“We Are All That’s Left” by Carro Arcos

The voice of Zara, an aspiring teenaged photographer in Rhode Island, alternates with the story of her mother, Nadja who survived the 1990s Yugoslav War in “We Are All That’s Left” (Philomel 2018), a novel by Carrie Arcos.

 

The Yugoslav War led to the breakup of the former nation of Yugoslavia. Serbs and Croats were bent on “ethnic cleansing” and ridding their country of Muslims. Nadja’s family, non-practicing Muslims, were all shot and killed as teenaged Nadja watched—hidden. She managed to escape to war-torn Sarajevo with the help of her non-Muslim boyfriend Marko. But he was gone now.

 

In Sarajevo, Nadja heard people screaming. “She decided if she were to get shot, she would not scream. She would not make a sound. She would be . . . silent and strong, like a large willow tree near the river.” It was no wonder she’d closed off. But after some harrowing years, she made her way to the U.S. and married an American physician. Considering her background, it’s clear to see why Nadja’s mothering skills were less than stellar. Zara is not close to her mother, but she longs to be loved.

 

Arcos begins the book with terrorist attacks in Rhode Island and around the U.S. Zara and Nadja happen to be at the farmer’s market when a terrorist’s bomb explodes, seriously injuring Zara and putting Nadja in a coma. Zara has the shrapnel excised from her back and face and returns home to her brother and attending grandparents. Her father spends much of his time in the hospital keeping busy and checking on his comatose wife.

 

Almost a universal experience among survivors, Zara says, “I think of . . . the people who lost limbs. Those who died. Why did I survive? . . . Nothing makes sense . . .” Not long before the attack Zara had refused to talk to her seemingly cold mother. “I wanted to be mad because I felt like it was justified, like anger gave me a strength to fight the loneliness and hurt I felt.” At the time her mother had the wisdom to say to her daughter, “It takes a stronger person to let others in.”

 

But now Nadja is in a coma. Zara longs to let her mother in—to know her. She wants to know about the war years. In her mother’s closet, Zara finds a box filled with mementos from the war—objects we have become privy to, as we read Nadja’s story.

 

Wise, handsome Joseph befriends Zara at the hospital. He studies world religions in order to deal with his own traumatic life experience and paraphrases Rumi, the Muslim mystic, saying, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”

 

Zara is wounded inside and out. Eventually she realizes, “Scars . . . don’t diminish our lives, but make them richer somehow.” This is a story of mother and daughter, of love and bonding, as well as of survival.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker among other books   talesforallages.com

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Writing Tip #1 Show-Don’t-Tell

Writing Tips

Show-Don’t Tell

By Patricia Hruby Powell

Show-Don’t-Tell is a writer’s adage and a technique that allows readers to experience a text through their senses and emotions—which is how most of us want to experience text. We want to be drawn into the story and to empathize with the characters. There are various ways to do this and those ways overlap. I’ll describe a few here.

Tip #1A Word Bank: Senses

Writing is a sensual medium. Mostly it’s a visual medium, but all the senses can be used to make your writing come to life. I love author and workshop leader Darcy Pattison’s exercise of drawing an icon for each of the senses: eye, ear, nose, mouth, hand (for tactile). Then you make a word bank or phrase bank for your story. If you’re writing a picture book, your word bank might be a page long. If you’re writing a historical novel, your word bank might extend to hundreds of notecards.

Look at the opening of Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case. (Forgive me for using my own work, but it will exemplify the tips I’m highlighting. For the sake of space, I do not include all the line breaks).

Garnet and I walk in the grass alongside the road
to keep our shoes clean,
but Lewis doesn’t care.
He’s shuffling through dust in the middle of the road.
Garnet’s hand-me-down lace-ups have the most life left in them,
so they’re the best.
She gets the best ’cause she’s oldest and has the feet to fit them.
I wear her way wore-out saddle shoes from last year
but painted and buffed till they nearly glow.
To me, they’re the best—being saddle shoes—
even though I can feel every stick and pebble through the thinned-down soles.
Lewis wears boots so wore-out—
looks like Nippy chewed them soft in the barn.
Being the youngest of seven brothers—
no telling who wore those boots before him.

As the scene continues, the siblings insult each other, laugh, argue, then the two big sisters grab Lewis’s elbows and fly him over the dirt road . . .

with him pedaling mid-air and hollerin’ and that’s how we arrive at Sycamore School.

This scene is mostly visual (you see the grass, the various shoes, the road). But you also hear the aural (hollerin’). You experience the tactile, as when Mildred feels every stick and pebble through the thinned-down soles.

Tip #1B Word Bank: Pithy Details

Whether you develop details in word banks or on the run, you want them to pack a punch. The dusty road shows that the setting is rural. The hand-me-down lace-ups show that they’re poor. The saddle shoes date the piece. The writer doesn’t have to tell us that the kids are poor, that this is historic, or that the kids get along, are lively, and live a good life. The writer shows it.

It usually takes more words to show rather than tell, but if you show well, then you’re doing double duty and conveying facts, gracefully—such as, Garnet and six brothers are older than Mildred and Lewis is younger—without those bits sounding like clunky facts being dropped into the story.

Tip #1C Word Bank: Verbs

Good verbs are the powerhouse of good writing and good showing. And they’re great to develop in the Word Bank exercise. Lewis is shuffling, Mildred painted and buffed her saddle shoes. Nippy chewed the boots soft. Lewis arrives pedaling and hollering.

Look at a couple of scenes from Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker.

[scene:]

Off the street and onto the stage,
Josephine danced like she was
ON FIRE.
She arched her back and flipped her tail like a rooster,
she flapped and pumped,
dancing the “turkey trot”
SO FINE
that the Dixie Steppers asked her
to step along with them.

[bridge:]

So long, Jones family. Josephine was steppin’ out.

[scene:]

YESSIR, she soared over the stage as Cupid,
god of love, with leaping legs and little wings.

Hooked on wires,
she held bow and arrow.
But her wires got crossed.
Couldn’t get down. Hanging in midair,
she rolled her eyes like shooting marbles,
flailed those long legs.
WHAT A CLOWN!
The audience laughed themselves to tears.
They STOMPED.
They CLAPPED.

Josephine arched, flipped, flapped, pumped, soared, and flailed—giving a kinetic boost to the text. Hopefully the verbs make you feel the dance. It was really fun to dance the dances in order to find just the right verbs—and those verbs are pretty razz-ma-tazz. Unless it’s called for, you don’t want to overdo the verbs. Elsewhere in the book:

…rich white flappers and sleek gentlemen
strolled the UPPER decks . . .

Using accurate verbs keeps you from using unnecessary adverbs. The elite strolled rather than “walked leisurely.” Can’t you see them arm-in-arm, owning the world, in their privileged manner? That adverb “leisurely” would have detracted from the succinct activity. They strolled. I can’t think of a better verb. Even ambled is not quite right. They strolled.

Verbs must fit the mood of an individual piece. Loving vs. Virginia is a quieter book than Josephine,and the vocabulary overall must convey a sense of quiet people. Mildred Jeter’s people were farmers, so they plant, slaughter, butcher, pluck, and sugar. Mildred is lyrical, gentle, and imaginative, so she describes her rolling hills and woods—threaded with creeks.Threaded.

Richard Loving is also gentle, but has a bit of an edge. He describes the cruel sheriff as chewin’ on his teeth . . . trying to figure out what mean thing he could do. Or Richard spat out the harsh moonshine—words that show a little defensiveness.

Tip #2 Create Scenes

Whether for picture books, MG, or YA, for fiction or nonfiction, scenes invite your readers into the text by allowing them to visualize your story—like they’re watching the scene of a movie. You set your character in a place, your character moves the story forward by some action, and then the scene closes. You might create a “bridge” of necessary information and then begin your next scene.

The first sample above is a complete scene from Loving vs. Virginia. The scene opens on the children walking to school on a dirt road. You see the characters, get to know them, discover information about their lives. When they arrive at school, the scene closes. Besides being drawn in by this “movie clip,” are you drawn in by the pithy and sensual details and accurate verbs?

Background: I’d researched this subject intending to write a nonfiction book. I visited the Lovings’ rural Virginia section, spoke to family members and friends. I studied the nine-year case. And then my editor called and asked if I’d be willing to write Loving as a documentary novel. “Sure,” said I. (I wasn’t yet under contract.) “What’s a documentary novel?”

Loving vs. Virginia book cover

Answer: As in Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood, which is the story of a real murder. Capote interviewed the murderer, police, and neighbors and read the news reports. He told the story from the point of view of the murderer. This is an informational book using a fictional element, also called a nonfiction novel.

The fictional element in Loving vs. Virginia was my writing it in the voices of the two real plaintiffs, Mildred and Richard Loving. I studied existing news and documentary footage of the couple from the sixties until I felt I knew them well enough to write scenes about their childhood, their falling in love, their exile, and their fight to return home.

What a gift this turned out to be—writing it as a documentary novel or nonfiction novel.
I used what I knew and created scenes from my imagination. However, everything in the historic record or told to me by an interviewee remains factual.

This prompts the question: can you make scenes writing actual nonfiction? Yes. It’s more challenging than it is in fiction, but aren’t we all up for a challenge? Josephine is straight nonfiction, written in verse. I have labeled the above passage “scene, bridge, scene” to help you identify the parts.

If I were telling (rather than showing) that first scene, I might say:
Because she was seen dancing in the street, Baker was invited to dance in a theater. Her execution of the popular dances of the day, such as the “turkey trot,” was so lively that professionals, the Dixie Steppers, asked her to join their troupe.

That is not a scene. It doesn’t open. And it doesn’t quite close. The facts are the same as those in the scene. But it doesn’t run like a movie clip. It doesn’t evoke much in the way of visuals or emotion.

Whatever your genre, writing in scenes will lift your writing out of the telling category and into showing. Yes, you can also TELL information within your story, but the more scenes you create, the deeper you’ll take your reader into your story so they can empathize with your characters.

Show, don’t tell. Use pithy details chosen from your word banks (which include great verbs) to write scenes. In the next issue maybe we’ll look at the sound of words or metaphors and similes or some such. Please e-mail me with questions or subjects you might want covered.

phpowell@talesforallages.com

Patricia Hruby Powell, formerly a dancer, storyteller, and librarian, is the author of Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle 2014), which garnered Sibert, Boston Globe Horn Book, and Bologna Ragazzi Honors; and Loving vs. Virginia (Chronicle 2017), a Junior Library Guild Selection and Arnold Adoff Poetry Honor. Forthcoming are books about Lil Hardin Armstrong, Ella Baker, and women’s suffrage. She has been a mentor for a WNDB and SCBWI-MI. Visit Patricia at talesforallages.com.

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“Moonrise” by Sarah Crossan

Joe Moon is seventeen and hasn’t seen his older brother Ed in ten years in “Moonrise” (Bloomsbury 2018) by Sarah Crossan. Joe is nearly penniless, but he leaves New York to go to Wakeling, Texas. Ed is on death row and his execution date is set.

 

Angela, his sister, stays in Staten Island to earn money for the family, slinging burgers. Joe’s father is not in the picture. His junkie mother left and who knows where she is. Aunt Karen helped out as long as Joe and Angela would denounce their brother. In this novel-in-verse, with great economy, Crossan shows the deep emotional story. “But Ed’s crime put us in another league,/ and that’s where Aunt Karen stepped in—/she spat on us and shined us up to look/ like a decent family . . .” And when they couldn’t denounce their brother any longer, Aunt Karen left.

 

Ed was almost a father-figure to Joe ten years earlier when Ed was 17. But now? Joe hardly knows him. But Ed’s his brother.

 

Ed says he didn’t do it. The justice system is well known to want a conviction when a police officer is murdered. Teenagers like Ed don’t know not to speak without a lawyer present. Police are known to bully a “confession” out of minors by means of abuse and fear tactics. There’s no DNA at the scene that links Ed. But in the end, does it even matter if Ed is guilty or not? Is the death sentence reasonable? Especially when the justice system might have chosen the wrong perpetrator?

 

Ed is on the news and made to look vicious. But Ed isn’t vicious. And being related to a convicted murderer? Joe is shunned. He says, “ . . . Newscasters love revealing the beauty of the victims—/like they’re the only ones who got slammed./Reporters don’t give a damn about our family./ We’re not a story. We’re dirt.”

 

Joe says to Angela “God. It’s better to be guilty and rich,/ I reckon . . .” But Joe gets himself to Wakeling, finds a filthy slum room to live in, tries to line up a job as a mechanic and screws up the nerve to visit Ed on the row. Joe is searched and led down the corridor. “From somewhere close by comes a holler—/a laugh, barbed and desperate.” One feels the culture on the row. Joe speaks to Ed through plexi-glass via a phone. It’s not easy to communicate.

 

In the meantime, Joe finds Nelly. He needs a friend. He needs support. But, is Nelly a good match for Joe? Will Angela come like she promises? Has anyone seen their mother? These kids need help pretty badly. But maybe they’re the best support there is.

 

And how do you say goodbye? Time is ticking. The emotion pulls you along and the situation invites discussion on life, death, and love. What’s more important?

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker among other books   talesforallages.com

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“Orphan Monster Spy” by Matt Killeen

Sarah is fifteen, blue-eyed, blonde—and Jewish—living in 1939 Nazi Germany in “Orphan Monster Spy” (Viking 2018) by Matt Killeen. The story opens with Sarah’s mother being shot at a roadside checkpoint. Sarah, now an orphan with no identity papers, runs. Her former gymnastic training helps her scale walls and skirt roofs. She meets a man with an unidentifiable accent. In her desperation, she lets him rescue her.

Just as Sarah, aided by her rescuer, is about to find freedom on an outbound ship, she returns the favor by getting off the ship and rescuing her rescuer. Sarah knows her rescuer, first, as Captain Floyd, a British spy. Sarah learns about her mysterious savior through his library. She assesses him “A liar and a trickster.” “Correct,” he says. Can we trust him?

Soon Captain Floyd becomes Herr Haller. With Sarah’s Aryan looks she can pass for Hitler Youth. Haller enrolls her, as Ursula, his niece, at an elite Nazi girls boarding school. The daughter of a Nazi scientist who is purported to be building a bomb on his nearby estate—a bomb capable of destroying European cities—is also enrolled.

Sarah’s job is to befriend the Nazi girl, get invited to her home and report about this bomb project. It helps that Sarah’s mother was an actress who trained her daughter in languages, accents, and acting. Principles of acting run throughout this page-turner. “Stay in character.” Never “drop your mask.” Most importantly, “Use the fear. Fear is an energy. Break it up and build something new.”

After playing the piano, Sarah says, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” The Captain tells her “Good National Socialist girls don’t quote Picasso, or play Satie. You’ve got to be a good dumb little monster now.”

Girls can be mean. Nazi schoolgirls have had special training for the task. Sarah has issues with the monster role. She instinctively wants to protect the weak. At the same time she competes with the strong, in an effort to win their respect. She must win over the “Ice Queen,” the leader, to get to her real subject—daughter of the bomb builder.

Sarah feels she must win a brutal cross-country race, which spans a fast running river and miles of woods. She uses the power of memory of Kristallnacht—the injustice of what was done to Jews—to fuel her ability to cross over the canopy of trees, which spans the river, rather than the regular route over the bridge. Is this cheating? In a world so brutal a little cheating is easily forgiven. If she can defuse the process of bomb-making by reporting secrets to Herr Haller, the free world might be saved—she hopes. Big stakes. And it’s all told in a believable manner.

There are those who think this is an adult book, which would be enjoyed by young adults, but it’s published and marketed as young adult. The flaws of the protagonist make us believe in the authenticity of this high-tension high-stakes story.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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“Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World” by Pénélope Baglieu

In “Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World” (First Second 2017), author/illustrator Pénélope Baglieu rocks the stories of thirty ladies—in graphic novel form. Some of these ladies you may know, others you may not. How about Agnodice, born in fourth century Greece, disguised herself as a man to study medicine and became the first female gynecologist? How brazen is that?

What about Margaret Hamilton, who vied for Hollywood’s ugly women roles and landed the role of Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz?” Did you know that in her first scene where she exits by disappearing into a cloud of smoke and flame, she actually caught fire? It took three months of healing before she could continue the movie.

Of course you know Josephine Baker, the African American star who made it huge in Paris in the 1920s because America was too racist to support a black super star. What about rapper Sonita Alizadeh, born in 1996 in Afghanistan? She sings about the horrors of young girls sold into marriage, as she was.

The likeness of the characters is extraordinary. The cartoons of Hedy Lamarr, the gorgeous actress and inventor, look just like Hedy Lamarr (see streaming documentary—“Bombshell”—for an idea of Lamarr’s brilliance). Temple Grandin, the autistic animal whisperer, looks like herself. So does Josephine Baker. The art is affecting—sometimes uproarious—the text cheeky.

Pénélope Baglieu is the queen of sarcasm—done tastefully in small pithy strokes. About the Mirabal sisters, activists from Dominican Republic, the author says, “By a stroke of luck all four of them are brilliant, determined, and beautiful.” They’re known as Las Mariposas—Butterflies. (The reader learns about Trujillo the DR dictator). Each chapter about each woman or cluster of sisters ends with a double page spread of art. You know these gals from their depictions. Las Mariposas are super-bad, sexy, and Catholic. You’ll love them.

Each nine or ten page biography is a small book in itself. After reading about Lozen, the Apache warrior and clairvoyant shaman from the nineteenth century, I had to look her up and find out more, which I did with almost all the women. I think that’s the point of this book.

Frances Glessner Lee, born in Chicago in 1878, loved making miniatures. She became a crime scene miniaturist to teach deep observation. No detail is too small for Frances. In a tiny model farm kitchen where a farmer was found dead, she affixes labels to jars, dishtowels in drawers, headlines on newspaper from the day of the crime, potato peels in sink. Tiny locks lock with itty bitty keys. Yikes.

Baglieu, who has a huge blog following in her homeland of France, is irreverent, references popular culture and is becoming an international star. Check her out. Read this book. Discover Tove Jansson, another comic maker, creator of trolls, and openly lesbian in WW2 era Europe. I hadn’t known about Wu Zetian, Empress of seventh century China. I loved this book so much I bought it.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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“We Are Okay” by Nina LaCour

“We Are Okay” (Dutton 2017) by Nina LaCour, is the winner of the 2018 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. This gorgeously written brief story centers on Marin and her survival of grief. LaCour begins Marin’s story in an upstate New York college dormitory, emptied of girls who have gone home for the holidays. A snowstorm is looming. It’s a perfect gothic touch and oddly, I longed to be in this lonely setting. It’s no coincidence that Marin is obsessing over “The Turn of the Screw” and “Jane Eyre.”

In copious flashback we learn that Marin is an orphan, raised by her grandfather in the San Francisco Bay Area. They lived near a beach where her mother had drowned when Marin was a toddler, in a surfing accident. Marin never knew her father. Marin’s best friend growing up, Mabel, is coming for a dreaded two-day visit to the dorm, before returning home to the Bay Area.

Marin remembers herself with Mabel coming of age in sunny California. She says, “It was terrifying, the idea that we could fall asleep girls, minty breathed and nightgowned, and wake to find ourselves wolves.” A perfect metaphor. This is realistic fiction.

The story is largely told in Marin’s musings. About growing up, Marin says, “ . . . there’s a difference between how I used to understand things and how I do now.” And “ . . . even the fiercest denial can’t stop time.” And yet another: “The trouble with denial is that when the truth comes, you aren’t ready.” These insights come amidst the setting of growing up carefree alongside the ocean—an enviable upbringing.

Here’s a universal experience. “I listened to the same heartbroken song the entire bus ride home, because it was still a summer when sadness was beautiful.”

In cold New York, Marin is coming to terms with her grandfather’s secrecy. They’d lived comfortably together, he having given her loads of freedom. Marin had thought she’d known her grandfather, but was mistaken. Now she constantly mulls over the tragedy that occurred at the end of the summer. “There are degrees of obsession, of awareness, of grief, of insanity. . .Each time I thought I may have understood, some line of logic snapped and I was thrust back into not knowing.”

Mabel arrives, the snowstorm hits, they’re isolated from the outside world, and they begin to repair their broken relationship. Marin must face what she’s run so far from. In the end there is hope, which is one of the things I love about young adult literature. Almost always there is hope.

I haven’t bawled like this over a book in a long time. (Thank Heavens I was home). Not because it’s so sad, but because it’s so emotionally beautiful. There were many terrific books published in 2017, but I agree with the Printz committee that this story rises above the others.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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“The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives” by Dashka Slater

“The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives” (Farrar Straus Giroux 2017) is nonfiction brilliantly pieced together by journalist, Dashka Slater. Using interviews, letters, videos, diaries, social media posts, and public records, she tells the story of the victim, Sasha, who is white, affluent, brainy, agender—that is, doesn’t identify as any gender—and attends a private high school.

The perpetrator is the understandably naïve, black, ghetto-raised Richard, who attends a huge public high school. He didn’t know that he shouldn’t speak to the police without a lawyer or even an adult present. Slater tells us that 90% of youth do the same. Richard says—or might even have been coerced—into saying things, which make officials consider this a “bias crime” or a “hate crime.”

When the reader gets the whole story, derived from bystanders and friends on the 57 bus, it looks more like one teen impressing his cohorts—not necessarily “hate.” After all, Richard had sought out help from a counselor at school to pull himself out of a spiral that takes so many black youth into a life of crime. He’s a nice kid. He has a mother who might be overwrought but she cares deeply.

The gender and sexuality glossary starting on page 33 is enlightening. Agender Sasha has asked to be described as “they” or “them.” The author, in solidarity, complies. She says you get used to it. Thank heavens “they” was used only in Sasha’s short chapters, because I had a hard time translating the plural to the singular. Some gender fluid people prefer the new pronoun, “ze” or “xe,” which I wish would catch on.

The author describes scientific research and brain development during adolescence. During puberty the brain lines neural pathways with a fatty sheath—myelin—“making them about a hundred times faster than unmyelinated circuits.” The adolescent limbic system becomes more sensitive to things in the environment and sends an emotional response: “Avoid! Investigate! Eat! Fight! Flirt!” The pre frontal cortex controls reason, planning, and deliberation. She says, “ . . . while teenage emotions have gone into hyperdrive, reason and logic is still obeying the speed limit.”

She says juvenile justice studies find “that around the world antisocial behavior increases by a factor of ten during adolescence and then begins to taper off as people reach their early twenties.” Not just in America, not just one the California Bay Area, where this story takes place, but “around the world.” This is the nature of adolescence.

We get to know the families of both Sasha and Richard. They go through waves of emotions, but both sets of parents are good. They’re trying.

This highly-researched well-written cautionary tale invites empathy, provokes discussion, and ultimately gives one faith in humanity.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Joseph

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“I Have Lost My Way” by Gayle Forman

Three teens collide in Manhattan in “I Have Lost My Way” (2018) by Gayle Forman. Beautiful bi-racial Freya has been rising to fame as a singer when she inexplicably loses her voice. Harun is first generation American from Pakistan, Muslim—and gay—running away in order to keep his secret. Nathaniel arrives in New York from Washington State with only a backpack and a desperate plan.

Wandering in Central Park, after yet another fruitless doctor’s appointment, Freya trips on a stone bridge, falls on to and knocks out hapless Nathaniel, a tourist walking below the bridge. Freya commandeers Harun, who witnessed the accident, into helping. Nathaniel gains consciousness but is clearly concussed, so the other two take him to an urgent care facility. Thus their day begins.

Harun’s ex-boyfriend, James, is a super-fan of Freya, which leaves Harum not only awestruck, but entertaining the idea of getting James back by his association with her. Freya is avoiding her manager because she he’s about to fire her for her present lack of voice. Nathaniel says he’s meeting his father uptown, but his story is flimsy. Something is amiss.

Secrets are uncovered through the course of the day as the three get to know each other. Each has experienced huge loss. One is a betrayer, one a coward, and one a victim. Freya’s Ethiopian father returned to Africa years ago, which was a monstrous betrayal, and Freya betrayed her sister. Harun has lost James because Harun won’t come out. But he’d lose is family if he did. Nathaniel, raised by a single and singularly irresponsible father has lost his eye, his place on the baseball team and all his friends. The three find hope in each other. At one point each realizes that the other two might be their only true friends.

Things aren’t tidily wrapped up at the end, yet we know their connection could save them. My favorite line is: “To be the holder of other people’s loss is to be the keeper of their love.” Forman adds, “To share your loss with people is another way of giving your love.”

“Own voice”—that is writers writing from their own culture—whether it’s one’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability—is much in the news. There’s a lot to be said for writing from cultures that one has lived daily. Authors have gone so far as to say that if they are Americans who come from Cantonese speaking ancestors, they are not “eligible” to write about Americans who come from Mandarin speaking ancestors. Taken to an extreme, can women only write about women? Men only men? I saw that writing is about empathy—getting inside people’s skins, so that the reader can do the same.

Gayle Forman is white woman, of Jewish background. None of her three characters fit that “same voice,” though Nathaniel is the closest as a white straight male. If one followed the “same voice” rule or approach, it would mean that this book could not be written, or would have to be written by a committee. And who would want that?

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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“Turtles All the Way Down” by John Green

“Turtles All the Way Down” (2017) by the acclaimed and very best selling young adult author, John Green, is the brilliant story of Aza Holmes who suffers acute anxiety. The plot is incidental, but compelling.

 

Sixteen year old Aza is kind of smitten with Miles Pickett, who she’s known since they were little kids. Miles’s super-rich and super-corrupt father has gone missing and there’s a hundred thousand dollar reward to find him. Aza and her best friend Daisy have a lead, but will Aza pursue the mystery and betray Miles and his younger disturbed brother, Noah?

 

Best friend Daisy is a riot. Aza is her straight man. When Aza tells Daisy she’s the unsung hero in the investigation. Daisy tells her, “You’re sung.” I love Daisy. I want a girlfriend like Daisy who will make me laugh all the time. Daisy works at Chuck E Cheese in Indianapolis where the acclaimed author lives. She says, “I have the soul of a private jet owner, and the life of a public transportation rider. It’s a real tragedy.” Or instead of saying hello she asks Holmesy, “Have you ever gotten a dick pic?” Holmesy says yes. Daisy says, “‘Well, of course you’ve seen one, Holmesy. Christ, I’m not asking if you’re a seventeenth-century nun. I mean have you ever received an unsolicited, no-context dick pic?”

 

But the real story is Aza’s anxiety. When her mind starts “spiraling” with feelings of fear, Ada’s mother advises her not to think about it. But Aza knows “You can’t choose. That’s the problem.” About taking her medication (which Aza often forgets) she had “some way-down fear that taking a pill to become myself was wrong.” Green, who knows anxiety, delivers lengthy passages describing the circular and tortuous thought paths. Sometimes those passages bored me, and sometimes caused me so much anxiety that I couldn’t continue. If you don’t understand anxiety, read this. If you do understand anxiety, read this.

 

There are times when the brilliant girl narrator (Aza, aka, Holmesy) sometimes sounds like a brilliant middle age man, such as when she reports that her therapist “had the single greatest resting poker face I’d ever seen.” But the writing is so brilliant it’s forgiven.

 

And what about the title? A particular unnamed culture believes that the world sits on the back of a turtle. Well what does that turtle stand on? Another turtle. And that turtle? Turtles all the way down—a look at infinity. It turns out it’s a cosmological expression of infinite regress. I didn’t know.

 

John Green shows us that it’s okay not to be okay. Thanks, John. Good message.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

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“Bull” by David Elliott

I admit that myths don’t generally hold my attention. I skim them and never quite get to the end. But this? Oh, yes.

In verse, David Elliott brilliantly casts the story of Theseus and the Minotaur in “Bull” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017). The bawdy and profane Poseidon, King of the Sea, is the involved narrator. He begins: “Whaddup, bitches?/ Am I right or am I right?/ That bum Minos deserved what he got./ I mean, I may be a god, but I’m not/ Unreasonable, and when I am, so/ What?”

When King Minos of Crete doesn’t fulfill his promise to the gods, Poseidon punishes him by making his wife, Queen Pasiphae of Crete, “have a thing/ For the white bull’s thang.” Yes she does. As a result of Pasiphae’s thing for the bull’s thang, she gives birth to Asterion who has the “head of a bull, body of a man, a.k.a. Ruler of the Stars, a.k.a. the Minotaur.”

We watch Asterion grow up—sweet, kind, smart—and troubled. His mother loves him: “In his eyes/ I see the/ sun I see/ the moon I/ see the stars/ and all the/ tilted/ whirling/ galaxies/ I see the/ undiscovered/ constellations/ I see the/ Earth I see/ nations I/ see soil and/ root and branch/ and leaf I/ see fruit I/ see seeds of . . .” The lines of Pasiphae’s poems become shorter as the story progresses, giving us the author-intended feeling that she’s coming unhinged—“off her nut,” as Poseidon tells us.

Poseidon reports on Asterion: “He’s the oldest of eight. That royal uterus is clearly first rate.” The other children—all wholly human—include daughter Ariadne and the super-athlete, Androgeos—Minos’s favorite. As for all stories that are passed along orally, there are differing versions, but in all, Androgeos dies young. In this version, it’s after competing and winning the shot put and javelin in Athens. Poseidon admits to having a hand in the death.

Now King Minos hates Asterion—the monster, the minotaur—even worse. Minos has Daedalus, the royal engineer, build a dark airless labyrinth, where Asterion, now seventeen, goes mad. But Ariadne plans to save her sweet brother and together they will escape the island of Crete.

See what I mean? It’s all so confusing. And who cares? (Sorry to you classicists).

But in this version I care. The tragedy feels so . . . tragic. And Poseidon keeps us laughing. About King Minos, Poseidon says: “Man!/ that guy’s a dick!/ But also so much fun/ To hate./ Like all dicks, though,/ He’ll soon deflate,/ And there’s no little blue pill,/ No herbal tea/ That will restore his “potency.”/ Well, one man’s dysfunction/ Is a god’s delight.”

Poseidon is not done making mischief, ensuring the tragic ending. If you know your mythology, I’m giving nothing away. If you don’t know your mythology, this is the place to find out. It’s all in the telling.

 

Patricia Hruby Powell is author of the young adult documentary novel Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker   talesforallages.com

 

 

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