Review of Ink Knows No Borders, edited by Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond

Ink Knows No Borders

Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience

edited by Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond
foreword by Javier Zamora
afterword by Emtithal Mahmoud

Seven Stories Press, 2019. 183 pages.
Review written May 18, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Ink Knows No Borders is a collection sixty-four poems by skilled poets with stellar credentials – who are all immigrants or children of immigrants and many have been refugees.

Our library has this in the young adult section, but there’s no reason old adults wouldn’t enjoy these poems as well.

There’s a wide variety in the poems – in style, form, and the ethnicity of the authors. But they’re all well-crafted poems, and they’re all hard-hitting. They each succeed in shining a light on one aspect of the immigrant experience. I had considered very few of these aspects before.

I read this book slowly, a poem or two per day. They made me think – and they helped me feel empathy for those who have had to leave their homes to come to America.

Here’s a bit of what the editors say at the front of the book:

Ink Knows No Borders celebrates the lives of immigrants, refugees, exiles, and their families, who have for generations brought their creative spirits, resilience and resourcefulness, determination and hard work, to make this land a home. They have come from the Philippines, Iran, Mexico, Russia, Vietnam, El Salvador, Sudan, Haiti, Syria, you name it. Enter the place of these poems, bordered only by the porousness of paper, and you’ll find the world’s people striving and thriving on American soil….

These poets know that the pen holds a secret, a secret that can only be uncovered by putting that pen to paper, in a crowded coffee shop or some solitary place, maybe in the middle of night or when the dawn won’t let you sleep, inspired, as you are, by birdsong or your own song. They know that “This story is mine to tell.” These lived stories, fire-bright and coal-hot acts of truth telling, are the poet’s birthright – and a human right.

Whether you were born in this country or another, whether you came here with the help of a “coyote,” crammed in a too-small boat, or with a visa and papers in order, whatever your skin color or first language may be, whomever you love, writing poems is a way to express your most authentic truths, the physical ache of despair, the mountaintop shout of your joy. Writing poetry will help you realize that you are stronger than you thought you were and that within your tenderness is your fortitude.

Not only does ink know no borders; neither does the heart.

patricevecchione.com
sevenstories.com

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Review of Accountable, by Dashka Slater, read by Ariel Blake

Version 1.0.0
Accountable

The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed

by Dashka Slater
read by Ariel Blake

Macmillan Young Listeners, 2023. 9 hours, 12 minutes.
Review written April 18, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
2024 Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction Award Winner
2024 Capitol Choices Selection
Starred Review

I did not enjoy listening to this audiobook. But it completely deserves the recognition it’s won. This book is on an important and timely topic, and it is thoroughly researched and presented clearly and in great detail, with lots of nuance and with respect for the people involved. It gets you in the heads of all the kids, not simply the ones on one side of the issue, and you fully appreciate how complicated and complex the matter is.

The subtitle explains what’s in this book. A high school kid in a small California bay area town made a private Instagram account and invited thirteen of his friends to follow it. He posted “edgy” memes trying to get approval from those friends — and they got more and more racist, targeting mostly Black girls who attended their high school. The images progressed to pictures of nooses and other horribly racist content.

When the targets found out, it started a big scandal. But staff and administration didn’t really know how to handle it. Should those who followed the account but never commented receive consequences, too? The whole high school community got involved and the account followers — not only the account owner — were shamed and threatened. Eventually even the courts got involved – mostly as to whether the schools had violated their students’ first amendment rights in their response to the account followers.

But every single kid on either side of the event had their life disrupted by it. The girls who were targeted had visceral reactions, from not feeling safe at school to having nightmares and going into deep depression. But the perpetrators, no matter how remorseful they felt, seemingly had no possible way to live it down and get past it, so their lives, too, were dramatically affected.

But shouldn’t their lives have been affected? I like the author’s choice of title, because that’s the question: In what ways should 16-year-old kids be held accountable for terrible things they did when they didn’t fully understand how terrible they were? And what is the appropriate way to make them understand? And how can we bring healing to those who were harmed?

Before I listened to this audiobook, I didn’t begin to understand how difficult and complex answering those questions can be.

This book is a resource for administrators and teachers everywhere in the age of social media. But I’m especially glad that it’s written for teens and targeted to teens, because it’s also a cautionary tale and will surely save at least some kids from making similar mistakes.

dashkaslater.com

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Review of Impossible Escape, by Steve Sheinkin

Version 1.0.0
Impossible Escape

A True Story of Survival and Heroism in Nazi Europe

by Steve Sheinkin
read by Rob Shapiro

Listening Library, 2023. 5 hours, 45 minutes.
Review written March 25, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2023 CYBILS Award Winner, High School Nonfiction
2024 Sidney Taylor Book Award Silver Medal, Young Adult

Impossible Escape tells the story of Slovakian teen Rudi Vrba, who in 1942 tried to escape Slovakia in order to avoid being “resettled” by the Nazis. That escape started out fine, but ultimately did not succeed, and he got pulled into the Nazi Concentration Camp network.

When reading this book, I knew he was going to escape because of the title, but the tension kept building as I wondered when it would happen. The odds against him mount as he gets sent to more and more secure camps, but the escape happens with two hours left in the audiobook. And yes, it’s certainly legitimate to call the escape impossible.

His story is so full of human details, I thought the author must have interviewed him. But realistically, we’re getting past the time when that is possible, and the Author’s Note revealed that the author instead researched in a library of Rudi’s papers. (Rudi ended up becoming a professor.) The story is gripping, and even though I have read many books about the Holocaust, the horrible barbarity he endured and witnessed is something my heart doesn’t want to believe is even possible.

Why was his story important? Because he was the first eyewitness to escape Auschwitz and testify to the systematic mass murder taking place there. At the time of his escape, Hitler was beginning to convince the Hungarian government to deport the Jews of Hungary — and Rudi’s testimony helped sway world opinion so that the remaining Jews of Hungary were saved — including his childhood friend, whose story we get alongside Rudi’s, as she did manage to leave Slovakia and escape capture.

This audiobook had me riveted — the kind of story it’s hard to stop listening until the book is done. I also wish it weren’t necessary to keep reminding the world how much evil can come from dehumanizing your enemies. May this never be repeated, and if and when it is, may heroes like Rudolph Vrba arise and escape with the truth.

stevesheinkin.com

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Review of ¡Ay, Mija! by Christine Suggs

¡Ay, Mija!

My Bilingual Summer in Mexico

by Christine Suggs

Little, Brown and Company, 2023. 328 pages.
Review written April 27, 2023, from a library book

¡Ay, Mija! Is one of those wonderful creations – a graphic novel memoir looking back on what it was like to be a teen figuring things out.

In this book, Christine Suggs tells about traveling on their own to visit their mother’s family in Mexico. Their Spanish wasn’t very good at the start, but they loved these people, and that love was returned. We see them carrying out more interactions as the visit goes on.

They also, naturally enough, have questions about their identity. They see things in their Mexican family that they’ve inherited, like a love of pan dulce. But their father is a pale white American, and their skin is lighter than any of their relatives in Mexico. And their Spanish isn’t very good, so they don’t always understand what their relatives are saying.

I love their drawing style, simple and loose. I could mostly keep track of who was who, and I enjoyed the little character they used to express their own thoughts and feelings in dialog.

I have never taken a Spanish class, though when I was in grad school I lived in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood of Los Angeles, and part of the time reading this book felt like that. I started to let the Spanish words rush over me. Though I think that accurately reflects how the author felt.

I do think this book would be perfect for someone who’s studied Spanish a little bit and would help them progress. There are a few English translations given, but mostly what’s on the page progresses as Christine progresses – and I was left a little behind by that. Though in a graphic novel, the pictures convey enough of the story, I didn’t feel lost. So I do think this strategy worked for this book, even though for me personally I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I would have if I felt like I understood more of the words used.

But even with my lack of Spanish slowing me down, I still thought this was a lovely story of making family connections and a teen making their way outside their comfort zone.

christinesuggs.com

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Review of Those Who Saw the Sun, by Jaha Nailah Avery

Those Who Saw the Sun

African American Oral Histories from the Jim Crow South

By Jaha Nailah Avery

Levine Querido, 2023. 277 pages.
Review written October 30, 2023, from a copy sent to me by the publisher.

Those Who Saw the Sun is a collection of interviews with African American elders, most of whom were born during the 1940s and 1950s, and all of whom were kids in the Jim Crow era.

The book feels important – hearing the voices of people who lived through those times. It harnesses their wisdom and we get insights on the things they saw during their long lives.

I was very interested that none of the interviewees were big fans of integration. Although segregation had been harmful and unjust, they had also been part of vibrant Black communities. Outstanding Black teachers taught in their schools, even though many also mentioned they always used school books passed on after white schools had used them. Once integration happened, some Black businesses failed, and some Black teachers lost their jobs.

But it’s also true that most of the elders heard about lynchings when they were kids and other racist acts of violence. So their stories were filled with progress and hope as they witnessed great changes.

Although I think this is an important book, I wish some more helpful content was added to make it more accessible to teens and, well, to me. I would have liked a timeline for each person interviewed. Each interview started by asking where they were born, but I would have also liked to know when they were born. In an oral history, folks skip around in time, so I would have liked a scaffold to fit their remarks onto.

Some of the subjects also rambled a bit and repeated themselves. Though that does communicate their personalities, a little more editing might have increased readability. After finishing the book, I don’t really remember which person said which thing, so some commentary explaining why the order was chosen or something about the subjects in the present day – with present day pictures – might have helped it all stick in my head. It was certainly fascinating while I was reading it, though!

All the interviewees were asked, “Do you believe Dr. King’s dream is possible in this country?” Eleanor Boswell-Raine’s answer catches the spirit of what most of them said:

I think anything is possible. I like his method better than the let’s-shoot-and-kill-everybody mentality. I am definitely a nonviolent person. I really thought, though, given my age and everything, that we would almost be there by now. And so I’m deeply disappointed in terms of . . . of where we are in this country. So I want to say yes, I believe it’s possible. But I would also have to say that I doubt seriously that it will be in my lifetime.

levinequerido.com

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Review of Money Out Loud, by Berna Anat

Money Out Loud

All the Financial Stuff No One Taught Us

by Berna Anat

Quill Tree Books, 2023. 258 pages.
Review written January 13, 2024, from a book sent to me by the publisher.
Starred Review
2024 Mathical Book Prize Honor Book, Grades 9 through 12

What a valuable and practical book this is! I wish I’d read something like this as a young adult.

It’s a book about managing money. She covers so much, from budgeting to bank accounts to investing to donating ethically.

She talks to the reader like a cool big sister. It works for me and I hope would work for teens. For something about money, there aren’t many numbers here, but she explains compound interest and the difference between different kinds of accounts in ways that are easy to understand and will stick in your head.

This book is for young adults, but old adults like me can learn from it, too. But like compound interest, I suspect that learning about managing money when you’re younger will yield many more benefits.

Some things I like: She talks a lot about the emotional side of money and encourages you to actually think about it and talk about it (hence the title). I’m planning to adapt one idea right away — besides my spreadsheets keeping track of my finances, I will start a money journal talking about my feelings about what’s going on with my money. I like how she encourages you to save by describing savings as “Freedom.” And she encourages you to envision Future You when you think about retirement savings.

So she’s got lots of tips and strategies, but especially encouragement to be good to yourself and your future self.

I was sent this book to consider for the Morris Award (young adult debut book), and it wasn’t really what we were looking for, but it exactly filled the bill for a Mathical Book Prize Honor Book, so I was excited to revisit it.

Here’s how the author introduces herself:

So, question: Have you ever heard of a Financial Hype Woman? Probably not, because I friggin’ made it up.

I’m Berna — I’m a financial educator, but more than that, I am a Financial Hype Woman. The whole point of a Hype Woman is to scream encouragement while you, the star, are doing your thing onstage.

So that’s what I do, but money. You follow?

A Financial Hype Woman’s job — which, again, I totally made up — is to remind you of your financial power. To keep your energy up so that you can stay center stage in your money life. To turn up the volume when you feel a little voiceless. A Hype Woman is also part of your support team — like, metaphorically, I’d help clean up when fans throw their bra at you, y’know? I got you.

Get this Financial Hype Woman on your side! There’s lots to learn here, and it’s all taught in a non-threatening, encouraging way.

heyberna.com
EpicReads.com

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Review of A Quantum Life, by Hakeem Oluseyi and Joshua Horwitz

A Quantum Life

(Adapted for Young Adults)

My Unlikely Journey from the Streets to the Stars

by Hakeem Oluseyi and Joshua Horwitz

Delacorte Press, 2023. 333 pages.
Review written January 14, 2024, from a library book
Starred Review
2024 Mathical Book Prize Winner, 9th-12th grades

I usually read nonfiction fairly slowly, a chapter at a time, interspersing with novels. I managed to start this book that way, but it didn’t last long. I took one break from it, but when I picked it up again, I couldn’t stop. The novels could wait.

This book tells the story of Hakeem Oluseyi, who began his life as James Plummer Jr., and who progressed to be a renowned astrophysicist. His road to get there was not easy. There were times reading this book when I was almost afraid to turn the page, and I’d have to remind myself that the book flap said he indeed became an astrophysicist.

Here’s how he describes his childhood in the Prologue:

As a bookish kid, I was an easy target in Watts, Houston’s Third Ward, and the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. My gangbanger older cousins taught me the rules of the street by the time I was six: who you could look at in the eyes and who you couldn’t, how to tell if the dude walking toward you was Crip or Blood, friend or foe. I developed a sixth sense, what I thought of as my “dark vision,” that let me see all the dirt in my hood: where a deal was going down and where the undercover heat was hiding. The scariest time was after sunset, when the predators came out in force.

I was intrigued by the wider universe, including the night sky. But I couldn’t see many stars from the streets where I grew up, what with the big-city lights and the smog. And for the sake of my own survival, I didn’t want to be caught staring off into space. Celestial navigation wasn’t going to help me find my way home without getting beat up or shaken down. By my early teens, I’d adopted a thug persona, walking and talking tough, carrying a gun for protection. But I never joined a gang, and no matter how hard I’d tried to straddle the gangsta-nerd divide, I was still mostly a science geek playacting a thug.

This was a Black kid with a very unstable housing situation growing up — changing schools frequently and not having reliable adults in his life. Yet this same kid taught himself quantum mechanics by reading the encyclopedia and had a prodigious memory and strong curiosity.

And here’s a spoiler that’s not really a spoiler: This kid from a drug-using family was the first in his family to graduate from high school and went on to get a PhD in Physics.

He had help along the way and got into some tight spots, but he did it. And that story is both riveting and inspiring.

I was happy to be part of the committee that gave the 2024 Mathical Book Prize for books for high school to this outstanding book.

GetUnderlined.com

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Review of America Redux, by Ariel Aberg-Riger

America Redux

Visual Stories from Our Dynamic History

by Ariel Aberg-Riger

Balzer + Bray, 2023. 294 pages.
Review written July 4, 2023, from a book sent to me by the publisher.
Starred Review
2024 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist
2023 Kirkus Prize for Young Reader’s Literature Winner
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 Teen Nonfiction

Finishing this book on July 4th was wonderfully appropriate, though because it’s eligible for the Morris Award, I can’t talk about it yet, which is frustrating.

America Redux is a book of visual American history for teens. What do I mean by visual history? The author and artist took mostly public domain images from the time periods of the stories she discusses and made collages. Then she hand-lettered the story on the collages.

The history here isn’t told in consecutive order. The author takes twenty-one issues that still affect us in America today and gives the history of that issue. Some go back farther than others. Some don’t have obvious implications today (though most do), but are fascinating stories.

The book is a quick read, a delight to the eyes, and incredibly interesting. I wished almost every chapter was longer – but the author has a list of resources in the back, sources of quotations, and where you can look to explore the topic more. So she gives enough to completely suck you in. Also enough to give you conversation at parties! Just last Sunday, I began talking about urban SROs – Single-Room Occupancy dwellings – how common they once were and how cities cracking down on them in the 1970s drove up the price of housing. I learned about it in this book.

This book is hard to resist. Its bright colorful images pull your eyes to the page. This is not a textbook or a replacement for a textbook, but it focuses on history you won’t necessarily learn about in school – things like freeways getting built through land owned by minorities, Sam Colt and his genius marketing abilities (paid product placement with his guns in paintings!), the history of squelching immigration, propaganda and the American Revolution, Mustafa Al-Azemmouri – a Black Muslim explorer of the Americas, the Eugenics movement and forced sterilization, Love Canal and the pollution still all around Niagara Falls – and so much more.

If the topics sound random, they felt a little random, not necessarily related to one another or in any particular order. But each one was so fascinating, I completely forgave the author for that. I came away from this book knowing much more about American history and with my curiosity piqued to find out yet more.

americareduxbook.com
arielabergriger.com
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Review of Hidden Systems, by Dan Nott

Hidden Systems

Water, Electricity, the Internet, and the Secrets Behind the Systems We Use Every Day

by Dan Nott

RH Graphic, 2023. 264 pages.
Review written September 29, 2023, from a book sent by the publisher.
Starred Review
2023 National Book Award Longlist

Hidden Systems is graphic novel format nonfiction about some essentially important – but hidden things. In three sections, the author explains, with diagrams and drawings, how the Internet works, how electricity works, and how our water systems work.

It’s interesting that the topics are approached in the opposite order from the subtitle, which is also the opposite order from how they were developed in the real world. But taking a present to the past approach does get the information across.

At the front of the book, the author talks about what hidden systems are and how he learned about them by trying to draw them. Because so much is invisible, the metaphors we use to describe them are important. Here’s a bit from that introduction, which has a small picture accompanying each line.

A hidden system is something we don’t notice
until it breaks.

But when these systems are doing what they’re supposed to,
they become so commonplace
that we hardly see them.

Hidden systems are in the news all the time.
Usually when something dramatic happens.
(especially if something explodes)
But by overlooking hidden systems the rest of the time,
we take for granted the benefits they provide for some of us,
and disregard the harm they cause others.
These systems structure our society,
and even when they’re working,
are a source of inequality and environmental harm.

Something I appreciated about this look at the Internet, Electricity, and Water Systems is that he showed the big picture, too – how these things are physically hooked up and connected around the world.

There was a lot I didn’t know about each system: The importance of data centers for the internet, almost all the physical aspects of the electricity grid, and our frequent use of dams to run the water system.

Okay, this summary doesn’t do the book justice. Let me urge you to read it – and look at it – for yourself. (So much is communicated by the drawings!) The story of how humans have built these systems helps us think about what ways we could modify them to better work with our earth.

As he finishes up (accompanied by pictures):

We often just see the surface of our surroundings,
but by understanding these systems more deeply,
we can form our own questions about their past and future.
The answers to these questions can help us not only fix these systems
but also reimagine them –
creating a world that’s more in balance with the Earth
and that provides equitably for all people.

dannott.com
RHKidsGraphic.com

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Review of The Other Pandemic, by Lynn Curlee

The Other Pandemic

An AIDS Memoir

by Lynn Curlee

Charlesbridge Teen, 2023. 164 pages.
Review written December 4, 2023, from a library book.

In The Other Pandemic, Lynn Curlee tells his own story, as a young gay man in the 1980s — when his friends and his community started dying.

He begins by setting the stage with what it was like for him to grow up as gay in the 1960s, then talks about starting his career as an artist in New York City. He talks about the connections he made and the friendships he built — and then his friends started getting sick. After several years, his own life partner passed away from AIDS.

At the back of the book, after the main story, he’s got photographs and loving tributes to eleven friends who died of AIDS. This book helps the reader understand the pain and fear of that time for gay men. He highlights the non-response of the government for many years and hopes we’ve learned something about dealing with pandemics.

Here’s an excerpt from the Epilogue:

An entire generation of gay men was decimated by AIDS, and the survivors were forever changed. We came from every walk of life: businessmen, architects, teachers, doctors, bartenders, lawyers, plumbers, actors, contractors, musicians, salesmen, designers, factory workers, composers, deliverymen, artists, athletes, and more. There had always been outspoken homosexual individuals who lived their lives openly, and throughout the entire twentieth century there was a thriving underground gay subculture, particularly in the big cities. But before Gay Pride, the vast majority of gay people were invisible. They lived their daily lives in the closet because of homophobia. While there were activists before, it was an entire generation that came of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s that asserted and then openly lived the idea that gay people should be proud of who we are, and not ashamed of our natural orientation. We were the generation that refused to hide in the shadows and insisted upon equality….

If only Americans could learn from the experience of the gay community and stop wasting time floundering in denial and wallowing in hatred. Throughout the AIDS crisis, the movement for equality and acceptance continued, but it was temporarily overshadowed by the challenge of coming to terms with the horrific carnage. Out of this struggle the AIDS generation of gay people made a community forged in pain and sorrow, tempered by compassion, and eventually resulting in a newfound strength and purpose.

This book was eye-opening for me because I was a college student in the early 1980s and had no idea this was going on. Lynn Curlee telling his own story gives a window into the lives of people who didn’t have the luxury of ignorance.

curleeart.com
charlesbridge.com

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