.
Review written August 20, 2022, from my own copy, purchased at the Walter Awards and signed by the author.
2022 Printz Honor Book
2022 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award
2022 National Book Award Finalist
2022 Walter Dean Myers Honor Award
Starred Review

Revolution in Our Time is an amazing work of scholarship, telling the complete history of the Black Panther Party for young people, complete with hundreds of photographs and plenty of sidebars and analysis. It won multiple Honor awards, and the meticulous research and clear presentation make it an obvious choice, even for awards that are usually won by novelists.

I didn’t know much at all about the Black Panthers. And honestly, all my impressions of them were negative. I certainly didn’t know that much of their reason for existing was to protest the same disproportionate police violence against Black people that still exists today. But it went much further than that. They wanted to help Black people in poverty and help Black communities come together. Reading this book helped me understand the organization was much more nuanced than anything I’d heard about them.

The Panthers fought a revolution in their time, just as we are fighting one in ours. They were called troublemakers, terrorists, and branded as anti-American, but the truth of their work belies these labels. They boldly claimed their place at the vanguard of a centuries-old fight for equality, and their legacy continues to lead the way forward. The story of the Black Panther Party is one of violence and heartbreak and struggle and conviction. It is the story of a group of young people who set out to change the world around them — in very radical ways.

They came up against many obstacles — including an FBI effort to stop them. They had many successes and many failures. This book tells their complete story, and it opened my eyes.

I was especially interested to learn that especially at the beginning, they were careful to follow all laws. They “policed the police” following police actions with legally owned guns, to protect people in their neighborhoods from police violence. I’m afraid I’m not surprised this resulted in some changes to what was legal.

I like the way the last chapter focuses on how young the founders of the Black Panther Party were. There is a reason the author targeted this amazing work of scholarship to young people. Here’s a paragraph from that last chapter:

I discovered an archival video in the course of my research, with former civil rights movement leaders who were looking back in the early 2000s at their own words and convictions of the 1960s. They declared in retrospect that the biggest mistake of the civil rights era was to believe that all the problems could be solved in their lifetime, and they failed to train the next generation to take up the mantle in the necessary ways to maintain the struggle. My own life experience bears this up in a lot of ways: young people are often underestimated and excluded from challenging conversations. Whether it’s to protect the children, or due to a misguided faith in their own power to solve everything, the perennial mistake of elders is to dismiss the power and potential of youth. On the flip side, the mistake of youth is often to dismiss the wisdom and experience of those who have gone before. In their day, the Panthers didn’t make either of these mistakes. They placed the core of their emphasis on building a cadre of revolutionary youth, and they promoted empowerment through education about Black history. They were undermined and overturned at every stage, perhaps partly because of the truly systemic nature of the change they envisioned, and the fact that they made real progress in these directions in a very short time frame.

Not that the author paints a completely rosy picture of what the Black Panthers were trying to do. But whatever you know about the Black Panthers, I suspect this book will give you a fuller picture. An amazing story of people who wanted to bring about equality and were willing to fight to get it.

keklamagoon.com

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Review of Grand Theft Horse, by G. Neri, illustrated by Corban Wilkin

Grand Theft Horse

by G. Neri
illustrated by Corban Wilkin

Tu Books (Lee & Low), 2018. 230 pages.
Review written July 30, 2022, from my own copy sent by the publisher
Starred Review

In this nonfiction graphic novel (or should I just say graphic nonfiction?), the author tells the amazing true story of his cousin, Gail Ruffu, who was the first person charged with Grand Theft Horse in California in 150 years.

She was acquitted of those charges, because the horse was her own — or at least she owned 20% of it — but the story is amazing, and that wasn’t the end of her troubles.

The story also sheds light on the problem of drug use and cruelty in the horse racing industry, where thoroughbreds are worked to death and their health and safety isn’t taken into account.

Gail Ruffu wanted to change that. She bought a horse, Urgent Envoy, who she thought was a winner, but could only afford to be a part owner. She thought she had the others on board for a no-drugs, patient approach.

But then they started pressuring her to race the horse before he was ready and even when he was injured. After they took her off the team, Gail learned that Urgent Envoy had a hairline fracture, but they were planning to race him anyway. If he raced, his leg would most likely break completely, and he’d be killed. So she took matters into her own hands and stole her own horse on Christmas Eve, 2004.

But she ended up suffering for that decision. Her main partner in ownership was a lawyer who eventually got her banned from the track. This is the story of her work to vindicate herself and to save the life and health of the horse she loved.

Since it’s a graphic novel, the story doesn’t take long to read — which is a good thing, because it’s compelling and not easy to stop reading.

A story of someone without power standing up to the powerful to help those who can’t speak for themselves.

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Review of Messy Roots, by Laura Gao

Messy Roots

A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American

by Laura Gao

Balzer + Bray, 2022. 272 pages.
Review written July 24, 2022, from a library book

Here’s a graphic memoir immigrant story. It’s getting where I feel like I’ve read a lot of these — the life story of a kid who feels very different from their peers and ends up loving art. I’ve read others, but they always pack a punch. In the hands of an artist, a graphic novel (or memoir) is such a wonderful way to express all the emotional weight of their story.

YuYang Gao moved from Wuhan to Texas when she was 4 years old. She’d been living with her grandparents in China, playing with cousins, and didn’t even recognize her parents when she first arrived.

This book tells about her growing up years, trying to fit in, learning about herself and about her heritage, but also being willing to break new ground. In college, she came out as queer and had some challenges telling her family. She moved to San Francisco, where there was a vibrant Asian community.

Then when the pandemic hit, Americans had finally heard of Wuhan, but not in a good way. San Francisco, that had been so welcoming, had new dangers.

It’s all done with striking, brightly-colored art, with lots of variety in the images and panels. She brings you along on her story with all the confusions but comforts of her background combined with the life she’s building for herself.

lauragao.com
epicreads.com

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Review of The Great Nijinsky, by Lynn Curlee

The Great Nijinsky

God of Dance

by Lynn Curlee

Charlesbridge Teen, 2019. 112 pages.
Review written May 12, 2020, from a library book
A 2020 Capitol Choices selection
2020 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist

The Great Nijinsky: God of Dance is a biography of Vaslav Nijinsky, who took the world of ballet by storm in 1909, when he was only 20 years old.

Nijinsky danced only ten more years but is still considered one of the greatest dancers of all time. He also choreographed some groundbreaking ballets, beginning an entirely new style for the twentieth century.

Much of the book focuses on Nijinsky’s status as one of the first wildly popular performer celebrities. People would even break into his dressing room for souvenirs. He was a sex symbol, especially with some of the new suggestive choreography, and he was the center of scandal for being openly the lover of a man at the start of his career. He later married a woman who’d become obsessed with him and was probably bisexual. Tragically, the last thirty years of his life, he stopped performing because of mental illness.

An interesting part of this book is the series of paintings of Nijinsky in various roles. We learn in the author’s note at the back that the author painted many of them life-size in the 1970s, long before he’d ever thought of writing a book to go with his paintings. So this book was the culmination of a long-held interest in Vaslav Nijinsky.

curleeart.com
charlesbridgeteen.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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Review of A Thousand Sisters, by Elizabeth Wein

A Thousand Sisters

The Heroic Airwomen of the Soviet Union in World War II

by Elizabeth Wein

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2019. 388 pages.
Review written March 18, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2019 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist

Did you know – I certainly didn’t – that during World War II (called “The Great Patriotic War” there), the Soviet Union had three entire Air Force regiments of women? This book tells their story.

Here’s part of the Prologue that tells what you’ll find here:

It’s the story of three regiments of aviators, only three out of a thousand aviation units fighting for a common cause. Along with a scattering of individual women who served in the Soviet Air Force alongside men, the young aviators in these three regiments were the only women of any nation who flew combat missions during World War II.

Some of these soldiers flew as many as eighteen combat missions in a single night.

Some of them perished in flames.

Some of them worked in the dark, feeling their way blindly, in cold so fierce their hands froze to the metal tools they held as they made sure their companions were able to fly.

Almost all of them were in their teens when they went to war.

This is the story of a generation of girls who were raised in the belief that they were as good as men, and who were raised to believe that it was their destiny to defend their nation in battle.

It’s the story of a thousand young women who grew up inspired by Marina Raskova and who were ready to follow her into the air.

It’s the story of a generation of young people who learned to work with the wind – those who soared and those who came back to earth.

This is the story of a thousand sisters fighting and flying.

This is an exciting story, though it was also a little bit bewildering. In the first place, I had a hard time keeping straight the various Russian names. The author did a good job helping by often using nicknames, but there were a lot of people to keep track of. There were many exciting and dangerous situations during the course of the war, and many of the most prominent characters died before the end of the book.

I even had trouble keeping track of the difference between the three regiments and which women were in which regiment. One regiment flew Pe-2s and another flew Po-2s, which kind of melded in my mind. It was good to give the overall picture of how the war was going, and I think the author actually did a good job explaining the differences, but the scope was so grand, I’d start to lose track.

Still, I was very surprised by how much Soviet women did during World War II – and saddened that they stopped getting chances to fly afterward. This book is full of death-defying situations and incredible hardships that these women overcame. I’ve read a lot about World War II, but I never had any idea about these stories.

The scope is grand and it is hard to grasp it all, but I still think the author did a wonderful job making the information accessible. Maybe a list of characters at the front would have helped, or more pictures of individuals. (Spoiler: The three on the cover all die before the end!) My problem may actually have been that I read it too quickly, during a day on Sick Leave during the Covid-19 crisis. I may not have been paying enough attention, because she did explain well at the beginning the differences between the three regiments and did keep mentioning which regiment she was talking about.

An epic war story – about women who fought for their country, and fought well.

elizabethwein.com

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