HERE WE ARE NOW by Jasmine Warga: Relationships, Family Dynamics, and Music

Hi everyone! I’m excited to be sharing a new review for the first time in a while, of a backlist book that I picked up somewhat spontaneously and then ended up loving — Here We Are Now by Jasmine Warga, a contemporary YA published in 2017.

I first read Jasmine Warga’s middle grade novel The Shape of Thunder a few months ago, and was impressed by how the heavy premise (two former best friends struggling with being on different sides of grief in the aftermath of a school shooting) was explored in an age-appropriate way, and due to the sensitive writing. Interested in reading more of her work, I looked up her previously-published YA novels, thought the music and family aspects of Here We Are Now sounded intriguing, and found it in a nearby library (after I could finally! visit! after our lockdown lifted). It ended up being an even deeper book than I’d originally anticipated, and makes me want to look for more backlist gems.

About the Book:

Taliah Sahar Abdallat lives and breathes music. Songs have always helped Tal ease the pain of never having known her father. Her mother, born in Jordan and very secretive about her past, won’t say a word about who her dad really was. But when Tal finds a shoebox full of old letters from Julian Oliver—yes, the indie rock star Julian Oliver—she begins to piece the story together.

She writes to Julian, but after three years of radio silence, she’s given up hope. Then one day, completely out of the blue, Julian shows up at her doorstep, and Tal doesn’t know whether to be furious or to throw herself into his arms. Before she can decide, he asks her to go on a trip with him to meet her long-estranged family and to say good-bye to his father, her grandfather, who is dying.

Getting to know your father after sixteen years of estrangement doesn’t happen in one car ride. But as Tal spends more time with Julian and his family, she begins to untangle her parents’ secret past and discovers a part of herself she never recognized before.

By the acclaimed author of My Heart and Other Black Holes, this is an intergenerational story of family and legacy and the way love informs both of those things. It’s about secrets and the debt of silence. It’s about the power of songs. And most of all, it’s about learning how to say hello. And good-bye.

The story starts when Julian, Taliah’s musician father has reappeared on her doorstep while her mother is away, and she’s with her friend Harlow. As the story develops, we find out more of the backstory regarding Taliah’s mother Lena (inserted from Lena’s perspective while Taliah’s also learning this) and how Tal first started writing to her father, as well as the issues that she and Harlow are dealing with in their friendship.

My thoughts:

Relationships: how they form and break down

The central questions which Taliah have from the beginning of Here We Are Now involve what happened between her parents: how did her mother end up in a relationship with someone who became a famous rock star? Why did her mother lie about him, and how much did Julian know about her? It’s a compelling story of a teen who wants to understand her parents and legacy, grapples with confusion, and surprising revelations; and the narrative from her mother’s point of view was woven in really well. As the story progresses, questions are answered on what Julian did or didn’t know about her, and why he didn’t initially respond when she reached out.

I don’t think I’ve ever read such a nuanced depiction of relationships forming and breaking down in YA before. Both her parents made mistakes, but were also in difficult circumstances that made it hard to choose the right thing for themselves and for each other. This book was so effective at showing how complex life and relationships can be, through Taliah learning and reflecting on this:

I wondered if Debra had been partially right. That a big part of love is learning to accept different versions of the person you love, but that it’s also important to love the version of yourself that the person you love brings out. That sometimes it’s possible to love someone fully, but still need to leave.
That seemed heartbreaking to me. And that’s how I knew it was true.

The impact of family and migration

I’ve enjoyed a lot of intergenerational migrant stories in the past, but they tended to be longer literary fiction — Pachinko, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, America Is Not the Heart. I think this may be the first time I’ve come across this narrative in contemporary YA — at least one that explores this so well. Lena’s story of migrating from Jordan was really compelling, in terms of adjusting to America and the challenges she faces. Likewise, Julian deals with family expectations and the past he had with his now-dying father weighs upon him. These backstories shape the fears that the two of them carry, and how they look back on their actions. Taliah is caught in the middle of this, especially with the new challenges of meeting her father’s family for the first time and understanding her place in it — if any.

Taliah also grapples with how she feels about her own identity — she loves music, but what does this mean if her father’s a famous rockstar musician which she doesn’t think she could be like? Should he change anything about what she pursues? All of this felt so real.

Friendships, growth and vulnerability

This is a more subsidiary part of the book which isn’t even mentioned in the summary, but an aspect which I found really compelling: Taliah’s changing relationship with her best friend, now that Harlow is in a romantic relationship and has ‘replaced’ aspects of their friendship (the music they created together) with someone new. There were subtle links between the way Taliah reflected on her parents’ relationship, and her friendship with Harlow, which was written so well. At the end of the day, it’s about love and the difficulties of love, whether it’s for your parents, a romantic partner, or a friend.

Initially, Taliah drags Harlow along on the trip to meet her father’s family, but forcing things doesn’t go well for either of them, and Harlow leaves halfway through. They confront each other, and Taliah is left grappling with feelings of being left behind, the struggles of opening up to people, and how this transitory phase is particularly hard.

The problem was that it seemed like I was never the one who changed. It seems like it’s harder to watch the people you love change and grow when you feel like you’re staying exactly the same. When you feel stuck.

Overall: I’m so glad I picked this book up, and highly recommend it for the music, family and friendship aspects. The unique premise of discovering you have a rock star for a father was executed in a nuanced and thoughtful way. It’s also a great opportunity to read a book by a West Asian author. I need to pick up Other Words for Home at some point!

S02E05. Picture Us in the Light

Hi everyone! I’ve got something pretty cool to share — as you might know, Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert is one of my favourite books of all time, and one I’ve recommended to just about everyone who’s ever discussed books with me 😂 A couple of months ago, my lovely friends at the Novel Feelings podcast – psychologists who are book lovers discussing mental health representation in fiction – invited me to be a guest to talk about it in an episode of their second season.
See below, though a heads up that the episode contains full spoilers for the book.
Thank you so much to Priscilla and Elise for thinking of and having me and for all your hard work on the podcast! You’re both amazing 🥺💛

Novel Feelings

How much do you really know about your parents? In Picture Us in the Light, Danny Cheng grapples with the mysteries of his family’s past, a tragedy in his friendship group, as well as the possibilities in his future. Along with our guest, Wendy Chen, we discuss the portrayal of grief following a suicide, intergenerational trauma, and the costs of defining yourself by your achievements.

Mental health issues covered: Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicide and grief (in particular, the response to a suicide in a school community)

Additional trigger warnings: child trafficking, racism, conflict with parents, the diasporic experience, interracial adoption

Listen to the podcast:

About the Book

Danny Cheng has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating…

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The Many Meanings of Meilan by Andrea Wang: Names and Cultural Identity

Hi everyone! I recently finished reading another middle grade contemporary, The Many Meanings of Meilan by Andrea Wang (releases August 17th), and thought it would be a nice opportunity to post a new review. There were many aspects of this book which I found compelling, and I think the themes would appeal to many readers — there are just a few reservations I have regarding the character and plot development.

Thank you to Penguin for the e-ARC! This has not affected my opinion of the book.

About the Book

A family feud before the start of seventh grade propels Meilan from Boston’s Chinatown to rural Ohio, where she must tap into her inner strength and sense of justice to make a new place for herself in this resonant debut.

Meilan Hua’s world is made up of a few key ingredients: her family’s beloved matriarch, Nai Nai; the bakery her parents, aunts, and uncles own and run in Boston’s Chinatown; and her favorite Chinese fairy tales.

After Nai Nai passes, the family has a falling-out that sends Meilan, her parents, and her grieving grandfather on the road in search of a new home. They take a winding path across the country before landing in Redbud, Ohio. Everything in Redbud is the opposite of Chinatown, and Meilan’s not quite sure who she is—being renamed at school only makes it worse. She decides she is many Meilans, each inspired by a different Chinese character with the same pronunciation as her name. Sometimes she is Mist, cooling and invisible; other times, she’s Basket, carrying her parents’ hopes and dreams and her guilt of not living up to them; and occasionally she is bright Blue, the way she feels around her new friend Logan. Meilan keeps her facets separate until an injustice at school shows her the power of bringing her many selves together.

The Many Meanings of Meilan, written in stunning prose by Andrea Wang, is an exploration of all the things it’s possible to grieve, the injustices large and small that make us rage, and the peace that’s unlocked when we learn to find home within ourselves.

My Thoughts

As a prelude before I get into this book (and not something which affected my opinion, but might be interesting to share) — stories about Chinese & Taiwanese protagonists and the significance of their Chinese names, or even other Asian protagonists, can be bittersweet for me to read. My own Chinese name was given more on a phonetic basis and doesn’t have any specific meaning; and I’ve been ‘Wendy’ for so long with my immediate family, that such stories can feel like a vicarious experience of something I wish I had. I guess at the end of the day, I’m grateful that I do have a Chinese name and to see these stories told.

Racism, Identity and Resistance

  • When Meilan starts at a new school in a white-dominant town, the principal decides for her that she should go by “Melanie” to make it easier for everyone else. This conflict escalates when Meilan is made to feel like an outsider by her peers and teacher because of things like the trade war between the US and China, and her grandfather’s past service as part of the army in Taiwan is demeaned.
  • So there are strong themes of resistance and staying true to one’s own identity, and situations where racism is deconstructed and explained — e.g. Meilan explaining to her new friend why “exotic” is a problematic label. I can see this as being empowering especially for young Asian readers, who may not yet have the language for discussing microaggressions and other forms of racism or to express certain feelings.
  • Going along with these themes, I always like it when authors are unapologetic about including different languages in their story, and there was a lot of Mandarin in the book which was fun to recognise and understand.

Supporting Characters and Family Conflict

  • The inciting event for the family conflict and the rest of the story is Meilan telling her young cousin a made up story from Chinese mythology. When her Aunt overhears this, she starts expressing suspicions about Meilan’s father which tears apart their family. I have some mixed feelings about this, and overall I wish there had been more build-up before the start. The family conflict certainly felt real in terms of the disputes over money and how messy things got because of people’s selfishness, but the starting premise would have felt less jarring and sudden if we’d had more clues about underlying issues, and about certain characters being paranoid.
  • Likewise, there were a few characters introduced later — Meilan’s cousin Xing and how their relationship changes, the new friend she makes, Logan — which could have done with more development
  • What I did think was portrayed well was Meilan’s own perspective, in terms of how she knew she had to be dutiful to her family, and feeling the burden of wanting to fix things that were out of her control

Storytelling and Mythology

  • There are multiple mentions of Chinese mythology in the story, and storytelling is also important to the naming theme, in terms of the origins behind Meilan’s name
  • I also liked the conflict between Meilan needing to hear her grandfather’s story for the school assignment/wanting to learn more herself, but being hesitant because her parents don’t want her to push him about a painful past, and how he is also finding it difficult to open up
  • Another book which is mentioned multiple times is A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin — which I read last year — and how names and true names are important to that book. It was a nice exploration of names as a cross-cultural concern.

Overall: I’d recommend this book, particularly if you are interested in the themes regarding names, resisting racism and storytelling. If stories focused on resisting racism in a white-dominant environment aren’t appealing, and you find it difficult to suspend disbelief when it comes to the initial premise and family conflict, then this book may not be for you.

July 2021: Personal Updates, Sydney Writers Festival, Books & other Recs

It’s been a while, but hi everyone! I thought it would be worth posting a few updates — these past few months have been both very eventful and very uneventful…

Lockdowns…

Magnolias I spotted on lockdown walks ❤

For a start, Sydney’s been in lockdown for over a month at the time I’m posting this, and it’s extended to go on for at least another month, sigh. It hasn’t been easy and won’t be for a while. I’d actually spent June pretty much entirely at home studying for exams, so the timing felt particularly frustrating for the first few weeks — but I feel like I’ve eased into a routine a bit more now.

Things helping me get through lockdown:

  • Focusing on looking up job opportunities and applications, rather than seeing this as any kind of interim period. That’s what is most important to the direction of my life, makes me look to the future a bit more, and it would be great to get out of lockdown with some certainty in that regard.
  • Walks and exercise, where I can, while listening to audiobooks/playing Pokemon Go as a fun bonus to get out of the house.
  • Routine, though that’s been hard to maintain at times.
  • Writing — setting goals and deadlines and also applying for related opportunities. It’s good that there’s something else which is important to me which can be done from home.
  • Reading — I’ve been going between either heartwarming and fluffy reads, or dark and intense reads which are strangely cathartic and which I wouldn’t usually be able to get through so quickly. Go figure…

Finishing uni & graduation

Before that, though, I finished my last semester of university and my Bachelor of Laws degree! My official graduation ceremony is roughly scheduled for December, so I’m crossing everything that the COVID conditions will be okay by then. The uncertainty of this next period isn’t great, but again, I’m just doing my best and searching for opportunities and applying everywhere I can. I hope I’ll have some good updates soon!

May: Sydney Writers’ Festival

Going back another two months, Sydney Writers’ Festival was a really lovely experience. I … actually didn’t attend any of the events because I was busy with studying at the time, but I took the opportunity to meet up with people from interstate. It was lovely to meet YA author Leanne Hall, author of The Gaps, in person for the first time (forgot to take a photo together unfortunately!), and with author/illustrator Remy Lai, who is such a sweet person! I haven’t talked about this enough here but I really loved Remy’s books Pie in the Sky (about child migrant experiences), and Fly on the Wall (about love being shown in different ways, and friendships). Her newest book, the graphic novel Pawcasso, was also a heartfelt and wonderful read.

And the overall experience of being back at the festival grounds, and being around books and people, was so nice! I also went to a Filipino restaurant in between events, with my lovely friend Glaiza. In retrospect, I wish I’d had some of the halo halo too!

Book Recs

Firstly, I thought I’d mention that I’ve created a new Instagram account to talk about books and writing. You can follow me at writteninwonder_. I’m still figuring things out in terms of aesthetics and theme, if any, but I feel like this suits me pretty well! Whilst I’d always been hesitant about the consumerism that’s part of bookstagram, ‘aesthetics’ doesn’t have to be through physical books — it can also be through graphics and other designs and use of photography, which I think I’ll have fun with. Stay tuned….

In addition to the books I’ve posted about on Instagram recently (The Shape of Thunder, the Last Fallen Star), I thought I’d briefly share my recommendations from books I’ve read in the past few months…

  • The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur — after loving the author’s debut The Silence of Bones, I was so hyped for this book — and it absolutely did not disappoint. A historical mystery set in Joseon Korea, told from the perspective of Hwani, who is searching for her missing father. The key may be in unravelling the last mystery he’d been investigating, on Jeju island, about thirteen missing girls; and she may have to find a way to work together with her estranged younger sister Maewol.
  • Legendborn by Tracey Deonn — Black girl magic with Arthurian mythology: Bree investigates her mother’s death and ends up with the Order of the Round Table and uncovering secrets about her family. The lore and history were woven together so well, though I did find the transitions and pacing could have been stronger at times. Nevertheless, a powerful read.
  • Red, White and Whole by Rajani LaRocca — told in verse, about an Indian-American girl navigating her identity and family expectations, and how her world is torn apart when her mother receives a devastating diagnosis. Heartbreaking but so tenderly written, and I really recommend the audiobook.
  • The Burning God by RF Kuang — the conclusion to the Poppy War trilogy. Extremely dark and heavy at times, and with no easy answers, but I appreciated the ways it explored morality and complicity and aspects of Chinese history, as with the previous books, and the quiet sombre tone towards the end was fitting. I think I’d rate this sliiightly above The Dragon Republic? The first book is still the one I found the most interesting and engaging.

Film Rec: Wish Dragon

I haven’t been concentrating that well on watching things throughout lockdown, but one film I did enjoy and want to talk about is Wish Dragon (on Netflix). It starts off with a sequence about the bond that forms between two childhood friends, Li Na and Din, and showing how they get separated when Li Na moves and their family circumstances diverge. Din, who is determined to reunite with her — to get his friend back again — stumbles across a teapot with a magical wish-granting dragon. But will it be enough to reconnect with her?

The animation in this was great, and I loved the focus on friendship and the end message of valuing what’s really important in life.

That’s all for now, but I thought I’d mention that I’ve been working on a few posts with Lit CelebrAsian, so be sure to check out our blog if you haven’t already. Thanks for reading!

Book Recs: Mental Health Representation

Hi everyone! Today’s book recommendation list is for a topic close to my heart: mental health representation in fiction. Destigmatising discussions of mental health, and accurate representations of this in literature, is a topic that I’ve long been passionate about — having studied Psychology as a major during my Arts undergrad. I’ve particularly always wanted to see more intersectionality, considering the specific challenges that cultural issues can raise.

It’s incredible to me that there are now such a variety of books which offer such explorations, and I thought I’d share some of my favourites here today! This isn’t meant to be any kind of comprehensive post, and there are certain types of mental health issues that you may notice recurring more than others on this list; other books resonated with me because of the specific cultural or diasporic experiences depicted. I’m hoping to share more recommendations on this topic in the future! (And when you get to the end, I also have a bonus film recommendation)

When We Were Infinite by Kelly Loy Gilbert

About the Book:

From award-winning author Kelly Loy Gilbert comes a “beautifully, achingly cathartic” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) romantic drama about the secrets we keep, from each other and from ourselves, perfect for fans of Permanent Record and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.

All Beth wants is for her tight-knit circle of friends—Grace Nakamura, Brandon Lin, Sunny Chen, and Jason Tsou—to stay together. With her family splintered and her future a question mark, these friends are all she has—even if she sometimes wonders if she truly fits in with them. Besides, she’s certain she’ll never be able to tell Jason how she really feels about him, so friendship will have to be enough.

Then Beth witnesses a private act of violence in Jason’s home, and the whole group is shaken. Beth and her friends make a pact to do whatever it takes to protect Jason, no matter the sacrifice. But when even their fierce loyalty isn’t enough to stop Jason from making a life-altering choice, Beth must decide how far she’s willing to go for him—and how much of herself she’s willing to give up.

My thoughts:

  • It’s spoilery to spell out everything, but at the start the protagonist, Beth, appears to be struggling with depression and severe social anxiety; there are also depictions of panic attacks (additional content warnings appear at the front of the hard copy of the book)
  • What I found so powerful about this book is the unflinching way that it was willing to go to dark, raw places with the characters, and then leave the reader with a profoundly hopeful message of resilience and survival. That no matter what happens, it is still possible to find the strength to go on. And the growth that Beth underwent felt so well-earned after her struggles — the final chapter of this book will stay with me forever
  • This book is also a powerful exploration of friendship (I loved the entirely East Asian friendship group with their relatable experiences, and particularly Sunny) and found/chosen family, and the difference that this can make to Beth as someone who feels deeply alone and doesn’t have the kind of family support network she needs
  • It’s also fairly unique to see a character like Beth who is incredibly selfless and also makes various messy choices at times, while grappling with her underlying anger and self-worth, and it’s a story I really appreciated

Harley in the Sky by Akemi Dawn Bowman

About the Book:

Harley Milano has dreamed of being a trapeze artist for as long as she can remember. With parents who run a famous circus in Las Vegas, she spends almost every night in the big top watching their lead aerialist perform, wishing with all her soul that she could be up there herself one day.

After a huge fight with her parents, who continue to insist she go to school instead, Harley leaves home, betrays her family and joins the rival traveling circus Maison du Mystère. There, she is thrust into a world that is both brutal and beautiful, where she learns the value of hard work, passion and collaboration. But at the same time, Harley must come to terms with the truth of her family and her past—and reckon with the sacrifices she made and the people she hurt in order to follow her dreams.  

My thoughts:

  • The entire point of the representation in this book, which the author discussed here, is that the protagonist, Harley has undiagnosed mental health issues — something reflective of the experience of many teens, who do not have the privilege of getting full support that they need. (What we are told is that Harley had undergone periods of depression)
  • Harley made a lot of highly, highly flawed choices in betraying her family, but (although this doesn’t excuse what she did), those choices were, in a way, necessary for her to grow and undertake a journey of her own. It’s a very relevant topic to YA, and I found the way this book depicted it particularly refreshing (rival circuses! training and stardom!)
  • Harley also hurts her best friend and various other people, and there’s a poignant moment when she questions everything about herself and considers the ways she’s ruined her relationships with others. I loved the realistic messiness of this and, again, the growth she goes through
  • As with all of Akemi Dawn Bowman’s previous books, the protagonist is mixed-race, and there are some wonderful moments right from the start as she learns more about her extended family (through her Popo) and she reflects on the sometimes-incongruent parts that make up her identity

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

Melati Ahmad looks like your typical movie-going, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.

But there are things that Melati can’t protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in  her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.

With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.

My thoughts:

  • Stories about lesser-known historical events outside of the US, and Western countries, are so, so needed — and this was an incredibly written story about the May 13th incident and Chinese and Malay riots, a key event in Malaysia’s history. (Whilst I don’t have any personal connection to this, I did learn a bit about it as background when I was studying global Chinese-language writers in a literature unit at university, so I really appreciated seeing those facts and detached reports of the incidents being brought to life so vividly in the book)
  • The protagonist, Melati, struggles with anxiety and specifically OCD — but being set in the 1960s when people didn’t have the same understanding of mental health that we do now, her perception is that a djinn has possessed her. The book involved a really thoughtful interweaving of historical attitudes, mental health representation, and religious beliefs
  • A resonant depiction of the dangers of racial division, as well as the kindness that people can show each other in overcoming this — I loved Vince and Aunt Bee and the bond that Melati forms with them
  • For those who aren’t aware, there’s a Webtoon adaptation that is complete and freely available online!

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim

Anna Chiu has her hands pretty full looking after her brother and sister and helping out at her dad’s restaurant, all while her mum stays in bed. Dad’s new delivery boy, Rory, is a welcome distraction and even though she knows that things aren’t right at home, she’s starting to feel like she could just be a normal teen.

But when Mum finally gets out of bed, things go from bad to worse. And as Mum’s condition worsens, Anna and her family question everything they understand about themselves and each other.

A nourishing tale about the crevices of culture, mental wellness and family.

  • I’m 100% incapable of being unbiased about this book, as I am friends with the author, read an early version and am in the acknowledgements, but yes it’s wonderful and I really recommend it! It explores some of the stigmas around mental illness through the eyes of a Chinese-Australian family. Specifically, the teenage daughter, Anna, struggles with her caretaker role, her responsibility over her siblings and how much she has to hide from the outside world, and starts off with a limited understanding of what her mother is going through
  • This book also doesn’t give a specific diagnosis to Anna’s mother, but there are depictions of psychosis and depressive episodes, as well as discussions around potential diagnoses
  • There’s also a subplot exploring Rory, the love interest, who has experienced depression, and there are poignant reflections on the impact this had on him as well
  • The food theme throughout the book was also really fun and thoughtfully written, and you’re going to want dumplings after reading!

Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Danny Cheng has always known his parents have secrets. But when he discovers a taped-up box in his father’s closet filled with old letters and a file on a powerful Silicon Valley family, he realizes there’s much more to his family’s past than he ever imagined.

Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.

When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.

  • I already did a full review of this book here, so I’ll keep it short, but Picture Us in the Light made me feel seen in ways I really needed as a teenager
  • It’s also a spoiler to directly spell out the major past event in this book, but what I found unique about it was the way it explored the interaction between mental health issues and the dynamics in a very specific, high-pressure Asian-dominant diaspora community (reminiscent of the Chinese-dominant one I grew up in)
  • Aside from this, there are depictions of panic attacks and the impact of devastating choices and intergenerational trauma — all of which are very relevant to teenagers from Asian migrant families

Girls of Paper and Fire, Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.

But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

  • I had to make sure to include fantasy book/series as well as contemporaries! Girls of Paper and Fire is probably my number one most admired book in terms of Asian-inspired fantasy worldbuilding, and it does so much more incredibly well too
  • A powerful depiction of the horrors of sexual violence, and specifically the second book depicts PTSD-like symptoms and the long-term impacts of trauma. Interwoven through all this is a message of resistance and hope.
  • I adored the romantic relationship between Lei and Wren, the touching moments of them falling in love in the first book, and how realistic tensions arise when more about Wren is unveiled in the sequel
  • The first book in particular also had some incredible supporting characters, and great build-up of tension
  • Looking forward to the conclusion of the trilogy, to be released in November!

The Memory of Light by Francisco X Stork

Vicky Cruz shouldn’t be alive.

That’s what she thinks, anyway—and why she tried to kill herself. But then she arrives at Lakeview Hospital, where she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and kindness, honesty and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had.

Yet Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up—sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide—Vicky must find her own courage and strength. She may not have any. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experience with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one—about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

  • Depicts grief, depression, and the struggles and non-linear trajectory of healing after surviving attempted suicide, as well as various additional mental health issues in the supporting characters
  • This book released back in 2016; I finally got around to it in 2019, and loved every word of its emapthy and honesty
  • I loved Dr Desai and the positive portrayal of therapy in this book — it’s beautiful and affirming, but also done with nuance
  • In contrast, the misunderstanding which Vicky faces in her family was heartbreaking, and it was an honest portrayal of how dangerous excessive pressures can be especially for young people

The Never-Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

A world split between day and night. Two sisters who must unite it. The author of The Bone Witch kicks off an epic YA fantasy duology perfect for fans of Furyborn.

Generations of twin goddesses have long ruled Aeon—until one sister’s betrayal split their world in two. A Great Abyss now divides two realms: one cloaked in eternal night, the other scorched beneath an ever-burning sun.

While one sister rules the frozen fortress of Aranth, her twin rules the sand-locked Golden City—each with a daughter by their side. Now those young goddesses must set out on separate, equally dangerous journeys in hopes of healing their broken world. No matter the sacrifice it demands.

Told from four interweaving perspectives, this sweeping duology packs elemental magic, star-crossed romance, and incredible landscapes into a spectacular fantasy adventure that’s equal parts Frozen and Mad Max: Fury Road.

  • One of the POV characters, Tianlan (‘Lan’), has PTSD. Her poignant struggles are revealed in flashbacks, and I loved the realism of this and her trajectory towards healing.
  • This book had a pretty fascinating premise and worldbuilding — both Aranth and the Golden City were so atmospheric — and it was interesting to see how the highly-relevant climate change commentary was woven into the fantasy world with mythological elements
  • The slow revelations of the lore and backstory caught me by surprise in the best way at times, and again, felt very unique
  • There are some great romantic elements and progressive build-up of this throughout the book, and I loved Odessa and Lan’s relationship

BONUS: Film recommendation for When Marnie Was There

  • This Studio Ghibli film is actually based on a 1950s book by Joan G. Robinson, which I’ve read and did enjoy as well, but I’d personally direct you to the film for the subtle ways it evoked emotions and its more streamlined adapation of the storyline
  • The 12-year-old protagonist, Anna, appears to be struggling with social anxiety and low self-esteem, and symptoms of depression; I appreciated how honest the story was about the dark emotions that children can face at that age
  • A wonderful portrayal of how friendship/platonic love, and connections with your family’s past, can be transformative and healing

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any other recommendations for books with mental health representation?

The Gaps by Leanne Hall: Abduction, Female Friendships, Art and Social Commentary

Thank you to Text Publishing for sending me an early copy of The Gaps! This has not affected my opinion of the book.

Hi everyone! It’s been ages since I’ve shared a recommendation of a book by an Australian author here, and I’m so happy to be rectifying that with this review of The Gaps by Chinese-Australian author Leanne Hall! This is a contemporary YA novel with psychological thriller elements, set in Melbourne, and reminded me how wonderful it was to read something that directly reminded me of my teen years and the world I’ve grown up and live in. The writing was so immersive and compelling in evoking the realism of a tense and frightening situation for the young women involved.

About the Book

When sixteen-year-old Yin Mitchell is abducted, the news reverberates through the whole Year Ten class at Balmoral Ladies College. As the hours tick by, the girls know the chance of Yin being found alive is becoming smaller and smaller.

Everyone is affected by Yin’s disappearance—even scholarship student Chloe, who usually stays out of Balmoral dramas, is drawn into the maelstrom. And when she begins to form an uneasy alliance with Natalia, the queen of Year Ten, things get even more complicated.

A tribute to friendship in all its guises, The Gaps is a moving examination of vulnerability and strength, safety and danger, and the particular uncertainties young women face in the world.

My thoughts:

The psychological thriller elements

The action kicks off right away in The Gaps — we learn on the first page that a high school student has been abducted, and the narrative follows the investigation and the impact this has on her classmates and the wider community.

What’s fascinating is how, as the story progresses, the question becomes less about who did it and what’s going to happen to Yin and more about how the girls and their wider networks respond to it — will they find Yin alive? Can any of them feel safe? How can they keep going with this hanging over their heads, not knowing? How can it be acceptable that this happens to people? These progressive shifts over the book were done so well — I really found myself in the same place as the characters in each step of their thinking. This premise was also a sobering reminder of how women, and especially women of colour, are treated by society.

If women hold up half the sky, then why are we so disposable?

Female friendships: changes and unexpected connections

The book is narrated from two points of view. Chloe is an observant outsider, who’s aware that the impact of Yin’s abduction on her classmates extends beyond how she personally feels, yet is nevertheless shaken by the events. Natalia is revealed to have been best friends with Yin when they were younger, and there are explorations of the regrets and longings which come up in the circumstances, and how she feels she should have acted differently.

I appreciated the depth and realism of how the book portrayed the ways people change over time, and how we all have regrets about the way certain friendships play out, as well as showing how people can form unexpected connections and learn from each other. The other classmates were also unique in their personality and responses, and I really admired the strength of the book’s characterisations.

Privilege: class, race and intersections

Chloe is biracial (Chinese-Singaporean and Anglo), describes herself as taking after her Asian mother in appearance, and is on a scholarship at a new private school, Balmoral. There are sharp observations on racism, and class privilege and inequality, woven throughout. In an early scene, Chloe hears certain white classmates comment on how there are “too many Asians”:

“We don’t mean you, Chloe,” says Ally in her baby-soft voice. […] “You’re not a real Asian, you know what I mean? You’re from here.”
Her eyes shoot over to the international students, as if I won’t get it. In her eyes I’m slightly more acceptable because I was born here and I don’t have an accent.

This kind of scenario was achingly familiar to me, from the way my classmates would talk about academically-focused selective school Asians (which was the kind of school community I went to primary school in) and international students (with whom I made closer friendships with than most domestic students, because of speaking Mandarin proficiently and not having been born in Australia myself). I really appreciated this portrayal of the specific kind of oblivious xenophobia that reinforces white supremacy in deeming who is ‘acceptable’ and isn’t (I mean, we all know from COVID how conditional this kind of ‘acceptance’ by white people is, isn’t it? *Weak laughter*). Although Chloe otherwise keeps under the radar, the fact she sees past this and calls this out very early on in the book was refreshing and really made me cheer for her.

Chloe maintains contact with her friends from her old school, yet is uneasy around them and hides aspects of her new, completely different world. She reflects on how her new environment has given her opportunities she doesn’t feel she can step back from, and also notes the sense of entitlement in those around her. All of this commentary on class, and inequality in education, was so thoughtful and necessary, and woven into the plot.

Visual art, photography, and its social implications

One storyline that took me a little by surprise was how the book explored the social implications of photography and art. Chloe’s visual art project is what pulls her and Natalia together, but this takes a deeper turn as she becomes invested in it and in expressing her views and feelings in light of Yin’s abduction.

Chloe has a sinking moment of noticing how people of colour are erased in the work of a photographer she admires, then meets another artist who inspires her. When she pours everything into her own project, she has to deal with others challenging and wanting to silence her, and debating how she will respond to it. I really appreciated the nuance in the resolution of this storyline.

“I remind myself that being a young woman who wants to take pictures of other young women and queer folk and people of colour is enough. Putting my own representation, my own images forward, that’s powerful in itself.”

— an artist, speaking to Chloe

Overall: I finished this book in one day, and would highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for something tense and in a realistic setting, with thoughtful commentary and observations about relationships between young women

About the Author

Leanne Hall is an award-winning Australian author for young adults and children. 

Her debut novel, This Is Shyness, was the winner of the Text Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Writing, and was followed by a sequel Queen of the Night. Her novel for younger readers, Iris and the Tiger, won The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. 

Leanne started her career in the world of short stories and has had stories published in MeanjinAgeBest Australian Stories and the anthology Growing Up Asian In Australia. She hopes to publish a short story collection (one day!) 

She was an Asialink Artist in Residence at Peking University in 2013 and participated in Australian Writers Week in China in 2014. 

Sugar and Spite by Gail D. Villanueva: Rivalry, Love Potions and Magic

Thank you to Scholastic Press for providing me with the e-ARC via Edelweiss! This does not affect my opinion of the book. Please note that any quotes may not reflect the final text.

As my book rec post from last month might have indicated, I’ve been diving into middle grade more than usual in the past few months, and it’s been fun! Sugar and Spite was a lighthearted joy after my previous heavy read, and I really enjoyed the characters and unique plot.

About the Book

Jolina can’t take Claudine’s bullying any longer!

The taunts and teasing are too much. Though Jolina is still learning her grandfather’s arbularyo magic and isn’t supposed to use any on her own, she sneaks into his potions lab to get her revenge. There she creates a batch of gayuma, a powerful love potion.

And it works! The love potion conquers Claudine’s hateful nature. In fact, Claudine doesn’t just stop bullying Jolina—now she wants to be Jolina’s BFF, and does everything and anything Jolina asks.

But magic comes with a cost, and bad intentions beget bad returns. Controlling another person’s ability to love—or hate—will certainly have consequences. The magic demands payment, and it is about to come for Jolina in the form of a terrible storm…

Magic and reality mingle in this brilliant new middle-grade novel about true friendship that asks whether it’s ever okay to take away someone’s free will.

My thoughts:

The unique plot: a love potion for a mean girl/rival!

  • The story centres on the unique premise of the protagonist Jolina using a gayuma (love potion) on another girl, Claudine, when she can’t take the way Claudine’s been taunting her and making her feel like an outsider any longer
  • This kind of ‘love potion’ storyline would usuallly be a premise in a romance — I loved the twist on this by making it a friendship storyline instead!
  • Later in the story, Jolina has to deal with the consequences and costs of magic and how to undo her wrongs

The friendship storyline

  • Jolina and Claudine’s dynamic was interesting and explored with great depth — how they initially make assumptions and are jealous of each other, how socioeconomic privilege affects their dynamics (Jolina’s mother works for Claudine’s mother, Claudine spends money without thought in ways that makes Jolina uncomfortable when they are “friends”) and their different origins and life circumstances
  • Both of them were feeling lonely in different ways, and the story explores how people are kinder than they may appear below the surface, taking responsibility, and how to overcome conflicts and assumptions and to forgive others
  • The overarching question mark of the love potion controlling Claudine, and how it affects the future relationship between them, created great tension and was well-resolved

This is what love is all about. And friendship. Mom tells me that friendship is also a kind of love. […] This is the kind of genuine relationship Claudine deserves, I realize with a pang. Not the friendship I dragged her into — a friendship born out of anger and revenge.

p129

Vivid setting, food, and animals

  • The isle in the Philippines which the story is set on is fictional, but was evoked vividly from Jolina’s perspective as an outsider from Manila who is new there
  • There were some fun details throughout, such as a seafood market and the variety of Filipino foods mentioned, which really immersed me in the scenes
  • In addition to the socioeconomic differences mentioned above, there’s brief commentary on colourism and colonialism — I always appreciate it when there are realistic, harder topics incorporated into children’s stories in an age-appropriate way
  • The animals! Kidlat, Jolina’s dog, was adorable and loyal and played a great part in the story

Overall: This was such a unique and refreshing book — recommended for anyone who enjoys friendship stories, middle grade, and a touch of magic

About the Author

Gail D. Villanueva is a Filipino author born and based in the Philippines. She’s also a web designer and an entrepreneur. She loves pineapple pizza, seafood, and chocolate, but not in a single dish together (eww). Gail and her husband live in the outskirts of Manila with their dogs, ducks, turtles, cats, and one friendly but lonesome chicken. Her debut novel My Fate According to the Butterfly (Scholastic, 2019) was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews, an Amazon Best Book of the Month Editor’s Pick, and a NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. Gail’s next book, Sugar And Spite, will be published by Scholastic on April 20, 2021. Learn more at http://www.gaildvillanueva.com.

Picture Us in the Light: Family Relationships, Friendships and Tragedy, Art and Healing

Hi everyone! I’ve recommended Picture Us in the Light to just about everyone I know since first reading it in 2019, and yet found it difficult to elaborate on the details of why I loved it — it’s a book which you really need to experience for yourself, without knowing too much beforehand. Still, after discussing it briefly alongside two other books in my piece for Meanjin’s What I’m Reading series last year, I really felt like I’d only scraped the surface of the book, and it’s motivated me to share more.

About the Book:

Danny Cheng has always known his parents have secrets. But when he discovers a taped-up box in his father’s closet filled with old letters and a file on a powerful Silicon Valley family, he realizes there’s much more to his family’s past than he ever imagined.

Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.

When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.

There are basically two key plot lines in this book: Danny unravelling his family’s secrets and the impact this has on him and his parents, and the relationships between him and his friends as they grapple with an incident a year ago, and other changing dynamics. Throughout the book, we come to understand the characters intimately as past actions and tragedies come to light.

Danny and his family

This book has one of the most resonant, but also heartbreaking, depictions of parent-child relationships I’ve ever come across. Danny’s parents have so much overwhelming love for their son — something the book demonstrates in touching ways which felt so real with their subtle detail and familiarity. When he gets accepted to RISD at the beginning, his parents are elated and were confident all along that he would have been accepted; in a quiet family dinner scene that follows, Danny notices that there’s something that they seem to want to tell him about but they hold back, wanting to focus on celebrating him and their happiness.

Their love is something which Danny is completely sure of, yet they are also overprotective of him. Later in the story, he becomes resentful with confusion and frustration at their increasingly unexplained actions.

Having an overprotective family without fully knowing the reason for your parents’ attitudes was something I could really relate to. How can you argue against their fears, even when it’s holding you back and makes you feel different from your peers, when you know it’s all driven by love? How do you argue against their overwhelming need to ensure your safety? We see this love and protectiveness over and over again in how much Danny’s parents are willing to sacrifice for him.

They exchange that look that means they’re weighing something I’ve asked for against all the threats of the world — a cell network glitch that means they can’t reach me if they need to, a blind curve up in the hills by Harry’s house.[…]

I’ve long since stopped trying to argue or to promise that nothing will ever happen, even when I’m going to be just a few minutes away.

p24

I’ve never really pinpointed one exact reason for my own parents’ overprotectiveness — it’s probably a combination of circumstances arising from migrating at a young age and leaving a lot behind. In the case of Danny’s parents, there are specific, tragic experiences which have shaped how careful they are. At the start, we learn that he had an older sister who died in China, and there have been evident impacts on both his parents. But there’s more to it than that which they are keeping from him.

As the massive secrets Danny’s parents have kept from him are revealed, we can’t help but think about what a difference it might have made to their circumstances if they’d told him more, even when Danny makes his own flawed decisions which hurt them. But we also understand why they had held back — their son was the centre of their world, and they didn’t want him to have anything but a hopeful and a positive outlook. Many immigrant parents make numerous sacrifices for their children, and this story made it so personal in this family’s specific choices.

I should’ve recognised sooner how intimately they understand guilt and how it’s shaped them and shaped me, too, both the choices they’ve had to make and the stories they tell themselves.

p344

High School experiences, friendships and tragedy

For more discussions on this aspect of the book and how I could personally identify with the Cupertino community, see my Meanjin piece. In general, I loved seeing so many Asian-American characters in the school and story in a normalised way — with all their last names on the page, the mentions of things like tutoring and the impact of their parents’ expectations, referring to tests and how their lives are driven by academics. It really felt like being back in the Chinese-dominant school and suburb I lived in when I was younger.

Fun fact: after seeing my friend CW (the Quiet Pond) initially recommend this book and searching it up, I found this interview with the author. Her answers, specifically to the question about intersectionality, were ones that I understood so intimately that I went online and ordered the book right away. (I’d never done that before with barely knowing anything about the book and have never done it since, but it really felt like this book had been waiting for me, and I had been waiting for it)

Danny frequently reflects on the past and how he grew up in this tight community, with all the experiences from their primary school and younger years which have shaped and lingered with him, and I enjoyed this shifting narrative, weaving past and present.

I also admired the complexity of friendships and relationships which were depicted. A subplot of the book is Danny falling in love with his best friend Harry, and his conflicted feelings towards Harry’s relationship with his girlfriend Regina. Because Danny cares so much about Regina, her happiness, and what she thinks as well — he describes her friendship as “the most important one I had growing up, the person who always knew me best and whose opinion I always needed” (p40). There are such nuances in how each of them feel about each other.

Finally, it’s always wonderful to see queer Asian rep: in this case, not only through the m/m romance, but also because it’s implied that Danny is demi.

Art, life, and healing

Danny is an artist, and this shapes the way that he sees things, and how he connects with people. I’ve heard multiple other readers say that this book felt healing in spite of its heavier moments. This rings true to me, and I think that Danny’s artist perspective is crucial to this: it shapes the way we see life through his eyes, and see him and the other characters as we come to understand them.

Art doesn’t change the ending. It doesn’t let you lose yourself that way — the opposite, really; it calls you from the darkness, into the glaring, unforgiving light. But at least — this is why it will always feel like a calling to me — it lets you not be so alone.

-p224

As evident from the above quotes, I adored the writing in this book — it genuinely felt like a teen’s voice whilst also being reflective and insightful in ways I’d truly never come across up until that point. Picture Us in the Light really helped me to see expanded possibilities of what books could achieve, and I’d point to it as compulsory reading for anyone who wants their work to be meaningful and empathic.

Overall, I mean it when I say that if you take only one recommendation from my blog, please make it Picture Us in the Light. My only additional note is that Kelly Loy Gilbert has a new book, When We Were Infinite, coming out in March 2021, which I’m sure I’ll love just as much.

About the author

Kelly Loy Gilbert believes deeply in the power of stories to illuminate a shared humanity and give voice to complex, broken people. She is the author of Conviction, a William C. Morris Award finalist, and Picture Us in the Light, and lives in the SF Bay Area.

Twitter: @KellyLoyGilbert

Website: KellyLoyGilbert.com

Middle Grade Book Recs: Amina’s Song, Front Desk, Amal Unbound and A Thousand Questions

Hi everyone! I’ve recently been reading a lot more middle grade books than usual. I thought I’d share a few of my recent reads and recommendations together, and these were all wonderful, wholesome and inspiring reads for people of all ages.

Amina’s Song by Hena Khan

(Releases March 2021) Thank you to Simon & Schuster/Netgalley for the e-ARC!

About the Book:

It’s the last few days of her vacation in Pakistan, and Amina has loved every minute of it. The food, the shops, the time she’s spent with her family—all of it holds a special place in Amina’s heart. Now that the school year is starting again, she’s sad to leave, but also excited to share the wonders of Pakistan with her friends back in Greendale.

After she’s home, though, her friends don’t seem overly interested in her trip. And when she decides to do a presentation on Pakistani hero Malala Yousafzai, her classmates focus on the worst parts of the story. How can Amina share the beauty of Pakistan when no one wants to listen?

Highlights

  • This was a wonderful story filled with relatable diaspora experiences of grappling with your heritage and how it affects your identity — despite being from a different cultural background myself, I could really identify with how strongly Amina was affected by her experiences in Pakistan, and how it lingered with her when she went back to America
  • I liked some of the small moments of challenging people’s assumptions throughout the story — Zohra, Amina’s cousin, explains how she’d prefer to live in Pakistan near her family and help her family there rather than live somewhere like America where they’d be discriminated against; how people in the US and the West may know little about the accomplished and inspiring people from the Global South
  • In the first book, Amina’s Voice, Amina’s friendship with Soojin and Emily go through strained moments — seing them so happy together here was a delight
  • I can see this being a really inspiring book for its target audience of readers, encouraging them to think beyond themselves in terms of their community. I loved the emphasis on Amina’s passion for music and how she uses this to uplift and help others.

Back then, I thought about America as mine and Pakistan as hers. Now I think of them both as part of me, and I am proud of that, even if it is complicated.

Amina’s Song, p275

(Please note that the above quote is from an e-ARC and may not reflect the final text)

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

About the Book:

Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.

Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.

Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.

Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

It will take all of Mia’s courage, kindness, and hard work to get through this year. Will she be able to hold on to her job, help the immigrants and guests, escape Mr. Yao, and go for her dreams?

Highlights

  • I adored and could really relate to this story, as someone who migrated to Australia as a child. There were some details about China and Chinese immigrant families that I appreciated seeing — Mia’s mother being reluctant about her passion for English and writing because she knew she couldn’t help her (unlike with maths), her cousins in China being like her siblings because of the one-child policy
  • Seeing Mia develop her writing skills throughout the book, and using it to help others, was so heartwarming
  • The ending was wonderful — it felt so well-earned with the challenges leading up to it and not going for an easy solution, yet was also inspiring with seeing the community come together
  • I loved the sweet friendships in this story, especially between Mia and Lupe, and Mia and Hank

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

About the Book:

The compelling story of a girl’s fight to regain her life and dreams after being forced into indentured servitude.

Life is quiet and ordinary in Amal’s Pakistani village, but she had no complaints, and besides, she’s busy pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher one day. Her dreams are temporarily dashed when–as the eldest daughter–she must stay home from school to take care of her siblings. Amal is upset, but she doesn’t lose hope and finds ways to continue learning. Then the unimaginable happens–after an accidental run-in with the son of her village’s corrupt landlord, Amal must work as his family’s servant to pay off her own family’s debt.

Life at the opulent Khan estate is full of heartbreak and struggle for Amal–especially when she inadvertently makes an enemy of a girl named Nabila. Most troubling, though, is Amal’s growing awareness of the Khans’ nefarious dealings. When it becomes clear just how far they will go to protect their interests, Amal realizes she will have to find a way to work with others if they are ever to exact change in a cruel status quo, and if Amal is ever to achieve her dreams

Highlights

  • Amal was truly an inspiring character with her courage and aspirations, and wonderfully developed with the range of emotional responses she had to her heartbreaking circumstances
  • I loved the dynamics within her family, with the joy and close relationship she has with her younger siblings, but also the burdens on Amal as the oldest daughter and the sense of unfairness this brings up
  • The story touched on some tough themes — sexism and indentured servitude — while being age-appropriate for a middle grade audience and ultimately hopeful. That’s such a difficult thing to accomplish and Aisha Saeed has all my respect for doing so (I’m aware she said during the 88 Cups of Tea podcast that the book took 7 years to write)

A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi

About the Book:

Set against the backdrop of Karachi, Pakistan, Saadia Faruqi’s tender and honest middle grade novel tells the story of two girls navigating a summer of change and family upheaval with kind hearts, big dreams, and all the right questions.

Mimi is not thrilled to be spending her summer in Karachi, Pakistan, with grandparents she’s never met. Secretly, she wishes to find her long-absent father, and plans to write to him in her beautiful new journal.

The cook’s daughter, Sakina, still hasn’t told her parents that she’ll be accepted to school only if she can improve her English test score—but then, how could her family possibly afford to lose the money she earns working with her Abba in a rich family’s kitchen?

Although the girls seem totally incompatible at first, as the summer goes on, Sakina and Mimi realize that they have plenty in common—and that they each need the other to get what they want most. 

Highlights

  • I absolutely adore friendship stories. The unlikely friendship between Mimi and Sakina, who are from very different worlds but come to understand each other, the way they keep supporting and caring about one another — was absolutely wonderful. The story was so empathetic in terms of diaspora identity and class privilege.
  • There was a lot packed into the plot whilst feeling organic — Sakina’s desire to improve her English and get an education in spite of being a servant, the girls’ respective family struggles, and the background of an election in Pakistan
  • Following on from the above, the family issues each girl faces (Sakina needing help for her father’s health issues, Mimi being estranged from her father and wanting to reconnect with him despite her mother’s resistance) were developed in a wonderful way

Overall, I highly recommend picking all of these books up! Some of the commonalities between these books — reflecting middle grade as a whole — are how empathetic they were, their emphasis on friendships, and their powerful and immersive voices (all of the above books were in first person). They were all willing to depict harder themes about how difficult the real world is, but in gentle ways.

How many of the books above have you read? What other middle grade books do you recommend?