Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The books of Crystal Allen

If you like character-driven, middle-grade fiction about realistic kids of color doing real things--with a lot of humor and learning-from-mistakes--check out Crystal Allen's wonderful books.

When I attended the SCBWI Houston conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Crystal and having her review my manuscript. Her advice has been incredibly helpful, and I'm hoping it's the beginning of a writerly friendship. I've been studying (and enjoying!) her books to pick up tips about creating great characters.

Crystal's first book, How Lamar's Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy, features wise-cracking, prank-pulling, 13-year-old bowling prodigy Lamar--a kid whose big talk hides his insecurities. Lamar's voice and sense of humor keep readers rooting for him: "Since Saturday, I've fried Sergio like catfish, mashed him like potatoes, and creamed his corn in ten straight games of bowling."

Everybody loves Lamar's basketball-star brother Xavier, to the point that Lamar feels invisible. Because of his asthma, Lamar can't play most sports and worries about attracting attention, from both his dad and cute Makeda. Lamar gets mixed up with troublemaker Billy Jenkins, despite his own conscience and best friend Sergio's warnings. When Xavier pushes Lamar too far, he and Billy aim for the biggest prank of all--not realizing until too late the extent of the consequences.

I love how Lamar navigates the tricky choices he makes, eliciting compassion even while the reader shouts, "No, Lamar, don't do it!" The realistic aftermath allows Lamar to work toward redemption in believable, heartwarming ways.

Crystal's second book, The Laura Line, introduces Laura Eboni Dyson, another powerhouse character full of personality and endearing flaws. She's a 13-year-old wannabe plus-sized model and powerful baseball pitcher, dreaming of the day girls can play baseball--not softball--in her Texas hometown.

Laura's crisis centers around the "slave shack" on her grandmother's property: a building that housed her ancestors when the land was a plantation. Laura refuses to step foot in the shack, despite her family's gentle insistence that it is a "monument to the strong women of her family." When Laura's teacher announces a field trip for the whole class to visit the shack, Laura decides she must get the trip canceled--but the harder she tries, the more fascinated her classmates become. Laura must come to terms with the shack, and when she finally takes a peek for herself, she's astounded by what she finds.

Like Lamar, Laura slowly learns from her mistakes; she sees herself as part of a continuum of strong women only after she threatens the shack's existence. Again, Crystal raises the stakes believably and allows the characters to both escalate their problems and find satisfying resolution afterwards.

I'm still in the middle of Crystal's latest series, The Magnificent Mya Tibbs, about a younger girl navigating the tricky waters of third grade friendships. I love Mya's cowgirl-boot-wearing character and can't wait to find out how she handles being Spirit Week partners with the biggest bully in school. (Not to mention Mya's newest adventure, The Wall of Fame Game).

Funny, thoughtful, stubborn, and brave, Lamar, Laura, and Mya are unique and inspiring kids who will remind you of people you know--and people you would like to know.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Upcoming Bar Poems anthology

Yay yay yay!

My poem "Valencia Street, Sunday Morning" has been selected for an upcoming Bar Poems anthology from Main Street Rag!

Besides a quarterly print mag that features poetry, fiction, art, interviews, and reviews, Main Street Rag publishes books of poetry, and (under other imprints) fiction, nonfiction and anthologies.

This one is expected to publish in Fall 2017. Just imagine, a whole book full of poems about bars. Here's the description that lured me to submit:

Most of us have been in a bar or two sometime in our lives. Some of us frequent them often. Maybe you have a corner in the neighborhood pub where the bartender knows you by name and what you drink. Life happens in these places. People gather here, talk shop, make deals, have a good time, sometimes not such a good time. Sometimes things happen at a bar we wish we could forget. Other times we wish we could remember. Each has its own flavor and patrons, expectations and surprises. They have been the muse for a multitude of writers of the centuries. Tell us about yours in the form of a poem, a story, a colorful anecdote. As long as a bar is part of it, we want to see it.
I wrote about the corner bar down the street from our apartment in San Francisco. Not the cool one across the street where the hipsters hung out, but the grimy one that was serving patrons as I rushed past on my way to catch the train to work in the mornings. Every so often a certain whiff of stale booze and corned hash brings me right to that corner...

I'll share more info as I know it. Excited to be included and can't wait to read the whole thing!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Birth Writes cover reveal

Hollering from the rooftops:

My Katrina birth experience essay is in here, along with birth stories from a bunch of talented writers. It's going to be great!

The anthology is being finalized, and last I heard it would be ready to buy sometime in December...I will DEFINITELY let you know!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Post-election review: Boxers and Saints

Today, when our country feels so divided, I’m gonna recommend a good book. Actually, two: a pair of YA graphic novels that tell the same story from two opposing perspectives.

Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints, a 2013 National Book Award Finalist, can be read in either order; I read Boxers first. Set in Northern Shan-tung Province, China, in 1894, Little Bao loves spring in his village because the festivals feature operas that convey stories of gods and heroes through costumes and music.

But when foreign missionaries and soldiers begin bullying and robbing Chinese peasants, Little Bao’s brothers begin to train in kung fu with Red Lantern Chu—and so does Little Bao, in secret. Over time, Little Bao gains the ability to harness the powers of Chinese gods as he assembles a people’s army to free China from “foreign devils”: the real-life Boxer Rebellion.

Battle scenes are gorgeously rendered, vivid and violent, with gods and humans engaged simultaneously. Yet Yang also demonstrates Bao’s growing unease as he recognizes the humanity of the people he’s killing. Bao must make increasingly awful decisions: what should he, as the army leader, do about Chinese peasants who have converted to the foreign religion? Is the “glory of China” worth killing innocents for?

In the other volume, Saints, a young girl grows up unappreciated and unwanted—her family doesn’t even bother giving her a name, calling her Four-Girl because she is the fourth daughter. Her vibrant personality makes her sympathetic and lovable—even when she decides that she might as well be evil.

When she’s 8 years old, Four-Girl is taken to a Christian healer because she keeps making a face like a horrible mask. Dr. and Mrs. Wan treat Four-Girl well, telling her stories about Christianity. Four-Girl begins to have visions of Joan of Arc, who encourages Four-Girl to believe in something bigger than herself.

Finally finding a place where she belongs, Four-Girl chooses a name—Vibiana—when she converts to Christianity and leaves her family. Anyone who has created their own family or found a new home will relate to Vibiana’s newfound peace, as well as her struggles to simultaneously embrace and leave her past.

But the Boxer Rebellion is underway, with young men (and women) throughout the countryside murdering Westerners and Chinese Christians alike. It’s fascinating to see the same characters—heroes in Boxers—as villains to Vibiana and her friends. Vibiana has friends and family on both sides of the conflict. Although she admires Joan of Arc’s sacrifices, Vibiana is unsure: can she give her life for a cause? And if she does, which does she choose, her country or her faith?

By portraying both sides of a historical conflict, Yang shows that there are no “good guys/bad guys”; it’s all perspective. He humanizes people trapped on both sides, demonstrating that the lines between them are blurred.

I found this pair of books engaging, diverting, and hopeful as our country attempts to resolve its differences. They reminded me that we may be more alike than we think, if we can see each other as individuals with hopes and dreams for our futures.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

What a great opportunity! For Multicultural Children's Book Day on January 27, 2017, the nonprofit is offering free books to reviewers! What a fun way to encourage diversity in children's literature.
I signed up and can't wait for my book. Watch my blog on January 27 for my review!