Over the last few months, I’ve been reading some amazing middle grade and young adult books. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my favourites. Some are in translation and some are written originally in English. I’ve also expanded my reading to include poetry, which isn’t an area I’m usually drawn to, and I’ve not been disappointed. So that’s where I’m going to begin.

Edited by Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond (Seven Stories Press)

Referred to by Kirkus Reviews as a “symphony of poetry” this collection of 65 poems has been written in English by poets from across the world, all of whom are first or second-generation immigrants and refugees. There is a real mix of heritages, including Hispanic, Asian, African, Middle Eastern, but also poets from the US territories of Puerto Rico and Guam who talk of feeling “foreign in a domestic sense” (Craig Santos Perez – Off-Island Chamorros).

The collection has a clear progression, opening with a poem by Joseph O. Legaspi entitled Departure: July 30, 1984. From there, the poems discuss childhood, schooling, family dynamics, pride and longing. A particular theme of identity emerges, grappling with acceptance and love for one’s own being. There is also defiance that grows out of shame, a call to be proud and unapologetic for who you are. Franny Choi’s Choi Jeong Min opens with:

“in the first grade I asked my mother permission
to go by frances at school, at seven years old,”

As mum to a seven-year-old, I find this especially moving, highlighting the effect discrimination has on children. Even at such a young age, Choi Jeong Min feels she needs to change her name and escape her identity because of the way she is treated by others.

The poems often speak of this reaction from other people, an assumption of who you are based on a name, an appearance or an accent. The line of white people in Bao Phi’s Frank’s Nursery and Crafts, tutting at Mom as she insists she’s been over-charged, irritation changing to sympathy as it turns out she’s right. Marianne Chan’s When the Man at the Party Said He Wanted to Own a Filipino makes you gasp with horror. Ethnic Studies by Terisa Siagatonu is another stand-out poem, a criticism of people who sit and talk about race but that forget “we’re sitting right behind you”.  

Many of these poems shine a light on behaviours that should not have to be tolerated and yet with these poems having been published in their original forms over a span of more than 20 years, we see that little appears to changing. I really liked Brian Bilston’s Refugees, the physical act of reading the poem top to bottom and then bottom to top, encouraging us to upturn our own thinking and see refugees and immigrants differently. In his afterword, Emtithal Mahmoud says: [to make a difference] “You just have to reach out and recognize people. Recognize our fellow humans around the world who are fighting for the right to live.”

Many thanks to Seven Stories Press for the review copy.


Lockdown reading recommendations

At the beginning of lockdown, like many people I have spoken to, I really struggled to concentrate on reading. For someone who always has her nose in a book, this has been somewhat disconcerting. Over the last couple weeks however I seem to have regained my ability to concentrate, perhaps partly aided by some really good books. What with having my kids at home full time now, time to write is really at a premium, so rather than individual book reviews, I thought I’d give you a bit of a summary of what I’ve been reading over the last few weeks, most of which has consisted of some amazing young adult and children’s books.

The Red Abbey Chronicles by Maria Turtschaninoff, translated from the Finnish by Annie Prime (Pushkin Press)

Having read books ones and two, Naondel and Maresi, I was really excited to read the third book in the Red Abbey Chronicles: Maresi Red Mantle. This is the book that ended my reading drought and it won the 2020 Global Lit in Libraries Initiative Translated YA Book Prize. This young adult fantasy trilogy tells the story of the Red Abbey. While the books together form a series, they also work well as standalone books.

Naondel tells of the Abbey’s founding mothers (check out the World Kid Lit blog for a great in-depth review on this one) and is a tale of the brutality of the male-dominated world the women inhabit. Together the women combine their strength and, leaving their old worlds behind them, they embark on a journey and find a place where they can live together in safety. On an island, they found the Red Abbey.

The second book Maresi jumps forward many years to a later time when the Red Abbey is well established as a place of learning for girls and women and the founding mothers of the first book are revered in books and legend. This book follows the arrival of Maresi, a girl who has had to leave her family because of a famine in their region. Over the course of the book, we see her grow and the women of the Abbey must come together with the spirits of their predecessors to overcome the threats from outside. At the end of this book, Maresi leaves the Abbey to return to her homeland, setting the scene nicely for book three.

Maresi Red Mantle follows Maresi’s voyage back home with the intention of setting up a school to educate her fellow countryfolk. Facing resistance from the local community, Maresi realises that while this is her home, her upbringing at the Abbey has left its mark on her and she is singled out as being different. To gain acceptance within her community, she must overcome barriers and, when their whole region is under threat, she must gather all her knowledge and her strength and call upon the spirits of the region’s ancestors to save it. 

For a more in-depth look at this fabulous trilogy, please take a look at my review over on the World Kid Lit blog.

Lampie by Annet Schaap, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson (Pushkin Press)

There has been quite a buzz around this book since it was shortlisted for the 2020 CILIP Carnegie Medal, the first translated book to do so. Lampie, or Emilia to give her her Sunday name, lives in a lighthouse with her father and every night she is responsible for lighting the lamp. However, one evening she goes to light the lamp and realises that she has forgotten to buy matches. A storm is rolling in and she has to fight against the elements to buy some matches.

This all takes place during the opening chapter which I found absolutely breath-taking. The imagery of the storm, the little girl soaked to her skin, pushing herself to the limits; it had me hooked from the beginning. The lamp does not get lit that night and in the darkness a ship crashes into the rocks. As punishment she is sent away from the lighthouse to work as a maid in a large creepy house which is rumoured to have a monster living there. This isanother fantasy story, weaving together fairy tales and reality to create a story ultimately highlighting the importance and power of kindness.

The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius translated by Peter Graves (Pushkin Press)

The Murderer’s Ape is another book I had heard good things about and I was not disappointed. Sally Jones is a gorilla who can read and write. She can’t speak but she can play chess, tinker with engines, fix accordions and this is her self-typed testimony of her adventures. Together with the Chief, she has sailed around the world but when the Chief is falsely imprisoned in Lisbon for a murder he did not commit, Sally Jones sets out to clear his name. In doing so, she uncovers something much darker and more sinister than she could have imagined. Her journey sees her working as an instrument maker’s apprentice, setting sail aboard a ship to India, working as a spy and flying aeroplanes with a Maharajah. While the book in all is quite long, each adventure feels almost like a separate mini book within a bigger one. Great imagination with the plot twisting and turning while Sally Jones’ steadfast loyalty to her friend never wavers.

Akissi Tales of Mischief by Marguerite Abouet, illustrated by Mathieu Sapin, translated by Judith Taboy and Marie Bédrune (Flying Eye Books).

Hailing from Côte d’Ivoire, Akissi was recommended to me by a good friend when we were in a book shop and I must say I am glad I took the recommendation. Akissi is a mischievous, gutsy little girl who is far from the cutesy, “girly” image that society sometimes portrays our girls to be. Akissi climbs trees, she makes friends with animals (mice, rabbits and tapeworms!!) and she loves to get her older brother Fofana into trouble. This graphic novel is just such good fun. Each little mini adventure lasts 4 or 5 double pages meaning you can dip in and out of the book. The illustrations are bright and colourful and Akissi’s exploits just make you want to laugh out loud. My six-year-old daughter has particularly enjoyed this book, often demanding I sit and read it with her. One of her favourite stories is where Akissi decides that she going to have a pet, one of the mice that live in her house. The speech bubbles for the mice simply say “squeak”, with an asterisk directing you to the “translation”. Great fun! For a more in-depth look at all the Akissi books in translation, please head over to the World Kid Lit Website for my full review.

For more reading ideas, as well as a list of independent publishers of children’s books who are delivering books to your door, check out the World Kid Lit Blog.