Monday, September 1, 2014

The Bored Button

Today, I was bored. So, being me, I typed 'so bored'  into the search box of Google. The first result was this site. I cautiously clicked it, waiting for a bunch of ads to pop up on my screen, or a virus to infect my computer, as sites like these usually do.

I was wrong.

The bored button looks like this:

The text below it reads:

"I am bored. I'm so bored. I'm bored at school. I'm bored at work. I'm bored to tears. I'm bored to death. Do you find yourself saying any of the above? If so, you've reached the right website. Clicking the red button will instantly take you to one of hundreds of interactive websites specially selected to alleviate boredom. So go ahead and give it a try.

Press the Bored Button and be bored no more."

       Why not. I was bored, and this seemed the perfect remedy. I proceeded. The first site I was brought to was a interactive-boombox-creator-thingy. (articulate, I know.) Basically you drag sounds, beats. melodies, voices, and other things of the sort onto different animated people that start to make that sound. It was so engaging. The next site I was moved onto (after clicking the button again) was a text box that promised to announce your, and I quote, "big-ass message" to the world in huge font. There was a page that tested your ability to complete entirely mundane tasks for an extended period of time without doing anything else--you had to hold down a button with your mouse. I succeeded in this for all of five seconds, 33 milliseconds. 
       Some sites were hilarious--the "big-ass message" being the example here. There were others that were creative and beautiful: a site where the move of your mouse would create your own "internet silk". There were others that expanded your worldview--a site where each click of your mouse could take you to a different place on the earth. 
       The most recent one I visited was a site with a black background and small objects sticking out of the darkness. They moved, made sounds, etc. when you clicked and held on them. There was one piece on which I clicked that "turned on the lights" and revealed what each object really was. In reality, I had only been seeing parts of other objects. Each thing was something entirely different than what I thought it was. In short--imagination. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Walled City by Ryan Graudin

The Walled City is, to be put simply, a teen thriller. I really have to applaud Ryan Graudin on his imaginative and interconnected storyline. Each new chapter kept you yearning for the next one, and as you found out more about the characters, you figured out plot twists before the rest of the book's characters did, which made you keep reading, waiting for them to discover what you had. This very interactive storyline really keeps readers interested in the book. But a storyline can only do so much, and although Graudin fully succeeded with the plot, the writing itself was mediocre. When compared to other books, it was...lets just say it won't be remembered for its prose.

However, the intriguing thing about this book that everyone is buzzing about (ha--and its a BEA Young Adult Editor's Choice Buzz Book! Nudge Nudge! No? Okay.) is the fact that it is very hard to classify--it's not fantasy or dystopia, two of the biggest genres in current YA Fiction. But it's not really historical fiction either, even though the Walled City was a real place. That was an interesting thing to think about as I read it, which further pulled me in.

The Walled City is a grimy, dark place full of criminals, gangs, homeless children, drugs, and brothels. The story follows the tales of three teens, each running to or from some evil. 
The first teenager is Dai, a 17-year-old boy hiding from the police, being persecuted for a crime he didn't commit. He's searching for the one dangerous item that could bring him his freedom. Only problem? He has to steal it from one of the most powerful drug lords in the city.
Jin is a young girl disguised as a boy to keep herself from being taken into the brothels. She's spent the last two years looking for her older sister, sold into prostitution by their very own father.
Finally, Mei Yee is a young woman taken away to the brothels against her will and sentenced to a life of prostitution, with no hope of escape. She's watched countless attempts and seen every single girl who's tried to free herself brought back and punished. Will she ever get out of her miserable life?

So if you want a really engaging, page-turning read, I would definitely recommend The Walled City. But if you're extremely bookish like me, and get hung up on writing and sentences that aren't that great--well, I'd still read it, but you have to let go of that part of yourself and focus on the plot. 

If I had to pick, I'd say look for this book in November 2014 from Little, Brown. Whether you like it or not really depends on what kind of reader you are!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

There are some books that combine hilarity and painful truths in smooth and flawless ways. Gabi, a Girl in Pieces, is one of them. This book was the perfect belend of wry humor mixed with harsh realities of the real world we all inhabit.

Gabi is about a Hispanic senior in high-school struggling with body-image issues and being overweight, as well as having an overprotective mother and a meth-addict for a father. She's also trying to help her two best friends, one a soon-to-be teen mother, the other a boy kicked out of his parents' house for being gay.  Gabi also lives in a community that is almost entirely Hispanic, and you see through her eyes what growing up as part of a very Hispanic culture is like. 

This book was stunningly real. It showed the hardest struggles of high school, as well as the simpler ones. Quintero showcased everything a teen might possibly go through in high school--from facing bullies, teachers, and detention, to deeper issues like when someone you love is addicted to drugs, dealing with an unwanted teen pregnancy, and embracing your own sexuality, even if others won't accept you. You don't really see a lot of writers nowadays that really try to tackle topics like these, and I'm glad that it was Quintero who decided to. She made her characters sound normal and approachable, in a way that a lot of young people can relate to. It's important for middle schoolers and even those in the younger years of high school to know about things they might run into, and if they can't see it in a way that's familiar to them, there's no point even trying to get through to them.

Gabi also hit upon some issues that girls are faced with daily. Gabi's mother is always telling her to be careful around boys, endlessly reminding her with the phrase "ojos abiertos, piernas cerrados." Eyes open, legs closed. Gabi helps two pregnant girls in her school. One gets an abortion, one does not. The problem is that they are both terrified about what everyone will say once they find out about their pregnancy, or what they will say if they do have an abortion. The fact that they may be called a "slut" or a "baby-killer". Here's an excerpt.

...Everywhere I looked, wherever there were couples or pregnant teens, I would wonder if it was consensual. Because of our idea of how good girls behave and how bad girls behave, many girls are too afraid or ashamed to speak up. Afraid of what everyone would say about them, afraid of being called liars, sluts, or ofrecidas. This is what Cindy and Georgina and my mom have taught me. 

The fact that girls are too afraid to speak up if something like this happens is only one of the main points of this book, and there are many other tough topics tackled in Gabi. Look for this book in September from Cinco Puntos Press!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Taking Flight by Michaela & Elaine DePrince

There are some people who feel entitled to write memoirs at the age of 20, despite having not lived a full life at all. Their lives have been utterly normal, yet they insist on producing written works of "art" entirely about themselves. This always bugs me. That being said, Michaela DePrince is not one of those people at all. Her new book, Taking Flight, shows her triumphant story as she journeys from the orphanage in Sierra Leone to the Dutch National Ballet. It's a wonderful, uplifting story.

Taking Flight is about a girl. A girl who saw her mother die at the age of four and was entrusted to an orphanage, where she is labeled Number 27, the last and most unwanted one out of 27 girls. A girl who suffers from a spotted skin condition that incites nicknames such as "devil-child". A girl rescued by the simple picture of a ballerina en pointe, torn from a magazine caught in the clutches of a gate. 

Many children in America are not aware of racism in America, believing it has been eradicated entirely with the prohibition of slavery and Jim Crow laws. But this is not true. The fact is, we Americans like to say that we've done away with racism, give ourselves a pat on the back, then turn around and cross the street as soon as we see a supposedly "suspicious" man of color. Parents don't like to tell their children that racism exists because it puts them in an uncomfortable position--it shows that they haven't done what is supposed to be done. This book has the incredible potential to open children's eyes to what really goes one in a world divided by a color wheel. Michaela tells the tale of her struggle to break through the barriers set up by prejudiced people who think that black women aren't delicate enough to dance. She expressed her goal in an interview to one day dance the part of the White Swan in the beautiful ballet Swan Lake--hoping that people will overlook the stereotypes attached to the fact that she is African-American. Here's an excerpt from the book:

        During rehearsal one of the mothers who was chaperoning us said, "Black girls just shouldn't be dancing ballet. They're too athletic. They should stick to modern or jazz. That's where they belong." 
        My younger sister told me that she once heard a dance teacher claim, "Black girls can't point their toes."
       Once, someone in the ballet world, whose opinion meant a lot to me said to my mother, "We don't like to waste a lot of time, money, and effort on the black girls. When they reach puberty, they develop big thighs and behinds, and can't dance ballet anymore." I overheard the remark, but I wasn't supposed to be outside the door listening in, so I couldn't speak up and challenge what he said. My mother did, though, and that made me feel a little better. However, those words still terrified me to the point that I worried endlessly about the fateful day when I'd reach puberty and grow a big butt and big thighs.
....My mother told me the mean comments that I overheard about black ballerinas were based on jealousy as well as bigotry. 
    "You need to ignore them," she said. 
    "But I can't!" I sobbed as I struggled to catch my breath. "I'm worried that I'll never be a ballerina." 

I feel that racism at such a young age is cruel--it can shut down the dreams of children. It is blatantly unfair to me, and I think that the book shows other kids and teens that too. I hope it will urge them to combat it. 

The other aspect of this book was how it affected me. I realized that all the things I have--shoes, running water, food, are things that I and most of the population of the area I live in take for granted. This part of the book showed me that.

     I loved opening the kitchen cabinet to choose my cereal for breakfast. I would pour it into a bright yellow bowl and add a scoop of fruit, either strawberries, blueberries, or raspberries. Then I'd pour in a cup of milk. Having so many choices made me feel giddy with joy. Best of all, I could eat until my belly was full. I didn't have to wait until someone filled the bowls for twenty-six other children.
    When I needed to use the toilet, I could just jump up and run to the bathroom. I didn't have to worry about someone stealing my food if I left it behind. I flushed without fear of falling into a pit of smelly waste. Then I washed my hands with a foamy pink soap that squirted from a bottle. Ah yes, in America everything smelled good, I thought, even the toilet!

I have seen the pits that Michaela describes, and they are not pretty. I am now grateful for having at least 5 choices for breakfast and fresh, organic fruit to flavor it with. Suddenly my house seems huge and extravagant. She reveals a layer of the world hidden to most people of America. 

The book Taking Flight should show you that, as cheesy as the Disney line sounds, dreams do come true. But, unlike Disney, you really have to work. It's easier to climb down a mountain than to climb up, but the view at the peak is so much better than the one below. 

Look for this book in October 2014, from Knopf Books for Young Readers. 


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Should Abortion be Legal?

I have a body. You have a body. Would you call it yours? Unquestionably. You decide what to do with it. That’s one of the obvious privileges that everyone has. But one of the most important and life-changing rights of a woman is the right to have a baby or not. As Margaret Sanger said, “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” There is no right and wrong in the question of whether to abort a baby—it’s a confusingly shaded area of gray. However, it should be a valid option for a woman to take if she needs to.
If anyone’s worried about whether legalized abortion will make everyone run to Planned Parenthood just because they can, think again.  Abortion is a mentally scarring experience for the woman going through the procedure. Many women only go through with this if they absolutely cannot keep the baby. If abortion is not a legal choice, many women, because of their situation, will try to get one anyway. These illegal procedures are extremely unsafe—most of those who get them suffer permanent damage to their reproductive organs, which will prevent them from having children later when they are ready. Some even die—and if you are really pro-‘life’, legal abortion would save the life of the mother, instead of having the mother and the fetus both die. Women also suffer mental damage from the lack of proper counseling. Banning abortion does nothing but put women in danger.
One of the main causes for abortion is getting pregnant when you’re too young to raise a child. Girls get pregnant at ages like 15—ninth grade. What were you doing in ninth grade? Probably stalking your crush online and worrying about homework. Yet, girls just like these are suddenly responsible for another being. And yes, you can say that they made a mistake and that there are consequences for that, but almost no young girl is ready for motherhood. You can punish them in other ways, but forcing them to have a baby when they’re not prepared physically or mentally is just plain cruel—to both the girl and the fetus. Keeping the baby can hinder their life. They may not have any familial support to help with a child, not be able to continue school, and they probably don’t even have the money to raise a kid.
Another reason to get an abortion is if that child’s life won’t be good even if it is born. A mother may not have the resources to feed and care for a child—she might not even have enough food to feed herself and any existing kids she could already have. A baby won’t develop properly if it isn’t fed and sheltered, and it may die even if it is delivered. It’s choosing between two things regarded as wrongs in our society—the willful ending of an unborn fetus’s existence, and giving birth to a child that may be unwanted for most of its life.
But there is one last reason to legalize abortion: pregnancy as a result of crime. When a woman is the victim of rape, incest, and/or child abuse and becomes pregnant, she doesn’t want the person who did that to her to be her child’s father. It’s someone who took advantage of her. Does anyone want a baby that was forced upon them? The baby is not the woman’s choice. Pro-life believers have to try to see that the woman is not just a place for a fetus to grow and then be discarded. In this situation, you have to choose between a scared young woman and a fetus that might not even be able to think yet.
Making abortion legal would give women a safe last resort. Making this illegal basically deprives women of the rights to their own bodies. Why would you do that? I don’t want anyone to think that I am supporting abortion as a form of birth control. I am just saying that when there is no other choice, women should have the access to abortion and counseling. I want to show people that legalizing abortion won’t make women abuse the right. I close with this quote from Frederica Mathewes-Green: “No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.”

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet

I am not typically a fan of dystopian-YA literature. The genre is usually so formulaic: heroine discovers flaws in supposedly perfect futuristic government, falls in love with random rebel guy on the way, goes forward to take down the bad guys---and always, always, ALWAYS in a trilogy. OH. MY. GOD. The freaking trilogies. And why do these keep coming out? Because that's where money is. It's like those cheesy rap songs that endlessly describe supposedly fun clubs where most people end the night by throwing up. Sounds great! They only succeed because of the overflow of demand from, well, Young Adults. 

Now, Pills and Starships definitely fits into the dystopia/utopia YA genre. It's about a young girl in a futuristic society dealing with the extreme pollution left behind by people nowadays. They live on different pills, or "pharma"--such as mood pharma or vision pharma. These extend life so much that elderly people, who had their children in their 60's, leave this world by buying death contracts. As Nat (the main character) and Sam (her brother) go through their parents' last days, they discover a different land than the one that they're told is the only place they'll survive. 

Dystopian? Check. Futuristic Government? Check. Random Rebel Guy? Check. However, before you run away, this book is really good. The author, Lydia Millet did really well breaking away from the typical YA genre. It's really hard to steer clear of, and, although it is a DYA (I'm sick of writing out Dystopian Young Adult), it's a well written one. 

The first thing I loved about this book is that the future was a result of the past. (y'all: um....yeah?---me:I'll explain! Calm down.) In most DYA's, you are introduced to a new society/government,  but the author doesn't really explain how we go there. (Either that or there was some GREAT WAR (ominous voice) and society went overkill on making sure that it didn't happen again.) This strategy seems kind of lazy. But Lydia Millet doesn't do that at all. She really delves into the history of the earth as the characters know it. It's a lot harder to do than just have some random war. Here's an excerpt. 

       Sometimes a visionpharm helps me work on my collection. I don't need it, but I can definitely use it to good effect. Once or twice I've found things whose loveliness I wouldn't have seen without the pills I was on. But, see, that loveliness is real, because later, after the pills wear off, I can still see it in the collected thing. 
       For instance, this one day I took a visionpharm because I was sad--a facefriend had caught a bug called Marburg and she died. I'd really liked her, we'd been gaming for over a year and vidconfing for just the last month or two; she had freckles and a sweet smile. I didn't want moodpharm , for some reason, I wanted visionpharm instead. 
       And after I took it I was wandering in the complex thinking of her and I found a plain rock. Somehow the rock became lovely to me, like I could see pieces of stars in it, pieces of primordial matter. In that plain rock I can still see the beginning of everything. 
       Even when I was flat again, I still loved that rock. 
       Mostly what Sam objects to is the controlling attitude that pharma has, their ads and slogans that make it seem like if you're not on mood-management pills 24-7 then you're callously "playing mood roulette." They try to make it seem like you're an irresponsible person if you're not a max-dose regular. Selfish and flaky--even a little bit insane. 
       It used to be they just hard-sold the pharma to grown-ups, but now they figure they have to capture the youth population too. We're getting older and sooner or later, they figure, we're going to get hella depressed. 
       So they're already grooming us to have an eventual death wish. I mean it's obvious, we're not stupid. And in a way, I guess it's creepy, yes, as Sam had said to me more than once. But then it's also nature. Is it more creepy or more natural? I can't decide. I mean, it's always been natural to die. And wise to accept death since it's the biggest fact of life. Blah blah. 
        And yet. 
        Sam says he has nothing against death, in and of itself. What he doesn't like is management, which he refers to as "pharmacontrol." He and his hackerfriends on face like to get mad and they have their own lexicon of angry words.
        Among the hackerkids there are a bunch of different factions; some say they don't believe in pharms at all--though most of their parents make them stay on their daily doses anyway, of course--while other ones only believe in fastpharms because they don't think being sped up is bad. They think it helps their rebel cause. 
        Some of them wear their hair in old-time punk styles to show us all what big rebels they are. That always makes me laugh--the mohawks and silly drawings shaved into the stubble and all that--but not in front of Sam. 
      "He's fourteen," is what my mother's said to me about Sam and hacking. She smiles and sighs.  

It was so interesting to see Nat become a rebel in about the last third of the book. You could see her changing. In most DYA's, everyone is a rebel right off the bat. But you can see that Nat is pretty happy with the system--she even mocks her rebel brother. But I absolutely adore that Lydia Millet really constructed Nat as the book journeyed on. That's something that I rarely see.

Look for this rare gem of a book when it comes out in June 2014! Published by Akashic Books.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Usual Rules by Joyce Maynard

This book was an uplifting portrait of a young girl's struggle with grief. I know that sounds slightly skewed and oxymoronic (My brain: is that even a word? Me: shut up.), but I felt absurdly happy and free, not while, but after reading this novel. Let me tell you a little story:

My Mother: Come downstairs!
Me: (reluctantly puts book down)
My Mother: I need you to put these wontons in the oven for TEN MINUTES. TEN MINUTES. TEN MINUTES. TEN MINUTES. DO NOT BURN THEM. I'm going on a walk. TEN MINUTES.
Me:OK...(drifts upstairs back to my room to enjoy the blissful escape that is reading)
My Sister: You know you burnt the wontons, right?
Me: (puts book down) *screams a number of unprintable words*

Yes. This books is so good that it is worth burnt wontons. (My brain: that doesn't sound like the highest compliment. Me: Did I ask you?) That phrase might not sound like a wonderful assessment of the book, but if you ask me, burnt wontons are a high price to pay. 

The Usual Rules is the tale of 13-year-old Wendy--Living with her mother Janet, younger (half) brother whom she loves to death, and her mother's second husband Josh, worrying about her appearance--a normal teenaged girl. The date is September 11, 2001. Her mother, a former dancer, is working as a secretary on the 84th floor in one of the buildings that collapses on that fateful day. Later, as the fact that her mother really is gone is settling in, her real father who hasn't seen her for years steps in and sweeps her off to California with him--where she discovers a new part of herself as she deals with the unspeakable tragedy she's suffered.

What I most enjoyed about this book were the relationships between Wendy and her stepfather, as well as her father. Most books depict the stepfather as a horrible demon from hell. (Although, thinking about it, where else do demons come from?) But in this scenario, Josh (the stepfather) is the more loving parent, whereas Garrett (Wendy's birth father) is kind of a bad parent at first, having not seen his daughter or had any children to care for around 6 or 7 years. He wasn't a very good father for those first years either--cheating on Wendy's mother was one of the bad things he did that caused her to leave him. 

I'm including an excerpt from the book here. Just a warning: Ms. Maynard decided to not include quotation marks for the entirety of the book. I personally liked this style--I think it increased the feeling that Wendy had retreated into herself after her mother's death. However, it takes a little getting used to.

He [Garrett] opened the fridge. Here, he said. See what hits the spot.
      It was nothing like their refrigerator back in Brooklyn, with half a dozen different kinds of cheeses and the crisper drawer crammed full of vegetables that her mother used to complain were always more than they needed. You never know what you're going to feel like, Josh used to say. Could be cold roast chicken. Could be a bagel with cream cheese. A person has to be prepared.
      Here there was a stick of beef jerky and a package of sliced turkey breast. Store-bought tomato sauce. A couple of eggs. Margarine. Never trust a person with margarine in their fridge, Josh told her once. 
      Stop giving our daughter these ideas, her mother said. The first thirty-five years of my life, that's all I ever had.
      Our daughter.
      Wendy was still standing in front of the open refrigerator. Nothing strikes your fancy, huh? Can't say I blame you. But I was saving the best for last. 
       He opened the top door, the freezer. A half dozen Healthy Choice dinners were stacked inside. Take your pick, he said. The sky's the limit. 
       In the end, she settled on a couple of Oreos. That's genetics for you, he said. I love these things, too. 
       He had fixed up a room for her. It must have been his workroom before, because there were still boxes stacked in the corner with papers and a few more tools and art supplies. But he'd put an India-print spread on the bed and a vase of flowers next to it. He'd set up a stuffed lion on the pillow.
       It was mine when I was a kid, he said. Of course you're too old for that kind of stuff. I just thought you might like a little homey touch. 
       He set her bigger suitcase on the floor at the foot of the bed. In a day or two, we can set you up with whatever other stuff you need. You probably like music, right?
       We'll head over to Circuit City and get you one of those portable CD players. Just don't tell me you like rap okay? 
       She hadn't pictured herself this way. Actually playing music in some room other than the one back home. Hanging her clothes up in this closet next to the box of tools. 
       No, she said. I listen to jazz mostly. But I like Madonna and Ani DiFranco and Sade. 
       He left the room. When he came back, he was holding something--a very old photograph of her mother, from when she had long hair. Pregnant, from the looks of it. 
       Janet kept most of our pictures, he said. I only have a few. 
       She looked at the face in the picture. Her mother wasn't exactly smiling. She had a puzzled sort of expression. Wendy wondered if even then they had been arguing. 
       We had different ideas about a lot of things, he said. She was more the type to want to settle down and make a home. I never believed in traditional family structures. It always seemed to me like most people's problems start with their parents. I wanted things to be a little looser, hands-off. Like the whole world was your home, instead of just one place. 

You can see the difference between the sweet, comforting feeling of Wendy's home and family in New York and her new life and awkward relationship with her new father in California. 

Family. The truth is, this book isn't about 9/11. It's about familial relationships. This book includes a mother, stepfather, half-brother, father, and even that father's girlfriend. You can't really define family. Almost everyone has their own definition. Some people's entire families aren't even related to them at all. That doesn't deduct from the love you can show them. And reading this book helped me (and probably numerous others) realize that.