Friday, January 27, 2017

Huntress, Melinda Lo

Title: Huntress
Author: Melinda Lo
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Year: 2011
Pages: 371
Genre: Fantasy
Themes: Destiny, Good vs. Evil, LGBTQ+
Age Range: 7th Grade and Above

Summary: (from Goodreads)
Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn't shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people's survival hangs in the balance.
To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Tanlili, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls' destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.

Fans of Melinda Lo's first fantasy novel, Ash, will not be disappointed in this companion novel, which takes place in the same world, but hundreds of years earlier.  I love the fact that Lo has created a world in her fictional (but Chinese-inspired) world of warriors and magic that turns traditional gender roles on their head. In fact, there appear to be almost no actual gender roles at all in the culture of the novel. How refreshing it would be to live in a place where that was actually true. Where people were free to follow their hearts and minds wherever they desired without fear of social repercussions. Lo is also completely at ease writing both same- and mixed-gender romances. In the Kingdom of Lo's creation, all romantic relationships are equally accepted and valued. As a gay woman I can only dream of a world where my relationship is so unremarkable in its nature that it doesn't require "coming out", or protection from people who may not accept it.

Of course, are we really free to follow our hearts and minds? Destiny and fate are both themes explored in this novel. When Taisin has a vision of Kaede, one that makes her feel great love for her, is their eventual romance really authentic, or did it come about because of the way the vision made Taisin feel? When Kaede defies her father to follow Taisin, is she doing it because she is choosing to, or because she is meant to? Every step of the journey Taisin and Kaede  fight to make their own decisions, yet every decision brings them closer to fulfilling the destiny that was foretold. HOw much control do we really have over our own lives? How much are we influenced by the things we are told we should be? How much are we influenced by forces larger than ourselves?

The book is well-written, and Lo appears to have avoided the sophomore slump that often happens with second novels. If I had a criticism, it is that while the main quest the characters take unfolds over most of the book, the culminating quest that is Kaede's alone gets squeezed into the last chapter or so of the book. Seems like a sign that the novel could be longer, or that it needed a sequel. But that is minor-for the most part I enjoyed immersing myself into the world that Lo had created, and I would recommend this book be included in any classroom library that was looking to be inclusive in both genre and representation.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

One, Sarah Crossan

Title: One
Author: Sarah Crossan
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Year: 2015
Pages: 400
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Identity, First Love, Sisterhood, Coming of Age
Age Range: 7th Grade and Above

Grace and Tippi are conjoined twins, attached at the waist. Defying the odds, they have made it to their teenage years mostly healthy and pretty happy. After being homeschooled their entire lives, Tippi and Grace transition to a traditional high school. Despite the curious looks and unkind words from many of the students, they manage to find Yasmeen and Jon, who quickly become their first and best friends. But their world is turned upside down when their mother loses her job, and suddenly they are struggling to pay for the girls' expensive medical care. And then a health crisis forces them to make the decision they've been avoiding their while life-whether to undergo separation surgery.

I really enjoyed this novel, told in a loose free verse. Grace is the narrator, which I thought was an interesting choice. This story certainly lends itself to alternating perspectives, but I think that Crossan made a good decision to focus only on one of the twins. This allowed her to show how Grace developed her sense of self and identity, both because of and in spite of her sister. Adolescence is a turbulent time for most of us, but having to manage hormones and crushes and the need for space while simultaneously being literally attached to another person heightened the angst and emotional impact.

To be honest, while I know that novel told in verse are a thing right now, that would be my only real criticism of this book. Not because I don't like novels in verse-I do. But for this story it felt unnecesary. When I think of novels in verse, I think of powerful poetry from authors like Jacqueline Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming) or Thanhha Lai (Inside Out and Back Again), where the format adds to the beauty and impact of the language. I'm not sure the use of poetry in the case of One actually added much to the story, and it occasionally felt a little choppy. However, the story on its own is engaging enough that the format is really only a minor criticism. I think that reluctant readers, even boys, would find a story about conjoined twins interesting enough to give it a chance, though I suspect some male readers may find it girly. Given the subject matter, there are surely paired informational readings that could be found to make it part of a larger unit of study, but if nothing else it would make a good addition to any classroom library.

Teacher Resources
Bloomsbury Kids Reading Guide
Centre for Literacy in Primary Education Teaching Sequence