Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy

0-545-26125-2Reedy, Trent. Words in the Dust. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2011. Print.

Genre: middle grade (cultural)

Summary: Zulaikha might be a young, illiterate Afghani girl, but she already knows how her entire future will be. She will forever live at home, working like a slave for her father’s second wife — a woman who hates her and always yells at her. Meanwhile, her beautiful sister Zeynab will be married, have a kind and wealthy husband, and lots of beautiful sons. Zulaikha does not expect much from her future mostly because she has a “donkeyface.” Her upper lip is cleft and all her teeth poke straight out. She eats funny. She drinks funny. And when the boys in the village are not teasing her, she tries her best to be invisible so that no one looks at her with pity or disgust. Everything changes the day Zulaikha has to rescue her naughty younger brother from a stunt he was dared to do. Suddenly, a group of American soldiers want take her to Kandahar for a free surgery to fix her mouth and an old friend of her mother’s wants to teach her to read and write. She discovers that her mother was a brilliant scholar brutally murdered by the Taliban. Immediately, Zulaikha’s world flips upside down and nothing turns out the way she imagined.

Critique: Reedy is a true storyteller. He weaves foreign words alongside the context needed to riddle out their meanings (plus there’s a good glossary at the back of the book). And he gives readers a whole new world to experience, as well as a character that will forever live within their soul. Zulaikha endures terrible bullying and demonstrates considerable bravery in the first two chapters. Her heart is enormous and her story is too compelling to put down. Oh how badly you’ll want to reach through the pages and rescue her from the worst moments life delivers!

The desire to constantly rescue her is actually tied to what will feel like the book’s only weakness. Zulaikha is restrained, quiet, deferential, and excruciatingly submissive. In scene after scene, she silently endures the aggressions and transgressions of others. She feels passionately, but rarely acts, speaks out, or rebels. Much of the plot seems to move along without any direction from her.

There is nothing she can do when her sister is rushed into a bad marriage. There is nothing she can say when the soldiers arrange for a helicopter to pick her up and fly her away for surgery. There is nothing she can do when the helicopter fails to arrive and her father cannot miss anymore work.

From a Western/American perspective, plot lines tend to result from the actions and decisions of the protagonist. In Zulaikha’s world, however, girls and women cannot decide anything for themselves. True to the cultural constructs of gender, Reedy does not make Zulaikha a zesty, sassy, American girl. Even though adhering to cultural authenticity can make this a tough story for American audiences to stick with, it is not a weakness.

Rather than transform her into something more palatable for a Western audience, Reedy allows Zulaikha’s courage and immense heart prevail in their own quiet ways.



This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

This One Summer CoverTamaki, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. This One Summer. New York: First Second, 2014. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction Graphic Novel

Summary: Every summer, teenage Rose and her family go vacation at Awago Beach. She can always count on collecting rocks, playing with her friend Windy, and having an all-around good time.

However, one summer…this one…everything changes and that changes everything. Rose’s parents are fighting, Windy is a little more immature than Rose remembers from last summer, and Rose’s mom is in an inexplicable funk. She refuses to go to the beach to swim, she shuts Rose out of the grown-up conversations, and pretty much ignores her daughter. Meanwhile, there’s a really cute guy working down at the corner store where Rose and Windy go to rent horror movies. He’s way too old, but he’s still really cute, and maybe he likes Rose…or has noticed her. Kinda. But the drama of the older teens hanging at the store takes a turn for the tragic, roping in Rose and her mother.

Critique: 2015 Caldecott Honor Book and 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor Book! Artistically, this graphic novel achieves a lot through its sophisticated treatment of texture, shadow, even sounds. Water acts and feels like water, despite being locked onto a two-dimensional surface. In one series of scenes, Rose encounters boys calling their girlfriends sluts. Naturally confused by the behavior, Rose tries to talk to her mother about it. But the conversation is swiftly shut down because her mom does not like hearing the word slut. But as they walk home, it’s all Rose hears in the whisper of her flip flops: slut slut slut….

A omnipresent sense of foreboding haunts nearly every page of the book. Part of that comes from excellent mise-en-scene, or the hints and symbols lurking in the “stuff of the scene.” For example: traffic and business signs litter the family’s journey to the cottage telling them to stop, turn back, don’t go on. It’s as if the background knows they are headed for trouble.

The text tackles many of the difficult issues facing girls and women. Body image. Puberty. Motherhood. Sexuality. Cultural expectations (What makes a “good girl,” a “good mother” vs what makes a “bad girl” or a “bad mother”). Pop culture representations (Why are girls in horror flicks the reason other people get brutally murdered? Why are girls portrayed as intrinsically stupid or helpless in those movies? Was the choice to essentially “decapitate” one of the girls on the cover of this book an homage to the horror movie genre?).

The authors payed special attention to syntax and punctuation in order to authentically create the adolescent tone of voice. In the opening, Rose narrates: Awago Beach is this place. Where my family goes every summer. Ever since…like…forever. It pays tribute to that evolving sense of self that makes every new utterance matter more than all the antecedents that came before.

In terms of storytelling, the book ends on uneasy footing. It is hard for readers to conclude whether any growth in the characters has actually occurred because the opening images pretty much match the closing images. Synthesis seems to have skipped this story. Rose and her mother gain a slightly less slanted footing, but only by accident, or hearsay. They still seem bound for a future cataclysm, some head-to-head, no-holds-barred fight, the outcome of which we readers will not get to see. And that’s a shame given the unflinching honesty author and illustrator devoted to the rest of the book.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Rowell_eleanor-parkRowell, Rainbow. Eleanor & Park. Westminster, MD: Listening Library Books on Tape, Random House, 2013. Print.

Genre: YA contemporary

Summary: It’s the 1980s. Eleanor is the new girl. She’s a chubby red head with a flamboyant style. Park is not new, but he occupies a shaky place in the pecking order of popularity because he’s half-Korean. His status as a social outcast hangs by a thread. Nonetheless, he shares his seat on the bus with the awkward new girl when no one else will. What buds is that first-ever romance we all remember from our own early years. It starts with music and quickly expands. But Eleanor cannot love Park as openly as she wants to. Her step-dad is abusive and controlling. He has spent most of her adolescence warping her ideas of affection. As a result, Eleanor repeats the cycle of fear, insecurity, abuse, apology, back to fear. If she cannot learn to love, she’ll ruin the best thing she’s ever known: Park.

Critique: The point of view alternates between Eleanor and Park. Sometimes this creates rapid-fire exchanges during the tensest or most romantically climactic moments. The reader gets a mix of diverging perceptions and coalescing emotions. If you’ve left adolescence, Rowell will rekindle for your all the feelings and physiological experiences of first love. If you’re still caught in the teeth of growing up, her book serves as a realistic road map. Either way, Rowell avoids all the clichés that usually haunt this category of teen fiction. No hearts throbbing or cheeks flushing here. Instead, bones melt, chests fold inside out. And the intensity flares from the simple firsts (not just sex): nudging fingers, holding hands, staring into another’s eyes for the first time with intensity. Where Rowell really shines is with Eleanor’s story of domestic abuse. Rowell paints the delicate lines of mental violence inflicted by Eleanor’s step-dad, Richie. She portrays the mom not as an idiot for staying, but as an intelligent woman with a broken spirit. For those who’ve known this existence, the book will prove hard to read. It will dance too close to home, but I urge you to reach the end, to seek the hope hiding in the smallest gestures and treasures.

Smile by Raina Telgemeir

smileTelgemeier, Raina. Smile. New York: Graphix, 2010. Print.

Genre: Graphic novel, memoir

Summary: Smile follows Raina’s progression from 6th grade to high school. It documents her agonizing adolescence — which really is full of pain and suffering. Not only does she face-plant and bust out her front teeth, but she also has to put up with bullying “friends.” But Raina perseveres in the end, and is able to smile!

Critique: The visual cinematography is pretty standard. Not a lot of experimentation or visual dramatization. While some of the dialogue is on the nose and some of the character’s drawn expressions or postures do not always clearly convey their emotions (inner or hidden), the story is emotionally engaging and tragically funny.


Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh


Maroh, Julie. Blue is the Warmest Color. Vancouver, CAN: Arsenal Press, 2013. Print.

Genre: Graphic novel

Summary: A courageously tender and mercilessly honest love story. Clementine, 16, comes to terms with her gender identity. She feels the pressure to date boys, all the while having delicious fantasies about the blue-haired girl she passed on the street. Eventually, she and the blue-haired girl, Emma, meet. They fall madly in love and wind up living together when Clem’s family disowns her. When they are in their thirties, Clementine commits adultery and dies from a drug-overdose. (Not a spoiler. The book opens just after Clem’s funeral.) Her death almost serves as a reconciliation for her parents and Emma. The book turned movie in 2013.

Critique: Sepia-toned ink drawings. Masterfully depicted and rendered. Detailed. Anatomically very correct, especially during sex-scenes. Blue is just about the only color that emerges throughout the book. Hair, shirts, or symbolic items.

Be prepared for the narratological pole vault in the middle. One moment, Clem is a teenager getting kicked out of the house, then with the turn of a page, she’s thirty-something, cheating on Emma (with a male partner), and addicted to prescription drugs. The ending also feels less than satisfactory because Clementine’s death does not unite any of the text’s themes. It does not help Emma grow as a character — she was already okay with her identity. Nor does it bring about a true reconciliation with the family. and her drug addiction comes out of nowhere. As such, the text can almost come across as a cautionary tale: Parents, accept your children’s gender identities or else they will wind up a wreck like Clem! 

That aside, Maroh remains faithfully attentive to the issue at stake: is love wrong when it’s not hetero?

The love story she crafts forms a passionate, authentic, and breathtaking answer to that question.