Month: September 2015

X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon

The daughter of Malcolm X, along with award-winning author Kekla Magoon, have put together an amazing fictionalized historical novel that portrays X’s adolescence.

The novel begins Harlem in 1945, with 20-year-old Detroit Red (Malcolm) seemingly in trouble with a mobster.  As he notes, “I am my father’s son.  But to be my father’s son means that they will always come for me.”  Then we flash back to Lansing, Michigan in 1940, where Malcolm is a 15-year-old leaving his six siblings to live in Boston with his half-sister Ella.  The novel continues to flash back and forth in time as we learn about Malcolm, his siblings, their upbringing, the death of his father in a supposed trolley accident, the institutionalization of his mother, and the separation of the family’s children (with Malcolm becoming a part of the foster care system).

The effect of the back-forth narration is a bit frustrating at times—perhaps this is what Malcolm was feeling at the time too.  He was trying to get his feet on the ground with who he was and what he believed in but instead sought thrills in life and essentially left his family and their principles behind.

It’s obvious that Malcolm was still dealing with the feelings of hurt from his father and mother’s absence during his teenage years, and he notes that “I believed in Papa’s stories a lot longer than I should have.”  This disillusionment of these ideals set forth by the family (who lived in poverty after Earl’s death) forces Malcolm to grapple with his parents’ hopes and dreams, which were in contrast with his reality:  “Papa only knew how to stand up, how to never bow down.  Mom, too.  So the white world sliced and diced them.”

The self-destructive behaviors that follow in Boston and Harlem are well known:  gambling, selling pot, drinking, smoking week, thievery, and more.   Clearly, he was seeking something:   “I started to feel restless, an itching under my skin that I didn’t know how to scratch.  One that couldn’t be scratched, maybe.”

Each chapter is loaded with information and emotion, and the reader is acutely aware of how each of these experiences shape the civil rights leader Malcolm would later become.  All of it builds to a magnificent crescendo of flurried activities (legal and otherwise) until he is caught and ends up in prison, which makes all of the chaotic moments halt.  Malcolm is forced to slow down, reflect, and decide whether to move forward.

And, as many of us know, prison is where X meets the written word:  “I read the dictionary again with a new understanding.  Find words that I know.  Words I couldn’t have guess in a million years.  Words that make me chucks and blush.  Words that make me remember.”  These words also lead him to his religious awakening to Allah and the nation of Islam.

The lyrical prose throughout the novel adds to the symphony of the work, and it’s intriguing to contemplate how a leader’s daughter researched her father’s upbringing in order to understand not only her family background but to determine which experiences ultimately influenced who her father became later in life.  His legacy shines through these words, and it’s truly a remarkable thing.

Ilyasah discusses the book at the following link:

*Kekla Magoon will be one of the featured speakers at the Colorado Teen Literature Conference in 2016.

Positive by Paige Rawl with Ali Benjamin

Approximately 30 years ago, a teenager named Ryan White was battling not only a HIV infection but a school system who expelled him because of his HIV positive status.  Parents and school officials banned White from his middle school campus; in return, White’s family sued the district in an attempt to overturn the ban.  This widely publicized court battle turned the spotlight on this teen hemophiliac’s plight, which resulted in Ryan becoming a spokesman for educational campaigns about the AIDS crisis.

Not many teens today know who Ryan White is, but many of them do know what it feels like to be bullied.  Paige Rawl knows both what it feels like to live with HIV and to be bullied because of it.  Her memoir, co-written with Ali Benjamin, details her life living with both of these.

Rawl contracted HIV through mother, who was unknowingly infected by her father (who also was not aware that he was HIV positive).  Paige’s family discovered that she was HIV positive shortly before her third birthday.  By this time, her father had left the family and was soon contacted about the information.  Soon thereafter, Paige’s father passed away in a hospital from AIDS.

Paige grew up with her HIV positive status as a part of her life, but it didn’t define her.  Even though she took pills at a certain time every day and also went to the doctor frequently, she wasn’t fully aware of how different she was from her peers.  She was even competing—and winning—beauty pageants.

This all changed one day during middle school when she told a friend about her HIV status.  Within hours, the bullying had started and it continued for years.  What is striking about her experiences is how misinformed people still are about HIV/AIDS.  Some of the same ridiculous behaviors that tormented Ryan White also tortured Paige.

This memoir also details a low part of Paige’s life when she was unsure that she could handle everything and attempted suicide.  She alerts her ever-supportive mother before it’s too late and ends up fully recovering (the daily medicine to combat infection helped her make a recovery).  Paige eventually started a new school and gained a great deal of wisdom from all of her experiences.  She knew that she could make a difference in the world, and she became a spokesperson for HIV/AIDS awareness.  As she noted, “Maybe being broken helps you become a better person.”

Rawl’s experience is difficult to read (we all know how cruel teenagers can be), and it’s made even more personal by the photographs dispersed throughout (especially the haunting picture of her father on his deathbed).  One thing I am positive about is that you—and every middle schooler and every high schooler–should read this book.  It’s a reminder of how to treat people and to focus on what really matters in life.  As Paige said,” “Each day has the potential of being your best day. You decide what each day will bring.”

The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg

So, just what is the Porcupine of Truth?  It’s an object created by protagonist Carson and his friend Aisha, and it represents a god-like presence. Upon the entrance to heaven (which happens to be encircled in a velvet rope and is located in Des Moines, Iowa—another of Carson’s creations), the porcupine asks, “Truth or dare?”

Make sense?  Probably not, and perhaps that’s the point.  Konigsberg wants us to contemplate everything—from relationships between parents and children to the role of religion in our lives.  The Porcupine of Truth starts out as a silly stand-up routine of sorts.  The banter and humor is contrasted with intense family situations:  Carson has traveled to Billings, Montana from New York City to live with his ailing father, and his mother drops him off at the zoo when he gets to town.  There, he meets beautiful and strong Aisha, who he later discovers has been staying at the zoo after being kicked out of her home for being a lesbian.

Konigsberg packs in a lot in this tale—Carson is attempting to reconnect with his alcoholic father who is battling depression and cancer.  During his stay, Carson realizes this his grandfather also abandoned the family, just like his own dad did.  As a way to understand his family a bit more, Carson ends up sifting through boxes in the basement.  He and Aisha realize that his grandparents did eventually divorce and that his grandfather sent occasional letters home (which were never seen by Carson’s dad).  Carson and Aisha determine that the next door neighbor, Pastor John Logan, knows more than he has ever told Carson’s dad.  What ensues is a road trip to Salt Lake City and San Francisco that Carson and Aisha take in order to find his grandfather and put the family pieces back together.

Author of Openly Straight and Out of the Pocket (winner of the Lambda Literary Award), Konigsberg really hits his stride with this novel.  The book covers a great deal:  family history, open and closed secrets, unrequited love, abandonment, religion, friendship, homophobia, alcoholism, AIDS…the book also possesses some great dialogue, and I appreciated the strong female sidekick.  Even though Carson and Aisha seem like an odd pair (she is the girlfriend he can never have), they are looking for different things but travel the same path.

Konigsberg fuses contemporary issues with historical ones and flawlessly captures both through compassion and comedy.  The novel’s fragments come together to create the character’s lives, and the reader is left with the sense that we sometimes need to deal with prickly situations in order to make meaning and determine our own truths.

The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

Jellyfish are mesmerizing–I find myself staring at their movements, entranced by their image and simple existence.  It’s remarkable to think that these creatures live without a brain (or a heart or a spine).  Perhaps that is why they have survived all of these years.  As Suzy, the protagonist in The Thing about Jellyfish notes, “Jellyfish are survivors.  They are survivors of everything that ever happened to everyone else.”

Suzy has also survived—her parents’ breakup, her brother leaving for college, and the death of a formerly close friend.  Perhaps is why she chose to research jellyfish for her middle school science project.  Her teacher’s research instruction provides the structure for the book, and these directions help Suzy take steps not only in her investigation but her grieving process as well.  As Part I begins, “Purpose:  It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a middle school lab report or a real scientific paper.  Begin with an introduction that establishes the purpose for all the information that’s to follow.  What do we hope to find out from this research?  How does it relate to human concerns?”

Suzy’s research topic stems from Franny’s drowning—Suzy becomes convinced that jellyfish had something to do with Franny’s death (after all, Franny was a great swimmer).  As Suzy dives deeper into her inquiry project, she also begins to reconcile her friendship with Franny, which disintegrated right before her death:

The third thing I want to tell you about jellyfish is this:  They are taking over. 

Did you know that?  Not many people do.  It’s our own fault, but no one is even paying attention.  People pay attention to other things.  They pay attention to videos of cats playing piano, or to which movie star is in rehab, or to who stole who else’s boyfriend.  They pay attention to shades of eye shadow and online games and which angle makes them look best in photos.

But meanwhile.  Out there in the sea.  Jellyfish blooms are on the rise.

People are noticing that Suzy is in pain—she hasn’t talked for quite some time, and her parents have put her in counseling—but it is in the investigation of the jellyfish that offers Suzy a distraction from her grief:

I think about my hair, about the tangles I battle every morning.  I have spent so many hours of my life trying to brush out tangles.  But no matter how carefully I try to pull the individual strands apart, they just get tighter and tighter.  They cinch together in all the sorts ways, until they are impossible to straighten out.  Something there is nothing to be done but to get out a pair of scissors and cut the knot right out.

But how do you cut out a know that formed by people?
It is this marvelous research project that brings all of the situations in the book together and fuses a pathway for Suzy that we all hope she is able to take.  It is this journey through grief that offers the hope that Suzy will persevere, much like the amazing jellyfish.

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

It took me awhile to read this book.  I had it for a couple of weeks before I even dared to open it, and then I read the first chapter and put the book aside for another few weeks.

I think I was afraid to dive in.  The anticipation had built up, and then reviews of the novel started circulating right before the book was released.  I didn’t want one of my favorite books, authors, or characters destroyed.

After having numerous students talk to me briefly about the novel, I realized that I needed to pick up my bootstraps and just read.  That is exactly what I did, and although the book isn’t the masterpiece that To Kill a Mockingbird is, it is amazing to see how this first book evolved into a Pulitzer-prize winning novel.

The storyline is well publicized:  A 26-year-old Jean Louise returns to Maycomb from New York City to visit her father Atticus and Aunt Alexandra (who lives with Atticus and takes care of him).  Jean Louise also spends quite a bit of time during her visit with Hank (Henry Clinton), who picks her up from the train station.  Atticus has taken Hank under his wing in the past decades, and the possibility of marriage is discussed on and off by Jean Louise and Hank.  It’s not really a romantic union, even though they go out on a date.  As Jean Louise notes: “She was almost in love with him. No, that’s impossible, she thought: either you are or you aren’t. Love’s the only thing in this world that is unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition with them all.”

The book is all about Scout and the complexities of life.  Jean Louise struggles to adjust to life in Maycomb again.  During her brief visits, she bickers with Alexandra, goes skinny dipping with Hank (much to the town gossips’ dismay), and generally depicts the young, headstrong Scout that we all know.  She doesn’t seem to see color, but she also doesn’t seem open to other viewpoints or realize she has led a fairly privileged life.

Things fall apart even more when Jean Louise eavesdrops on a Citizens Council meeting which Atticus and Hank attend.  Scout sees these gentlemen in a new light, and it is harsh and blinding.  The book starts to fall apart a bit at this point too…Jean Louise’s reaction and subsequent discussions with Uncle Jack, Alexandra, Hank, and Atticus depict that she is mentally breaking as the childhood adoration of her father tears her apart.

Like so many other authors, Harper Lee does not hit her stride with her first novel.  The pacing of the novel and narrative focus are a bit off at times.  I actually found this thrilling and marveled at how Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff at JBLippincott, found the moments of brilliance of the novel and transformed them into Mockingbird.

The return of favorite character like Dill were special reading moments:

It was unnecessary to call Dill.  The cabbages trembled in Miss Rachel’s garden, the back fence groaned, and Dill was with them.  Dill was a curiosity because he was from Meridian, Mississippi, and was wise in the ways of the world.  He spent every summer in Maycomb with his great-aunt, who lived next door to the Finches.  He was short, square-built, cotton-headed individual with the face of an angel and the cunning of a stoat.  He was a year older than she, but she was a head taller.

Dill isn’t present in much of the novel (he goes off to war in Italy and stays there).  Jem, too, has passed on, but it is moments like that feel like wrapping up in a favorite blanket as you sit down to read:

“Hey,” said Dill.  “Let’s play Tarzan today.  I’m gonna be Tarzan.”

“You can’t be Tarzan,” said Jem.

“I’m Jane,” she said.

“Well, I’m not going to be the ape again,” said Dill.  “I always have to be the ape.”

It is no wonder that Lee’s editor saw that moments like this should be the focus on the novel.  And although Maureen Corrigan, who reviewed the book for National Public Radio (NPR) noted that the book was “a Mess That Makes Us Reconsider a Masterpiece” (which sounds like a pretty negative review), it’s actually not.  Go Set a Watchmen propels us to read To Kill a Mockingbird again and study how a rough draft becomes a polished work of art.



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