Finding the Extraordinary in Everyday Life: Review of Always and Forever, Lara Jean

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t realize that today’s eclipse was a serious thing. I mean, I believed it was happening because I believe in science, unlike some people in our government, but I missed the fact that solar eclipses don’t come around very often and today is a pretty big deal. Don’t worry, I borrowed my husband’s eclipse glasses (which are seriously so unimpressive), caught my glimpse of the moon passing over the sun, and successfully avoided #fomo.

But how did I almost miss this? How did I not realize that #SolarEclipse17 is important and not just some other day in human history? Because I feel like every day of this year has somehow become a huge fucking deal. I have become so caught up in the batshit craziness that is American politics, and I feel like every single day adds a new item to the mile-long list of Crazy Important Things I need to keep track of in my head. These past few weeks in particular have been absolutely ridiculous. I’m not that surprised that I kind of brushed this eclipse aside, because honestly, it was just another extraordinary thing happening in a world that has been wracked by the abnormal and insane recently.

I’m a little tired of thinking about rare eclipses and impending nuclear war and white supremacists marching across the grounds of my alma mater, because it’s just too much. I also believe that the best stories explore what is extraordinary about mundane human life, which, if this were any other year, would be the norm. So I’m here to share my review of a deliciously delightful YA novel which does just that. Jenny Han unfolds the special and completely inimitable time that is high school senior year in her novel titled Always and Forever, Lara Jean.

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This novel is the third installment in a trilogy that includes To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You. The three books follow Korean-American Lara Jean Covey and her romantic entanglements growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia. I highly recommend reading the first two books before diving into this one, because not doing so would be a reading sin, but this book is particularly special and is such a satisfying and realistic finale to a beautiful series.

Boys are Great, But Sisters Are the Best

Lara Jean meets her boyfriend Peter Kavinsky in the first novel of the series, and let me tell you, Han really knows how to create an absolutely charming romantic lead. Peter is handsome, silly slash witty, and complements Lara Jean’s quirkiness with his effortless charisma. Their chemistry has you rooting for them as they navigate the stress of senior year together.

But where Jenny Han really shines is in her ability to root Lara Jean in her sisterhood. Lara Jean’s relationships with her younger sister Kitty and her older sister Margot completely trump her romance with Peter. I loved reading about how these three young women who have completely different personalities work through family life together, whether it involves their dad getting remarried to a neighbor or supporting Lara Jean when she doesn’t get into the University of Virginia. As someone who has two sisters, I rarely read about sibling relationships that are just as complicated and important as romantic relationships, especially in YA literature.

Young Adults Are People Too

As a former teacher and as a proud consumer of YA novels, I hate it when writers or people in general treat young people as if their concerns and their values aren’t fully evolved and thus aren’t that important. I hear more often than not about teenagers and how obsessed they are with their phones and social media and they’re not ready for the real world. And it’s so irritating, because it’s as if we’ve all forgotten what it really means to be young.

Jenny Han hasn’t forgotten. In fact, she cherishes her characters and their youth. She gives them authentic teenage voices, curse words and all, instead of giving them John Green-esque monologues that make them sound like aged professors. Han also revels in the sparkly excitement of senior year. From fun class trips to New York to dancing at prom, Lara Jean’s enthusiasm about it all shines on the page, and it’s because Jenny Han knows that teenagers are actual people and are allowed to feel what they’re feeling without judgment.

So What’s Next? A Fear of the Unknown

Jenny Han knows how to create amazing characters and relationships, and her love for them breathes on the page and makes the reader love them too. But the most important thing that she does in this book is expose the fear and anxiety about the future that lurk behind the excitement of senior year. Lara Jean plans on going to UVA with her boyfriend Peter, and she is thrilled about the prospect of being with him and living near home during her college years. But as we all know, the universe doesn’t really care about your plans. She doesn’t get into UVA, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s world is completely turned upside down.

I cannot give Jenny Han enough credit for this plot choice. It’s such an ordinary and real problem that real students go through, but you don’t necessarily encounter it that often in YA literature. Lara Jean’s fear of the unknown has nothing to do with vampires or fighting to the death in the Hunger Games – her fear is not knowing what her life will be like without her boyfriend and her family nearby because she didn’t get into her first choice school. And reading about that and her anxieties about making sure she’s making the right choice for herself is extraordinary because it’s not extraordinary. It’s a situation that thousands of kids across the country go through every year. And I love that Han makes that the “obstacle” of this novel, because it’s a real one, and it’s a surmountable one.

My Verdict:

 Always and Forever, Lara Jean wins on so many levels. You’ll fall in love with Lara Jean, her cute boyfriend and her even more awesome sisters. You’ll remember that being young isn’t so bad. And you’ll realize that there doesn’t have to be an eclipse or a tweetstorm from the leader of your country in order to make your day extraordinary. Sometimes you’ll find the extraordinary in the everyday lives of real people, with their very relatable problems.

 

Photo by Luca Upper on Unsplash

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High School Just Really Sucks: Review of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

It is a truth universally acknowledged that attending high school in the United States just completely blows. The best, and by best I mean the least harsh, description I’ve heard of someone’s high school experience is “meh, it wasn’t too bad, but I wouldn’t go back for anything.” If THAT is the top of the totem pole, then I think I’m right in saying that no one truly leaves high school completely unscathed. It is a damaging, annoying time to be alive. Everyone cares too much about completely everything, even about the smallest things that shouldn’t matter. We haven’t learned yet to let things go, or to not give so many fucks.

At that ripe young age, right before you’re able to spread your wings and figure out who you really are and what you want, everything matters. What you wear, the grades you get, the friends you have – it ALL matters SO MUCH. Kids walk around, stuck in their heads, so aware of how they’re being seen, and they’re bouncing off their classmates who are all doing the exact same thing. High school is a swirling vortex of hormones and other people’s opinions, and you’re lucky if you get out with a “meh, it wasn’t too bad.”

Cuban-American author Meg Medina transports you back to this unforgettable time in Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Her lead character Piddy Sanchez undoubtedly does not escape the horrors of her high school experience with a “meh.” Piddy, short for Piedad, finds herself at a new school and immediately the object of  an unknown girl’s (Yaqui Delgado) attention. A classmate tells Piddy on page 1 that Yaqui most likely doesn’t like that Piddy “shakes her ass” so much (a side effect of too much dancing with her mom’s BFF Lila), and that Yaqui, well, wants to kick her ass.

Yaqui book cover

 

What follows this revelation is Piddy’s anxiety-ridden journey, a deft navigation through the horrors of modern-day bullying, the power of female friendships, and Medina’s insight into a colorful, vocal chorus of beautifully individual voices.

A World of Fear

Medina does something incredibly crucial in her portrayal of Piddy’s harassment in this story – she focuses on Piddy’s atmospheric fear rather than on the physical violence she endures. Piddy’s fear of Yaqui and what she or her friends might do permeates every part of her life, and lurks behind every conversation or thought that she has. It doesn’t stop when she leaves school and gets home, or when she decides to skip school to avoid Yaqui – the terror hangs around her, constantly.

It’s really easy to tell kids that are being bullied to “move on” or “ignore it,” but many kids don’t have the emotional equipment yet to ignore bullying AND deal with their anxiety about it. Meg Medina reminds you that bullying is not an isolated thing in a young person’s life – it is systemic and is a physical weight that victims carry with them everywhere. Piddy is no exception, and while the violence she goes though is horrific and follows her everywhere (especially when her tormentor uploads a video to YouTube), her emotional fear hits you the hardest. This depiction of anxiety as normal is so important, especially for younger readers who might be dealing with something similar to Piddy’s struggle.

Thank God for Salón Corazón

While Piddy’s journey with being bullied is the crux of this story, Medina does a wonderful job of juxtaposing that storyline with Piddy’s relationships outside of school. You get to experience Piddy’s evolving friendship with Mitzi, her best friend who now attends school on Long Island and is living a very different life. There is of course a cute love interest by the name of Joey, who plays a small but important role in the story. But for me, the shining jewel of these relationships comes in the form of Piddy’s mother Clara, Lila, and the cast of Latina women that frequent Salón Corazón.

Real Voices Having Real Conversations

My favorite thing about Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is Medina’s command of how her characters sound. This novel is bursting with unique and complex women, and none of these characters sound alike. You can hear the lives the women at the hair salon have lived in their conversations. Lila is as vivacious as Clara is restrained, and the way they speak reminds you that they are real women who exist in our world. Their shared community exists in complete contrast to the clique-filled, competitive halls of Piddy’s school. For me, this other world that Piddy inhabits is a crystal ball that shows how much better and more interesting life becomes after you’re out of high school, and it shows the unparalleled power of female friendships.

My Verdict:

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass does what all YA novels should do. It highlights the pervasive struggle of being bullied, which is something that all young people have either witnessed or experienced for themselves, and it reminds them that their anxiety and emotional well-being are just as crucial as their physical bodies. But this book also reminds older readers, like me, of what it means to be young, and how happy we should all be that we are no longer in high school.

 

Cover photo by JJ Thompson on Unsplash

#ThursdayThoughts: The Burden of Diversity

When I decided to blog my venture into reading literature written by women of color, I did so for many reasons:

  • To expand my own reading past a library dominated by white men,
  • To understand myself better and to contextualize my position as a woman of color living in the U.S., and
  • To actually understand intersectionality and the experiences of women who don’t share my ethnicity.

All of these reasons are valid and well-intentioned, in my opinion. So, feeling proud of myself and my own growth as a human being, I began Googling and assembling my Avengers-esque lineup of WOC authors. Side note: who would YOU rather have at your side in battle – the Hulk or Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri?

My pile of books grew, and I threw myself into learning and reading with abandon. I lived a day in the life of a soon-to-be-deported Natasha in The Sun Is Also a Star. I learned what it means for a Nigerian woman to become black upon arriving to the United States in Americanah. I was pumped about my learning and sharing that learning with the world. And then, I read Wintersong.

After finishing S. Jae-Jones’ first novel and reveling in the wonderful story that she told, I found myself asking, “Why did she choose to write about a German girl and her encounters with the underworld?” S. Jae-Jones is Korean-American, so for some reason, I had assumed that her novel would be somehow related to that experience. The real question I was asking was, “Why didn’t she incorporate her ethnicity into this book?” And with that assumption, I unintentionally placed an all-too familiar burden on this author and her writing.

The literary world and society at large expects people of color, and especially women of color, to enlighten them about what it means to be marginalized or oppressed. To share some insight about their “ethnic” or “cultural” experience as someone who is NOT a white man. So if you’re brown or black, it somehow becomes your job to teach white people about your life and your experiences.

This is an egregiously unfair and completely unrealistic burden. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a person choosing to write about those experiences. We need more diversity in literature – diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, experience, etc. But we cannot box POC or WOC into a corner and expect that all they have to offer the world perfectly aligns with their marginalization. People are much too complex and interesting to be suffocated in this way.

I only realized that I too was adding to this systemic burden when I read this article on Fantasy Cafe, written by the author of Wintersong herself. Jae-Jones perfectly articulates the expectations we place on artists who happen to be non-white and non-male. She discusses the different cultural and literary influences that led her to write Wintersong.  And she also writes about how despite the fact that this story was hers in the sense that it was a beautiful amalgamation of so many stories and aesthetics she had grown to love, readers still questioned her authenticity, and ultimately her adequacy as a Korean-American woman. Somehow, she became less in the eyes of some of her readers, because she wasn’t writing a Korean-American story.

S. Jae-Jones is allowed to write a story about a German girl falling into the clutches of the Goblin King, because that is the story she wanted to write. That’s all that matters. She is more than just a Korean-American – she is a human being who has been deeply shaped by all of the books, movies, relationships, and experiences in her life. Who hasn’t? She shouldn’t have to justify what she writes about to anyone. And that includes me!

I am grateful for her story and the time that she took to eloquently educate me and the literary community about the burden of being a female writer of color, which she calls an “albatross about [her] neck.” And I also thank her for reminding me of my own complexity, and of the many varied and seemingly paradoxical influences in my life.

Just like S. Jae-Jones was shaped by Jane Eyre and The Phantom of the Opera, I can name W.B. Yeats and Joy Harjo as some of my biggest literary inspirations. I’ve also been equally molded by my love of romantic dramas and time travel. Maybe my first novel will be some great fusion of all of the above, or maybe it’ll be about an Indian-American girl growing up in Virginia Beach. Who knows?

All I do know is that it’s time for us to relieve people of color of this enormous weight. Artist or not, people of color are not responsible for educating or enlightening anyone about their marginalized experiences. We need that education, for sure, but we CANNOT demand it.

What do you think about this issue? Leave your comments below, and happy Thursday!

 

Photo by seabass creatives on Unsplash

Making Reading Magical Again: A Review of Wintersong

There is nothing more magical than diving into another world when you’re a child, whether it’s through a good movie, a video game, or for me, a really great book. In his book Why Write?, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson discusses the particulars of reading as a child. He writes that reading when you’re young is a completely immersive experience, one in which the mundane norms of real life fall away in their entirety and you’re fully transported to another time, place, or body.

The slightly depressing thing, Edmundson continues, is that this complete immersion doesn’t continue into adulthood, especially for writers.  We have to shed books as a form of true escapism when we grow older, because when we turn to books as writers, we read to analyze HOW our contemporaries or literary heroes are writing, not just what. Of course we still enjoy reading, but it becomes a rare thing for people who decide to devote their lives or parts of their lives to the written word to truly fall into a story, free of criticism or analysis, like we did while we were young.

And I’m sorry to say that Edmundson is completely right. When I pick up a book, any book, these days, it takes all of five minutes for my inner English major to rear her annoying head and start pulling apart the text in front of me. But sometimes, if I’m really lucky, a certain book comes along and completely knocks me back to my childhood, to days spent curled around stories that pulled me out of the bunny-covered walls of my bedroom and into other worlds. And the first book that’s done that for me in recent times? Wintersong by Korean-American author S. Jae-Jones.

Wintersong is a triumph of storytelling. Set in the German state of Bavaria, the events of the Wintersong spin into motion when Liesl’s younger sister Käthe is captured by Der Erlkönig, the legendary and mythical Goblin King. Desperate to retrieve her sister from his clutches, Liesl becomes swept up in a Romantic quest that turns out to be about more than just physically rescuing her sister from the underworld. Her ambitions, family relationships, and desire to live an unrestrained life all come to a head as she pursues the Goblin King underground.

First, Jae-Jones crafts incredibly human characters that you immediately identify with. She does what writers like George R.R. Martin are getting lauded for these days – she builds a fantastical world full of real, flawed human beings, all of whom have their own motives and agendas and wishes for their lives. There are no outright heroes or villains in Wintersong, not even the trickster Goblin King, who becomes an incredibly alluring love interest for Liesl. You end up sympathizing with every single character in the novel at some point, except maybe the goblins. And for a first time novelist like Jae-Jones, that is freaking masterful.

Not only does Jae-Jones create a brilliant cast of characters, she writes a lead character that has a creative agency that I haven’t really ever encountered before in YA literature. Liesl may be young and figuring her life out, but one thing she is sure of is her passion for creating and composing music. This passion, along with truly mesmerizing passages detailing Liesl’s composing, drives the novel and, of course many of Liesl’s missteps. But seeing this young woman so completely certain of her passion and her desire to freely create music is one of my favorite things about Wintersong.

The best thing by far about this novel is the mental landscape Jae-Jones draws for the reader. The Goblin King is first and foremost a trickster, and under his influence, the characters literally get caught in a haze of belief versus disbelief, real versus imagined. Liesl remembers something important and true on one page, but she forgets it by the next. She questions her reality, and somehow you find yourself trying to remind Liesl of what’s really happening. Jae-Jones’s interplay between a captivated narrator and a truly invested reader constructs a world of whispered magic that you can’t easily get home from. As Liesl falls prey to the magic of Der Erlkönig and his kingdom, you too fall under Jae-Jones’ spell.

My verdict:

If there’s any book that completely subverts the stigma about YA novels being somehow less complex and captivating than novels written for adults, it’s Wintersong. From a group of gorgeous, multifaceted characters to an inspiring lead protagonist who convinces you to live a more creative life, to a spellbinding landscape of questioning what’s real and what’s not, Wintersong unapologetically throws you into a deeply immersive and mesmerizing world that you’ll never want to leave.

Seeing Myself: A Review of The Star-Touched Queen

Growing up in the nineties and early 2000’s, I didn’t encounter many young characters of color in the novels I perused. The majority of my favorite books had white male protagonists. I reread books like Tangerine by Edward Bloor, and Holes by Louis Sachar, because they featured outcasts trying to find a home for themselves, and despite the friends and relationships I had, I always felt a little on the outside growing up as well. The closest I got to really loving a heroine for everything she was and stood for was Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women trilogy. She was passionate, obsessive, and didn’t embody the ideals of womanhood typically on show in 19th century New England.

As a child of Indian immigrants, I often felt torn between celebrating my Indian culture at home and on the weekend, and embracing my American-ness at school during the week. No one person or group is to blame for this inner divide – I attribute this now to a complete lack of representation of Asian kids in the media I consumed, and in the reluctance of our society to discuss diversity in an open and frank manner while I was growing up. Despite my voracious love of literature, I never once encountered a novel with a complex and non-white girl whose culture is embraced and explored. I never once read a story about an Indian girl whose culture reflected mine.

For this reason, I am so excited to share my review of The Star-Touched Queen, a YA novel written by Roshani Chokshi. Chokshi comes from an Indian and Filipino household, and she chooses to focus on her Indian heritage, and its vast mythology, in this fantasy novel. The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Maya, princess of a fictional kingdom called Bharata, which happens to be the original Sanskrit name for India. Maya grows up on the outskirts of royal life, since her horoscope indicates that all her future holds is a dangerous marriage that will bind her with destruction and death. Her family does not willingly embrace her, either emotionally or physically, and the only real relationship she has is with her half-sister Gauri.

Maya’s real story begins when a sexy but aloof stranger named Amar whisks her away from the destruction of Bharata and makes her the queen of Akaran, the underworld. For the rest of the novel, Maya learns to navigate this new world while still struggling to understand what she really wants. For the third act of the novel, an unforeseen villain forces Maya out of Akaran, and Maya ultimately makes the choice to return, save her love, and resume the throne.

Chokshi’s writing is beautiful and intoxicating. She creates a world that is kinesthetic and touchable, and so weaves a visceral experience for her reader. You feel a part of the destiny tapestry that becomes so essential to Maya and Amar’s story. As the reader, you are not a witness to these proceedings – Chokshi’s vibrant storytelling pulls you into the narrative and makes you a silent character holding on to Maya’s hand throughout the whole story. I loved the physical experience of this novel, so gorgeously crafted by Chokshi.

The Star-Touched Queen highlights the time-old struggle between fate and personal choice as its primary theme. Maya struggles to break free from the foreboding narrative written by her astrological charts, and she is often pulled between accepting her destiny as queen of the underworld and questioning why Amar really brought her there. As a feminist, it would be easy for me to dismiss this book as yet another YA novel which inexplicably and inextricably ties the fate of a female character to that of a male character. But, I have to remind myself – The Star-Touched Queen does this deliberately and with purpose. This is a novel rooted in ideas of astrology and reincarnation, and to Chokshi’s immense credit, her character Maya fights these ideas on every step of her journey. Furthermore, the “star-crossed lovers” relationship isn’t perfect and free of conflict – Maya and Amar are vulnerable and immensely flawed characters, which ultimately makes their romance more palatable and interesting. Chokshi navigates the parameters of the fantasy romance genre with incisive choices about the strength of Maya’s character. Maya is determined to think for herself and question her situation, and her choices allow her to explore her own identity as well as save Amar from evil. Empowering? Check. Still romantic and fun to read? Double check.

But writing and thematic elements aside, the real beauty of this novel is that it gifts younger readers a completely new mythology that is accessible and fascinating. We have plenty of novels that are rooted in Greek mythology and Norse mythology – Rick Riordan and his Percy Jackson universe are a prime example of the lasting power of those mythologies in the Western psyche. And I happen to love those novels. But Chokshi gives life to a world of bhuts and rakshsas, words that don’t have Wikipedia pages like centaur and minotaur but are just as interesting. She exposes this beautiful Indian mythology to a Western audience, and the fact that she is now a New York Times bestselling author means that Western audiences are ready for a new mythology.

All in all, I had a grand old time reading The Star-Touched Queen and whole-heartedly recommend it to any reader. If you’re looking for an intriguing romance, then Maya and Amar’s will sweep you off your feet. If you love the old tales of Apollo and Odin and all of their antics, this narrative teems with fantastic Indian mythology and will give those gods a run for their money. And, if you’re a young Indian girl looking for a story of a powerful heroine who makes her own choices and who just so happens to share your cultural roots and skin color, then The Star-Touched Queen is absolutely the book for you, and for me as well. Maya is the heroine I wish I’d had when I was younger and trying to feel that my brown skin was just as relevant as white skin. I am so grateful that she exists for readers now.